SdJ Re-Reviews #10: Barbarossa und die Rätselmeister (a.k.a. Barbarossa)

  • Designer:  Klaus Teuber
  • Publisher:  Multiple
  • Players:  3 – 6
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  60 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 7 (On the Rio Grande Games and Catan GmbH Editions)

Barbarossa Box

Barbarossa und die Rätselmeister: The game that launched Klaus Teuber’s career…

In 1981, Klaus Teuber — then a dental technician — was unhappy with his company and his profession, so he started developing games in his basement.  He had been reading Riddle-Master, a fantasy trilogy by Patricia McKillip, and as he would later tell the New Yorker: “I was sorry to see it come to an end, so I tried to experience this novel in a game.”  This inspired him to create Barbarossa, a game in which a man wins a contest of riddles against a ghost.  

The game wouldn’t be picked up for seven more years, and a few publishers turned Teuber down.  In the mean time, he attended game nights, where he said he learned to concentrate on the game’s essentials.

Thanks to some persuading by Reiner Müller, who Teuber would work with later in his career, ASS Altenburger Spielkarten picked up Barbarossa, publishing the game in 1988.  Reviews were positive, but the game had a modest first print run.  Teuber was considered a longshot to win the SdJ.  The previous nine winners were either hugely successful sellers or by well-known designers.  Teuber, by contrast, was an unknown on the German gaming scene.  More importantly, as the SdJ jury noted in its 25-year retrospective, the competition in 1988 was especially strong, with three other SdJ winners receiving nods: Rudi Hoffman, Wolfgang Kramer, and Alex Randolph.

Despite the tough competition, Barbarossa won.  The jury cited the game’s clever mix of creativity with interaction.  As the Teuber family told me, the SdJ win “put the game on the map.”  According to one interview in spielbox, sales saw a significant boost and were rumored to top 300,000 in the subsequent quarter.  With new confidence, Teuber set out to design other games.

If Wolfgang Kramer was Germany’s first game design star, Klaus Teuber was certainly its second.  Teuber would go on to win the SdJ three more times: in 1990 for Adel Verpflichtet, in 1991 for Drunter & Drüber, and in 1995 for Die Siedler von Catan.  He received three other SdJ nominations, including one other in 1995 (Galopp Royal) and two in 1997 (Löwenherz, Catan Card Game).  He won the Deutscher Spiel Preis four times: in 1990 for Adel Verpflichtet, in 1992 for Der Fliegende Holländer, in 1995 for Die Siedler von Catan, and in 1997 for Löwenherz.  Teuber trails only Wolfgang Kramer in SdJ wins, and he is tied with Reiner Knizia for most Deutscher Spiel Preis wins.  But awards aren’t the only way to describe a career, as Larry Levy once put best: “In the world of German games, Wolfgang Kramer may be the designer with the most awards and Reiner Knizia may be the most prolific, but when it comes to sales, the old bottom line, there is one name that stands above all others: Klaus Teuber.”  As I’ll discuss in the Catan entry, Teuber is doubtlessly the best selling board game designer of the past two decades.

I’m going to walk through the progression of Teuber’s career in the context of his SdJ wins and nominations, but given how prolific he has been even outside his SdJ honors, this series can only capture part of his success.  The best descriptions of Teuber’s career came from Larry Levy’s “Special K” series, which Larry later updated, and Joe Huber’s German Game Authors Revisited series.   There are a few interviews with Teuber floating around the internet, but my favorite is the one in the New Yorker.

As for Barbarossa, it is still in print today.  The game has seen three notable iterations.  The first, which won the SdJ, is by ASS Altenburger Spielkarten and comes with a rectangular gameboard.  The second, which comes with a round game board, was released in 1997 by Kosmos and 1998 by Rio Grande.  This edition – which is the one pictured in the article – has rules for up to six players.  The last iteration was released by Catan GmbH and Mayfair Games in 2005: it features streamlined rules and is only for up to four players.  Barbarossa also received a children’s edition in 1992-1993 called Barbarossa Junior.

As the SdJ has noted, Barbarossa inspired a flood of creativity games.  Though it wasn’t the first game to feature clay, it is certainly one of the earliest and most popular games to do so.  It influenced North Star Game’s Cluzzle.  A 2015 release called Dohdles! (or Knätsel?! for the German edition) is Klaus Teuber’s latest reimplementation of Barbarossa.  Eric Martin has a nice video overview of Dohdles! over at BGG.

[A big thanks to the Teuber family for agreeing to answer my questions on the history of Barbarossa.  Without their participation the above history wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive.]

The Gameplay: Clay Sculpting, Dice, and 20 Questions…

This review focuses on the Kosmos and Rio Grande editions, which carry the SdJ logo and can be found without much effort or expense.

