BarBEARian Battlegrounds (Greenbrier Games, 2018)

Date played: June 27, 2020

Basic details: 2-4 players; 20 minutes

Gist of the game: You lead a team of bears -aka the most magnificent creatures to be found in the known universe- who want the most glory for their village. To gain glory, you need to earn resources (which can be traded for glory) and win fights (which allow you to steal another bear’s glory). The first bear to gain 7 glory tokens wins.

Players start the game with 2 glory tokens and 3 dice. Over the course of the game, players can buy up to 2 additional dice and 5 more glory tokens. Players also have village boards on which to allocate their dice and a screen so that their choices are made secretly. Players are given 2 trial cards, from which they select 1. Each player also has access to a set of upgrade cards that they can purchase. Resource and specialist tokens (which are purchased with resource tokens and help players gain more resources) are placed in a community pile, as are 5 additional neutral dice that can be hired out by players for a turn.

Rounds of play contain 4 phases. In the planning phase, players roll their dice simultaneously and announce their results for everyone. They then place their screen in front of their village board and play their dice on the board secretly. On their village board, they can select various locations for their dice: battleground (offensive fighting position), barracks (defensive fighting position), or on the honey-, faith-, or ore-production areas. The battlefield can use dice only, while the barracks and resource areas can also use specialist tokens. Once everyone has placed their dice, players remove the screens and resolve the actions.

In the brawl phase, battles occur. If 2 players attack each other (the village boards have a slot for attacking each other color), there is a clash. The player with the higher dice total wins the clash. The dice value of the loser is subtracted from the dice total of the winner to provide the winner’s strength when encountering any potential defense. If the attacker has a higher dice value than the defense, the attacker successfully raids the village and has the choice of either a glory token or 2 resource tokens of the loser’s choice. Ties go to the attacker.

After battles are resolved, the gather phase occurs, when players collect the resources produced by their dice and specialist tokens.

In the build phase, players can use their resources to buy specialist tokens, more dice, upgrade cards, and glory tokens. Resources can also be spent during the planning phase to change a die value or to obtain one more or additional dice for the turn. Players can also lock their glory tokens, so that they cannot be stolen after a lost battle.

Color commentary: Look out, Hanabi. You have a new competitor for the role of marriage-breaker. Listen. The game has bears, which basically dictated that we purchase it. Little did I realize that the game would descend into belligerence and aggression, wave of attack after wave of attack when all I wanted to do was collect resources. I could also probably be a more gracious loser, but when every turn you have a glory token ripped away from your little bear paws, it starts to hurt. When the opposing bear has more glory tokens of your color than of their own, it stings, because the only thing that enabled them to win was your tearing down turn after turn.

Ok, aside from the melodrama, I think this would maybe play better as a 3- or 4-player game, where battles may feel a little less like personal attacks and a sign of some kind of deeper aggression and resentment. When it’s just 1 on 1, it feels more brutal. I also had made the strategic decision to focus on gathering resources and buying my way to glory, and had successfully locked up several glory tokens, but had depleted my stock of them and was going to have to start buying “neutral” glory tokens from colors not in the game. But M bought a couple upgrade cards that greatly enhanced his fighting and looting prowess, and he was able to steal glory tokens before I could get them locked up. I think this was maybe the most frustrating. Because one of M’s upgrades allowed him to use additional dice in combat, and because you could never play 2 dice in a single area unless the dice shared the same value (barracks were slightly different because there were 2 slots), I was never going to be able to mount an adequate defense, and since combat is all-or-nothing, devoting nothing to defense and everything to resource production still seemed like the best strategy to me, even though it was a moderately-paced bleeding of resources and glory tokens.

Because of the dice, this game feels a little less portable than card games. If you roll carefully, or have a little dice tray, it could probably work. Personally, I have a lovely image of playing this game in a bar and bringing a dice tower with me. Aside from the dice issues, this game probably requires a 4-top to be able to accommodate the boards/screens and community piles of resources, even for just 2 people. But I think a 4-top would still work for 4 people.

Thoughts from M: I have a feeling that, in a 2-player game, if one player gets out to an early lead, the other player is best served by being aggressive with attacks. And given that this is actually pretty likely to happen, depending on how specialist tokens end up getting distributed, the game may very well become a zero-sum contest of attrition quite quickly. Nonetheless, even an aggressive strategy might not work every time, unless your opponent is a schmo…I mean, gentle soul (love you, Petra!) (P here: Uh-huh) who never attacks back and mounts only paltry defenses, but yet still used dice to mount defenses in a way that was so predictable, I was perpetually awaiting the arrival of proof of a mixed strategy. If both players are using nearly all their dice for combat, resource production is likely to slow down, and interestingly, players may be confronted with a difficult decision to make about dice allocation, since a 6 is excellent for the battlefield, but also the only way to lock a glory token (when placed in the faith production area).

Because I wasn’t on the receiving end of the brutality, I think I enjoyed the game more than Petra did, but it would also be interesting to see how the game plays either with an agreement to never attack or when both players are in full aggression mode.

Playing with more than 2 players would also be interesting, because as Petra alluded to above, I think it would change the dynamics of gameplay and increase the strategic decision-making about who to attack and what kind of defenses to mount.

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