Barrage (Game Review by Larry Levy)

  • Designers: Simone Luciani, Tommaso Battista
  • Artist: Antonio De Luca
  • Publisher: Cranio Creations
  • Players: 1-4
  • Time: 75-150 minutes
  • Times Played: 3, all with four players

This is a review of one of the most controversial games of the year.  The game is Barrage and the reason for the controversy is its recently completed Kickstarter campaign run by its publisher, Cranio Creations.  Without going into too much detail, it appears that Cranio badly underestimated what it takes to run a successful KS campaign, so delivery dates were missed, promised components either weren’t included or fell far short of their expected quality, and many backers were bitterly disappointed.  Needless to say, the complaints about this situation have been loud and numerous.

Despite all that drama, the events surrounding the Kickstarter campaign will not be a part of this review.  There are two reasons for this.  First, I wasn’t a KS backer and am only peripherally aware of all of the many alleged shortcomings of the campaign, so I’m really not qualified to discuss them in depth.  More importantly, though, I don’t honestly feel they’re relevant to this article.  The way I see it, the audience for a review of this game, or any game, are folks who are curious about the title and want to know if they should play and/or buy the game.  Promises that may or may not have been made in the past aren’t really a concern for these readers—they just care about how the game plays and the quality of the components.  I will certainly discuss Barrage’s components; in fact, because of the controversy surrounding them, I’ll devote considerably more words to them than I normally would.  But this will be a review of the game I played recently and not the one that so many of the KS backers thought they’d be receiving.  It’s not that the details of the KS campaign shouldn’t be discussed; it’s just that this isn’t the time or the place for that.  The question at this point in time is, given all the controversy surrounding this game, is it something that a prospective player or buyer should investigate?  That’s the question I’ll try to address in this review.

Now that the elephant in the room has been discussed, let me get to the subject at hand.  Barrage (which, in addition to its normal English meaning, is also the French word for dam) is about generating energy.  Specifically, hydro-electricity.  The players represent industrialists from four post-WWI powers who believe that the best way of satisfying the enormous power demands of the future will be by harnessing the incredible power of flowing water.  They have all gathered at a promising spot in the Alps to test their theories and devices.  And getting in the way of one’s rivals is not only satisfying, but could lead to world domination.

Before I get to the particulars of how the game plays, let’s briefly look at how energy gets produced.  The game board shows a section of land in three areas.  The top third of the board is mountains, the highest area.  The middle third, hills, is a bit lower.  And the bottom third is plains, the lowest area.  Each area contains 3-5 basins, large pools where water can be collected.  The higher basins are connected to the lower ones via rivers.  Surrounding each basin are building sites.  The players can construct three kinds of buildings on appropriate sites.  Dams hold back water (which, in the game, has the units of drops); the higher the level of the dam, the more drops can be held back.  Powerhouses convert flowing water into energy.  And conduits, which are channels dug into the ground, connect dams to powerhouses.  A player generates energy by taking drops from one of their dams, transporting them through a conduit, to one of their powerhouses.  Just about all of the game’s objectives are accomplished by generating energy, so this process is central to the design.

Each player will be playing as a company associated with the four different represented countries (Germany, France, Italy, and the U.S.).  The companies have their own player boards where the structures that can be built are laid out at the start of the game (similar to games such as Terra Mystica and Gaia Project).  Each company has a special ability that will come into play later in the game.  The companies are paired up with a randomly drawn executive officer, which gives the player another special power.  At the start of the game, in reverse player order, each player chooses one company/executive officer pair.  For first-time players, a beginning setup is provided, so that the players can get started right away without having to make an uninformed choice; this is a welcome touch.

The game consists of 5 rounds.  Water drops enter the game at the beginning of each round, in a manner which is randomly predetermined at the beginning of the game, so there are no surprises about their appearance.  The bulk of each round consists of the players’ actions, so let’s examine those.