At the start of the game each player takes a color of clay and the corresponding components.  Each player places (1) their magician on the starting dwarf cave space, (2) their magician hat on the starting space of the score track, and (3) their elf stone marker on the 12 space of the elf stone track.  Each player also takes three power cubes.

Barbarossa Game Board

In the three-player game each player makes three sculptures (called “riddles”), and in the four to six player game each player creates two.  The goal is to have what your sculpture represents be guessed in the middle of the game.  If it is guessed too early or too late you’ll receive a point penalty, but having it guessed in the middle is rewarded.  Each player writes down their answers on a sheet of paper and slides it under the game board.

On a player’s turn he must move his magician in one of two ways: by rolling the dice, or by paying for the movement in elf stones.  A player may not roll the dice and then pay for movement with elf stones: the decision must be made prior to the dice roll.

What happens next is determined by where the player’s magician lands:

  • If landing on the the dragon cave, all other players move their magician hats one space forward on the score track.
  • If landing on the ghost cave, all other players move their magician hates two spaces forward on the score track.
  • If landing on an elf stone cave, the player receives one elf stone.  (No player may ever have more than 13 elf stones.)
  • When reaching a dwarf cave, the player points at any sculpture and names the letter he wants to know (first, third, etc.).  The opponent writes the requested letter on a piece of paper and shows it to the questioner.
  • When reaching a riddle cave, the player gets to ask a series of yes-or-no questions in two phases to learn more about the riddles until he gets a “no” answer.  The opponent must answer with “yes,” “possibly,” “the question is not appropriate,” or “no.”  The questions – and responses – are made out loud for all to hear, and the player may change riddles or opponents as often as he’d like.  This is essentially like playing the classic game 20 Questions.  One a player receives a “no” answer, the second phase begins.  He may then ask another series of yes-or-no questions, but his turn will end as soon as he gets a “no” answer.  Until then, he may attempt to solve a riddle at any time by writing the solution on the piece of paper and handing it to his opponent.

The first player to correctly guess a riddle moves five spaces on the score track.  The second player to correctly guess a riddle moves three spaces.  Each time a riddle is solved an “arrow” is put into the sculpture.  Depending on the number of arrows in all sculptures the player who created the sculpture receives either a penalty or a bonus.

The following is the scoring penalty and bonuses for the three and four player games:

  • 1-2 Arrows: 2 Steps Back
  • 3-4 Arrows: 1 Step Back
  • 5-6 Arrows: 1 Step Forward
  • 7-9 Arrows: 2 Steps Forward
  • 10 Arrows: 1 Step Forward
  • 11-12 Arrows: 1 Step Back
  • 13 Arrows: 2 Steps Back

Each player also starts the game with three black power cubes.  A player may use a power cube to interrupt the flow of the game to (1) guess the solution to the riddle or (2) ask for a letter from one of the riddles.  The power cubes may be used at any point except during the second phase of the riddle cave.

The game ends when one player reaches the end of the score track or when 13 arrows (with 3 or 4 players) or 17 arrows (with 5 or 6 players) have been placed.

Does it stand the test of time? My thoughts on the game.

I was skeptical of Barbarossa.  I’m generally not a fan of party games, and I’m suspicious of games that require art skills such as drawing or sculpting.  Nonetheless, I loved my first play, and I haven’t had a bad game of it since.  It has become one of my family’s favorite games, and we’ve had non-gaming friends specifically request it.

The charm of Barbarossa is twofold.  First, it doesn’t actually require any skill at sculpting the clay.  Indeed, players eager to show off their art skills will generally get trounced: less is best, and impressionism generally prevails.  Second, this is a well-designed riddle game in the tradition of “20 Questions.”  In that regard, this game is one that requires quite a bit of thought, although it manages to do this without any semblance of brain burn.

My plays have all featured more than one laugh-out-loud moment, and I haven’t had a dull play.  Some of my family’s more comedic gaming moments have come from Barbarossa.  That said, I think this game succeeds or fails based on who it is played with.  I could see this game falling flat – or carrying on way too long – if people didn’t take the right approach to sculpting or were unable to guess the riddles.

The game can be taught in three minutes or so, and new gamers seem to find it approachable.  I would think it would take players a game or two to find the right balance in sculpting the riddles, but that hasn’t been the case.  The rules provide good photographic examples of what is too easy and what is too hard, and players seem to catch on quickly.

Gameplay is long for a party game, but not too long. The box says 60 minutes, but most of my three and four player plays have gone about 45.  A five to six player game will take the full 60 minutes.

