Campaign-based board games are my absolute favorite genre in all of gaming. I’ve played campaigns that had incredible narrative, amazing emergent storytelling, legacy games that leave the game with permanent physical changes as you play through them, and everything in-between. Even after years in this hobby with dozens of games like this under my belt I still want more. I’m inherently biased toward this type of game to the point that the opportunity to review Bardsung drew me out of a 2-year writing hiatus and got my review-juices flowing again. Rather than tease out my true thoughts over the course
of this review I’m going to say upfront that this is not the game for everyone, but hot-damn if it isn’t exactly what I was hoping it would be, and I can’t wait to dive back in for more.
What Is Bardsung?
Bardsung is a campaign based boardgame by Steamforged Games that attempts to straddle the line between board game and D20-based RPG’s. It’s a massive box full of mostly beautiful components with one of the best inserts I’ve ever come across that make it a breeze to set up and tear down. Bardsung is a massive table hog that simultaneously demands all the flat surfaces you can possibly muster while also allowing you and your group to open the box and hop back into the adventure within minutes. One thing that immediately sets Bardsung apart from other games in this genre, and lands it squarely in not-for-everyone territory, is that the game’s Encounters (the term Bardsung uses for missions/dungeons)
have to be played in groups in order to really get the most out of it.
How Does It Feel To Play Bardsung?
Bardsung happily combines a D20 combat and skill system that would make any DND 5e player feel at home with dungeon crawl mechanics that feel familiar to avid board gamers. It comes with tons of cards and piles of gorgeous miniatures. The story is incredibly well written, and the bits of narrative feel fresh and interesting, although you do have to work for them as they are peppered about and not doled out on a set interval or timeline.
Each of Bardsung’s 5 character classes feel unique, and, while they are all trope-adjacent, they feel unique to this type of game. Progression, via earned Experience Points, is satisfying and there are numerous options for making your chosen hero stronger be that it come in the form of a minor stat increase, or in the more bombastic acquisition of a brand-new skill, or an upgrade to an existing skill. There is also treasure to be found that can range from consumable items to upgrades that you can slot into your weapons to make them stronger to items that could potentially lead to narrative events based on how they are used. Hero progression is one of the absolute highlights of Bardsung, and players can even cross-class if they chose, as most of the skills included with each hero can be purchased by anyone, not just that class.
The one downside to the uniqueness of the Hero classes in the game is that some party compositions, if playing less than the full compliment of 5, are obviously easier to play. While you certainly can make progress with different party setups, groups that are light on damage dealers will have a slower, more prolonged experience than parties who can chop monsters to bits, and if you want to jump into Bardsung as a true solo player you’ll really be limited to which class you’ll want to choose as the damage output on some of them simply isn’t great.
Moving at a slower pace isn’t necessarily a bad thing but considering the sheer volume of Chapters and Encounters in Bardsung, a slower pace is going to add up to a significant amount of time over the course of the campaign. Bardsung has a massive amount of content in the box. The volume of that content is both why I personally love this game, and why I think many people won’t enjoy Bardsung as much as I do.
The campaign is split into Chapters, and each Chapter consist of several Encounters. Each Encounter takes my group of 4 between 30min and 1.5 hours to play through. While the experience points are doled out at a regular rate, usually after each Encounter, the narrative and story beats generally play out at the Chapter level. This means that the excellent writing is often separated by hours of gameplay, and your tolerance for the grind of the Encounters is going to determine whether this is going to be a must-buy for you or a total pass.
The gameplay itself is quick and snappy, and you can quickly jump into the game, start an Encounter and be well on your way. On the flip side, each Chapter has a limited enemy pool, and the Encounter types, while technically consisting of 8 varieties, have some that are so similar that they feel essentially the same. Some Chapters also stretch on for quite a bit longer than others. Of the 8 Chapters we’ve played to date we had Chapters as short as 3 Encounters and one that lasted 8 Encounters.
The Chapters do wrap the theme into the enemies and hazards that you’ll face, and almost always tie the goal and advancement directly into the theming as well. This really shines during longer sessions where you play a Chapter’s Encounters back-to-back-to-back, and really sell the thematic feel of searching for a key or series of items needed to progress. The other side of that coin is that, played piecemeal with long breaks in between, Chapters structured that way could leave you feeling directionless.
Does Bardsung Set Itself Apart From Other Campaign Board Games?
While Bardsung does consist of many elements that will feel familiar to those experienced with campaign-style board games, the combination of those systems and the way the story branches make it feel unique and retain the fun factor while avoiding feeling derivative. The story offers players choices from the very beginning and immediately branches, with those branches leading to further offshoots and paths that change the story and experience throughout.
