The Brass Age (Solo Board game) review – The Best PnP Solo game of 2021?

The Brass Age is a Steampunk, bag and tableau building card battle game for one player, designed by Barny Skinner. It was crowned best Solo print-and-play game in BoardGameGeek’s 2021 contest. Is it that good? Lets dive in, and see what the fuss is all about.

The Brass Age – By Barny Skinner – 1 player, about 45 minutes.

What is this whole “Print and Play thing” anyway?

Print and Play board games are games that you print and assemble yourself at home. A lot of them are free, and the ones that are not, are cheap. Certainly cheaper than “traditionally” board games. Some of them just consist in a few sheets to print at home, others involve more careful assembly, with glue, cutter knife, and more…

2022 has seen my board game addiction shift rapidly from “retail board games” to “print and play” (PnP). The move was initially intended to reduce my spending on Board games, but I’ve gone down a rabbit hole of creativity and awesome productions in the PnP world.

Although technically anyone can create their PnP board game, it would be very wrong to assume these are “sub par” games. Of course, there must be terrible PnP games out there, but the curation happening in events such as BoardGameGeek’s contests ensures that a lot of very good ones bubble up to the top, and end up reaching normal folks like me.

As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure the board game industry has its finger on the PnP community’s pulse, ready to negotiate a publishing contract with the best games each year.

And this is why I’m strongly advising you to get The Brass Age right now on BoardGameGeek (download files here) because 1) I’m convinced it will get a publishing deal, and 2) it’s possible the free print-and-play files will be removed when this happen, at least temporarily (this happens for quite a lot of print and play games, either for contractual reasons, or because the designer – rightfully – focuses on the retail release and the old download links die).

The Brass Age was voted best solo PnP board game in BordGameGeek’s 2021 Solo PnP contest, among more than 60 entries. Although that doesn’t necessarily meant it’s absolutely better than the game that ranked in at #2 (or even #10, for that matter), it certainly speaks for the quality and professionalism of the game.

The Brass Age – Art, Theme, Components and assembly

The Brass Age pdf files can be downloaded on Boardgamegeek. Let me get this out of the way right now: It’s pretty “difficult” to build. The game has a lot of tokens and cards. You’ll want to not be able to recognize the cards from the back, and for some tokens, they’ll need to be of similar shape and weight, so as to not be able to recognize them in a bag. This means careful cutting of the different components.

The Brass Age – Picture by creator

In general for Print and play, I suggest going with whatever you have at home or can get for cheap. Here’s how I personally did:

Cards – Printed on professional printer, then cut at home as precisely as possible with a cutter knife and a ruler. I’ve then sandwiched old Magic the Gathering cards between the front and back of each Brass Age card, inside “perfect fit” sleeves, without gluing anything. The MTG cards give my cards some rigidity, the sleeve holds everything together without having to permanently glue anything. If you have old cards lying around this is probably the easiest way to do it. Others print their cards on card stock, or glue them to old cardboxes such as cereal boxes.

Tokens: It’s probably easier to make them square with a cutter knife, but I wanted them to be round as seen on the designer’s pictures, so I ordered a 25mm circle puncher. It did the job, but wasn’t strong enough to punch through 2 layers of paper + cardboard. So I punched everything individually, then glued both faces + a piece of cardboard together. Additionally, I’ve ordered some token capsules to give it a more professional look.

Phew. Assembly of this game was a beast, at least for me. Now that it’s out of the way, I want to quickly discuss the art and theme of The Brass Age. Quickly, because I’ll get back to it in the review part.

The Brass Age has a Steampunk (Steam-AEtherpunk, as the creator calls it) theme that transpires on every card. Every single card has its own art, created by the designer himself, and, although it does feel like it was made by someone who’s not a professional artist, the end result, as a whole, looks unified and honestly gorgeous. The icons also do their job very well, the tokens are easily recognizable and go well with the theme. I’ll admit that the overall look and feel of the game was one of my primary motivations to go through the assembly process. More on that in the review, below.

The Brass Age – Gameplay

The Brass Age is a Steampunk Solo tableau-building/bag-building card game in which you represent a nation at war against another country.

The 3 nation cards in The Brass Age

You can choose between the British Imperium, the Kingdom of America, and the Last City of Mars; and you’ll fight one of the remaining two nations. The goal is to bring your opponent’s nation to zero life.

