As more time passes since Dominion and deckbuilding exploded onto the gaming scene, it seems to me that deckbuilding mechanics have become more ubiquitous, while deckbuilding games garner less attention. However, I am personally still enchanted with deckbuilding, including more recent games from big hits like Star Realms to lesser-known gems like Dark Gothic. That love of deck-building games is one of the reasons I took note of Brass Empire releasing at GenCon this year – not enough to make my top ten most anticipated games, but enough that I tracked down designer Mike Gnade of Rock Manor Games at the indie games alliance booth. And I’m glad that I did.
Brass Empire has a steampunk theme, with the players each controlling a corporation trying to expand its wealth and power in the world of Cobalt. In order to do this, each company will recruit better employees, construct better buildings, and assemble units to mine for brass or attack other players’ buildings and units. Brass, the source of power in Cobalt, is victory points in the game.
As one might expect for a deckbuilding game, the players in Brass Empire begin with small decks of lousy cards, and then will add better cards to those decks as the game goes on. These initial cards are split between Clerks, who provide labor (one of the currencies in the game), and Union Workers (who provide construction, the other currency). Card acquisition comes primarily from two sources – the labor pool and the design department. Each of these is a six-card row that refills whenever a card is purchased (players can buy as many cards a turn as they can afford).
The labor pool contains employee cards, which are primarily purchased with labor. Employees function in a standard deckbuilding game manner – better cards that cycle between discard, deck, and hand.
The design department, on the other hand, contains buildings and units, which operate much more distinctively. Both buildings and units stay in play, with each having one turn in play but non-functional before coming online (buildings are under construction and untouchable for a turn, while units are immediately face-up so there’s an opportunity for an opponent to deal with them before they come online). Buildings have a variety of effects – continuous abilities, once-per-turn abilities, or destroy-this-to-use abilities. Units have two basic purposes once they come online. First, they can mine brass, gaining brass tokens equal to their attack value. Second, they can use that attack value to, well, attack. Units and buildings have health (building can have attack, but usually don’t). When a unit attacks a target, the two cards deal damage to each other, with damage sticking around from turn to turn. So units can be used to directly advance the player’s victory, or to reduce an opponent’s capacity.
In addition to this unit-based combat, Brass Empire adds a twist with reserve cards. Each player represents one of five specific corporations in the setting. Although there is no faction card, most of the cards are identified with one of the corporations, and each player gets five ‘reserve’ cards out of those corporation-aligned cards (all of our games were played with the recommended five cards for each corporation, but players have the option of getting to custom-pick the five cards). Each player can purchase cards from their reserve, along with cards from the labor pool and design studio. In the long-term, this could let players really pre-plan a strategy, but even with the standard five reserve cards, it gives each corporation a more distinctive opening (Omni-Edo is good at trashing cards, Frontier Rail is good at gaining brass, Harlem Electric is good at dealing damage, etc.).
The game ends when a preset pool of brass tokens is depleted (all players get an even number of turns). Victory points are brass plus the value of cards in the deck.
When I’m looking at a deckbuilding game, two questions I’m thinking about are whether it’s a fun game, and whether it is doing something different enough from existing deckbuilding games to warrant seeking out (a Dominion clone might be fun, but I don’t really see a point in seeking out a Dominion clone when I can just play Dominion). For Brass Empire, my answers to those two questions are yes and yes. I still like the core concept of deckbuilding, and Brass Empire executes well on that front. It gets the basics right. There are lots of interesting cards, rather than swathes of the pool that you never want to buy. The mechanics encourage players to continue modifying their decks throughout the game. There isn’t a big runaway leader problem. I know that reciting those basics doesn’t sound that impressive, and I agree that just meeting these basics is a minimum, not something to be impressed with, but there have been quite a few deckbuilding games that failed one or more of these tests.
Where Brass Empire stands out is in what it does new. Ascension (and others) let players attack the card row (with attack power essentially just being a second form of currency), which is very different from what Brass Empire is doing. Star Realms (which, side note, is still amazing) let players attack each other and cards in play, but those abstracted attacks are kind of the center of that game – the game is ultimately won by dealing damage, after all. Brass Empire has combat, but its combat is less abstracted, more tactical, and also less central. Specific units and buildings in play have their own statistics, and persistent damage (plus a use for attack in mining brass) means that combat is more flavorful and exactly where to deal damage is more of a decision. Just having to play buildings ‘under construction’ (and having units immobile for the first turn) gives them a more distinct feel from the employee cards – they aren’t just cards that you play, get a benefit for, and maybe they’re still around in future turns.
The units, along with the design of some of the cards, gives Brass Empire a more free-for-all feel than most deckbuilding games. From the beginning deckbuilding games have had cards that attack other players, but Dominion set the standard by making those cards affect all other players. Brass Empire does not follow that norm. Of course the ability to attack individual units or buildings requires singling out a particular player’s cards. But there are also a variety of employee cards that target a particular opponent or particular card (for example, target opponent discards a card). This opens up a limited amount of politics, and some “beat on the leader” that is absent from most deckbuilding games (it also helps counteract the low level ‘runaway leader’ issues that a deckbuilding game, at core an engine building game, can have if there isn’t much interaction, or no targeted interaction).
I also like the use of the reserve cards. That’s been done before (in a much more central way in Rune Age, for example), but faction-specific mechanics like reserve cards or customized starting decks still don’t get done a lot (and definitely get done less than they should, at least to my mind). I’m a bit reluctant to switch to lettings players pick what their reserve cards are, for concern that there will be some “broken” options, but I can always stick with the standard reserves, or just switch them out in a way that the group feels is balanced.
In sum, Brass Empire is a solid deckbuilding game that breaks some new ground that provides a player experience that’s not only fun, but also avoids duplicating what’s already out there. It’s worth checking out if you like the deckbuilding genre.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.