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Subject: The Gormenghast of Euros rss

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Lauge Rosendahl
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To the unsoiled eyes, the pure heart and the sound mind, Brass may look innocent, intriguing or even trivial in its apparent euroness of building, trade and strategic placement of assets, in the green and pleasant land of Cromwell and Byron.
But once the seal is broken, that modestly sized box, will open up like the jaws of the Leviathan and swallow your sanity like a biscuit at Victorian tea-time. And the land that seemed so pastoral and serene turns out to be the forgotten 10th circle of hell where the lost souls of fingertappers and overanalyzers keep each other company under the eons.

Classification unclarified

The headline boldly claims that this tall tale of the industrial age, this steampunk hulk of doubtful origin, can be confined within the narrow margins of classical boardgame taxonomy, but of course this is not so. For within its apparently analyzable gameplay and seemingly familiar tools of build, trade and develop, hides a plethora of genrebreaking surprises and exceptions.
From the mad recess of the Cotton Demand track, where the feral Distant Market Tiles reign supreme in utter randomness; to the bloodsoiled rape and pillage of the empty Iron Demand track, where a single move can easily shift 18 points and net you 6£ of ill begotten plunder, when you crack down on your marked prey like a screaming banshee and replaces his ironworks, with one of your own unholy allegiance.

Rules unreal

The rules, oh, the rules … they mirror, nay, they mock the castle Gormenghast – on the outside, a vast, but yet on a safe distance, well-defined body, but on the inside, behind it’s crumbling walls of chapters and paragraphs, references and reminders, you will find yourself in a gothic maze of stone-set rules, age-old rituals and reminders to addendums to exceptions, until you – mentally stretched to the point of snapping, look with bloodshot eyes over your shoulder – for was that not the sound of the Minotaur?
Be sure it is, only in this eldritch dungeon of bypassed logic, the blood-crazed horror that haunt you, goes by a thousand names, and comes like dread Nyarlathotep in a new disguise for every game, in every turn.

In one incarnation, he will have you procure coal for the building of mysteriously single-use cotton mills, but he allows only coal that arrives by track & trail, since coal, unlike iron, in this world of inverted laws, does not fly – and even if Lancashire may seem a small place in the scheme of larger things, said coal will not travel one league farther than it has to, and thus you must buy from the nearest source, even if this source belongs to your arch nemesis of old, and you yourself has ploughed the earth for such dark rewards, a measly mile beyond.
In another of his foul disguises, your ghostly stalker will pose as the Kafka of placement directives. And he will unfailingly, as you reach out your shaky hand to place that humble port, callously growl, in a voice from beyond all sense and intuition:
NAY! Your builders would never march down tracks of foreign quality!
NAY! How dare you presume to erect suboptimal constructs in this glorious age of rails?
NAY! Did you honestly think that a card depicting a port, would serve as permit for the founding of ports in any site that matches such design?
NAY! Avert your eyes, infidel, in Lancaster, like in the rest of your sorry life; choice is only a trick of light.
NAY! You foul monopolist, in the modest age of waterways and gentle streams, there can be no doubling of monochrome presence within the walls of a singular municipality!
YEA! Please my friend, go ahead and replace your own edifice of yore, but understand, of course, that we will dismiss your former efforts, unrewarded and forgotten, as if they never happened.

Among gamers of the far north a story is told, of a man who stood up among his peers and boasted that he, a mere human, born of the flesh of a woman, understood the ‘virtual’ link.
The merry hall fell to a deadlike silence, as all the pale faces turned to shine their moonlight of disbelief at this preposter, this mocker of the gods.
Such was the silence that time came to a halt and space folded in muted convulsion … until a single voice penetrated the icy air, with five words that would spell doom for this Nimrod of boardgamers, it said: “Then explain it to us”.
If in fact he did grasp that most treacherous skerry of rules, we may never know, for even he, possessed as he was of godlike wits and demonic sight, even he, could not convey his insights in a way that made sense to those limited by the reach of mammal intelligence, and so they flayed him, and hung his corpse to feed the ravens.


Time untimed

Once you have forced your hapless mind through those 10.000 words, of rote learning and suspended intuition, your trouble begins.

