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Review: Barcelona: The Rose of Fire

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An ancient city, bursting at the seams. Fortune and wealth has found you, but what is money if you can’t flaunt it? The old city walls have been taken down to make room for expansion. Now is your chance to show the world what true wealth is. Every corner in this growing city will have buildings with your name on it. These buildings will be the talk of the town. They’ll live on for generations. However, the growing prosperity attracts all kinds. People are swarming to the get their own piece of the pie. There are rumblings in the street that you’re ignoring the needs of the common man, building housing that only the rich can even dream of having. It’s just another thing to keep in mind the as you expand the city of Barcelona: The Rose of Fire.

How it Plays

As the decision maker in an influential family, it is your goal to grow your wealth by constructing buildings while balancing the social unrest of the new immigrant population. The game is divided into five phases in which players take turns playing action cards and constructing buildings. There are three scoring periods in the game in which players will gain victory based on the type of buildings they’ve constructed. Whoever can collect the most points by game’s end is the victor.

Every phase, players will have four action cards to play. Every card shows the color and building types that can be constructed when played. When you play a card, you take a tile of the indicated color and place it next to an existing tile of the same color. Then you place a building of your color on that tile. There are four types of buildings in the game. Low class buildings can house more workers, but are worth the least points. The highest class building can only house one worker but is worth the most points and awards you influence with the elite. If you’re newly constructed building cannot house the incoming population, the unhoused workers go on strike.

Workers that cannot be housed go on strike and are placed on the board. If you place too many striking workers, some of them will go to the barricades.

At the end of the phase, all the striking workers are placed in a bag along with a number of soldiers. Tokens are then drawn from the bag and added to the barricades. Then players will lose prestige equal to the amount of workers they now have in the barricades and four more action cards are doled out for the next phase.

If it’s a scoring phase, players will get victory points for the buildings they’ve constructed. All scored buildings are removed from the board so that each building can only be scored once.

Buildings will score if they are part of a 2×2 block. Any buildings not part of a block at the end of the game award only 1 point each.

By Any Other Name

Barcelona: The Rose of Fire attempts to capture the tension that occurred during the real world expansion of the city. The rising middle and upper classes attracted immigrants looking for a better opportunity. Every action you take has to be balanced between pleasing the masses or the elite. This tension shows itself in a few ways.

The concept of prestige generally measures how well a player has taken care of the masses. You can earn prestige when completing a block and can earn more prestige if using lower class buildings. You lose prestige during the rebellion stage at the end of each phase. By building higher class buildings, you’ll have more striking workers and a higher chance to lose prestige. Whoever has the most prestige at the end of a phase will take the Prestige Card as one of their action cards. This card, when played, will award immediate victory points as well as a more powerful build action. Whoever has the most workers in the barricades will not only lose the most prestige, they’ll also take the Labor Strike care for one of their actions. This card, when played, does nothing and you essentially lose that turn. It’s harsh, but keep in mind that even though you’ve lost prestige and a turn, it was the result of you building high class buildings and you’ll be rewarded with lots of victory points when scoring.

The prestige track has a comic strip on it.

The tension comes from deciding to collect more powerful cards now to empower your actions later at the cost of taking victory points earlier in the game. The hope is that you’ll make up the difference later. Or you might like the view from the ivory tower and let the masses fend for themselves. You’ll take the prestige hit if it means winning. It’s an enjoyable tension because it’s mostly player driven. It doesn’t matter how much prestige you have, only that you have more than everyone else. If the other players are playing conservatively and pushing the prestige track hard, it’s might be worth tanking your position and building those high point cards while everyone else is jockeying for position. Of course there’s always anarchy to keep in mind.

There are 3 types of action cards in the game. City cards are the standard ones . Popularity cards are given to the players who have the most buildings of a given type in each district except the highest class buildings. These cards generally have an effect in addition to allowing you to construct buildings. The Prestige cards are the most powerful and is given to the player with the most prestige.

