Introducing Barons



This game is going to be big. How big? One-of-the-best-strategy-card-games-to-emerge-out-of-2011 type big. And before you roll your eyes, let me ask you this: Remember Glory to Rome? The strategy card game which came out of nowhere from a little-known publisher, and almost set the gaming world on fire? Well maybe not quite on fire, but it certainly generated a lot of heat and excitement among gamers! It's a very highly regarded game, and one of my own personal favourites. Well, fellow gamers, it's time for you to meet Glory to Rome's younger sibling: Barons.

Surely it has to be good news that Cambridge Games Factory - the company that brought us Glory to Rome - has just come out with a new strategy card game. And I think that with this new game that's part of their "Extreme Strategy!" series, they may just have done it again. Now let me say from the outset that it's not entirely fair to call Barons a "new" Glory to Rome, because it's slightly lighter in feel, and features quite different mechanics, as well as simpler gameplay than its esteemed predecessor. But like Glory to Rome, cards have multiple uses, and when played as buildings they will give you ongoing abilities and benefits. So it's a very innovative card game that's both fun and quick to play, offers many different choices (depending on what colour cards you play with) and it doesn't feel like anything else out there. As such, I think Barons is a card game with real potential for people looking for something on the lighter side of the medium weight category, and yet that is far more interesting, substantial, and strategic than your average filler or typical card games. This is not a filler - it's rather a very impressive and strategic card game, so expect to see some real noise about it on BGG over the next few months as word gets out about it!

So what's with the title? Well haven't you ever wanted to be a baron? When entering the realm of imagination as a child, I sometimes used to pretend that I was a noble from a far away land – until one day my long-lost family would contact me and inform me that I was in fact Baron von Ender, with a castle and a title ready for me to claim! What a grand thing that would be! After all, being a baron makes one part of a rather exclusive club. I mean seriously, there have been some great barons in the past! There was, for instance, Baron von Münchhausen, adventurer extraordinaire and teller of tall tales. Apparently his full name was Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen – a name that undoubtedly gave him an edge with many an eighteenth century damsel! And let’s not forget about the Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century - those industrial magnates who lived in true baronial style! And what about the most famous baron of them all – the WWI flying ace the Red Baron! Now there was a baron’s baron - honestly, how many times did that guy shoot Snoopy down?!

As for the game Barons, well it's a two to six player game designed by Thomas Colthurst, in which you take on the role of a baron who is trying to grow and develop the most productive barony in the realm. To accomplish this you will need to increase your land holdings, raise buildings, gather brave knights and ultimately adorn your territory with a church and a cathedral. The player who is the first to achieve the goal of constructing both a church and cathedral in their land will be declared the winner. Sound good? It is! As you can imagine, when the opportunity came along to review Barons, we practically leapt at the chance to get our hands on it. And after more than a dozen plays, it's really lived up to expectations, and even surpassed them. So let's get to the game!


A hand of cards in a game of Barons

COMPONENTS

Game box

Well this is going to be the most painful part of the review, so we might as well get this part over and done with. Remember the budget style plastic box that housed Glory to Rome? Well it's back. I think it's time to write a friendly letter to the publisher!

Dear Cambridge Games Employees,
Do you know what an intervention is? It’s when a whole bunch of people who really love you and who have a genuine concern for your future corner you in a room and then they tell you openly and honestly about how harmful your current behaviour is to your continued well-being. Well consider this an intervention. You see, we love you – we really do. You have brought us a number of wonderful games that have filled many a night with laughter and fun. For many of us Glory to Rome was the first experience we’d had with your product line. To be sure, at first we raised a quizzical eyebrow at the rather unorthodox packaging – but the game inside was so good that we not only overlooked it, but we gradually developed a bit of a soft spot for it. “Look”, we’d say to friends, “isn’t this the most remarkable game box you have ever seen?” “Isn’t it cute?” But that was then and this is now. And what we thought was a one time, quirky, counter culture choice on your part has continued on to become a real pattern of life for you. And it needs to stop. Now we know all the excuses you’ll raise about how you could quit any time you want to but you don’t because it keeps production costs down. But you know what? We want more from you! Why? Because we believe in you! We here at the Geek believe that you’ve just started to hit your stride and that the move to a real, sturdy, lovingly illustrated box will just help you become all that you have the potential to be. So take up our challenge and make games with real boxes from now on. Yes you can!
Sincerely,
Your Devoted Friends at the Geek



Typical Cambridge Games Factory packaging

Component list

Here’s what you’ll find inside:
• 6 Castle cards
• 47 Red cards (Mines)
• 47 Blue cards (Rivers)
• 47 Green cards (Forests)
• 47 Yellow cards (Pasture)
• 6 expansion cards for two-player games (Fishing Pier)
• 12 expansion cards for advanced games (3 in each colour)
• 1 Setup Reference Card
• 1 Rulebook


Everything inside the box

Decks of cards

Four cardboard deck boxes have been included with the game as a means of storing each of the four different coloured decks of cards. While the overall box in which the game was packaged may leave something to be desired, the deck boxes are a nice touch that makes setting the game up a very smooth process. You will need to sort out the cards by colour after first getting the game, but from this point on you can simply use each box for storing each of the four colours, and this really makes organization and setup of the game a breeze.


