Et tu, Barbarus?
It's Christmas Eve, my house is freezing, it's raining outside, so I'm going to blog! I've been testing a new game that is very exciting to me, as it's simple and somewhat of a departure from some of my other text-heavy card games. It's called Barbarus, and in a nutshell, it's about bribing barbarians and backstabbing. BBB!
I've been listening to The History of Rome podcast lately. It's fantastic and well worth your time if you're at all interested in Roman history. In the episodes about the Second Punic War, the host mentioned the Battle of the Upper Baetis. What you need to know about this is that the Carthaginian general, Hannibal's brother, observed that the mercenaries would fight for the highest bidder. He bribed the Roman mercenaries out from under them and at the start of the battle, they left. The Romans lost the battle. Badly.
That seemed like a fantastic premise for a game.
- Barbarians of uncertain loyalty
- Hidden bribes
- Shaky alliances
I like to try to dabble in different mechanisms and genres and often when I start a design, it's because I haven't done something in that space. I was thinking about how I haven't made an auction game, then thought immediately to the brilliant High Society and Modern Art, two of my favorite games which happen to be from Reiner Knizia. I started from there.
In Barbarus, 3-6 players act as Consuls in command of rival City-States. I'm using the Roman setting, but this is all playing fast and loose with history. Every player has an identical set of 14 tokens, each with two variables:
The Gold distribution is: 0 (2x), 1000 (3x), 3000 (2x), 5000 (2x), 10000, 12000, 15000, 20000, 25000. The Legion distribution follows from lowest to highest from 0-3.
These tokens are used for their gold value to bid for First Consul and Bribe Barbarians. They are used for the Legion value in war. As you use the tokens, they go to a discard pile. Once your bag runs out, you toss your discarded tokens back in, and begin drawing from it again. So, for those familiar with High Society, the tokens are not single-use.
Let's go through the basic flow of the game. It is played in rounds, with a few phases in order.
In the first phase, every player draws until they have 6 tokens.
In the second phase, players use their tokens, or pass, to bid for First Consul. The bids continue going around until there is a single player remaining. Every bid has to exceed a prior bid. You cannot make change or exchange tokens previously bid. Players who pass get their tokens back, but the player who claims First Consul discards the tokens spent.
In the third phase, the Barbarians enter the picture. Some begin the game in the middle of the table, ready to be bribed, but the First Consul always draws the top Barbarian and adds it to their Army. You'll notice the Barbarian above has a Legion value of 5. Whereas a player's tokens only go from 0-3, the Barbarians range from 3-6. You need them to win!
You have some number of Barbarians out, now. If it's the beginning of the game, you have one in front of the First Consul and a few in the middle of the table. If it's late in the game, several players will have Barbarians in front of them. Now, beginning to the left of First Consul, each player may Bribe any number of Barbarians using any tokens in their hand. Bribes are stacked and played face down. Remember there are two blanks, which are wonderful for bluffs. Each player may bribe once or pass. First Consul gets the last go.
Now, it's time for war! The First Consul must choose another Consul to attack, as well as a Province over which to fight. There are essentially two kinds of Provinces: ones that provide many points, and ones that provide fewer points, but a small bonus.
This distinction came about through testing -- there needed to be a reason to not just take the highest value (though there were some other subtleties, that's the summary). So, First Consul says "I'm going to attack Bob for the 5 Province." There are 3 Provinces to choose from, so once one is selected, it is taken, and another is drawn from the deck.
First Consul and Bob can both try to recruit an ally. This player will give them one token of their choice, which can be used in the fight. Now, the ally can promise great things, then hand them a turd. But, the ally's incentive is a Triumph, which is worth points at the end.
So, we have our war, with a province, and any allies are settled. Now, it's time to fight. First, we need to see where the Barbarian loyalties lie. The Bids on any Barbarians that belong to either Consul in the fight are revealed. The Barbarians move to the highest bidder. Any Barbarians without bids from the warring Consuls? They stay in place. They'll be resolved when it's their time to fight.
With the Barbarians figured out, the First Consul can choose any of their Barbarians and 1 or 2 of their tokens for their Legion value. 1 of those 2 tokens may be an ally's token. These tokens are played face down, so the attacked Consul doesn't know exactly what's coming their way. They may use any of their Barbarians and 1 or 2 tokens as well. Again, one of those two may be their ally's token.
With everything decided, the tokens are revealed. The side with the highest Legion value (Barbarian + Consul + Ally) wins. The winner, even if they are the defender, claims the Province for their score pile. The Ally of the winner claims a Triumph card for their score pile. And for the loser? They must place one of their tokens used in the war on the Casualty card. At the end of the game, this subtracts 3 points from their score and they cannot use that token any more.
It's key to note -- you cannot put your ally's tokens on the Casualty card. Any Barbarians used by the loser are removed from the game. They have no time for this mess.
That, in a nut shell, is the game. To summarize:
- Players replenish their hand of tokens
- Players bid for First Consul. First Consul gets a Barbarian, gets last Bribe, and chooses who to fight.
- Players Bribe Barbarians.
- First Consul declares war and chooses a province to fight over.
- The Bribes are revealed and the war is fought.
How the game has developed? The initial test was a bit of a mess. Though well-meaning, there were about 8 different places and reasons to draw tokens and it was super confusing. I simplified this by giving players up to 6 at the start of the round and this greatly fixed things.
Originally, your final score was provinces claimed and the tokens you still had, but this led to a few problems. One, if you lost one of your high value tokens, you were effectively out of the game. Two, it led to a tedious "tally up your score" at the end of the game. Nobody likes that in Ascension, so why do it here? I realized that losing a valuable token is punishment enough, then added a flat tax to losing units.
The Barbarians were originally not much better than your Legions, which meant that spending tokens on Barbarians that might betray you wasn't a worthwhile risk. So, I greatly increased the Barbarian value. Now, you need to take that risk, which is good as that is the game.
Three player was testing very strongly at this point, so I brought in some folks for a 5 player game. Here, I found a few issues, namely king making and folks feeling like they couldn't win in that last round. For starters, there used to be 5 fixed provinces, worth a LOT more, and you could steal them from a player. Due to the disparity in their value, it really boiled down to who had the biggest Province last. I did a few things to fix this.
- I reduced the value of provinces and tightened the range
- I made the Triumphs more valuable
- I made it so Provinces couldn't be stolen
- I added a bonus to the lower value provinces to add that choice
But, in a 5-6 player game, I'm worried that there isn't enough time for other players to get involved. Therefore, I added the Second Consul. This isn't tested yet, but the idea is that you simply have two Consuls that drive things. You can only bid for First or Second Consul, but once you're in that contest, you either pay more, or pass, as if there was only one Consul. The First Consul is the only one who gets a Barbarian, which makes their position slightly more valuable. First Consul is the first to declare war and gets first pick of the Province. But, Second Consul also declares war. This means that more Provinces are at stake, there are more ally positions available, and more Triumphs to be won.
One other thing I found out, which you might have noticed in some mistakes. Originally, the game featured cards for player's to spend for Bribes and bids. But, they took up so much table space. A friend suggested I use tokens. Of course! There is so little information on them that tokens are perfect. They'll be satisfying and tactile, you can stack them, and slam them down like coins.
I'm pretty excited by Barbarus at this point. I'm always trying to design games that my group will enjoy, as that leads to easier testing, and a game with bribing and backstabbing is, well, up their alley.
If you're curious about Barbarus, you can read the rules (and comment on them) here. I'm not ready to share the PNP, in that it would be me saying "this game is worth your time!" but if you're really curious, I do have a PNP. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Merry Christmas folks.