21 September 2018
Step right up and try your luck!
Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, step right up into the Barker’s Row to witness terrifying feats, bizarre oddities, ghastly horrors and indescribable freaks! You will be amused and entertained – although some of you might want to look away or keep walking right by.
The feeling of playing Barker’s Row, appropriately, falls right in line with its theme. You will either be entertained by the strange and extraordinary things you see on your casual walk through the attraction – leaving slightly amused but otherwise unaffected – or you will be frustrated by the bad costumes and the poorly-hidden breathing straw of the merman imposter. Ultimately, the best approach is to just enjoy the show without looking too close or thinking too deeply about what’s going on – then you'll have a good time.
In Barker’s Row, players compete to be the first to attract 13 'rubes' to the stand of their attraction. In a slight twist on collecting sets, players turn over barker cards, hoping to get a specific value of the suit corresponding to one of the three attractions in their hand, which they can play to entice the audience to their grandstand.
The start of the game drags along as players turn cards one by one, hoping to get the right total number. They don’t know what type of suits other players are looking for – therefore, with every turn of the card, they could unknowingly be helping their opponents, without any payoff for themselves.
In a matter of just a few turns, this issue almost dissipates completely – or, at least, gets alleviated by the game’s quite clever, yet simple, catch-up mechanic. Every time a player scores an attraction, the total value of barker cards needed for the next one increases, meaning that those who were less lucky in the card draw can always catch up. This mean it's less likely to create a runaway winner and, until the very end, all players are very much on par with each other.
Despite the predominant luck-based gameplay and the uncertainty that every new card drawn creates, victory in Baker’s Row comes from tactical use of attraction powers. These can only be used once an attraction has been scored, so it takes at least a turn before they come into play. Being able to activate the right power at the most opportune time can push a player over the winning line, spicing up otherwise quite repetitive gameplay.
Even still, going into Barker’s Row players will need to let go of the need to be in control – and even competitiveness, to a certain extent. You will often be setting up a certain set of cards to find them stolen right from under you, through no fault of your own. Sometimes, the deck layout will be helpful; other times, the suit you want will not come out for ages.
Undeniably, Barker’s Row has its own distinct character that partly surfaces through its components. The rubes are beautifully and playfully illustrated, positioned on cardboard grandstands that are unessential to the gameplay but look great on the table. Every creature or oddity has a unique look and design on the taro-sized attraction cards. The strongman’s tower (used to track the value needed to score an attraction) is the only letdown, as it is fiddly to use, its edges crease almost instantly from constantly slotting in markers and it has a wobbly stand.
If you let go and prepare for carefree gameplay, Baker’s Row will be a wonderful lighthearted experience, complemented by imaginative tongue-in-cheek artwork and mostly great component design. It is easy to forgive some of the game's misgivings when it doesn't overstay its welcome or take itself too seriously.
Barker’s Row has a unique fun theme and lighthearted easy-to-pick-up gameplay, but it may prove to be frustrating to players who prefer being in control of their game.
Designer: Steven Aramini
Artist: Andrea Olgiati
Time: 25-45 minutes
This review originally appeared in the July 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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