I’ve played on both the Rio Grande Games and Catan GmbH editions.  I prefer to the Rio Grande rendition because it has a few extra perks: components for 5-6 players, better component quality, and a more interesting game board.  That said, the Catan GmbH edition does streamline some of the bloat in the Rio Grande rendition by removing a few game board spaces, so that edition is also worthwhile.  (In case you were wondering, the clay does not appear to dry out, at least not in either of the versions I’ve tried.  The clay is reportedly oil-based, which helps.  So do not fear purchasing an older edition.)

Barbarossa does seem to be best with three or four players, although it works fine with any number from three to six.  With five and six players there is a bit too much downtime between turns for my taste.  This isn’t a severe problem: you will likely be listening attentively to another player’s questions, answering them, or pondering using a power cube.  Nonetheless, the game goes a bit long when waiting for that seventeenth arrow.

Despite my love of the game, I recognize that it isn’t for everybody.  It is indeed a party game, and I don’t see it having much appeal to strategy gamers.  Additionally, I’ve heard remarks on multiple occasions that this game is bloated.  I certainly see that complaint about the Kosmos/Rio Grande edition, although I think it is a bit exaggerated.

Would it win the SdJ today?  I think it’d have a shot.  If Dixit can win, so can Barbarossa.  This hits all of the right notes: it is light weight, family-friendly, original, and well-produced.  There’s a reason this game has been reprinted so many times: it is a classic, and I think it has held up well over the years.  Many games that have imitated Barbarossa haven’t achieved the same sales or ratings.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: I’ve never been good or comfortable with craft, so the creation of sculptures in a game form puts me on edge right from the start. Follow it up with some sub-par mechanics on how to guess what they are and that sends me over the edge. Bleh.

Fraser: I have only played it once and thought it was OK, I did like the mechanism that meant if your sculpture was too good that was not beneficial to you.  I was concerned by the distinct lack of T-34s in the game, however that may be more of an issue of my gaming past than any fault in this game ;-)

[Note from Chris W.: The below image serves as my response to Fraser.]

T34

Larry:  I played this a bunch of times 10-15 years ago and we always had a blast with it.  As Chris mentions, sculpting skill is not at all required; I’m terrible with clay, but I never had any problem being competitive.  I really like the riddle rounds–wording your questions to avoid “no” answers is a real art form.  I’m pretty sure we played with a rules variant, possibly one devised by Alan Moon.  However we played, the game always zipped along, with a great deal of hilarity.

I guess I can see the game competing for an SdJ if it came out today, but I’m not entirely convinced.  I’m not sure it’s aged all that well.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard of anyone playing Barbarossa and even Cluzzle seems to have faded fairly quickly.  Maybe I’m just not hanging around the right groups.  My recollection was that our group enjoyed the game a lot more than most at that time.  And the fact that Kosmos just came out with a more streamlined version of the game (Dohdles) might be telling.  I don’t know, maybe Chris is right and the game is as welcome today as it was in the late 80’s.  I sure wouldn’t mind playing a session of it right now.

Jeff Allers: My favorite party game, one that requires a bit of thought but not overly taxing.  It’s still a hit with the wide range of people at my various gaming tables, and I could imagine it winning the SdJ today as easily as the day it was released. From a design perspective, I believe it innovated the scoring mechanism later used by Dixit, in which you want to make your riddle guess-able but not too easy. That’s what makes this game both challenging and hilarious. It is also highly interactive, and players are often talking about the game afterwards–sometimes years afterwards! It is especially humorous to watch people with an artistic bent mess up by making their sculptures much too obvious!

I picked up a copy of Barbarosa Junior some time ago in a flea market, and that version is actually quite good as a streamlined version of the original, removing the roll-and-move aspects and focusing on the clues and guessing. I will be interested to see what Dohdles does differently.

That said, I highly recommend any version of the game.

Joe Huber (1 play) – I’m not a fan of party games – but I usually don’t mind the better ones, and am willing to play them on occasion.  That’s exactly my reaction to Barbarossa – I didn’t mind the game, but I’d never suggest it – and as a result, I’ve never gotten in another play.  I will say – while I think it’s a fine game, I didn’t find it to be a big standout as party games go – it’s definitely not my favorite of the genre.

Dale Y (5+ plays): It’s good for what it is – a party game with a slight bit of strategy.  Not my cup of tea though as my  art skills royally suck, though the scoring mechanic sometimes rewards me for my poor sculpting ability.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Chris W., Jeff Allers
  • I like it.  Larry, Erik A., Nathan Beeler
  • Neutral. Fraser, Joe H., Dale Y
  • Not for me… Patrick B.
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One Response to SdJ Re-Reviews #10: Barbarossa und die Rätselmeister (a.k.a. Barbarossa)

  1. Ori Avtalion says:

    In an interview (Perhaps for The Next Great American Game), Teuber has mentioned he got the idea for the game from Patricia McKillip’s Riddle-Master books.

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