Four decks of cards

The production quality of the cards themselves is average. The cards have been nicely sized, constructed from decent enough card stock and have a nice, glossy finish to them. But the alignment of printing isn't always consistent - it doesn't detract from the game as such, but there are a few cards where the things look a little crooked, and where a thin sliver of white border is visible on the front of the card (fortunately never on the back, so there's no problems with `marked' cards). The colours are bright and cheerful, and slightly less garish than what many of us are used to from Glory to Rome - and just like in that game, the distinction between the colours is important here as well. As far as the graphics are concerned, while there is nothing exceptional about the illustrations which adorn the cards, the artwork is generally quite pleasing and appropriate to the game. In this regard I'd personally consider it a step up from Glory to Rome, even if it doesn't quite match the high standards of the latest and greatest euros emerging out of Europe.


First look at the cards from one of the decks

Castle cards

There are eight Castle cards, which feature artwork in two different styles, depending on whether you feel like being a good baron or an evil baron - not that there's any gameplay difference between the two. Each player starts with a single Castle card, which will serve as the heartland of your barony throughout the game. It represents the most secure location in your domain, and you'll be building lands and buildings around it as the game progresses. Neither your Castle, nor the cards directly adjacent to it can be attacked by those scurrilous knights that your opponents will send to raid your lands.


First look inside one of the decks

It is also worth noting that the reverse side of the castle cards also provides a helpful summary of the various phases of a players turn - we'll show you that later.

Core cards: card usage

The heart of the game lies in the rest of the cards that come with Barons. There are four different coloured decks of 47 cards each in the game, and each deck is differentiated by colour: red, yellow, green, and blue - each deck offering different cards with a different style of play. The decks are shared by all players, and as the game progresses players will draw cards into their hand (primarily by `taxation'), and use these cards in various ways. Let's show you the anatomy of a card, using the "City Wall" card as an example. At the bottom is the text indicating the effect that this card has when played. At the top left is the cost for playing this card. The icon on the top right indicates the card type - and in each deck there are several types of cards: actions, knights, special lands, and buildings - which we'll explain shortly.


Anatomy of a card

The cards in the game can have multiple uses, so let's explain the features of the cards and the three ways in which they're used:

1. Back: Lands

The first thing to notice is the artwork on the reverse side of the cards from the four decks: the red corresponds to Mines, the yellow to Pastures, the green to Forests, and the blue to Rivers. On your turn, not only can you use a card for whatever benefit is indicated by the text on the front of the card, but you can instead choose to play it face-down as one of these four types of lands. You'll use these lands for "taxation" at the end of your turn, and they're essential for helping you draw new cards of that colour.


Reverse side of the cards features four different lands

2. Front: Actions/Knights/Special Lands/Buildings

So what about the front of the cards then? Well each deck consists of 47 cards, of which there are about a dozen different cards in multiples of 3 or 6 throughout the deck. The cards are of different types, and include Action cards (marked with a `fist' icon), Knight cards (`knight' icon), Special Land cards (`mountain' icon), and Buildings (`house' icon). We'll explain the difference between each of these in a moment, but essentially these are the cards you'll be playing on your turn as buildings or knights in your growing barony, or to perform special actions.


This player can build a Fishing Pier by paying for it with another Blue card

3. Colour: Money

So how do you play cards? Well you pay the cost shown on the card, and other cards are discarded from your hand to do this - so effectively the cards themselves function as money. This mechanic is inspired by San Juan, although it's more complex here because you need to match the colour of the card cost. Some cards have their cost listed as "None", which means they are free to play. Other cards have a dual cost, in which case players can choose which cost to pay. Knights also have dual costs, but in their case paying the larger cost will give you extra benefits, as we'll explain later.


All the different types of cards for each colour (minus Churches)

Core cards: card types

Now that we know how the cards basically work, let's show you the different types of cards, and explain what they do. Most decks have at least some some cards of each different type, although this will vary according to the style of play - for example the yellow deck is more focused on actions rather than buildings, while the green deck is focused more on buildings than actions.

Action cards

Action cards have the "fist" icon on the top right. These cards are played for the one-time effect listed on the card, and are then discarded. Yellow consists almost completely of Action cards, while most of the other colours have very few (e.g. Red) or no Action cards at all (e.g. Green)!


Sample Action cards

Knight cards

Knight cards have the "knight" icon on the top right. They can be used in two ways: either (a) to attack and destroy a card from your opponent's barony; or (b) to defend your own adjacent cards by being placed permanently in your own barony. If the higher cost is paid, knights can be used to attack and defend. Each colour has exactly three different knights, all of which have their own unique abilities in addition to attacking or defending.


Sample Knight cards

Special Land cards

Special land cards have the "mountain" icon on the top right. Each colour has one such "dual" land, which when played will enable a player to tax either of two colours, instead of just one colour like regular lands. There's even one special land (Abundant Isle) which enables players to tax any of the four colours. These are effectively "wild" cards that make your method of drawing cards by taxation more flexible.


The four `dual' Lands

Building cards

Building cards have the "house" icon on the top right. These are placed into your barony so that you can benefit permanently from the special effect or ability granted by that building. Some of the buildings also have `activated abilities', which can be activated once in the first phase of each turn.