Assuming you pass through the catharsis of setting up the game – an undertaking of mythic proportions in itself – and explaining the rules with your mind and company intact, you will divulge on a journey through a netherworld of backtracking and rereading, reminding and debating, from which eventually – some three hours hence for experienced stalwarts (the entire evening for students) – a victor will emerge.
Maybe he who stands tall at the end will be a champion of stamina, wits and strategy, maybe he will be the one who in fact did remember the distorted path to stealing the Cotton Demand by shipping to external locations through outlandish ports connected by extraneous paths, or maybe he is the one who choose not to comprehend anything, but the one fact that rails equals victory points, and more rails equals more victory points.
Between those extremes a game will unfold, in which even Buddha would find his fingers tapping while enduring downtimes that scorn the average lifespan of several species.
Such is the prospects that the wise brings a tome of choice* to the table, and when the sinister rules of player procession twist fate to your disadvantage, you bring out said tome and immerse yourself in its pages.
For the hand you have been dealt in this travesty of life are so fragile and your real choices so restricted, that any attempt at exploring your options during the intermediate epoch, will be shamed and rendered useless by the slightest of board changes, after which you will stand like Sisyphus and watch the rock of your efforts tumble to the base of reason.

Inconclussion

We have played Brass – or rather Brass has played us – some 15 times amassing upwards of 45 hours pre-mortem in the dismal reaches of the 10th circle, and for reasons that can only be ascribed to the delusional powers of the minds struggle for survival, we have had a good time.
But dim-witted animals as we are, we are only now realizing that we may in fact never experience a full game, where the rules are not our 5th and worst adversary, and so this fearsome engine fuelled by the dark matter of crypto-logic and commanded only by autistic levels of recollection, this grotesque brainchild of an evil mastermind, this player of players … have been put to a provisional rest.

Gratefully damaged, Luchau

*a fitting choice would of course be “Titus Groan” by Mervyn Peake, or “The Difference Engine” by Bruce Sterling et.al.
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Moritz Eggert
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This was a very educated review - and a great one!
 
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Scott Marlow
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Nice review. You have convinced me to get Brass onto the table this weekend, and also to reread Titus Groan and Gormenghast.
 
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David Gibbs
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One of the most stylish reviews I have had the pleasure to encounter.
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Scott Smith
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You really should check out the revised rules that are in the files section. Amazingly they boil everything down into 3 pages (I think) in simple, direct language. If the rules are giving you trouble, thats the place you should go!
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Greg Williams
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I love this game and your review. Every time I have to explain the virtual link, an exception to the rules that only applies to half the game, it makes me sad.
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David Wickes
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Sirrah, your review is admired, but roundly I dissent - I praise these Wallacerules as written! Twisted half-man I might be, dull creature of sullen and oft arbitrary motions, but in my own thoughts it seemed most apposite to have the system's host of 'chromium' glossaried at the end of the lexicon. Much did this aid my referencing, greatly did I come to see this wisdom - e'en unto that most vexsome of cities, Liverpool!
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Kenneth Lury
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I have never played the game, but the review was erudite. Almost worthy of the late W.F. Buckley Jr.
I have never heard anyone ever make an allusion to Gormenghast which I read 40 years ago in high school(for fun)

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Andrew Swan
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luchau wrote:
this fearsome engine have been put to a provisional rest
Or you could just play online:
http://wargamessoc.union.shef.ac.uk/brass/
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Richard Young
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Wonderfully witty series of observations - but what did you think of the game?
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Zé Mário
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Bubslug wrote:
Wonderfully witty series of observations - but what did you think of the game?

That's why this is an article (a very cool one) and not a review, IMO.
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Lauge Rosendahl
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Bubslug wrote:
Wonderfully witty series of observations - but what did you think of the game?

In short: I’ve rated it 6 which means there are 54 games I like better, and 63 games I like less (and 39 the same).
It is a BIG and deep game, and it’s a great challenge to try and crack it, but there is a certain inelegance to it, and I can't remember the rules well enough – so in the end, Brass is not really for me.

In long: I think it’s something about perception and learning style. Being an architect, I usually try to grasp the big picture first, to pin down some wholeness of the city/building/chair…/boardgame, and I use that image of the objects wholeness (the “Grand Idea”), to understand the details.
Does the shape of the roof set up a succesful dialogue with the spacing of the windows and the feel of the doorknobs? All architects, artists and designers strive to keep a central Grand Idea perceptible all the way through the work, because when that succeeds, the work will be considered by most people, to have artistic quality.
When a building leaves the architects desk, it is usually very good, but then it gets butchered by engineers (usually with some sort of sorry excuse like “gravity”… pah!), budget restrictions (even more pah!) and the owners wife who happens to like burgundy red better than slate grey (most pah!), and in the finished building, the Grand Idea can be hard to spot.
I can’t pin the Grand Idea in Brass. It probably was there once, but in development it was lost from sight, and the end result is a work that has been patched and tweaked too much – hence the image I get of a steampunk hulk.
Mechanically it works – gravity is respected, budget is kept, and the narrative is still about historic Lancashire, but the dialogue between the narrative and most of the mechanics are lost, and between mechanics I also don’t find a transcending idea or image. I need that, and that is why I – and probably others with the same learning style – can’t remember the rules from one week to the next.
Those I know, who think highly of Brass, are mostly computer programmers and engineers and that makes perfect sense, because professionally they need a very different way of learning than mine.