Barrage is a Worker Placement game.  Normally, that would be a red flag for me, as WP has become practically the default mechanism for so many designers that I yearn for something more original.  However, the method used here is considerably more refined than is usually the case.  Each players’ workers are called engineers and the players have 12 of them, a number which does not change over the course of the game.  Each player carries out one action on their turn.  In order to carry out an action, you need to place a number of engineers (between 1 and 3, depending on the action chosen) on one of its available action spaces.  Some of the spaces are on the player boards, which only that player can use, while the others are available to all players, on a first-come, first-serve basis.

The actions on the player boards are all Construction actions; these are how the players get their structures on the board.  The procedure for building items is unusual, as it emulates the production cycle.  Each player board has four action slots for construction, with the later actions requiring more engineers.  There are four things you can build:  two which are associated with dams (bases, the lowest level of a dam, and elevations, which make up the second and third levels—dams have a maximum height of three levels), conduits, and powerhouses.  Built structures are taken from the player’s board (sometimes revealing a new capability or income) and placed on the chosen space on the map.  There are two types of resources (which are collectively called machineries) used to build structures.  Different structures have different machinery costs, depending on the type and where on the board they’re built.  To simulate the production cycle, each player has a cardboard circle called the construction wheel, which has an upper layer with six slots that can be rotated.  The players also start with four cardboard wedges called technology tiles, one for each type of structure.

When a player builds a structure, he takes the technology tile of that type, along with the machineries required, and puts them both into the top slot of the construction wheel.  He then rotates the wheel one position, moving all the contents of the slots one position closer to the top slot.  If an occupied slot reaches the top spot, the player retrieves the tile and machineries in it and adds them back to his supply.  If the specific tile or the required machineries aren’t available (that is, if they’re still on the wheel), the player can’t build that structure.  So the players are limited in how often they can build, which reflects the finite production facilities that each player controls.

The remaining actions are all associated with spaces on the central player boards and when a space is taken, it can’t be chosen again until the next round.  Spaces are arranged in pairs, with each pair of actions providing the same effect.  The second space in each pair either requires more engineers, more money, or both.  So even if an opponent chooses the action you want, you can still take it, but at a greater cost.

The spaces are also grouped into seven different areas, each of which provides similar things, but with different rewards and costs.  For example, there are three different pairs of spaces which let the player add more machinery tokens to their supply, with the more expensive spaces yielding more and better machines.  Thus, even though there are a lot of publicly available action spaces, they are organized in easily understood groups.

Probably the most significant actions are the ones which allow the players to generate energy.  There are five pairs of these, with each pair providing a different bonus or penalty to the amount of energy produced (naturally, ones with the highest bonuses are chosen first).  When a player chooses one of these, she selects one of her dams that has one or more water drops behind it and routes the drops through a co-located conduit to one of her powerhouses.  The re-routed water drops then flow downhill until they are either stopped by a dam or exit the board.  The conduit used doesn’t have to be owned by the active player—if it’s owned by an opponent, the active player must pay them some money for its use and the opponent also receives some VPs.  Each conduit has a production value; these values range from 1 to 5.  The amount of energy produced is equal to the number of drops moved through the conduit, multiplied by the conduit’s production value, modified by the action’s bonus or penalty, along with any other bonuses the player might have earned.  Obviously, conduits with a high production value can yield much higher energy amounts, but they’re also much more expensive to build.

After taking this action, the player adds the energy produced to her running total for the round.  She also gets to fulfill one contract.  Each contract shows a minimum energy requirement and a reward; the player can discard one of their contracts which has a requirement equal to or less than the energy produced by that action and claim the reward.  Rewards can be VPs, useful items, or even other actions (like adding water drops to the board).  Contracts provide the kind of cascading actions that co-designer Simone Luciani has used so successfully in many of his other games.

The rest of the actions on the central player boards either let the players grab things like machineries and contracts, or do activities such as adding water drops to the board or rotating their production wheels (to get their tech tiles and machineries back into their supply quicker).  There are also some spaces to acquire additional technology tiles—these not only let the player build more frequently, but come with special abilities when the player uses them.  The abilities can be an important part of your overall strategy.  Finally, you can get more money by putting your engineers on a special space, which can be used as often, and by as many players, as you like—it’s the only space on the board with no usage restrictions.