Sample Building cards

Church/Cathedral cards

These are actually building cards, and can be used to build either a Church or a Cathedral - simply flip them to the building you need. Each of the four colours has exactly five Churches/Cathedrals in the deck. They represent the win condition for the game - first you need to build a Church, and then a Cathedral, which ends the game.


Church/Cathedral cards in each colour

It's worth noting that because the cards in each deck are different, each coloured deck has its own relative strengths, weaknesses, and theme. The red deck for instance represents mines and technological developments that will increase the productive capacity of your barony. Blue, however, is the colour of rivers, trade and religion and it focuses on flexibility and interaction. By contrast, green is the colour of massive trampling beasts – oops sorry, different card game! In Barons, green is the colour of forests and towns and it focuses on the development of infrastructure and diversity. Finally, yellow is the colour of pastures and peasants and it focuses on actions and synergy with other cards. The concept behind this will be familiar to people who have played Magic the Gathering, and I'm pleased to say it's been implemented very well in Barons, even though it's a totally different game. If you are interested in reading a more in-depth assessment of the various characteristics and themes of these decks then check out this article:

mb Strategy Notes: The relative strengths & weaknesses of each colour.

Additional cards

There are a few additional cards which should be removed from the game the first time you play. The six "Fishing Pier" cards (Blue building cards) replace the "Market" cards (also Blue buildings) in two player games, while the 12 expansion cards enhance the gameplay slightly and should only be added when you're sufficiently experienced with the basic mechanics of the game. We'll get to explaining all these later.

For a complete inventory and visual spoiler of all the different types of cards in the game, see these threads:

mb Complete card inventory (arranged by colour)
mb Complete visual spoiler (arranged by colour)


All the unique cards in the game (view images full size to see detail)

Rules

We are pleased to report that the rules for Barons have been very well written and laid out. They are clear, concise and should allow you to be up and playing quickly. The rules clearly illustrate the anatomy of the cards and explain all of the iconography that you will need to know. In addition to the rules themselves, a number of helpful sections have been included towards the end of the booklet. There are a few helpful suggestions on strategy. There’s also an FAQ that deals with a few obvious questions that new players might have. Finally there is also an appendix that lists all of the cards in the game and offers a brief explanation clarifying how each particular card functions. Overall, the rules are very well done, and not at all difficult to grasp.


Rulebook cover and sample page

GAME-PLAY

Set-up

Alright then how do you get this bad boy on the table and ready to play? It's worth knowing that all of the setup information is conveniently located on the back of the large cardboard card that also serves as the game’s cover.


Setup reference card

So first be sure to take out the 12 expansion cards until you've played several times (don't play smart and play with them in your first game!). And if you're playing with 3 or more players, remove the Fishing Pier cards (they replace the Market if you're playing with just 2 players).

Now each player should grab themselves a Castle card (if only getting a real castle was so easy!) and place it on the table in front of them. You are going to need some table space for this game as your barony is going to grow over time and you will need to keep it separate from the baronies of your fellow players – so make sure that you’ve got some room to work with.

Now shuffle each of the four coloured decks, and place them separately in a convenient location on the table. Each player should now take one card from each colour and place it face down so that it matches the coloured edges of their castle card, i.e. the blue card will go on top edge, the red card on the bottom edge, and so on. Your barony does start with some lands, after all!


A starting barony with an initial hand of Yellow

Finally, each player will draw three cards from one deck of their choice, and then simultaneously discard one of those cards of their choice - the person who discarded the card whose title is alphabetically first becomes the starting player. As such, everyone will begin the game with a starting hand of two cards of the same colour. You will eventually branch out into other colours, but the colour you begin the game with will determine your initial strategy.

You are now ready to begin building your barony!


Complete setup for a two player game

Flow of Play

Players will take turns in order, and each turn is comprised of the following three phases:
1. Play actions and knights and activate buildings
2. Play one land or building
3. Taxation

The back of the Castle cards has a handy overview of these steps, which can be helpful for new players to consult during the game.


Turn order reference on reverse of player Castle card

Let's say something about each of these phases and the possibilities that are open to you on your turn.

• 1. Play Actions and Knights, and Activate Buildings

In the first phase of your turn you will be able to play any number of actions cards and knight cards from your hand, and you may also use any activated abilities that are afforded you by the various buildings in your barony.

Action cards

Let’s start by explaining action cards - which as you recall can be identified by the fist icon located in the upper right corner of the card. To play an action card and to receive its effect you will need to be able to pay the cost which is indicated in the upper left hand corner of the card. Then you may carry out the action that is listed as the card text.

Examples of some of the Action cards in the game include Bountiful Harvest (which lets you get extra income from taxation that turn), Papal Decree (which lets you tax another players barony that turn), Famine (which forces players to discard cards if they don't have a Mill), and Population Boom (which allows playing an extra land that turn). Some of them - like Tithe - can be brutal when played at just the right moment! Awesome fun, as long as you're the one playing the card! But most of the action cards help you build up your barony quicker or more efficiently in one way or another - they all have their uses in different situations and at different points of the game.


Shall we cause a Famine?