The Grand Idea of the review was to warn of those who would probably not like it, and lure in those who will like it – judging from some of the comments, I hope and think it does that.

Edit: Changed my rating.
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Richard Young
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It's interesting how things strike people differently. Not being an architect, I use different terminology. The first thing I look for in a game is an interesting theme. Next, do the mechanics, including "chrome," support or stay consistent with the theme? How does it all hang together (elegance, polish, etc)? Then, and maybe most importantly, is it fun to play?

So, I would guess we have similar criteria for assessing a game; but, it is hard to be entirely objective in our conclusions in each of these areas. Nor is any game perfect in all respects. In my case, while the theme ("big idea"?) is one of the first things that I consider, if the game appears to me to be firing on all (well let's say most) cylinders, I can forgive minor lapses in thematic consistency. I am happier with a game that abstracts some elements in the interests of keeping the game moving. I prefer balance and fun over a faithful simulation (playability vs. realism). Personally, I think Martin got most everything right in this game despite having to exercise some "willing suspension of disbelief" with respect to some of the concept implementation. It depends on what you think is more important.

Your conclusions sound somewhat similar to the assessment given this game by Chris Farrell (who has renewed his public discourse on games: http://illuminatinggames.blogspot.com/). You may be able to track down his formal review of Brass if you do a little digging - or you can make him a Geek buddy (highly recommended) to get a thumbnail sketch of this and many other games by doing a "Geek buddy Analysis" on a game for which you want his opinions (Geek name: "cfarrell").

One of his problems with this game relates to theme (I think theme would be the category) in that he could never come to a satisfactory conclusion as to what VPs represented. I see his point and have to admit he certainly has one, but that aspect never troubled me. VPs are simply a measure of relative success between players as far as I'm concerned, and as long as the overall system "works" I'm happy to let them remain an abstract value (dimensionless numbers if you will). I've seen others in the discussion surrounding this try to convince him that you could think of VPs as a measure of "success" or "prestige" that transcends mere money - you should like that idea! Personally, I don't care what you call them. For him though, along with a few other things, it was a show stopper and he's not crazy about the game.

I think this is one of Martin's very best among a growing number of excellent games!!

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Lauge Rosendahl
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Quote:
Your conclusions sound somewhat similar to the assessment given this game by Chris Farrell

Thanks for pointing me that way! You're right, I very much agree with Farells misgivings about Brass. I hadn't really thought about the victory points, but they are another quite inelegant side to the game, and I really like elegance.
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I'm playing your stereogram
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Thumbs up for erudition.
 
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Richard Hutnik
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Ugh! Me brain hurt!

George! Why did you make me read this? Anyhow, under peer pressure I give the review a thumb's up.
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Erich Cranor
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With apologies for drifting a bit...

I just can't get into Gormenghast, even though I've tried a few times. I'd keep that bit of naysaying to myself except that I want to offer this lead. If you think you'd like 'overwraught' language but just don't mesh with Peake--I humbly suggest you look to Henry Fielding. Tom Jones is an amazingly enjoyable read!

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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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I loved reading the Gormenghast Trilogy, but fear that few readers nowadays have the patience to indulge in such labyrinthine prose.
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Martin Sharman
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Great comment on Brass. I particularly like the imagery of the observer of paralysed analysts and the reference to the constantly shifting tactical opportunities lost.

I love the Gormenghast trilogy - or bits of it, anyway. The sprawl, the decay, the menace, the ritual, the twisted sisters. But it hadn't occurred to me at all to think of Brass in those terms, and I still can't. Brass seems to me by comparison limpidly straightforward, a puzzling and challenging game whose interlocking pieces give rise to headscratching, and which has a few footnoted comments on footnotes to rules. But not a great sprawling dusty ruin, by any means. But then, I come at this as a wargamer, for whom rulebooks of a mere 10 pages are not really rulebooks at all.

It hadn't occurred to me either to worry about what the VPs represent. Numbers of orphans disciplined for laziness as they fight over crusts in “places of sexual license, foul language, cruelty, violent accidents, and alien manners”, perhaps? The weight of the chandelier in the withdrawing room of the London mansion? The prestige of the architect who designed the folly in the woods by the lake? Numbers of paintings in the garden shed by Hogarth, Alma-Tadema, Wilson, Turner, and Constable? For me it's no more an issue in Brass than it is in any other euro.
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