During the course of the game, you’ll acquire cards in a market that represent your units (that’s the tableau building aspect of the game), and you can then activate actions on these cards that can, among other things damage the opponent’s nation or its own units. Acquiring cards or activating their actions costs resources (metal, coal, or aether) that you grab from your bag of tokens… as you’ve guessed, that part involves the bag-building aspect of the game.

Each turn, you’ll draw five tokens from your bag. These tokens usually represent Metal, Coal, or Aether, and at the beginning of the game are low value. As you progress in the game though, as in any bag-building game, you’ll try to add better tokens to your bag, and remove the ones you don’t need.

The cards in your play Area are the centerpiece of your action. You’ll typically acquire them by paying with metal tokens. Once a unit is in your play area (known as your frontline), you can use your tokens each turn to activate its actions. Each action has a cost (a number of tokens you need to pay) and an effect. The effects can do damage to your opponent’s nation or one of its unit, or help you add/remove tokens from your bag to help you upgrade it, draw more tokens, heal, etc…

Once you’ve used all the tokens you’ve drawn for the turn (or are out of actions that you can/want to play), the enemy plays, activating the (generally bad for you) actions of all its units in play, and drawing a new unit (or instant event) from its deck.

Your turns in The Brass Age are a constant balance between trying to acquire new units and thinning/upgrading your token bags in preparation for future turns, handling the threats of your opponent’s units, and dealing damage to the opponent nation. If you let the opponent’s units grow out of control, each turn you’ll suffer more damage. But if you keep dealing with these cards, you’re not advancing against the opponent’s nation or making your bag better for future draws.

The Brass Age Solo board game – Review

Arts, theme, and more

I want to get back a bit on the topic of the art and theme of The Brass Age: I love it. And to be more precise, I went through phases with it.

Before looking at the game in detail, I felt it looked gorgeous, and I think this will be a shared sentiment for anyone who’s remotely interested in Steampunk.

but after printing it, I saw that although everything involving machines/architecture looked great, a lot of the characters (aliens or humans) looked a bit “old school CGI”. They’re all a bit stiff, lacking in texture…and the Aliens are your Area51 stereotype… It put me off for a bit, and I think this is an aspect of the game that might be improved with a retail release… BUT:

After playing the game for a while, I’ve learned to actually love its art. First of all, there is no denying that individual art for each card is simply incredible (and I’m not even pretending I would have the skills to do anything like that). Second, there is some tongue-in-cheek humor in the game, on almost every card. The game knows it can’t be “too” serious, and plays with it. for example, the card “Aristocratic Adventurer” pictures our adventurer slicing an Alien head in half (with weird green blood coming out of the alien) while drinking tea. (That’s a British Imperium card, obviously). Another card, “Bear Arms” represents a guy with mechanical arms that give him the strength of a bear. “Bear Arms”, a card in the American Kingdom. Get it?

Although the iconography is gorgeous, the CGI art might not be for everyone

I also want to emphasize once more that this is incredible art for a game made by a single person, outside of a commercial activity. By saying the art is “odd”, I’m unfairly comparing the game to retail products, not to typical PnP games. I hope this is seen as a compliment rather than criticism. This is one of the most gorgeous PnP free games I own, which is even more impressive that it has so many cards.

I also want to talk about the icons, card layout, etc: it all looks great. The CGI pictures on the card is the only thing that betrays the fact that this is a free game made by a passionate person on their free time. The rest is professional grade.

The Brass Age – Gameplay review

From disappointing early victories to challenging defeats

My first two sessions of The Brass Age were disappointing.

I played in easy mode with the Martians against the Kingdom of America, and won easily, twice. I felt that there was not much strategy required beyond “make sure to acquire cards from the market with metal early in the game, then get rid of Metal in favor of goal mid game to start attacking heavily” (metal is mostly used to acquire cards, and less useful in late game, while coal powers your attacking units and becomes more important mid to late game ).

But then I played the reverse game, playing the Americans against the Aliens, and lost terribly… 5 times in a row! And every single time I felt I knew what I was doing wrong, and was pushed to try “just one more game”.

It feels like maybe the Martians are the easiest of the three nations, maybe the most straightforward. Or maybe they’re especially good against the American Kingdom. I’ll need more sessions to confirm this. But what I can tell is that although the general strategy seems to be “more metal early game, more coal late game”, it’s not always that simple depending on which cards you get in the market, and which nation you’re playing with.