Knight cards

You may also play any number of knights during the first phase of your turn. Knights you say – sign me up! But how can I identify these mighty men of valour? Well if you were paying attention to our overview of the components, you'll remember that these fellows can be identified via the solider icon located in the top right-hand corner of the card. Great, you say, but what can they do for me? Well, the knight cards represent the warriors you’ve recruited to fight under you as a mighty feudal lord and these knights can be used to: attack your opponent’s lands, defend your own territories, or (if you play your cards right) to perform both of these actions. So, how do you make that happen?

Well, if you take a close look at one of these knight cards you’ll find that there are two costs indicated in the top left hand corner of the card – one of which is strictly greater then the other. When playing a Knight, you have the option of choosing whether you wish to pay the greater or the lesser cost (as usual paying for this by discarding cards of the appropriate colour). If you choose to pay the lesser cost you would then have to choose whether your knight would attack or defend; if you choose to pay the greater cost, your knight would attack and defend.


The three red Knights

So what is this attacking and defending of which we speak?

a) Using a knight to attack means that you execute an attack on one of your opponent’s unprotected cards. An attacking knight may only attack an unprotected card in an opponent’s barony. An unprotected card is defined as any card that is: (a) not directly adjacent to a castle or to a defending knight, or (b) not completely surrounded by adjacent cards. In Barons, cards are considered to be adjacent to each other if they share an edge with each other - diagonals do not count in this respect. Knights are also unable to directly attack Churches or Castles. In most cases you'll use an attacking knight to remove a particularly useful building or land that your opponent may be relying on, or even to disconnect valuable cards from the Castle, and thus render them temporarily ineffective (since cards must be connected to their Castle by a sequence of adjacent cards in order to use their abilities). After a successful attack, you discard the knight - unless you've played the greater cost and can also use it to defend.

b) Using a knight to defend means that you place that knight into your barony permanently as a defender. This protects adjacent cards (not diagonals) from being attacked by opponents' knights. In terms of defense, while knights are unable to defend themselves against attack, two knights positioned adjacent to one another can protect each other.

It's worth noting that each of the knights also has a unique ability that you'll want to capitalize on. For example, the Conquering Knight lets you put an opponent's building into your hand when you attack it, the Holy Knight lets you build Churches/Cathedrals at a -1 cost, the Commanding Knight lets you play other knights at a -1 cost, and the Questing Knight lets you draw a card when you play another knight at the higher cost.


Example illustrating possibilities for legal attack (cards marked in orange)

Activated abilities of buildings

During the first phase you also have to option to activate any abilities that the various buildings in your barony might possess. Buildings that allow a once per turn activation can be identified by the house shaped icon with a fist superimposed on it in the text box of the card. For example, consider the Monastery: once you have built the Monastery in your barony, once per turn during the first phase you can discard a card, view the top four cards of that color deck and keep one.


The Monastery and the Port both have activated abilities

Well that’s phase one of your turn – but before moving on to describe phase two we need to make one final comment. Make sure that you play all of the actions and knights and activated abilities that you want to (in the order of your choice) during this phase! Once you have made the decision to move on to phase two you aren’t allowed to go back and play any further knights, actions or activated abilities!

• 2. Play one Land or Building

During phase two you will have the opportunity to play at most one land or one building in your barony. There are cards and abilities that will let you break this rule from time to time, but in general it's only one or the other, so at most you'll be increasing the size of your barony by only one card.

Playing a land

Let’s start with land. If you know anything about medieval and early modern history you know that land was for centuries the foundation of wealth in Western Europe. Well, the same thing holds true in Barons. You are going to need to increase the territorial base of your barony as the game progresses (we’ll say more about why when we get to the issue of taxation in phase three) and you do that by playing land cards during this phase of the turn. The usual way that this happens is that you place any card from your hand face down into your barony, as long as it is connected (via the rules of adjacency) to your Castle. In most cases it makes sense to place this new land adjacent to an existing land of the same colour, to increase the power of your taxation. There are also several special lands in each deck (marked with the mountain icon), such as the Alpine Woods. These `dual' lands are more useful for taxing because they count as lands of multiple types, so when they are played into your barony face-up, you need to pay the appropriate cost marked on the card, just as you would pay for any other card.

Playing a building

During phase two you can also choose to play a building card. To play a building card you would first need to pay its cost (paying for it by discarding the required cards of the appropriate colours) and then placing it in your barony so that it is connected to your Castle. Note that you can never have two face-up cards of the same name in your barony, which means that you cannot have more than one of the same knight or building. Buildings are tremendously useful - buildings like the Toll Bridge and Forge increase your possibilities for taxation, buildings like the Mason's Lodge enable you to build as many buildings as you wish on your turn as well as playing a land, while the Guildhall reduces the cost of your buildings by 1 - wow! I think you can already start to see the possibilities for synergy and crazy combos here!


The amazing Toll Bridge, powered further by a Forge

• 3. Taxation

This is the final phase of your turn. Now let’s be honest, any baron worth his (or her) salt is going to expect to be supported by those lowly peasants who live on the land he protects! And that’s just what you're gonna do now! During this phase you choose one colour of land in your barony (unless you have played a card that specifically allows you to do otherwise) and you may tax up to four lands of that colour, so long as they are connected to each other and to your castle via the rules of adjacency. For each card in the region you tax (up to a maximum of four, although this increases to a maximum of five after you've built a Church) you may draw one card from the deck that matches the colour of the lands you taxed. Note that the special lands which can produce multiple colours count only once, for whichever colour you choose to tax it that turn. Taxation is a critical part of the game because this is how you are going to both refill your hand and draw the necessary cards to discard to pay for your Church and Cathedral, as well as the Church/Cathedral card itself.


