There is a new war game on the horizon, and its name is Barbarian Kingdoms. The game will be set in the early middle ages, and the task of each player is to lead their barbarian tribe to victory by carefully managing their fledgling empire in hopes of succeeding the Western Roman Empire. The first player to hold seven territories or chop off the heads of two opposing kings will be the victor. If this is not enough to pique your interest, check out our preliminary review, starting with the visuals.
Although we could not determine the components of the final product, we were pleased with some aspects of the prototype. For example, the game board or map, in this case, is a hexagon shape instead of the usual rectangle. Consequently, this is a perfect fit for a round table because all the players are at an equal distance
Other interesting components are the player shields. The artwork is done pretty well, especially the interior side, and they did their job well even though the material was very thin, which will not be the case with the final product. On the other hand, the standees were very sturdy, and we had no problems moving them around on the map. Each player gets four standee warriors and one king, each with unique artwork. They also have four territory control markers, each with its distinctive crest.
The player boards are also very neatly done with a nice font that is easily readable, and this also includes the player guides. The coins, or tremis as the game prefers to call them, are also nicely done, and they come in three denominations copper, silver, and gold. There is also one unique coin which we will discuss later.
Our only visual problem at the beginning was with the Visigoth player. Since its yellowish color blends in with the rest of the map, their territories are a little bit hard to spot. Later on, when we played a couple more times, we had no problems because each starting territory had a crest printed on them, which we missed the first time. All things considered, this game is very nicely done. The immersion is there. It felt like we were leading a barbarian nation instead of pushing cubes like in some other games. Naturally, this brings us to the following evaluation: the gameplay.
Barbarian Kingdoms is a 3-6 player game that takes around 30 to 60 minutes, by our estimation. Also, it is a straightforward game to learn. Each turn, a player is allowed to make one of the five different actions:
- Recruitment: Place a warrior into empty territory you control and pay its cost.
- Taxation: Collect coins equal to the number of territories you control.
- Assault: Attack enemy territory or invade a neutral province.
- Maneuvers: Strategic repositioning of all units or placing them in the sea.
- Claim: Place your control token on a province you occupy by paying the cost.
Even though these are simple actions to make most of the time, executing them in the correct order is the key to victory. So, in the beginning, the game might feel a bit slow, but it escalates very fast, especially for the Huns, the red player. We advise new players to exclude the Huns for their first 3 to 4 games because they develop much faster than the other tribes. For example, they can pick a scenario where the Huns are not present or give the Huns to the “weakest” player. However, in discussion with the designer, Christophe Lebrun, we were informed that this issue would be resolved when the game is published so players can enjoy the Huns right from the get-go.
The most interesting mechanic that this game has to offer is somewhat of a push-your-luck mechanic, but instead of drawing cards or tiles, your luck depends on the whims of the other players. What we mean by that is when you are taking the Assault or the Claim actions, other players adjacent to the active territory can challenge you, triggering a battle immediately before the action is complete.
We first need to explain how battles work so you can understand why this is so intense and thrilling. During a battle, the opposing players can move their troops which are adjacent to the contested territory:
- Each troop provides three battle points, and the king has six.
- Two points are given to the player with a territory control token.
- Finally, both players can contribute bribes by placing them secretly in separate bags. Extra battle points are added equal to the contributed bribe for each player.
The player with the most battle points wins the battle, and ties go to the attacker. The loser will lose all his troops, which they can recruit again later, but the king is lost forever and is merely a trophy for the winning player. You might deduce by now that losing a battle in this game is very costly, and one should plan very carefully when to engage or not.
On the other hand, there is another benefit of battles. After the battle is over, the money spent does not just go to the general supply, but the players trade their bribes which means the larger bribe will help you win the battle but by doing that, you are giving money to your opponent at the end. It took us a couple of games to realize that you do not need to go all in every time.
Remember that old lesson, “Winning the battle does not mean that you will win the war” well, this game is all that. Sometimes you might trick your opponents into thinking that you are committed to conquering their territory when your true goal is to empty their coffers. However, one final surprise element is the five-value coin that someone might find just in time to jumpstart their economy. We felt it was an exciting final touch and would love the idea of having a second one in play.
The closest thing we can compare this game to is playing chess and holding a poker hand. The excitement of battles, bluffing, and intrigue are always present, all packaged in this short but delightful experience. However, once everyone had enough time to master this game, the turns took much slower with more careful planning.
In conclusion, if you are a fan of 4x and territory control games, this game is for you, especially if you have a large gaming group of up to 6 players.
Barbarian Kingdoms will be available on Gamefound on the 18th of this month, and it is brought to you by Jester. The designer Christophe Lebrun was kind enough to let us in on a few more secrets like stretch goals and such, but we felt that they should remain hush-hush for now. So we can say that players will get their money’s worth with this one. Other team members include the lead artist Aurélie Lebrun du Puytison, Nasos Maloudis, and Sergey Shikin. We wish them well on this project and hope to see them again returning with a new one soon.