Turns proceed clockwise, with each player carrying out one action on their turn.  When a player runs out of engineers, they pass for that round.  After all players have passed, the round is over.  You then check the cumulative amount of energy that each player has generated that round, with VPs being awarded for the top two players.  There is also a goal for each turn (such as total powerhouses built or contracts satisfied), which can yield VPs; the more energy you earned that round, the more points this will earn you (as I mentioned earlier, this game is all about generating energy).  Then you reclaim your engineers, zero out the cumulative energy totals, and start another round.  The game ends after 5 rounds.  There is an end-game building objective, randomly chosen at the start of the game, that‘s worth a big chunk of VPs; the players are ranked in how well they meet this objective, with the most successful player earning the most VPs, and so on.  After this is calculated, the player with the most overall VPs wins and, as a reward, earns the right to start complaining about the components.

Ah, those components, the topic of discussion in many a bitter diatribe on the Geek.  I’d love to be able to report on what their quality will be in the published version of Barrage, but at this point in time, no one knows for sure what that will be.  So I’ll restrict myself to relating what I think of the bits in the Kickstarter game I played with, keeping in mind that much of this may change in the future.

The board is quite nice and presents a lot of information in an attractive and fairly clear fashion.  The numbers showing the production values of the conduits are sometimes blocked by the conduits themselves, but they’re also color-coded, so that’s not a big problem.  I played with the 3D version, in which board layers are stacked so that the mountain areas are actually physically higher than the hills, which are higher than the plains.  This isn’t strictly necessary, as the division between areas on the basic board are reasonably clear, but it’s kind of a cool effect and is helpful the first time you play.  The overall benefit is mixed, since the sides of the additional boards aren’t finished and the conduit paths are a bit harder to follow where the board height changes.  Still it’s a nice feature to have, particularly since you can always use the basic board if you don’t like the 3D effect.

The action boards are colorful, well organized, and easy to use.  Because of them, the game takes up a lot of table space, but I don’t really see how they could have reduced this without making things less functional.

One of the big complaints players have made is with the water drops.  These are small, teardrop-shaped blue gems.  They’re cute as hell…and totally unusable.  They’re just impossible to pick up.  We had to substitute alternate tokens in order to play the game.  This is completely inexcusable and a major failing on Cranio’s part.  The latest word is that different drops will be used in the published version of the game.

The building structures are nice and chunky and each player has differently styled pieces.  This is a good touch, although again, not really required.  The two types of machinery are nicely molded, but are very small.  This is necessary for them to fit on the production wheels, but most of my opponents disliked them (I thought they were fine).  They come in three sizes, to show denominations of 1, 3, and 5 units, but the size differentials aren’t as clear as I’d prefer.  Still, they’re playable.

The production wheels are another component that many have viewed as problematic.  Quite a few players have reported that they were damaged in shipping.  We were lucky that in the version that I played with, they were only a little bit warped.  I thought they worked well enough, as long as you were careful when you rotated them.  The majority of my opponents found them awkward to use, though, and resorted to more low-tech ways of tracking their production cycles.  This is another component that Cranio has pledged to modify in the published version of the game.

The rest of the components are of reasonable quality.  There were some shortages in the game I played with, which was annoying, but presumably those will be corrected (one would hope!) in the published version.  The rulebook is well written and does a good job of explaining an unusual and challenging game.  However, in the version that came with our game, the section that lists and explains the icons is far from complete.  Once you find out what the symbols mean, they’re pretty easy to remember, but this is another major issue I have with the production.  Obviously, you shouldn’t have to consult the Geek to figure out what all the actions mean.  The rules on Cranio’s website are more complete than the provided rulebook, so hopefully, this issue will be addressed in future editions.