This player could tax 2 green, 3 red, 3 blue, or 4 yellow

Winning the Game

So how do you win this game and become the greatest baron in the land? Simple: build a Church, then a Cathedral - in that order. It's that simple: you win by being the first player to build both a Church, and subsequently a Cathedral in your barony. Now there are exactly five Church/Cathedral cards in each of the four decks, so first you'll need to get one of these into your hand. Building a Church requires you to discard one card of each colour, so you'll also need to have used taxation effectively (or perhaps cycled cards in other ways) to make sure you've got the cards you need to pay for your Church. Once you've built a Church, you're required to discard any remaining cards in your hand, and now you can set about trying to build a Cathedral. This is even harder to build, because it comes at an even higher cost: you'll need to discard two cards of each colour in order to build it! An additional requirement is that your Church must be connected to your Castle via the rules of adjacency when you build your Cathedral (now there's a strategy tip to remember - disconnecting an opponent's Church from his Castle can be one way of keeping him from winning!) The first player to construct their Cathedral is winner! Much of the game is about trying to establish a productive barony, so you can get the cards in hand you need to build a Church, and later a Cathedral, and finding a way to do this efficiently and quickly.


A winning barony with a completed Cathedral

Two Player rules

For a two player game, you’ll need to do a little deck adjustment to the blue deck. Simply remove the six Market cards out of the deck, and replace them with the six Fishing Pier cards. Aside from this the two-player game is played in the same way as a multi-player game. It is quite satisfying - Knight cards become more powerful, but you also don't have other players to help you if there is a runaway leader!


Replacing the Market with a Fishing Pier for the two player game

Expansion cards

The game comes with 12 expansion cards, three of each of the following cards: Usurp the Throne (red action), Crop Rotation (yellow action), Stables (green building), and Garden (blue building). These cards are simply add some variety and additional challenge to the game for experienced players. The Usurp the Throne card is particularly interesting, because it adds an alternate win condition ("If you have at least 1 knight of each colour and at least 10 lands, then you win the game"), much like the Forum in Glory to Rome.


The four different expansion cards

Examples of Strategy and Gameplay

Would you like to get a sense of how some cards might come together in an actual barony? I've posted several strategy threads on baronies from real games, along with some strategic analysis, observations, and discussion. Check out some of these articles here to get a feel of how cards in a barony relate together, and how you might try to build up combinations within various colours:

mb Let's Talk About A Barony #1: Can man live by red and green alone? (A Strategy Discussion)
mb Let's Talk About A Barony #2: Can man build churches on land taxes alone? (A Strategy Discussion)
mb Let's Talk About A Barony #3: Feeling blue about not finding that cathedral card? (A Strategy Discussion)
mb Let's Talk About A Barony #4: Feeling out-colored and out-classed? (A Strategy Discussion)

The varied styles of the four colours are a particularly interesting feature of the game, and the effect of this in giving different strategic possibilities is significant. In that regard the game is well-balanced, and has the benefit of extensively play-testing - no surprise given that the designer first came up with the concept in 2004, and that it's been under development ever since. The influence of games like Magic the Gathering and San Juan is notable in this regard - don't miss the designer's own account of the game's history in this article:

mb A Brief History of Barons


A solid barony with some powerful buildings

CONCLUSIONS

What do we think?

• It's a winner! Folks, this game is the real deal. In fact, I can't remember being this excited about a card game since the release of Innovation last year! It's lighter than both of the popular games by Carl Chudyk, but what it shares with them is that it has something innovative about it, something that we haven't quite seen before. It's not just a blend of familiar mechanics, but it does enough things different enough so as to make it stand out from anything I've played before.

• Glory to Rome Lite? A number of folks on the Geek have wondered if Barons is really Glory to Rome Lite – is this the case? Well the games certainly do have similarities in so far as they both have cards which can be used in different ways and combined together to generate different combos. They also share the same publisher, and feature similar production values. Beyond that, however, the games really are different beasts. Perhaps the strongest difference between Barons and Glory to Rome is that Barons has a more linear and simple end game condition, in that the first player to build a Cathedral is a winner. Expecting Barons to be of similar weight to Glory to Rome would probably do it a disservice - it certainly is strategic and very replayable, but I'd consider the lighter of the two. All in all this game very much stands on its own and yet offers real tactical and strategic choices that make it meaningful and satisfying to play.

Have Your Cake and Eat It Too!: One of the best things about Barons is that the rules are so simple and accessible – without stripping the game of meaningful decisions or depriving it of tactical and strategic depth. There are genuinely tough decisions to be made in terms of timing and card play, especially this question which you'll face on almost every turn: do I play this card as a building or use it as a land? A building costs more in the short term, but could give long term benefits. And do I dare to wait to go after my opponent in order to build up my own infrastructure, or am I just giving them the one extra turn they need to pull off a win? When you add these tough decisions about timing to the genuinely differences in character and play that each colour has then you have a game that rewards repeated play and experience. It's simple and yet deep enough to provide tension and tough choices – that’s a winning formula for sure!