For adventurous groups that want to dive into multiple campaign plays of Bardsung the option to have a different story experience opens from the very first choice made, and branches further and further from there. The Chapters also present players with choices of how to proceed and some branches will be locked or hidden, adding further elements of exploration and discovery.
Finally, the story has four separate endings, further adding to the replayability factor. Each jaunt through the story should take players through 10 or so Chapters of the game's 31, and it would take nearly 10 full trips through the game to see each and every Chapter. Further altering each play is are the narrative twists and turns offered via the cards that are seeded throughout the Chapters, so even a run through of the same path through the game will have different story beats and discoveries.
The combat system sets itself apart from many games by having the heroes do all the rolling, testing both their attacks and their defense against enemy attacks against the enemy Target Number. This keeps players engaged throughout. It’s far more satisfying to roll for defense than it is to have an enemy roll target you as you stand-by to see what happens to you. That extra bit of engagement means that everyone is alert and ready when it’s time for their hero to act, cutting out the ever- present threat of someone growing bored and reaching for their phone once they’ve taken their turn for the round.
Is Bardsung The Chosen One, Or Are There Some Chinks In Its Armor?
Bardsung is designed intentionally to be a slow burn which means that the very nature of the game will rule it out for certain gaming groups, and while the insert is one of the absolute best I’ve ever had the pleasure of organizing a game in, it will not fit sleeved cards, so if you are the type of person who sleeves every card in every game you are going to have some storage-related stress to contend with. Those exact same factors will mean that other groups absolutely love the game as it will feel like it was designed specifically for them. Regardless of the side of those isles you land on there are a few issues that anyone who plays the game will encounter and while they don’t halt the experience, they do add a bit of frustration.
The foremost issue with Bardsung is the graphic design and art on some cards and tiles. The tiles are gorgeous, but the delineation of spaces (called Zones) can be next to impossible to tell when you first start playing because the lines between Zones aren’t visualized well enough via the art. The game comes with a guide that shows where the edges of the Zones reside on the tiles, and over time as you grow in familiarity with the tiles you can start to pick them out more easily, but it can lead to quite a bit of frustration when you are jumping in and trying to adventure.
The second issue that we encountered was the size of the text on some of the cards. We had to get our phones out and use the camera to magnify some of the cards to see exactly what symbol the card was referring to. Again, once you know you know, but it’s still an aggravation, especially when the card has more than enough room for the text and symbols to have been enlarged.
Finally, the game requires the shuffling of cards to determine turn order each round (and often multiple times per round). The issue here is that the card backs are different, so in order to shuffle in a way that is truly random you either need to sleeve your cards or put them out of sight (under the table, or behind your back), a minor annoyance, but still something to consider.
What Are Our Final Thoughts On Bardsung?
My group absolutely loves Bardsung. We can’t wait to see our first journey through to its conclusion, and we greatly enjoy the exploration aspect of the game. While there is a level of grind involved, we continue to enjoy our journey through the campaign as the trickle of rewards and story bits keep our interest. The choices offered feel interesting and varied and the combat remains fun, quick, and engaging. While the graphic design choices of some of the cards aren’t as intuitive as we’d like we haven’t let that stop us from really digging in, getting engaged with our chosen heroes and charging headlong into further adventure.
Should I Buy Bardsung?
Bardsung is absolutely worth the money if you enjoy spending a lot of time with a single game, especially if you like longer D&D-style sessions that last multiple hours. If you like a slow-burn adventure where your choices will determine your path through the story, and you are looking for a game that feels like the love child of a tabletop RPG, a boardgame and a choose your own adventure book then you’ve found exactly what you are looking for. The deliberately measured pace of Bardsung moves even more slowly than many other massive campaign games on the market, and your desire to dedicate large amounts of time engrossing yourself in this world will really determine the value that you get back out of it. If you are the type to set up a game and leave it on the table for an entire weekend, or even longer, then Bardsung is for you. The writing is great and the different paths through the campaign, combined with 4 separate endings, mean that the replayability of Bardsung is extraordinarily high for a thematic Campaign game.
Conversely, if you prefer rapid fire, constantly changing gameplay, or if your group is the type that prefers to play multiple different games each time you get together then Bardsung is almost certainly not for you. Playing Bardsung only one crawl at a time with breaks in between simply won’t allow the design and the flow of the game to sink its hooks into you.
The copy of Bardsung used in this review was provided by the publisher.