30 November 2018
Grinning and bearing it
How do you take the violent theme of pillaging barbarians and give it a family-friendly overlay? Designers Walter Barber and Ian VanNest have a perfect answer to that: the Ewok effect. Those bears ate people, but they were small, cute and made funny noises so they were also adorable. Therefore, add bears into the mix and you have an instant appeal. Add bonus points for wordplay and BarBEARian Battlegrounds begins to score particularly high.
The puns and the theme are so fun that it is easy to overlook them being nothing more than a thick coat of paint over a bluffing dice game. It also helps that the game itself is enjoyable, clever and brings a few interesting twists and turns into straightforward and family-friendly gameplay.
The central mechanic is simultaneous dice-rolling by all players, where all results are visible. Afterward, players hide their action board behind a small screen (which conveniently also acts as a player guide) and assign dice to either attack a specific player, defend their village or gain some or all of three available resources – one of which is, of course, honey.
There are certain limitations to which dice outcomes can’t be used to gather resources. In general, though, the game doesn’t have too many restrictions and after several turns players will be able to generate enough resources to be able to buy pretty much anything they want. Here the choices are plenty. They can buy specialist tokens that stay on the board and help with resource gathering or defence; buy more dice, temporary or permanent; alter dice values; or buy special cards that make available actions more powerful. Finally, players can spend resources to buy glory tokens, seven of which are required to win.
If the path of friendly farming bear is not to your liking, you can invade other players’ settlements and steal their resources or glory tokens. This strategy only works with certainty in a game with the maximum four players. As everyone starts with two glory tokens, with fewer players there aren’t enough of them to win the game through fighting alone, and players will have to invest in resource gathering at some point.
In general, the gameplay is a good mixture of both fighting and resource gathering, the challenge being to find a good balance between the two.
While upgrading your base and buying more dice or cards are all fun parts of the game, BarBEARian Battlegrounds’ strongest aspect is the player interaction. By allowing players to get a glimpse of everyone’s dice outcomes and only then hiding the actions that result from them, the stakes are instantly raised without making the atmosphere around the table too tense. It is hard, although not completely impossible, to get enough dice to do everything on a turn: attack, defend and gather all three resources. So compromises and some guesswork must be made each turn. Who has the most resources and is therefore worth attacking? What dice did they roll and which of them are they likely to assign to defence? Will someone attack me next turn? BarBEARian Battlegrounds proves easily that knowing part of the information – dice results – creates more interesting decisions and interactions than if players made decisions completely uninformed.
Tongue-in-cheek throughout and containing all-essential bear puns, BarBEARian Battlegrounds is an interesting dice-deployment game that focuses on what is most important: players having fun.
I can bear-ly think of a better bear pun game that is still a good game – even without all the wordplay.
Designer: Walter Barber, Ian VanNest
Artist: Pablo Hernandez
Time: 20 minutes
This review originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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