Different Tastes to Try: A big part of the beauty of Barons lies in the unique abilities of the cards, and particularly the unique style of each colour. The different colours all offer different benefits, and the colour you choose to begin the game with will have a significant impact on how you develop your strategic and tactical choices. To be sure, in the end you'll need to have cards of all four colours in your hand in order to build the coveted Church and Cathedral - but there are varied ways of getting there. The game forces players to try different strategies, simply by virtue of the colour they begin the game with. Do you begin with Red, with its strength in building up production, and then branch into Green with its strength in synergistic buildings? Or do you branch into Yellow with its strength in action cards? Or perhaps even begin with Yellow and branch into Green? Each game will feel very differently depending on which path you choose, and this makes the game very replayable and satisfying, particularly as you discover different combinations and possibilities with the cards, and try different approaches. Certain cards may seem less useful to you in the first few games, but don't judge too hastily - over time we've come to see the value and role of cards that initially we thought were duds!

I'm Not Just Playing Once!: The sheer variety inherent in the game design encourages replayability, but this is strengthened by how quickly it can be played. There's enough substance to make it something to come back to, and yet the game itself plays very quickly - as a result you'll nearly always find yourself playing games back-to-back. Once you're familiar with the gameplay and cards (which only takes a couple of games, really), you'll be able to whip off a 2-3 player game in little more than 30 minutes, and certainly in well under an hour.

• High Degree of Interaction: Well, there are Knights, remember, and in this game they're not always chivalrous! There is no doubt that this is a game that can involve a great deal of player interaction and to some extent it can be a little bit frustrating to see your hard work destroyed by a well played knight from your opponent. Admittedly this direct confrontation is not the heart of the game, so those who find this kind of thing hard to stomach shouldn't avoid it too quickly for this reason. In fact, you can even ignore your opponents to some extent, playing knights only as defenders if you wish. Yet as you become familiar with the game, you'll come to see that the kind of interaction afforded by the knights is also an important balancing mechanism, especially in multiplayer games, where it is essential for everyone at the table to keep an eye on who is in a position to win the game, and perhaps even combine their aggression in order to disconnect his Church from his Castle, or find some other way to cause havoc with his hand. I've seen some comments suggesting that the game is a boring race to build a Cathedral once players have built a Church, and to some extent I initially thought the same, but with the benefit of more plays I've come to appreciate the subtle nuances and importance of interaction through Knight attack and defense as a balancing mechanism, and as a way of reining in a potentially runaway leader.

• Like the Baron's Port, It Improves with Age: The game certainly is approachable, and we've had success in introducing it to players with varying experience with modern games. While you can be enjoying the game from the outset, there is somewhat of a learning curve, not so much in terms of the rules, but in terms of developing strategies and even appreciating aspects of the game. The first time we learned the game, we were largely occupied with figuring out how the game worked, and focused on building up our own baronies. It went by quickly, and everyone immediately wanted to play again - by then it had clicked, and our second game was fantastic! And the more you play, the better it gets, especially as you start experimenting with ways to interact with other players! Initially you may find it somewhat frustrating to play lands, because you have a hand of cards that all seem useful, and you want to play all of them as actions or buildings. But you soon realize the importance of first building up a land-based economy, and also of being selective - and here's where we can learn from Glory to Rome - sometimes you need to be prepared to give up cards in order to pay for others. Over the course of the game you'll likely not be having a huge amount of buildings, so you'll need to make your choices carefully. Then as you become more experienced with the game and the unique abilities of the cards, you start experimenting by starting with different colours, which changes your strategy totally. And then you try experimenting by building your strategy around particular buildings, for example the Port which lets you trade into cards from other colours, The Outpost which lets you quickly ramp up your production in a single colour, or The Toll Bridge which lets you try multiple colours. Add to that the interaction between players, and it's not something you'll feel you've played out in a hurry - as long as you're prepared to give it a chance and not judge it too quickly after just one or two plays, because there's more to the game than will be evident from first impressions.

• The Race is On!: To some extent the trajectory of the game feels like a race: first you build up somewhat of a land base, perhaps using actions or buildings to do so, then you try to set yourself up to build a Church, and finally the game-winning Cathedral. Sometimes games will turn into a real race, as players are trying to draw the field colours they need, or the Cathedral card they need. But even then there's still always tension, because even the player who has built up the strongest economic system might not draw the Cathedral he needs to win; or for that matter, his opponents might spoke his wheel and interfere with his plans, giving another player a chance to pull off a sneaky win.

Is it a good game? Absolutely - I can even see it enjoying the same level of success as Innovation, and possibly making a run at getting into the BGG Top 200.



Recommendation

So is Barons the kind of game for you? Well if you are looking for a game that’s easy to learn and teach, yet fun to play while remaining satisfying and strategic, then Barons is for you. There's a sense of building up a personal empire of lands and buildings using cards drawn from common decks, while all the while your opponents are actively working to hinder you in your efforts. In the process, there's the real pleasure of finding combinations and interactions between the cards that you play, and trying to optimize what you have on the table and in hand. Overall, Barons is fun, relatively quick and very satisfying game that should find a welcome place in the collection of many a Geek! It's not Glory to Rome, but when judged on its own merits, it's yet another impressive and strategic card game from Cambridge Games Factory. There's good reason to expect it to be hailed as one of the best new card games of 2011. A big welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Glory to Rome's little brother.