So taking all of that into account—the design, the issues with the components, my best guesses of what the published version will be like, everything—what are my feelings about Barrage?  I’m pissed!  I’m pissed at Cranio, because instead of us excitedly talking about how wonderfully the game plays and its chances to be considered game of the year, the discussion has been almost exclusively about poor or missing components and how badly the Kickstarter campaign was run.  The buzz has become a bit more positive recently, as backers have actually had the chance to play the title and see how good it is, but there is still the fear that this design will forever bear the scars of its introduction to the gaming world and never truly be given its due.

And that would be a terrible shame, because the gameplay really is fantastic.  I’m deeply in love with it and it’s probably been four years or so since I’ve been this excited about a design.  It’s still early days (I’ve only played it 3 times), but right now, it’s clearly my Game of the Year and if another title manages to unseat it, then 2019 will have been a fantastic year.

My attraction to the game started when it was first announced, although there were equal parts excitement and skepticism.  There were two reasons for my anticipation.  First, it was a Luciani game; he has to be my designer of the decade, as his big hits (Tzolk’in, Voyages of Marco Polo, Grand Austria Hotel, Lorenzo il Magnifico, and Newton) are all big favorites of mine, so any meaty game of his attracts my personal spotlight.  Second, the game’s basic concept—generating energy from flowing water, which could be reused and rerouted as it flowed—sounded intriguing and very different.  But this also led to my skepticism, as I couldn’t imagine how they could implement this without it being hugely complicated.  But I figured if anyone could pull this off, it would be Luciani, so this was my most anticipated title of the year.

And now, having finally played it, it’s passed its tests in flying colors.  The game’s take on tired old worker placement is excellent.  Giving you two chances to do all the contested actions, while also providing multiple similar actions in the same family, makes the game less sharp and less prone to accidental screwage, while still maintaining a very healthy amount of player interaction.  12 engineers is quite a lot and allow you to accomplish quite a bit during a turn, making the planning process very enjoyable.  But that total can dwindle down in a hurry, so you really have to prioritize which actions are the most critical and sequence them properly.  It all works very well and smoothly, and since each action is fairly simple, turns proceed quickly enough.

I also really like the production wheel and how it influences all your building activities.  It’s not just enough to decide where you want to build; you have to plan for when the appropriate technology tile will become available, together with the necessary machineries.  There’s plenty of ways of managing this—you can increase your starting total of machineries, acquire additional tech tiles (with cool abilities), and earn spins of the production wheel to hurry your frozen assets along—but they all take actions and ain’t none of ‘em cheap.  (Needless to say, money is very tight in this game.)  Planning to make all of this work in time to get that desperately needed building constructed before its site is grabbed by an evil opponent is very challenging and lots of fun.

I’ve expressed my love of Italian-designed games many times on these pages and one of the principal reasons for that is how one action can lead to another, in a very enjoyable cascading effect.  There’s plenty of that in Barrage.  Some effects come from the abilities you uncover on your player board as you build things, but most of it derives from the contracts you choose and the varied effects they can give you.  Choosing the right contracts, both in judging the proper energy requirements, and in selecting the best effects, is a big part of the game.

But, for me (and, I suspect, for most players), the best part of the design is the boardplay.  The key design decision in the game is that when you generate energy, you reroute the water from its normal path.  So each item that the players build changes the board situation, sometimes dramatically.  This makes the game very challenging and wonderfully interactive.  Look, I love the indirect interaction that is the hallmark of your standard Euro as much as the next guy.  But I have to say, this return to the non-destructive, but still reasonably in-your-face boardplay that was much more prevalent in the German designs of the 90’s than it is today, is both refreshing and exhilarating.  It raises this title to greatness.

