Tommaso Batistta and Simone Luciani
Artist: Antonio De Luca
Publisher: Cranio Creations
After the the IGA awarded Barrage Game of the Year, I decided the game was worth a try. After all, our group generally enjoys medium-weighted worker placements and building personal efficiency engines. Recently though, we have been trying games on the heavier spectrum and the results have been mixed.
I did have high hopes for Barrage after the somewhat deflating experiences with Teotihuacan and Clans of Caledonia. I admit I did enjoy Teotihuacan a lot more than my group but these games felt heavy, complex and exhausting to play at a certain level. In most cases, some of the heft felt unnecessary.
Barrage is a pure worker placement game where players have a dozen engineers each round to place in various worker actions. Interestingly, you start and end with the same number of engineers without the option of adding more. So that’s good in a way because I am not usually a fan of “adding more actions” actions.
Each player represents an energy producer from a specific nation in a steampunk-ish setting, competing to generate hydro electric power. Players use engineers to help build structures (dams, conduits and powerhouses), generate electricity and score points. This is done in 5 rounds where players build dams to corral the most important resource in the game: water. The cascading water from the mountain top is pooled at basins where dams are constructed to halt the flow of water. The higher the elevation of the dam, the more water it can contain and the more power it can generate. The water is then channeled through conduits and into powerhouses to generate electricity. The water that passes through the powerhouses are then emptied out in another basin that is situated by the powerhouse.
Much of Barrage’s intrigue and also complexity lies in how the water flows and where best to build structures to capture the flow of water . There are three tiers where the water can be sequestered: mountains, hills and plains. Each tier has three basins and most basins have two areas to build dams. One needs to build individual dams and powerhouses but can utilize conduit built by others so long as other players are paid for the usage. Importantly, water collected by a dam at one basin will be siphoned off to a powerhouse located at a different location. In this way, water doesn’t just flow top down, though it can due to overflow, but will zigzag its way down the map depending on how conduits are used. A water droplet in the mountain could be pumped through the conduits to a powerhouse in a basin at the hills whether the water that flows out is then captured by a different dam where it can then again be siphoned off to another powerhouse, etc. Eventually of course, the water will flow to the foothills and exit the map, but not before being used to generate electricity in more than one locale. Mapping out how and where the water flows will be critical for building structures that harness the secondary and tertiary water droplets that cascade down the map and is critical in winning the game.
In worker placement games, much of the angst comes from deciding priorities in choosing actions. While this remains true in Barrage, I think action selection plays second fiddle to the much larger decision space in building structures on the map. The action selections are limited but not as tight in a 4 player game. Generally, each action space has multiple slots, with later slots requiring more engineers and sometimes, fewer benefits. So if you go first, you use fewer workers and likely get slightly better benefits. Eventually this evens out since you will likely go first in some, and last in others. I didn’t find that aspect of Barrage to be noteworthy. It is true that some action spaces, like energy production to be hotly contested in the latter rounds because most of the dams and powerhouses are already constructed and players are keen to pump out energy.
Like many games, VPs’ are earned by fulfilling contracts, in this case, national or private energy contracts. These contracts are fulfilled by each individual energy production step where if you produce enough energy to fulfill specific criteria, you automatically fulfill the contract to earn benefits. More VPs’ can also be earned at the end of each round by scoring the cumulative energy output for that round. These cumulative outputs are tied to special scoring chits which generally allow you score VPs’ based on in game achievements (i.e. building the most powerhouses, having the most dams, etc.). The top 2 players that generate the most amount of energy also get additional VPs each round. Importantly, the energy output is reset to zero at the beginning of each round. There is but only one end-game VP tile which everyone competes for. The scoring itself is decidedly not complicated and convoluted. Something which I like since the game is already pretty brain burning.
One other aspect of the game which I liked is individual player boards which houses all the available structures that are to be built on the map. One can only build 5 of each structure (dam, elevations, conduits) and 4 of the powerhouses. Building a structure will trigger both an instant benefit as well as an income stream that is collected at the start of each round. In a way, the building tableau serves as an alternate route for collecting VPs’ as the final structure for some of these builds can yield a huge VP bonus that can be triggered multiple times at the start of each round. So, for example, if you finish building all your conduits in round 2, you can earn 10 VPs per round from rounds 3-5. Another aspect that is novel is how excavators and concrete mixers are used to build these structures and are sequestered on a building wheel during construction. These resources are not exhausted, but rather made unavailable until the wheel completes an entire revolution where the resources are then freed up for subsequent construction. The concept is pretty neat. Except that the structure you build is immediately made available on the map while the resources are tied up. Doesn’t make sense in reality but game design wise, I can totally understand.
The game goes for 5 rounds and in the end the most VPs’ win. Most of the VPs’ are won in game and apart from the VP objective tile that is calculated end of game, there isn’t a lot of hidden objectives available for scoring, which is good.
I admire the design of Barrage and I also see why the IGA awarded it with game of the year. The game is complex and has all the elements a heavy gamer would go gaga over. Yet somehow, the game was uninspiring when we played it and ….. felt like work. Yes. I rarely ever say that, because I don’t even mind playing algebraic or mathy games, but having to time the builds and second guess where your opponents can block the water flow is a pain. Having to predict how the water droplets will cascade down and diverted may seem straightforward, but the construction of a single dam can really alter the course of the water flow and thus render some plans useless. I admit, all of this is open information which you can plan and strategize, but it felt like work to me and just didn’t had that spark. The game can also be pretty brutal in that if you are too ambitious in the beginning, it is possible to get all your resources tied down and not being able to build or generate an income stream critical for expansion until mid-game when it is too late.
One other note about components: Barrage is another game that suffers from over-production on both extremes. First, all individual structures are unique, not only in color, but in type. Each dam is shaped and colored differently for all players. At times, it was actually confusing for some players. to remember the structures. The colors are already quite well differentiated. Why not shave off $5 from the total cost by keeping all dams the same shape? I know some folks are eager to deluxify everything, but in this case, less is more. On the opposite side, the excavators and concrete mixers come in three denominations. The smallest denomination is literally microscopic and hard to handle or pick up from the construction wheel. Cardboard chits or wooden cubes would be more than adequate. That said, the aesthetics of Barrage isn’t all that egregious, Kickstarter version aside, these are minor quibbles.
So, why did I not enjoy Barrage? The bottom line is, the game was just…. fine. I suspect any gamer would be happy to play it and come out satisfied. I did not dislike the game, nor did I find any unique aspect of the game that I loved. I did end up feeling exhausted at the end of the session, and it felt like work. Perhaps that’s a one-off feeling. I do not know. Certainly, this review is a “first impression” review and you can take it as it is. I make no qualms about being objective about my opinions. It is after all, an opinion. I can certainly list out the merits of the game, but individually and as a whole, nothing really stood out for me. I admit the complexity of the conduits coupled with the uncertainty of how best to manipulate the water flow given the time frame probably contributed to some of my hesitation about the game. Then again, for some players, this will be the highlight of the game. The critical question for me has always been this: at the end of a session, do I want to play it again and how soon? Well, in this case, Barrage is nowhere near the top of that list.
Initial impression: Average