It seems the king must prove his piety by building a grand cathedral. Of course, as typical of most monarchs, he wants others to do the job. Therefore, he has charged the lords of his domain to a race in completing the glorious edifice. Surveying the vast lands extending into the horizon, you realize you have your work cut out for you. There are fields to plant, improvements to build, knights to hire, and serfs to tax. A little raiding on the side wouldn’t hurt the cause, either. I mean, the castle’s bills don’t just pay themselves. Will you prove to be the realm’s wealthiest and most powerful noble? Or will you end up just another spoiled, wet-behind-the-ears toff who just happened to inherit his daddy’s estate?
How it Works
Barons is a tableau-building card game. Assuming the role of one of the titular aristocrats, your tableau represents your vast estates, made up of cards from four different colored decks. The cards in your tableau represent lands, buildings, and knights all of which give you taxes and special abilities. In addition to creating your infrastructure, cards also serve as resources to pay for those improvements, as well as to attack or defend with knights. To set-up the game, each player takes a starting castle and lays it down. Then everyone draws four cards, one from each colored deck, and places them face down on all four sides of their castles. This is your opening barony. Each player then draws 3 cards from the color of their choice, keeping 2 as a starting hand. The goal of the game is to grow strong enough to build first a church, and then a cathedral. The first player to construct the cathedral wins.
The general turn structure of Barons is straight-forward. On your turn, you may first play action cards, knights, or activate special powers from an applicable building already in your barony. Action cards and buildings with special abilities are identified by a fist icon and their unique capabilities described in the text. These are not free, however, and the cost – in number and color of cards – is indicated in the upper left. Regular action cards offer a one-time benefit. After paying its cost and implementing its effect, you discard it. Building abilities are activated in the same fashion, except that they may remain in your barony. You may play as many action cards and/or activate as many different buildings as you can afford. However, you can only trigger a single building’s unique capability once per turn, even if you can afford to use it again. Also in using a building, it is important to note that it must be connected to your castle via an uninterrupted line of orthogonally adjacent cards. This is where knights play a role.
Knights are a separate category and may also be played during the first turn phase. Like action cards and building abilities, they have a cost, but there are actually two fees associated with playing them. Knights serve two critical functions: attacking and defending. If you pay the lower cost indicated, you can either attack or defend. If you pay the higher expenditure, then you may do both. On the attack, a knight lets you destroy (discard) any unprotected card in an opponent’s barony. Cards immediately adjacent to a castle, next to a knight, or completely surrounded by other cards are considered protected. Castles and churches cannot be attacked. Any other land or building is fair game, as are lone knights that may be protecting other lands or buildings. Two contiguous knights protect each other and can form the base of a powerful guard. Attacking a strategically located card can potentially break-up an adversary’s barony, thus rendering useless any disconnected lands and buildings until he/she is able to reestablish the link. After an attack, the knight is discarded unless you’ve paid the higher cost, in which case you may place it anywhere in your tableau to defend other lands and buildings. In addition to attacking and defending, knights also provide unique benefits that apply at various times.
After executing all actions, you may expand and improve your barony with land or a new building. Adding land costs nothing – you simply play a card into your tableau face-down. There are four different kinds of lands represented by the four color decks; mines (red), river (blue), forest (green), and pasture (yellow). You will group like colors together, which becomes beneficial during phase 3 of your turn. If you want to develop your estate by playing a building, you must pay its associated cost (if required) before adding it to your tableau. Buildings offer a number of benefits; some are implemented for a cost in phase 1, while others provide a free boost under certain circumstances. Generally, specific colors represent different areas of growth; metal/technology (red), trade/religion (blue), town (green), and peasants (yellow). Those associations are all sort of superficial and really you need to develop all areas, at least a little, to win. You can only play one land or one building card during this second phase, even if you can pay for more.
Finally, you end your turn by taxing. In this phase, you choose one or more contiguous lands of the same color in your tableau and draw that many cards from the same colored deck (to a maximum of four). You can only tax lands, not buildings or knights. Also, as in using building abilities, the taxed lands must be connected to your castle. So for example, if you want to add blue cards to your hand, and have two river lands adjacent to each other, then you may only draw two blue cards. On the flip side, you cannot draw more then four, even if you happen to have seven river lands all running together. However, that max increases to five taxable lands once you’ve built a church.
The church and cathedral are separate buildings, both represented on the same card of which each deck has five copies. The church costs one card of each color to build and must be constructed before you may complete the cathedral, which requires two of each color. To build the church, pay its cost, lay it in your tableau and then you must also discard all cards remaining in your hand. While the church does not protect any other lands or buildings, it is itself protected from attack without needing your castle or any knights. Make sure it remains connected to your castle via an uninterrupted line of cards, as well. As soon as a player builds the cathedral, he/she wins immediately.
Lord or Serf?
Barons is a bit of a chameleon. It’ll blend in with its environment, tailoring its play style to a gaming group’s preferences. Does your group want a fast and frills-free card game? Then play it primarily as a set collection game heavy on lands. Do you all favor refined, thinky Eurogames? Then maximize an efficient, economic engine with killer card combinations to rake in the production. Or perhaps you and your buddies prefer interaction and conflict? In that case, utilize knights for direct, cutthroat attacks – or take advantage of special action cards and buildings to mess with your opponents via more subtle measures. You can even combine them all and see what chaos ensues. Because it can be played numerous ways, game length will vary greatly. Long or short, the time will usually be appropriate, as it is typically dictated by a group’s play style. Note, however, that 5-6 player games can feel a bit on the long side.