My next games turned out to be a difficult balancing act between what I wanted to do with my token bag, and the negative tokens the enemy kept adding to it. In one particular game, “boosting” my cards (adding some bonuses to their actions) turned out to be key to victory, while in others it was about getting as much coal as possible in the bag, and in yet another game, a good balance between aether and coal turned out to be the right path.

I also replayed with the Martians against America later on, and got my ass kicked multiple times. What that heck? It looks like I might have had beginner’s luck in my first few games, but the designer acknowledged that the games can sometimes be too brutal, and has been working on balance tweaks.

Ha, I’m not trying to write a strategy guide here, but to tell you that there is some significant replayability in Brass Age, thanks to the 3 nations that really feel different to play with, and against.

The martian nation stands at 15 life. “Luckily” I just drew a green “3 aether” token from my bag, which allows me to drop the AE Bomb on them for 20 damage. Victory!

The Brass Age compared to Agent Decker

I was initially willing to dismiss it as a “bit too easy, once you understand the logic it’s not fun”, but I turned out to be proven wrong, thanks to the 3 nations involved.

I want to compare The Brass Age a little bit to another popular PnP Game, Agent Decker, which I personally didn’t like. Or, rather, I liked Agent Decker, but felt it didn’t have that much replay value. The game mechanics of Agent Deck and The Brass Age are slightly different (Deck builder vs Tableau Builder + Bag builder), but in the end, there are similarities in how you want to “thin” your possibilities to ensure that you draw more consistently what you need, and also how the resource you need depends on where you are in your progression of the game (early/mid/late game).

Where I feel like I’ve got the gist on how to win Agent Decker pretty consistently after a handful of games, I think The Brass Age gives me an larger amount of variety through its 3 nations. Agent Decker’s mission is always going to be the same, while The Brass Age offers at the very least 6 combinations that, in my experience, are pretty varied. The result is, to me, day and night in terms of replayability.

Science and News Cards – untapped greatness?

A bit of “spice” is added to the opponent’s deck through “news” cards, which are not units but cards that have a one-shot effect that resolves instantly (you’ve guessed it, usually bad for you). Some of these cards are randomly removed from the opponent’s deck during setup, which adds a bit of variety.

Similarly, the player’s market is enriched through “Science” cards, powerful “instant effect” cards that can be paid for with the aether resource. In general those are good and fun, but I’m hoping the game will evolve to add more of them, maybe with a way to only shuffle half of a larger pool into one’s deck? I feel like the Science cards are under-utilized here as a way to add more variety to the game. Some of the science cards feel underwhelming, while I think adding more expensive, more powerful ones could make “all-in on aether” a viable strategy. Science cards don’t remove anything from my enjoyment of the game, quite the contrary, but I just feel there is some untapped greatness here.

Smooth rules

Last but not least, the rules of The Brass Age are very simple once you’ve got the gist of it, and as such the game plays smoothly and in a reasonably short amount of time (30 to 45 minute in my experience), while still giving me the feeling that I played a “full” and satisfying game. It’s been my go to game with my morning coffee, for the past few days now.

Game setup, playing Martians against Kingdom of America

The Brass Age Review – conclusion

What I liked about the Brass Age

  • The icons and layout of the cards are very well designed
  • Individual art for each card, and overall gorgeous, professional look
  • The tongue-in-cheek humor
  • The asymmetry in the 3 nations works very well and add to replayability, it does feel different to play against the Martians or the British Imperium
  • Good balance makes the game tense and interesting through the whole session

What I didn’t like about the brass age

  • Assembling it was painful 😛 It’s a big game!
  • Some of the art (in particular the “Area51” style aliens) felt a bit cheesy to me
  • Give me more nations now!
  • Some of the Science cards felt a bit generic or useless (e.g. Aerial Daguerrotype)… I’m hoping more variety in Science cards, and maybe more expensive cards, could make Aether a valid strategy in itself.

The Brass Age is a great Steampunk solo card game, that you can grab for free, and which in my opinion is well worth the effort to print and assemble. Get this game before the files get removed, when it inevitably gets a commercial release, through kickstarter or something. Then wait for the kickstarter, and pledge for it, because I can bet it will enrich the game so much: the designer is already working on adding Player vs Player, Cooperative mode, and a new nation to the game!

Games mentioned in this article

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