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Preview: Beast of Balka

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[Ed. note: This is a preview of a non-final, prototype of the game. Our opinions reflect that of the game at the time we played it; the final product will feature variation in game play, art, and/or components.]

Some hunters think they’re big stuff stalking moose, elk, lion, bear or wild boar.  But traipsing through game ranges in Colorado or going on guided safari in Botswana are child’s play.  When it comes to real big game hunting, the god Balka created the great horned beast for the ultimate trophy: the right to rule the world.  Leading one tribe can you bring the beast’s horn to Balka while fending off other monsters and even your rivals?

How It Plays

Beast of Balka is a two-player abstract tilt of maneuver and encirclement.  Pieces are represented by tokens and move about hexes on a roughly hexagonal board.  Players control four hunting parties each, while the beast begins in the center with four bloodlust tokens – aka hit points – beneath it.  There are two smaller monsters, salamanders, with a bloodlust token apiece which also begin in the middle of the board.

On a turn a hunting party may either move one space or attack an adjacent piece.  Strikes are resolved with d6s successfully hitting on a 5 or 6.  If a player hits a monster it loses a bloodlust token and the victorious party may add that piece to its stack, up to three total tokens.  In future attacks, parties roll a number of dice equal to the tokens in their stack, thus increasing the odds of a successful strike.  When taking out a salamander’s final token, the party may add that to its stack, as well, and receives a +1 bonus when attacking the beast.

The hunt is on...
The hunt is on…

Whenever a monster is targeted, whether successfully hit or not, it will stampede one hex in the opposite direction.  If another hunting party is in its way, that group is eliminated regardless of the amount of bloodlust it has accumulated from previous hunts.  If another monster is blocking a target’s retreat, that stack looses one bloodlust and stampedes instead.  If the fleeing animal is now adjacent to another of your war parties, it may also strike.  You can continue chaining these assaults until the beast is eliminated or your have no other hunters in range.

Alternately your opponent is fair game, as well!  If one or more of your parties are adjacent to a rival’s stack, you can target it.  Hits are registered the same, the salamander’s toxic has no effect, hunters never flee and you do not earn any bloodlust your enemy might lose in the assault.  However, when a party loses its last token, it is eliminated.  If one clan loses all four hunting groups, it loses.

Otherwise, the player who takes out the last beast token wins*.  It doesn’t matter if you barely scratched the thing during the entire game.  All that counts is landing the fatal blow, like a matador in a bull fight.

*No beasts were harmed during the play-testing of this design.
Bring it down!
Bring it down!

Mighty Hunter or Better Go Vegetarian?

The rule booklet explains the story behind Beast of Balka, complete with creation myth and cosmology, but it’s all relatively fluff.  The narrative’s primary purpose serves to legitimize the hunt’s fictional nature – not only the reason for tracking down the beast, but doing so while in a direct race against the other clan.  Even to the point of taking out the competition’s parties.  The setting is immaterial, however, and the design feels like a Chess match…until all of your attacks fail miserably from terrible rolls!

So Beast of Balka is decidedly abstract.  It’s also very random.  Interestingly, you can still take advantage of poor dice results with clever maneuvering.  These three elements are an interesting mix creating a unique experience that is accessible, quick, and generates near constant action.  Let’s look at each aspect in a bit more detail.

Stalking the salamander...
Stalking the salamander…

Everything from the hexes to the limited space to the tokens immediately telegraphs the design’s abstract nature.  It’s not as wide open as Chess or Checkers, but much more constricted – fittingly like classical hunt games from Southeast Asia. The smaller area with its “slimmed” waistline gives play a distinct claustrophobic nature.  That works well to generate quick action and in directing fleeing monsters into your enemies.  However, it can also be just as easy to get stuck in the crosshairs of the stampeding beast.

The reduced hunting grounds dampen any sort of opportunity for deep strategy, so it’s not as sophisticated as traditional titles.  Which is just as well since poor rolls could easily undo careful strategy, much to the players’ frustration.  So while many gamers often envision something like Chess when thinking of abstract games, Beast of Balka uses randomness to upend perfect information, one of the genre’s distinctive features.  It works well here as the design is light and meant to resonate with casual players and move briskly.

Sometimes you get the beast and sometimes you get the rival hunting party.
Sometimes you get the beast and sometimes you get the rival hunting party.

While strategy is largely moot, smart tactical moves will often prove decisive.  The two elements that maneuvering primarily highlights are stampeding and chaining.  Like lions on the Serengeti your most effective tactic is to surround your prey so that one party chases the monster into the range of another lying wait in ambush.  It’s possible to chain more than two attacks.  Or in rare cases set up a pair of parties directly in line opposite each other so that the monster simply bounces back and forth like a pinball.  Another satisfying move is to lure a rival party into the path of a stampeding beast or manipulate a monster so that chaining attacks will send it rolling over an opponent.

There is a satisfying cat-and-mouse game to Beast of Balka on three levels.  The abstract hunting goal is first and foremost a race against your foe.  That general competition is complimented by the chance for direct interaction in attacking challengers.  More than that, overall you need to carefully time your assaults so as not to send the beast too often into the range of the other side.  The chance for a successful hit may be undone if it only sets up your opponent for the kill shot.  Remember, you don’t need to do the most damage.  Just make the fatal blow.

Someone's about to get run over by a Mack truck!
Someone’s about to get run over by a Mack truck!

Altogether, Beast of Balka combines tactical maneuvering with a high degree of probability.  It’s an interesting mix that’s really accessible and plays quickly, lending itself perfectly to match plays.  It’s not as deep and riveting as traditional abstract titles, but instead offers a casual style with plenty of action and opportunities for smart and rewarding tactical ploys.  Eschewing the brain-burning churn of its big game brothers in the genre, Beast of Balka should reach a broader audience of gaming hunters searching for some fun and light sport.

 

Beast of Balka is currently seeking support on Kickstarter – and it’s not even hard to stalk.  For a pledge of $25 ($5 off the MSRP and includes shipping to anywhere) you’ll support this project and receive a copy of the game, tabbed to be shipped in December 2016.  If you’d like to track it down, head over now to the campaign page.  Get in on this hunt before your quarry slips away!

 

This article is a paid promotion.

I have lots of kids. Board games help me connect with them, while still retaining my sanity…relatively speaking.

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