Near the bottom of the board is the social unrest track. This measures the overall feelings of the general population. Whenever a player builds a high class building or a soldier is drawn from the bag in the rebellion, the social unrest is increased. When the social unrest reaches certain milestones on the track there are some ramifications which I’ll get into in just a bit, but the real interesting part is when it reaches the end. If a soldier is drawn from the back while the unrest is at the end of the track anarchy reigns. The general population has become fed up with your elitist ways and turn everything upside down, literally. Now for the remainder of the game, scoring of the buildings is reversed. Low class buildings will score you four points and the highest class buildings only one.

This idea works so well because, again, it’s mostly player driven. Drawn soldiers add an element of randomness to the increasing unrest, but the number of soldiers put in the bag is dictated by how many workers players put in the barricades before the rebellion. Mostly, it’s driven by player greed and the desire to get those high value, high class buildings out. Every time the highest class building is built, the social unrest tracker is moved up one space. In addition to scoring you the most victory points, you also get rewarded with influence tokens. These tokens represent the respect and sway you’ve earned from the elite class and can be used to bolster certain actions. However, if you collect enough of them, you can turn them in for an influence tile. These tiles can be worth a lot of points. Can being the operative word.

Remember those milestones on the unrest track? When the unrest reaches certain thresholds, influence tiles will be become unavailable to claim. The elites are becoming wary of the rising social discord and close themselves off to new relationships. That means you want to collect those tiles as soon as you can otherwise you might miss out. Even better, once anarchy begins all tiles are removed from the game, even those already claimed by players. Since they only score at the end of the game, it can be quite the blow if you’ve been pandering to the one percent the entire time.

The social unrest track is symbolized by a bomb which is apt considering how disruptive it can be.

Barcelona it at its best when players can assess the overall state of the board and have a good feeling of how hard they should or shouldn’t push the social unrest. Understanding how anarchy can affect the scoring of what’s on the board can lead to some devilish play. If you see that your opponents are too busing rubbing elbows with the uber rich, you might start building lots of low class buildings and tip the scales towards anarchy yourself in order to capitalize on the scoring inversion. It’s a multiplayer game of chicken, pushing the game to the limits with the idea to bail before the crash. This does mean that Barcelona really starts to shine and open up once players are familiar with it and have a few games under their belt. When there’s no threat of anarchy and players play entirely too conservatively, the tension dissipates and Barcelona can be a bit of a bore. I don’t fault the game, however, because it puts the onus on the players. When it happens, you’ve got no one to blame but yourselves.

You might have noticed that I didn’t expound on the actual building aspect of the game very much. That’s because it’s the least interesting part of the game. It’s fine, if a bit repetitive. The cards you get are generally flexible enough that you rarely like you can’t do anything, especially the popularity and prestige cards. But there’s nothing really new here. The board can get a little crowded towards the end of the game, but I always felt there was somewhere I could play. The city building sets the backdrop for the fascinating social unrest dynamic.

Barcelona: The Rose of Fire is a handsome production to say the least.

Conclusion

Not too long ago, I took a look at Forged in Steel and in a lot of ways I was reminded of it when playing Barcelona. They are both games rooted in history that use cards to build out cities (Pueblo and Barcelona) during economic booms where the immigration rate is a concern. Playing this game made me appreciate how well Forged in Steel executed on its card driven city building system. Ultimately, I bounced off of Forged in Steel because of propensity for players to attack each other on the regular. Barcelona is more passive aggressive in nature. The confrontation mostly comes in the form of manipulating the prestige and social unrest tracks. Any progress you’ve accomplished on the board is rarely attacked directly.

Barcelona succeeds in making me care about a particular place and time. When I play, I’m concerned with with balancing my greed and the need to provide for the masses and not incur their wrath. My intentions are still to win the game so it’s not quite empathy that I feel, but I do pause to think about the ramifications of my actions from time to time. And that’s really something considering I’m an unfeeling shell of a man. It’s this idea the carries the game experience forward and without it all that would be left would be middling city building game. In a perfect world, Barcelona would get together with Forged in Steel to create something beautiful. As it is, Barcelona is a flawed, but intriguingly worthwhile experience.

Review copy provided by Devir.

  • Good 7.0
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Summary

Pros
Tension creates memorable gaming sessions
Real sense of place and history
Beautiful artwork

Cons
Actual city building can get repetitive
Occasionally, card draw can limit your options

7.0 Good

I love board games. The more esoteric, the better.

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