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[Review] Barbarossa

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Barbarossa was on of the first "German" games that I have had the privilege to play. The concept of the game, mixed with some neat game mechanics, really grasped me, and it almost became a slight "thinking" party game. Then Cluzzle came along - and the simplicity of Cluzzle caused it to replace Barbarossa on my play list, simply because it was so simple. But then the other day, I received the new version of Barbarossa (Mayfair Games, 2005 - Klaus Teuber), which is a change to the 1988 game, adding it to the "Klaus Teuber's Classics" line. There are several changes to the new version - mostly streamlining, but the basic mechanics don't change much.

I like the new version for its size, if nothing else. The original Barbarossa was a large square box, while the new one is small and unassuming. Yes, the components are slightly less impressive, and the game now only plays with a maximum of four players, but these are issues that are ignored in favor of portability. Barbarossa is not a quick, fun little game that plays well. Sometimes part of the game feels a little odd; but the nature of the game itself, the molding of the clay objects, is much more fun than any other of its type.

A score board is placed on the table with two tracks: the Jewel Track (which goes from 0 to 13; with players placing a jewel cube of their color on the "12" space), and the scoring track (which isn't numbered, but players place a scoring disc of their color on the sixth space of a thirty-two space track). A hexagonal Riddle Gem board is placed on the table with six event tiles placed in numerical order around it. Each player places a pawn of their color on the number one space and takes three "Curse" tokens and the modeling clay of their color. The game is ready to begin with each player molding their clay into two shapes.

The point of the game, however, is not to make the clay objects too obvious, not too vague. Players are striving to make objects (a list of suggestions is provided) that somewhat resemble their object but don't give it away quickly. Players place their two (three in case of three players) creations ("riddles") on the riddle gem; one player is chosen to go first; and play passes clockwise around the table.

On a turn, a player can either roll a six-sided die and move their pawn that many spaces around the circle, or they pay gems by moving their jewel counter down for as many spaces as they wish to move. The player then takes an action depending on what space they've landed on:
- Jewel (2 spaces): The player adds one jewel, by moving their jewel cube one space higher on the track (maximum of 13).
- Dragon (2 spaces): Every other player gets to move their scoring token up by one space.
- Letter Dwarf (1 space): The player asks another player for a particular letter of a riddle - like the first letter, etc. The player who has made the riddle writes the letter secretly down on paper, and shows it to the asking player.
- Question Mark (1 space): The player asks yes or no questions about the riddles on the table, which other players must answer truthfully. The player can continue to ask questions until they get a "no" response. At this point, the player has two options. They can either ask another round of questions, until they get another "no", or they can guess one of the riddles on the table - writing their guess down secretly and showing the player whose riddle it is.

Players can also use a "curse" token at any time to interrupt the proceedings and guess one of the riddles on the table (or ask a letter). If a riddle is guessed correctly, the player gets five points; and an arrow is stuck into the riddle. If a riddle is guessed the second time, the guesser gets three points, another arrow is stuck in it, and the riddle can no longer be solved. After the arrow has been put into a riddle, all the arrows in riddles are counted, and the player whose riddle it is either loses or gains points. The players whose riddles are guessed first and last lose the most points (2); the players whose riddles are guessed in the middle get the most points. (2)

The game continues until either one player reaches the final space on the scoring track, or when all thirteen arrows have been stuck into riddles. Either way, the player who has advanced the farthest on the track is the winner!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: Since the "board" is broken down into smaller parts, it makes it a lot easier to store and put into the small, sturdy box. The tiles themselves are of good quality, with nice artwork on them, portraying the fantasy theme. The curse tokens are small cardboard tokens with lightning bolts on them and are easy to handle and use. The centerpiece of the game, of course, is the clay which is good quality and molds well. It also holds well over time - it's the same stuff as from the original game, which hasn't lost any of its malleability yet (three years later). Bags are provided for the clay and pieces, as well as a small pad of paper for writing the clues. The game comes in a small, impressive package; and I was impressed at how much they managed to put in the box.

2.) Rules: The rules are fairly short and simple, on only four pages. The rules were almost too short - they didn't cover every instance - such as when a player has no clues to guess. This can happen when a player has guessed all the remaining clues and/or only their riddles are left. Other than this, however, everything was fairly clear, and I didn't have much problem explaining the game. A helpful insert is included, showing three examples of riddles that are too easy, too difficult, and just right. Most people usually take a game to get their clues to where they want them, and even experienced players often make their clues too difficult or too easy.

3.) Molding: Because the clues are only supposed to be rough interpretations of the objects, the game has appeal. Most people complain about their modeling skills, and perhaps for good reason. Yet this game doesn't reward people with artistic skill - it rewards those who are able to deduce the modern-art like designs of their opponents. I'm a horrible sculptor, but I enjoy this game.

4.) Theme and Mechanics: The game has a magic theme, with players who are trying to compete in an ancient duel of riddles. Frankly, I'm not sure that the theme does anything for the game, except to provide a reason for the mechanics. The dragon is there to simply make sure that the game moves at a reasonable pace, to keep players from not guessing and prolonging the game. I'm not sure a theme was needed, but it doesn't hurt the game as far as I can tell. The mechanics, especially the choice between rolling the dice or using gems, are a little odd; and I think that I would give the edge to Cluzzle in this regard, as Cluzzle is much simpler. However, Barbarossa does add in a small bit of strategy of when players should use their jewels, what clue a player should guess at next, and the "letter dwarf"; so perhaps it will appeal more to gamers.

5.) New vs. Old: The old version of Barbarossa had a much larger board, larger and cooler tokens, and supported up to six players. In fact, after playing both, I think that I enjoy the older version a little bit better. However, the draw of the new copy is that it is smaller, more portable, and a bit simpler to explain to newcomers. I think the choice in deciding which to buy would be availability, and the expected number of people to play the game. I also miss the plastic black arrows of the old game (they were replaced by cardboard counters), but I do realize that they broke fairly easily. Either way, I love skewering a riddle.

6.) Fun Factor: The game is fun, because players sit there and simply try to guess the riddles of the opponents. It's almost a visual form of "Twenty Questions", except that you are trying to guess the answer before your opponents do. Laughing at the answers once they are revealed is part of the fun, but fooling around and making your own creation out of clay is another appeal. Either way, it's a game that has worked well in every situation I have pulled it out.

The wonky mechanics sometimes are a little odd to newcomers when I teach the game; but as I said, it has had great appeal to those who've played it. It's a great party game for when you only have four people (most party games aren't good with that number), and there is a lot of punch in the smaller box. The new incarnation of Barbarossa isn't as nice as the older edition, but it's much smaller, simpler, and cheaper. And that will be a drawing factor for a lot of people.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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