- If you’ve ever played a mobile phone strategy game, then BarBEARians: Battlegrounds should seem instantly familiar. It brings cute, lovable visuals and simple gameplay to your tabletop, with a real focus on multiplayer mayhem. A two to four player game in principle, BarBEARians really comes to life with a full set of players and a willingness to stab each other in the back. Repeatedly.
Overview and turn structure
The first thing that I noticed about BarBEARians is that it’s a lot of game delivered in a small box — which is in direct contrast to the increasing number of small games going for ever larger boxes in order to grab attention. Kudos must be given to publisher Greenbrier Games for taking this route, since shelf space for many players comes at a significant premium. Once punched, the content of BarBEARians literally spills freely onto the table and it’s wondrous to behold.
The game itself is fairly simple once you understand it, but it’s unlike most other board games in structure, so it does take a little bit of learning. The basic objective of BarBEARians is to obtain seven glory tokens, which can either be claimed from other players (by attacking them) or through completing feats or the Glorious Offering trade action. In anything less than a four player game, there will be less than seven glory tokens among all players (each starts with two) so at least one person will need to bring one into the game via an external method. Once claimed, glory is always at risk of being taken by someone else until players spend effort and resources to lock it in, so it pays to be wary of counterattacks.
At the beginning of each turn, players will simultaneously roll their five dice in public view. They will then take those dice behind one of the individually illustrated secrecy blinds and place them on their player board. The placement locations include an attack space for each of the other colours, a couple of barracks spaces, then three worker placement slots. The barracks allows players to position one or two dice in defence, whilst the worker slots allow dice to be used to generate wood, faith and ore, which are the key resources in game.
With this done (and bearing in mind that dice of higher value are better at whatever task they are assigned to) the players will then lift their screens and resolve the battle phase one by one, beginning with the first player. Battle resolution is straightforward. The attacking player checks the value of their dice in the attack slot against the value of any dice in the defending players barracks or in the attack space that links back to the same colour as the attacking player. If there’s no counterattacking dice, the contest is a straight shootout between attacking and defending dice.
If the attacker wins, she claims a glory token from the defender. If the defending player was planning on attacking the other player, then whichever of the attacking dice is higher will be reduced by the value of the other players die — this can nullify the attack completely, or it may mean that some residual damage reaches the dice sat in the barracks (which may or may not still beat it.) Attacks are resolved around the table one by one until everyone has completed the attacks that they had assigned. After that, dice that were placed on worker slots will be converted to the appropriate number of resources (which is usually one or two of any given type at most.)
Upgrades can be purchased from a shared market, which includes cards like Captains Training (which allows low scoring dice to be paired with higher scoring ones during attacking and defending) or on specialists who allow additional resources to be gathered by workers. The game progresses with glory tokens toing and froing between the players until a few upgrades have been purchased, at which point the players will start to lock in their points and runaway leaders tend to begin emerging. BarBEARians features a lot of tactical decision making and not a ton of long term strategy, but the need to upgrade, plan for defense and so on does make it more than a simple dice chucker.
BarBEARians features only cardboard components, except for the dice, but that doesn’t mean that it is anything less than visually impressive when laid out on the table. The player boards, dice and wide array of tokens and cards bring tons and tons of colour, whilst the screens bring a really exciting three dimensional aspect that really enhances the overall look of BarBEARians when it is set up.
The artwork is undoubtedly the real differentiator for BarBEARians when it comes to looks and there’s most certainly a light, bright theme that runs throughout each of the cards, boards, tokens and other components. It’s hard to describe exactly where BarBEARians takes its inspiration, but the art style is very much of a similar nature to video games from The Behemoth — including Castle Crashers as perhaps the most notable example. Characters are large and chunky, with heavy outlines and simple yet lively expressions.
Quality is second to none across the entire game. The cards, although small, are nicely made and simple to understand, whilst the cardboard components are thick. The printing is of a very high standard, which is necessary with so much colour on show and I’d say that pieces like boards and tokens are at least as thick (if not a little thicker) than the average high production, big box game. All said, there’s nothing to complain about in terms of component quality with BarBEARians.
BarBEARians is a little bit hard to figure out during the first few games. It has a really strange economy that feels a bit unrewarding to begin with, but as you spend more time with it and realise how important it is to lock in glory tokens, that view will change. I think this is partly because during the early game, it is actually quite difficult to generate resources in a way that feels like it enables rapid enough progress. You can easily spend two or three early turns investing in resources (and likely losing glory to other players as a result) only to be left with little to show for it. The first players to invest in upgrades, however, will likely soon pull back any early losses.
The main thrust of BarBEARians is really in doing battle with one another. As a result, it’s not a game that can be taken too seriously, since there’s a fair bit of luck of the dice going on, not to mention a need to surprise the other players by attacking at unexpected times. If you’re taking fights too seriously and not laughing about them, then you’re probably not playing it right. This is why I think that BarBEARians really excels at four players but falls a tiny bit flat at two (even though it is still playable.) As you can imagine, three players falls right between the other counts for fun factor, but I could also imagine it being a bit punitive if one player felt that they were being targeted unfairly.
Given the small box and relatively flexible components (that allow for playing on a wide range of surfaces) it is possible for BarBEARians to be considered a reasonably portable game, which I always welcome. With the holiday season coming up fast, BarBEARians is the kind of game that you could play with a couple of adults and a niece or nephew, for example. The combative nature of the game is unavoidable, but it is really quite tongue in cheek and not at all confrontational or particularly stressful.
BarBEARian Battlegrounds is a super addition to a games library that needs to entertain a wide range of players across all skill levels and age ranges. It’s not especially complex once learned and it rewards quick thinking and immediate decision making more than it does long term planning, yet at the same time there are rewards for those who demonstrate a more patient approach. It’s an undeniably attractive game no matter which way you look at it, but I guess the light theme isn’t going to win over fans of heavier strategic or euro games, despite elements of worker placement.
Overall, I can see myself playing BarBearians again in the future (especially as my family grows into it) but it is perhaps what some gaming fans would call filler. I like to use games of around this weight (especially given how much better it is at four players) to begin or end a night of heavier games and I think it’s fair to say that my main gaming groups agreed with that as a use case. I also tested it heavily on a ten year old nephew and he is arguably the biggest fan of BarBEARians that I could ever ask for. Take that as an expert point of view, should you be buying for a similarly aged young person.
A copy of BarBEARians: Battlegrounds was provided for review purposes. You can find out more about it on the website of publisher Greenbrier Games.