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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Dice, Dexterity, and Tactics: A One-play Review of "Barrage Battle"

The application of dexterity to combat resolution in modern game design appears to be an emerging phenomenon, the Western-themed Flick 'em Up the most notable example.  Raechel Mykytiuk and Matthew Kuehn bring a new innovation by blending dexterity with the card-character skirmish format of such games as Up Front and Summoner Wars in the fantasy-themed combat game Barrage Battle, currently on Kickstarter with a funding date of Friday June 24. 


Description

The Kickstarter project offers a nice one-minute descriptive video that highlights the dexterity implementation of ranged combat that distinguishes "Barrage Battle" from most card-based skirmish games.


Players start with the same three cards on the board - king, wizard, and castle - and a hand of cards drawn from a common deck.  The objective is to destroy the enemy king, either by melee, ranged attack, or magic.  A rather large board accommodates cards in a 15x7 grid.  Players will deploy new cards from their hands to the board, move them tactically, and attack opponent's cards in an effort to reach and destroy the enemy king.

Each player's turn starts with a declaration of "Peace," "Engagement," or "War."  The declaration determines how much gold the player receives at the start of the turn vs. how many actions the player can execute on the board.  Gold buys units from the hand to the board.  Three units may move each turn (although movement is restricted in a "Peace" declaration).

Actions consist of attacking, casting spells, or discarding and replacing cards.  Melee attacks against adjacent enemy targets are based on a very simple die roll.  Spells generally have some kind of game-bending effect on units.

The most significant aspect of the game's combat is the ranged fire, whereby players physically throw dice onto the board in an effort to have them land on spaces occupied by the opponent's cards to inflict damage and ultimately eliminate them.  There are restrictions on which units and spaces on the board are susceptible to ranged attack.  Some structures and units - castles, walls, and soldiers - provide ranged fire protection to units immediately behind them.  A few spell cards employ a similar dexterity element, whether throwing a die ("Fireball") or the card itself ("Acid Fog").

The turn ends with drawing the hand back up to ten cards.

Thoughts on Gameplay

The "declaration" step at the beginning of each turn poses the player with an interesting decision between building and attacking.  The early game makes for something of an arms race and a certain degree of brinkmanship in terms of timing the transition from construction to assault.

The different unit abilities - combined with the dexterity implementation of ranged combat - makes for some interesting tactical options.  A Javelineer or Archer advancing behind the cover of a Soldier or Seige Tower can do lethal damage to enemy defenses.  A Knight can exploit holes in defenses.  A Swordsman behind the enemy lines can wreak considerable damage.  The result is that a liberal deployment of various unit types provides opportunities for some interesting combined arms tactics, especially when augmented by the appropriate magic spells.

Whereas the economy of money seems reasonably well balanced in terms of the rate of military cards being deployed to the field each turn, the same can not be said for mana and spell cards.  With only one mana crystal being received per turn and spell cards costing one to six mana to bring into play, on average a player will bring one spell card into play every three turns or so.  As other cards are played and the hand is replenished, the hand tends to accumulate spell cards faster than they can be used.  The result is that the hand fills up with more spells and fewer military cards, until the player spends actions to refresh the hand.  While this pattern might be a deliberate design decision, it feels like an imbalanced flow between mana and spell cards that could have been designed out.

One aspect of "Barrage Battle" that may disappoint some card-based skirmish game enthusiasts is the perfect symmetry of the game.  Players start with an identical order of battle and draw hands from a common deck.  Fans of differentiated factions in the manner of Summoner Wars - or even such historical wargames as Up Front - will find no such race- or nation-specific characterization here.  The game format certainly allows for such expansions, but so far the only plans appear to be for new individual unit types and an expansion for up to four players - not new separate factions.

Components and graphic layout

The art style by Manolis Frangidis complements the thematic fantasy battle gameplay nicely - neither light-hearted cartoon nor heavy-handed hyper-realism.  The overall color palette is muted, almost dark, which sets the tone of the game well but makes some units difficult to distinguish at first glance.  The different background color for each unit type helps in this regard.