Credits: This review is a collaborative effort between EndersGame and jtemple.

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mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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Stefano Castelli
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Re: A Comprehensive Pictorial Overview: It's not Glory to Rome, but it's easily one of the best strategy card games of 2011!
Best-reviewer-on-BGG.

Period.
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Another Impressive Review!

Thanks for all the time you put into your reviews. I am pretty sure I know everything there is to know about this game.

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Great review! You do it like no other.

Any comment on the scalability of the game from 2 players to 6 players?
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is it ridiculous that i can't imagine myself playing this game if for no other reason than the card background colours? i understand that the game needs 4 different card colours, but to use the brightest, most rudimentary colours imaginable is just so aesthetically repulsive it makes me cringe. at least with this game, as opposed to Glory to Rome, i think the artwork is quite good. i find it attractive and that it adds a lot to the game's overall feel, but i can't even appreciate it while i'm being blinded by the background. i understand that this a a personal preference, and not everyone will agree with me, but i just think it's important that the publisher knows that they're pushing away potential fans by some of their budget choices (like the plastic box you mention in the review).
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Andy Andersen
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I bow to your reviewing talent, sir. Wallet, prepare to say goodbye to some more green (remember, the offending party's name is Ender).
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Greyrocks wrote:
is it ridiculous that i can't imagine myself playing this game if for no other reason than the card background colours? i understand that the game needs 4 different card colours, but to use the brightest, most rudimentary colours imaginable is just so aesthetically repulsive it makes me cringe.


Agreed, I got a headache just looking at the photos. Why did they do that with the colors? shake
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cykwong wrote:
Any comment on the scalability of the game from 2 players to 6 players?

Scalability: Good question, thanks for asking. I've played with 2, 3 and 4 players, and all are good.

2 players: The level of interaction here is less, simply because there are less players to mess with your plans, which does mean that it can be harder to stop a runaway leader. Sometimes it can be obvious that your opponent is going to win the game, and there's little you can do about it - at least with more players others can perhaps help hinder a potential winner. I've seen some early criticisms that after one player builds a Church, the game is largely over, and it's just a matter of time as he lays down further lands and taxes and then builds his Cathedral. I think this criticism is somewhat unjustified, but if it does have any validity it would be in a two player game, where the ending can be somewhat anti-climactic for this reason - this seems less so in games with more players. On the other hand, however, knights are more powerful in a two-player game - in games with more players, attacking an opponent leaves the other players unaffected, but that's not the case when playing with just two. For more on that, see the discussion here: On the usefulness of Knights: comparing their value with Buildings, and whether they are stronger in two-player games
The advantage of a two player game is that it plays the quickest, and for the short time it takes to play it's still very good.

3-4 players: What I like about games with 3-4 players is the increased interaction. There's more chance you'll be affected by cards like Famine or Tithe or King's Tax, simply because there's more opponents to play them! Furthermore, everyone will be watching to see who is the potential leader, and this person can become somewhat of a target, especially with knights. I see this as an inbuilt self-balancing mechanism determined by the players, and it's a lot of fun, and helps keep everyone in the game. Some of the most fun games I've played have been with 3-4 players, and when someone did build the Cathedral to win, the other players were usually not far behind, so games were usually quite close.

5-6 players: I've not played with this many players, but I'd be a bit concerned about the potential for down time between turns. The game does flow fairly quickly once you're familiar with it, so usually turns move smoothly and don't take up much time. On your turn, all you do is: you might play an action or knight, then a land or building, then draw cards and your turn is over - and often you can plan what you'll do on other players' turns. So maybe it would work okay if everyone kept the game flowing, but I wouldn't try with this amount of players until everyone is experienced with the game and can play quickly. Certainly the level of interaction could prove interesting and fun - but don't try learning the game with this many players!

So after about a dozen plays, I'd be inclined to suggest that the game is a good game with two players, best with 3-4 players, and probably decent with 5-6 players (but only those with experience).
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someotherguy wrote:
Whoever did the graphic design for this game and Glory to Rome should never design anything ever again. It's almost impressive how visually off-putting these games are.


Agreed. After seeing how GtR's graphic design and packaging was received, why go back to the same well for Barons? Setting aside the art and graphical style, which I don't like but recognize as being a matter of taste, the card colors are indefensible.

This falls into the same category as GtR for me: sounds interesting, and it might well be a great game (I suspect I'd love GtR), but I already have a ton of great games that look much, much better -- why do I need one that looks terrible?

/rant

Ender, your review was superb (as they always are)!
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An excellent review as always, Ender.

A quick question on sending knights to attack. Are they auto-wins?

i.e. Does a knight attacking an opponents unprotected land/building automatically remove it from their fiefdom?
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Pallet Ranger wrote:
A quick question on sending knights to attack. Are they auto-wins?

i.e. Does a knight attacking an opponents unprotected land/building automatically remove it from their fiefdom?

Yes, that's correct - if you can legally attack an unprotected building or land, it must be destroyed/discarded.

