The games of the Ragnar Brothers have a rather chequered history in my gaming world. The strange and infrequently explored subject of canal building was something that enchanted me in Canal Mania, but everything else of theirs that I have experienced, from Backpacks and Blisters to the impressively conceived but slightly wonkily realised quantum game that was Niña and Pinta has left me feeling that, nice guys though they undoubtedly are, their products can be on the unpolished side. History Of The World is their main calling card, and established their reputation, but since then their catalogue has been short of heavy hitters.
Barking Up The Wrong Tree seems unlikely to buck that trend, for it is a simple and quick playing design that comes in a box small enough to be tucked into a pocket or a bag and carried around, so it is presumably aimed at that portable and swift to play market, something with the intention of filling a spare half an hour here or there. The artwork also implies that this is something possibly for parents to play with their children, although the box is not the only instance of the illustrations being decidedly on the weird size. A dog wielding a large chainsaw, surely the stuff of nightmares, is stalking a cat which is either the size of a large dinosaur or stuck on a bonsai tree. People whining about the scale of models in, say, Star Trek: Attack Wing always make me chuckle, because (write this down if you need to) those ships do not exist in real life, but I have seen a dog and a cat and a tree, often in the same field of vision, and they definitely do not look anything like this in real or cartoon form, and that is without getting started on the oddness of the whole chainsaw thing.
Barking Up The Wrong Tree is a card game for two to four players. Sorry, Barking Up The Wrong Tree is a card game for two to five players. Hang on, so the back of the box says two to four and the side of the box says two to five. Do you begin to see what I mean about being a little on the unpolished side? Well, I worked it out for myself, and the game does play up to five players, but it is not the most auspicious of starts, and the contents of the box are not likely to take your breath away and wow you with their polish and refinement, as the components are a pack of cards, some very flimsy round counters to represent trees and some cat tokens.
Errors like this do not bode well.
The art itself is not great, and although there are bespoke artists listed in the game credits, it has the whiff of clip art about it. Push the boat out in terms of generosity and there is some charm to the illustrations, but be more curmudgeonly and you could say that it all leaves something to be desired. The cards represent various breeds of dog, numbered from one to ten, and those canine depictions are intriguing. Let's just say that if there were an Italian dog in the game it would probably be depicted eating spaghetti, while a French dog would have a striped top and wear a beret - wait a minute, there is a French dog, and it has a striped top and is wearing a beret. There are also cats in the deck, all spiffily attired, and stray dogs that do not form part of any gang.
Setting up Barking Up The Wrong Tree is easily done. The tree tokens are shuffled together, carefully, though, because they really are quite thin, and collected into five piles that gradually increase in size from three to seven, and it is these tokens that players will attempt to collect in order to win the game. Players receive a hand of cards, the trees for the current round are laid out on the table, and then everybody takes turns to place as many cards of a single breed of dog next to any tree in order to add it to their collection, but you cannot place a breed that is already next to the tree or add to a tree you have already attempted to claim in that round. The rules are slightly round the houses in the way they explain this, and the language could be tighter, the examples much, much clearer, but it is pretty clear once you get going. Stray dogs act more or less as wild cards, while cats either allow for a card draw or trigger a kind of free for all at a tree. Players can duck out of the round at any time, and this allows them to hold cards in hand for the next set of trees, possibly giving them an advantage next time around if they feel that they have achieved all they can for the present moment.
At the end of each round the trees are awarded to the player with the most dogs, with ties going to the player whose breed of dog has the lowest number on their card, although it feels counterintuitive that low beats high. Once all five rounds are over players are awarded points for each type of tree they have managed to collect and how many in each category, and players find out who is top dog and who is the runt of the litter.
Tree tokens are decent but thin.
In a game like Barking Up The Wrong Tree which grants points for multiples of the same kind of tree as well as different types, a classic set collector, it is clearly critical to know how many cards there are of each type of dog and how many tokens of each type of tree, and, having searched through the cards for a reference and through the rules for a mention I was a little surprised to find the information printed - where else? - on the side of the box, but - note this - on the side of the inside section of the box. Four - no, five - reference cards would have added virtually nothing to the bulk of the game, yet players need to pass the box around and squint at the edges to get to information they need, another detail that adds to the whiff of hurry about the production of the game.
It is also impossible to ignore that, for a simple card game, Barking Up The Wrong Tree can take up a vast amount of space on a table. As a head to head game you can sit opposite each other and it works fine, but each tree token has five colours on its border which are supposed to represent each player (although there is no device in the components to remember which player is which colour) and they place their card at that border. In the fifth round of the game, with seven trees on the table, each one of which can have cards splayed out in as many as five directions, it becomes a logistical nightmare to work out what is going on, let alone what you might want to play next. You will also need a bigger space to play on that you might suspect, which fights against Barking Up The Wrong Tree's positioning as a quick and easy card game.
For all that, Barking Up The Wrong Tree actually plays pretty well, and there are some interesting decisions to be made along the way, especially in the way that you can duck out of a round and keep your powder dry and cards in hand for a better chance at snagging a tree next time, but the negatives are simply too strong to outweigh the positives. Yes, it plays five, but there are plenty of quick and dirty card games out there that do much the same thing, but with better components and clearer rules, that look far less shabby on the table and are simply more fun - I am thinking especially of Sushi Go Party! and For Sale here.
French dog? Beret? Check! Striped top? Check. And so on...
Ultimately there is little to recommend Barking Up The Wrong Tree above much else in its field unless you are a completist, a mad fan of the Ragnar Brothers, or willing to take a punt on something with a very low price point that is more or less average but decidedly not in the realm of greatness. There is simply too much around this product that gives the impression of enthusiasm outrunning quality control, something I have seen in other games, and not just by the Ragnars, but there is precious little room for that in the modern age when enthusiastic individuals can turn out top quality product all on their own.
So, nice guys the Ragnar Brothers undoubtedly are, but even with all the good will in the world Barking Up The Wrong Tree is just about ok, the kind of game you might play once if you found it in the pile of games in a café somewhere and then forget about. It may have slightly greater appeal for those with young families, but, again, there are many far better games out there to scratch that particular itch.
The issues with production and quality control in Barking Up The Wrong Tree are also just too great to ignore – the player count thing is inexcusable, especially as it is there on the outside of the box and hardly hidden from sight, the illustrations in general look like clip art, the ones in the instructions look positively shabby, the cards have swathes of white background, the tree tokens are dangerously thin, there are no reference cards, and it is a sprawling table hog to play with more than three players – it all feels as though it has been pushed into production one stage before it should have gone into print.
In the light of all this, and despite the fact that Barking Up The Wrong Tree plays relatively inoffensively, it is impossible to give it a strong recommendation. Look past all those unfinished bits of wiring and plaster and you have a pretty standard game with very little in terms of appeal or to mark it out from widespread and much better competition.
Were it not for all those rough bits around the edges I might be tempted to give Barking Up The Wrong Tree 6 out of 10, and only just, for something that is neither particularly boring nor particularly terrible, just resolutely so-so. However, all those issues with the game just lead a reviewer to believe that the designers did not care enough about this particular product to give it the attention it might have deserved, in which case why should the rest of us bother to waste our own time on it if even its creators give up? Ultimately Barking Up The Wrong Tree does nothing to convince me that the Ragnar Brothers are gaming wunderkinds held back by a lack of budget, but instead merely confirms my point of view from playing many of their products that their games are ruff and ready at best. A generous 5 out of 10.