My review copy has cards with terribly small font, particularly the flavor text, and some dark red icons on dark grey background that make them very difficult to see.  The publisher tells me that they have since revised the colors and font style to make the cards more legible.  I also noticed at least one spelling error that I would expect to be corrected in final editing.

Gender awareness deserves mention when discussing almost any fantasy-themed game, it seems.  As a battle game, the predominance of male military unit characters is not surprising.  The one female character, the Dame, has a military role in the game, and in fact is one of the more powerful units - rather like the queen in chess.  My opponent (a woman) called the Dame a "bad-ass," and I would agree.  I considered the Dame's artistic rendition inoffensive if a bit fantastic, but my wife's first impression was that the Dame has the appearance of a dominatrix.  So it would seem that gender representation is in the eye of the beholder, and I leave the reader to his or her own judgment.

Not easy to read "Barrage Battle"
on this game shelf

A criticism I have of the box cover graphic layout is that the color of the lettering on the sides of the box does not contrast strongly enough with the other box art colors, so that the name of the game does not stand out well.  This issue is eminently fixable prior to production, so the publishers will have an opportunity to correct it prior to going to print.

The dice come in a surprising variety.  The Crystal Caste six-sided dice represent a particularly novel implementation of the dexterity aspect of the game, although they only come into play for one of the missile unit types.  The need for the different types of dice for different types of ranged attacks in the base game isn't entirely clear, although the project author hints at expansion cards that may make more specific use of the different die types.
Crystal Caste six-sided dice used in missile fire

Summary

In a first play-through of the game, players will still be developing a dice-throwing technique, and we found in our game that melee combat was generally more effective than ranged missile fire.  The designers tell me that with practice, they have found ranged combat to be quite deadly, so the game play can be expected to evolve with the skill of the players.  The unit abilities clearly emphasize the ranged combat aspect of the game, so as its role grows more prominent, so will the tactical implications.

The game would likely find broader appeal if it featured factions with unique units and special abilities.  As it stands, the design emphasizes dexterity and tactics over variable player advantages.

"Barrage Battle" will appeal to fans of card-driven heads-up skirmish combat in a relatively straightforward format that still carries some tactical depth, as well as to fans of dexterity games.  It will hold less interest for those who dislike dexterity games, who prefer more sophisticated and complex wargames, or who dislike confrontational conflict games in general.

A review copy of "Barrage Battle" was provided by the publisher.  No other consideration was given for this review.

2 comments:

  1. Intriguing.

    Accuracy of where a die lands is largely a function of velocity, height of release, and lateral release point. How is the location of release point enforced in the rules? Even in the demo videos, it appears the players release late.

    Range fire might disfavor gamers who are not good at rolling dice in a controlled manner without using a container of some sort (such as a box lid or dice tower). What about players who 'snap' cards down, bending the corners slightly?

    Would this game disadvantage gamers with physical handicaps?

    Is the play a bit like Stratego? Is it a bit like Disk Wars without nation-race-faction specific flavor?

    Certainly an intriguing change of pace.

    "terribly small font" -- that alone could be the subject of a blog or podcast. :-)

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  2. The rules require that the die be released from behind the firing unit, but otherwise enforcement is presumably by the eyeball of the opponent. If this game were in a tournament competition, there would probably have to be a referee watching every throw to rule on disputed shots.

    I think there's a fundamental difference between tossing a polyhedron to land it on a particular spot and rolling a die to determine a randomized result. But regardless, it is certainly true that there is a certain physical skill in getting the die to land where you want it. Also, the cards can slide on the board. More than once a die would land on a card, and both die and card would slide some small distance. What matters is the location of the die's final resting place on the board, regardless of any cards getting shifted (which are restored to their original positions). I hadn't thought about bent card corners; I don't think that would significantly affect where the die ends up, though.

    The game would definitely disadvantage any player with a handicap that inhibited throwing a die, or moving around the table to get to a throwing position.

    Unlike Stratego, (1) all units are visible and (2) combat results are not automatic. Ultimately, I don't think there are many similarities to Stratego in gameplay and tactics. I don't remember Disk Wars well enough to comment on that.

    Yeah, there's a running joke with a few people I know that every time I bring a game, they have to get out their reading glasses. :-)

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