The rules and mechanics are extremely simple. Game play is smooth and straight-forward. Individual turns are fairly quick and to the point. This keeps the pace brisk, which means there is little downtime. Beginners may very likely struggle at first to read cards, study how they work, and discover the best interrelations between various cards. So this learning curve may cause some downtime, but that would largely disappear with increased familiarity.
Although Barons is an easy game to learn, it is by no means a casual game. I suppose it might be if everyone played a straight, land-heavy strategy – and that’d be fine, if not very exciting (more on that later). Otherwise, the game offers plenty of agonizing choices and a layered and nuanced complexity. Your decisions begin right out of the gate. First you’ll want to decide on a general direction as to which color, or colors, you wish to focus on for most of the game. Your starting hand will heavily influence and may dictate which route you emphasize. Then every turn you’ll need to analyze each card in your hand and decide if its best used as land, for its special ability, or as currency. Furthermore, before playing an action card or implementing a building’s unique power you’ll need to weigh its cost effectiveness. Knights particularly can be game-changing, but require efficient planning because their expense can slow production if overused. Tax planning is also a delicate balance, as well, since you’re only allowed to draw one color at a time and must build up in all of them if you want to increase future revenue. There are multiple things to do, but limited resources with which to accomplish them.
Luck plays a small part in guiding your overall planning, as it does in any card game. But the different color tracks, and the myriad ways in which to employ them, provide fair opportunities to balance the randomness with strategy. While you can acquire and play buildings and knights via any of the colors, each of the four decks impacts the game in slightly different ways. Red actions, buildings, and knights typically gain cards to add to your tableau. Those of the blue variety are nice for manipulating your hand through trading with the decks or other players. Green’s abilities tend toward increasing taxes or lowering costs. And the yellow deck is heavy on action cards while its knights provide healthy boosts to other attacks when they are already defending. A perfect balance between all four emphases is neither required nor recommended. Therefore, figuring out a coherent and efficient formula for your tableau is challenging, fun and rewarding. It also elicits and encourages further plays.
There is a good variety of cards and most allow you to bend the rules in some fashion in order to manipulate particular restrictions. This spices things up and allows for some cultivated, tactical play. Benefits can affect you, one or more of your opponents, or everyone at the table. For example, in activating an ‘Outpost’ (red) for the price of one yellow card, you can draw a card from any deck and place it next to ‘Outpost.’ ‘Monastery’ is a building (blue) that lets you discard a card at no other cost, look through the top 4 cards of the same color deck and add one of them to your hand. For the cost of one red card, the building ‘City Wall’ (green) prevents enemy knights from attacking other buildings in your tableau. And at the bargain rate of one red card, you can play ‘Peasant Revolt’ (yellow), which forces all of your opponents to discard one card from their barony. There are numerous possibilities with which to experiment.
Barons scales reasonably well, but I recommend 3-4 player sessions. That number provides all the benefits of player interaction with an optimal and reasonable time investment. There is nothing inherently wrong or broken in a 2-player session; it’s just that so many other titles suit that situation more admirably. Five- and six-player games increase the interaction and chaos, as well as downtime between turns and overall game length. If everyone at the table is prepared for and amenable to the increased session time, then all is well. The other notable quirk to Barons is the amount of physical space that the game requires, which is considerably greater than the average card game. Once you start laying out your tableau, you must have ample room to expand without butting up against those of your opponents. A mere 5×5 barony requires more square inches than you’d first expect! Luckily we have one of those massive, oaken, Amish dining tables.
Cambridge Games Factory is a smaller, independent publisher, so I don’t want to dwell on component quality. The game is packaged in a clear, plastic clamshell, so make sure it’s a top-stack title on the shelf! While not glossy or full-color, the rule booklet is clean, clear, and concise. The cards are of good weight and stock, slick and sturdy. The printing is haphazard with some illustrations and text off-centered. Many cards have small scuffs and marks. Most of these printing errors are minor and do not affect game play. The artwork is nothing spectacular, but isn’t distracting. The medieval building theme is very common, serves as a nice flavor here, but is not immersively strong.
Really, the greatest potential problem with Barons is the land-heavy strategy. If a player is able to draw a couple of church/cathedral cards early on, he or she can potentially just play a handful of cards as land and then bid their time as they draw enough of each color to build the cathedral and win the game. Not only will this annoy the other players who are carefully constructing refined and sophisticated baronies, I can’t imagine that such a land-only based game was the designer’s intention. Obviously, such a strategy can be combated in multi-player games, but at the expense of the overall pace and other players’ plans. And by using your resources simply to take out that person’s land, you may quickly fall behind the other(s).
So Barons is an intriguing game. It is not a casual title, nor is it an epic brain-burner. It is not attractive, but it does play smartly. It can be long or short, yet suit your group either way. The theme is not powerfully integrated, but it makes sense. The publishing quality is not snazzy, but it is practical and does the job. Barons is a hard game to recommend with confidence. Some have labeled it the “little brother” to the same publisher’s Glory to Rome. It suits a variety of group sizes and style preferences – at least that of gamers. Personally, I like it. But my kids are not particularly enthralled with it. And I don’t recommend it for family, casual, and non-gamers. But for hobby gamers who like to think and puzzle, don’t mind a little luck and a fair amount of interaction, and can keep track of multiple fiddly powers, Barons could prove to be a nice choice – especially for such a reasonable price.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Cambridge Games Factory for providing a review copy of Barons.