There’s lots of different strategies you can pursue.  If an opponent builds a dam/conduit/powerhouse combo, one possibility is to build a dam to catch the water that his conduit will reroute when he generates energy.  That way, he does all the work and you get water that you can hopefully use to generate your own power.  Of course, a smart opponent will build a dam to catch his own rerouted drops, but that may not be possible, due to a lack of time or issues with his production wheel cycles.  Even nastier, you can build a dam above your opponent’s dam, to grab that water (and reroute it) before it even gets to him.  There are things he can do to compensate for such treachery, such as adding enough water to the source feeding your dam that it overflows and provides his dam with its lifeblood, but as you can see, things can get very complicated and very contentious in a hurry.  And yet, the game doesn’t feel too mean-spirited or chaotic—the information is available for all to see and players need to prepare in order to slap down a structure.  So it’s very dynamic, but an experienced player can anticipate where things can go wrong and have contingency plans available to deal with them.

There’s another thing I really like about the game that’s somewhat subtle.  Because of all the options provided, the intricacies of the game, and how interactive it is, you might think this is a very unforgiving and brutal title.  Surprisingly, a) it really isn’t; and b) I like it that way.  We’ve found that getting off to a slow start is by no means a death sentence, as the bulk of the points come later in the game.  Early actions matter, of course, but there’s still plenty of time to adjust and make some killing plays later on.  The other really appealing feature is that you always feel as if you’re accomplishing something—either building things, adding to your infrastructure, or generating energy—and rarely as if you’re just treading water.  It gives the game a nicely positive feel that is sometimes missing in complex designs.

This combination of a unique theme, intricate planning, positive gameplay, and strong player interaction makes for a hugely appealing package for players who like meatier Euros.  It’s not particularly short—the box says the duration is 30 minutes per player, but our 4 player games have all lasted about 3 hours.  Each has had at least one first-time player, so that time should come down with experience, but I suspect we’ll be hard pressed to knock the duration much lower than 2.5 hours.  That isn’t a problem at all, as the game is engrossing enough to support that amount of time.  Downtime hasn’t been much of an issue, as there’s plenty to think about during other player’s turns (and most of the time, your planned action will still be available when your turn rolls around).  Still, this is a significant investment in both brainpower and playing time, so those who are looking for a less intense experience should keep that in mind.

All of my games have been with 4 players.  With fewer players, some of the actions are unavailable, but all of the board spaces are in play.  It seems like the 4-player game would provide the greatest amount of interaction, as you can’t help but get in each other’s way.  In theory, the 2 and 3 player games would let people play in their own sandbox more, although the temptation to try to take advantage of your opponents’ positions might be so great that the effects of this will be minimized.  But my thinking is that the 4 player game might be best for folks who want a lot of interaction and 3 players might be better if you don’t want your plans disrupted as much.  I can’t be sure, but the 2 player game might not provide the full Barrage experience.  Finally, there’s also a solo game included, in which the player plays against one or more automas—I haven’t played that yet, but at least there’s a viable option for lovers of solitaire games.

After three games, it’s hard to tell about replayability, but the initial signs are all positive.  The board layout is static, but the way that drops will enter the game each turn, as well as the position of the neutral dams, are all determined randomly at the beginning of the game and these can affect strategies dramatically.  (There are three neutral dams in play each game.  These are important at the start of the game and kickstarts the early actions, as any player can use the drops at one of these to generate energy.)  Pairing each company with a randomly determined executive officer power adds a lot to the replayability.  (The companies’ special powers are all pretty strong—not as game changing as the player abilities in Luciani’s Marco Polo, but still, fairly dramatic—and that also adds to the game’s variety.)  There are 15 additional tech tiles, all of them different—they are all used in every game, but the order in which they come out is random and that also can shake things up a bit.  Most of all, the players themselves make each game play out differently, as subtle shifts in boardplay can have dramatic ramifications.  Our initial games have all felt different, so right now, I’m confident that the game will feel fresh for quite a while, and maybe for as long as we play it.

An expansion has already been released, which is called The Leeghwater Project.  It provides a fifth company, from the Netherlands, although the maximum number of players remains at 4.  It also adds a few new action boards and some very interesting extra actions the players can use.  I’m not the biggest fan of expansions, but this looks promising, as it doesn’t drastically change the game, but just supplements it.  I haven’t had the chance to try it yet, but several of my gaming buddies have and they’re very high on it and feel it’s the best way to play the game.

