Occasionally I'll see a game where a single interestic mechanic hooks me. In Barbarians: The Invasion, that mechanic was a rotating game board that represents an active volcano where you place your heroic champions. Placing a bunch of warrior men & women clad in animal furs on top of an ever-shifting volcano is probably the most barbarian thing I can think of, so I was keen on checking out this title by Tabula Games and see how it all played out.
In Barbarians: The Invasion, you play as the leader of a clan of Barbarians (to the surprise of no one). You and your fellow players are competing to conquer as much of the mysterious World of Fenian as possible. You'll accomplish this through a mix of praying to pagan Gods, sacrificing mighty Warchiefs, and conquering entire swathes of enemy tribes that aren't cool enough to send a champion to the volcano. The player who can acquire the most Domination points is the winner!
The volcano is one of the most interesting bits of the game. It's a multi-tiered structure with different icons representing different actions on it. If you want to erect a building, acquire a new god, or go to war, you'll have to place a champion on the appropriate space on the volcano. Three (sometimes four) champions are placed per era, and the first one determines the route you can travel as you take your successive turns. A player wishing to seek out a particular space must be careful not to afford their opponent the opportunity to snap it up. The volcano's tiers can rotate, and player cards or certain points in the game will mean that the field shifts for everyone. Careful planning can help you get to the right options, but sometimes the actions of others will lead you down a less-than-ideal path.
Barbarians: The Invasion is primarily about war. Everything in the game supplements your efforts to conquer as much of the land as possible. You can have up to three Gods & Warchiefs to supply you with unique bonuses or assist you in battle. Buildings can be used at the beginning of an era to generate resources (which are likely to be spent on creating more troops). Each of the game's four clans has its own optional unique ability that further mixes up the play and might guide you towards a particular playstyle.
In two of the games we played, I had attempted to go for a strong economic strategy. There were a handful of cards that would award you points on the end of the game based on the resources you had. My strategy was more or less successful, but the potential for earning Domination points was a pittance in comparison to what you could make by waging war. In all of our games, one thing was clear - war is the way to win. If you're hoping for a game where you can vary your strategy, you'll find yourself somewhat restricted in Barbarians: The Invasion. Granted, you don't have to go for a full-throated campaign against every scrap of territory, but you'll need to engage in a healthy amount of conquering if you want the slightest chance of winning.
The copy of the game I received had multiple world maps, and each of the world maps had several islands separate into distinct territories. Each territory requires different troops, and each of the troop types requires two of the game's resources to create. Combat is simply a matter of throwing soldiers at your enemy until you've won every battle. Conquering a territory will net you a few measly Domination points, but the real potential for score lies in the bonus you get for linking consecutive areas of the map into a massive empire.
Part of your strategy will inevitably be in how you choose to invest in the Knowledge Tracks. Barbarian Knowledge will let you travel to further islands, remove penalties from losing a battle (or battles!), gain additional resources from the volcano, and activate more buildings at the start of every Era. Tactics Knowledge simply reduces the number of battles you fight against each of the game's four enemy NPC clans. These particular Knowledge Tracks can reduce a mandatory 6 battles all the way down to 2 if you're wise enough to invest in it.
The ultimate arc of the game is split into six Eras. Each Era is ended by playing either a Feast card or Famine card. Feast cards will often grant free resources or allow players the opportunity to spend excess resources in exchange for Domination points. Famine cards are terrifying, demonic creatures that demand a bounty of 1 Gold or you'll face the penalty of losing several Domination points. The game concludes at the end of the sixth Era or the end of any Era after a player has reached 100 Domination points.
Mechanically, my group was not as fond of the laser-like focus on combat in Barbarians: The Invasion. I can totally respect the design decision for this, and it's something you should probably guess going in. For goodness' sake, you draft your actions by placing buff Barbarian champions on top of an active volcano. I'd be disappointed if the game didn't have a whole bunch of brutal, skull-crushing combat. That said, it would have been nice to see the potential for a little more diversification in the path to victory. Ultimately, the winner was the one who was able to conquer the most land, thanks in part to the hefty bonuses for acquiring consecutive plots of territory.
The game's core rules are nicely supplemented by a number of included extra modules & expansions. These can mix up gameplay to a degree, but it still fundamentally boils down to players conquering as much land as they can. If you do enjoy this style of gameplay, the additional maps and alternate ways to play are sure to add a lot of replayability to an already solid game.
Barbarians: The Invasion used plastic figurines in the version of the game I received - the same version that anyone else who backed it on Kickstarter would have gotten. Most of the dozens of miniatures were unscathed, but a handful had suffered some sort of damage in transport. I'm not sure if this speaks to poor material quality or bad luck, but I had to effect repairs on a few of the game's figurines. The volcano board didn't always turn smoothly, and the colored rings placed on the bases of the miniatures to represent who owned them would sometimes fall off. We eventually remedied the latter problem by affixing a small amount of tape to act as a buffer.
The last important note to mention is simply how much space this game takes up. Accomidating two game boards, player score cards, and our individual hands made us very tight for space on our play area. If you can't spare a roughly 3' x 3' (approximately 1 meter x 1 meter) area, you're going to have a difficult time juggling all of the moving bits and pieces for this particular title.
In the end, Barbarians: The Invasion proved for a good bit of fun even though my group wasn't as fond of this particular style of game. If you enjoy games that are all about conquering the world with brutal warriors you should definitely check it out.
The Bottom Line:
Barbarians: The Invasion is a game that mixes worker placement and strategy elements into a game with a strong focus on conquering territory. Additional modules & an in-box expansion provide for a lot of replayability, and the game takes up a lot of table space to fit two game boards and all of the player cards.
Get This Game If:
- You want to best your friends at conquering as much territory as possible.
- You enjoy games with the aesthetic of a 1980's heavy metal album cover.
- You like to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.
- You dislike games with a strong focus on combat.
- You don't have a healthy amount of table space for tabletop gaming.
What do you think of Barbarians: The Invasion? Do you enjoy games with dynamic boards or do you prefer a more static experience? Let us know in the comments below!