The only way to protect buildings/lands from attack is to place them adjacent to your castle or adjacent to a defensive knight.
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Great review!! I'm really intrigued by the game!

Greyrocks wrote:
is it ridiculous that i can't imagine myself playing this game if for no other reason than the card background colours? i understand that the game needs 4 different card colours, but to use the brightest, most rudimentary colours imaginable is just so aesthetically repulsive it makes me cringe.


Yeah, this game might be the best card game in the world, but I know I will NEVER make my wife play this game after she's seen the cards in all their ugliness

P.S.: Games that already failed the wife's aesthetic-test: London, Rise of Epires, Age of Industry (actually, all Wallace games we've tried so far), Origins: How We Became Human, Innovation.... the list goes on.
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EndersGame wrote:
The only way to protect buildings/lands from attack is to place them adjacent to your castle or adjacent to a defensive knight.


Or surround them with four other buildings or lands.
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Very good review, as always...

It kinda reminds me of John Clowdus' Irondale: http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/63829/irondale
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Greyrocks wrote:
is it ridiculous that i can't imagine myself playing this game if for no other reason than the card background colours? i understand that the game needs 4 different card colours, but to use the brightest, most rudimentary colours imaginable is just so aesthetically repulsive it makes me cringe. at least with this game, as opposed to Glory to Rome, i think the artwork is quite good. i find it attractive and that it adds a lot to the game's overall feel, but i can't even appreciate it while i'm being blinded by the background. i understand that this a a personal preference, and not everyone will agree with me, but i just think it's important that the publisher knows that they're pushing away potential fans by some of their budget choices (like the plastic box you mention in the review).

I hear what you're saying. But to be fair, perhaps my pictures don't entirely do justice to the impact of aesthetics of a complete game on the table, and might make things appear more garish than they really are. The people I've played this with and introduced it to didn't make any negative comments about the colours or artwork - unless perhaps they were so enchanted by the gameplay that they were too dazzled to even notice? [chuckle] Without detracting from the points made, I hope folks will still give Barons a chance - even if you're not entirely keen on what you're seeing here, perhaps you won't find it that bad when you've got the cards in hand and on the table.

And haven't we heard this before? I remember similar comments being made about Glory to Rome. Many people who passed up on it initially, eventually came to regret it when the game went out of print, and even to love and appreciate it, despite the quirks of the artwork. If you let the art or colours get in the way of enjoying the game, well, you're the one missing out! [grin] Have a read of the comments right here:

"All right, I'll play if I HAVE to." - Games You Heard About, Wrote Off As Not Being of Interest to You, and Then Wound up Playing and Liking Beyond Your Expectations: Glory to Rome

I'd rather have games with good gameplay and poor aesthetics than games with good aesthetics and poor gameplay, and Cambridge Games Factory is certainly doing something right by bringing us solid games like Glory to Rome and Barons. My impression is that they are a very small and growing publisher, and perhaps this kind of feedback will encourage them take them to the next level with their future products, riding on the strength of strong game designs like these.
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Having important colors in primary shades is a bit jarring. That said, it can also make game play much easier for people with certain forms of color blindness.

The art is alright, but a bit bland for my taste. I actually prefered the more cartoonish style in Glory to Rome!
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I have been critical of some of your reviews in the past, but you have really outdone yourself this time. Bravo!
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I'm trying to figure how one could have been critical of Enders game reviews??
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Looking forward to this one. Thank you for the outstanding review!
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Wow, what a review! surprise
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Spirit of 70 wrote:
The art is alright, but a bit bland for my taste. I actually prefered the more cartoonish style in Glory to Rome!

I think they are trying to compete with GMT for stylish art!

Nice work, Enders, this is now on my radar.
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This was a rather intense review... but absolutely amazing!!! Thank you so much for the in depth look into this game.
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Orangemoose wrote:
I'm trying to figure how one could have been critical of Enders game reviews??


Some of his reviews have, particularly of the longer and more complicated games, have indicated that he had not actually played game and showed a surprising lack of opinion of the game. If I am reading a review, I would like to know what the reviewer thinks of it. Sometimes Ender does not do that. This review he clearly does though, and its obvious he has played it a bit, especially based on his strategy articles.
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So you can tell if he's played a game or not by reading a review? If you can predict like that, please tell me where the stock market is going in the next 6 months.In my mind (granted, a shallow one) a good review tells me about game play. Although I enjoy Ender's opinion, I'd rather have the game play explained.
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Orangemoose wrote:
So you can tell if he's played a game or not by reading a review? If you can predict like that, please tell me where the stock market is going in the next 6 months.In my mind (granted, a shallow one) a good review tells me about game play. Although I enjoy Ender's opinion, I'd rather have the game play explained.


I don’t see how being able to predict the stock market has anything to do with being able to identify if someone has played a game or not by reading their review. And really the item that I found indicative was simply not providing an opinion of the game itself. I personally only care a little bit about whether a review explains game play. If I want to get an idea of how a game plays, I can read the rules. I care about analysis and opinion. If a review doesn’t have analysis and opinion it isn’t really a review as they aren't really reviewing anything, but merely presenting an overview. This is valuable, particular with all the work Ender puts into it, but it is not a review.
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