According to the Geek, the published version of Barrage will be available at the end of October.  Is this a must buy?  Well, if what I’ve described appeals to you, then if you were just basing your decision on its gameplay, then the answer would be a resounding “yes”—it’s a brilliant design, and already sits in my all-time top 20.  But there’s got to be some uncertainty about the production values.  After all, one of my opponents, after his first experience, described it as a “fascinating game wrapped in a smallpox blanket”.  Ouch!  The good news is, there’s some reason for optimism.  Cranio is an established publisher and they’ve never had difficulty in providing quality products in the past.  And they’ve said they’ll replace the truly problematic components, such as the water drops and the production wheels.  But there’s been so many issues with the Kickstarter games that have been delivered and so many missteps in the way the company has handled things that you can’t help but have a healthy level of skepticism.  So I think waiting to see what gets delivered to the early adopters is the most prudent course of action.  Hopefully, the components will be adequate or better and the buzz will be about the wonderful gameplay for a change.

So I guess the ball is in Cranio’s court.  If they can get back on track, we will be the happy recipients of an innovative, challenging, and very interactive design that should delight fans of meaty Eurogames.  Hopefully, that will erase the memory of the game’s ugly origins and we’ll be celebrating another brilliant effort from the superb gaming mind of Simone Luciani, together with newcomer Tommaso Battista.  If, however, Cranio continues to stumble, there will be a bunch of us who will always lament what could have been, even as we play with our makeshift components.  Obviously, I’m hoping for the best, so that for this most controversial of games, the barrage of cheers will finally outweigh the barrage of complaints.

Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers:

Alan H:  I’ve played 5 times now including the solitaire version and 3 player. Larry is right about the lower level of interaction with 3 players – there is less but not by much as some water flows are better built up so naturally players add water to these routes, which causes competition for that precious water. Also in 3 player games one player might be less affected by competition so you can’t let one player play their own game while the other two compete.

I’ve only played the solitaire game once which helped cement the rules but it was really enjoyable. The AI is a set of cards with a flowchart type set of options of the sort that  you would do as a human player. It’s not going to be as nasty/clever as a human so gets bonus points to compensate so there is a challenge.

Having played with the expansion I will always add it in as it doesn’t significantly add to game length but presents some interesting options where some of your machineries are taken out of the game, but for large benefits. I’ve not played enough to evaluate them but they added to a game that I thought was superb already.

As a Kickstarter backer the poor communications were the worst part so that won’t affect anyone anymore and I managed with the components supplied with some care though the water droplets were substituted for. I know this will be fixed in the future.

Overall it was a great game.

Andrea “Liga” Ligabue:  I really love this game. As Larry says the high number of engineers and the amount of possible actions let players adopt many different strategies. There is not real direct interactions but the neutral dams and the 6-3 bonus points from the energy track improves interaction above the standard of the worker-placement family.

I really like games changing and evolving turn after turn. In Barrage you have to play the first turns trying to maximize your points building up your engine and structures for the last turns where you can really score a lot. Like in Marco Polo I love the contracts mechanics that provide several tactical goals inside a strategic structure. I really suggest to play with the advanced technology tiles.

I game I really love and I would like to play and play again.

Craig Massey (4 plays):  I’m probably closer to really liking this game than just like. The production missteps Larry mentions are inexcusable and really take focus away from what is a very good game. The wheels are a hot mess that cause significant frustration with use. The water drops seem like someone went to a craft store, saw something cute, and thought it would be a good idea to use that in the game without any consideration of functionality. Fixes have been promised.

The game and concepts are actually very straightforward and easy to teach. And I suspect that once players are up to speed, there is a lot of scope for diverse strategies given the combination of countries and starting executives as there is in the Voyages of Marco Polo. I have not tried the expansion yet, but I suspect it will be worth a look in short order.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers:

I love it!  Larry, Alan H, Liga

I like it.  Craig M., Lorna

Neutral.  James Nathan

Not for me…

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