When I first saw the logo for the Massachusetts-based Greenbrier games, I sort of made a snap judgement for what sort of company I was about to meet with. Bloody and apocalyptic, it makes you think that Greenbrier will tap into the darker side of gaming. So it was quite the surprise to arrive and see their newest game be a little strategy game starring adorable little bears.
After speaking with VP and COO of Greenbrier Julie Ahern, I learned that Greenbrier has an incredibly diverse stable of games for a company its size. Their philosophy, I was told, was simply to make games that are fun to play. And while some of their games like Zpocalypes (their first and no doubt inspiration for their logo) and Folklore: The Affliction are certainly as dark as one might expect, they also can see the lighter side of things. Examples include the card puzzle game Burger Up, the dice battle game Ninja Dice, and their newest game released in collaboration with Leaf Pile Games: Barbearians: Battleground, a game who’s rather cutesy appearance belies a surprisingly deep level of strategy.
A Bear There Was! A Bear! A Bear!
Barbearians: Battlegrounds came into being during the development of Champions of Hara, a sci-fi adventure game released this year. While putting together that game, the developers started messing around with wordplay involving the denizens of the world. One thing led to another, and they ended up turning the aliens into bears and developing a whole new game around the little fuzzy creatures.
The game is a “simultaneous secret-action, dice-puzzle, worker placement game”, where up to four players square off to make their clan of bears the most powerful in the forest and cement their place in the legends. Each player gets a a village board and a clan screen that correspond to their chosen bears: the nordic seafaring Ice Bear Clan, the Ewok-like Forest Bear Clan, the dark and industrial Fire Bear Clan, and the nomadic Desert Bear Clan.
The boards represent the places in your village where your clan’s bears do their work, whether it be warrior bears off to raid the neighbears or honey bears tending the village hives. These bears are represented by dice of which each player gets three to start, but that number can be increased to five throughout the course of the game. Players also receive Glory Tokens, the ultimate resource in the game: first to seven wins. Finally, players get a Trial Card, a card that essentially acts as a “quest” for them to complete that earns them one or more Glory tokens. Some of these are easy, like generating 5 resources in a round, while others are harder, like fending off an 11 strong force of bears attacking. As the game goes on, successful completion of these trials are vital to leading your clan to victory.
The game proceeds through a rigid series of four rounds: Plan, Brawl, Gather, and Build. Half open and half secret, the Plan phase is probably one of the unique parts of the game and where a great deal of the strategy comes into play. Players actually roll all of their dice together, meaning that each clan will know what their neighbear’s bearpower will be going into the next round. An unlucky clan who rolls many ones might be a ripe target for a raid, while one with higher numbers would prove to be a formidable foe.
These numbers also can give you an idea of what resources a clan might gather, as low numbers let a clan gather honey and high numbers let them refine ore at the Forge. Any number can be used to gather Faith, though a six placed here can either double your faith or make your glory untouchable by raiders. The players then place their dice where they want, hidden from the others by your clan screen. Then, either all together or in order, the players pull their screens back and reveal their plots.
The Brawl phase is where you send your bloodthirsty packs of adorable bear warriors to raid and pillage the enemy clans (or pray to the Bear God that the bears you put on defense will keep your honey safe). This is pretty straightforward, with the larger army (represented by the numbers on the dice allocated for attack) defeating smaller ones. But victory in the field is not enough to get to a clan’s riches. Your diminished forces must then contend with your rival’s defenses, should they have them. If you still have the bigger army, or they are defenseless, than the world is your honeypot and your bears can walk away from the enemy village with two resources or a glory token (should they have any that are unlocked).
Then comes the Gather phase, when players simply count up what their industrious bears have done while their friends were off doing murder-theft. These resources are then spent on the final phase: the Build phase. Here, you can spend your resources on Specialists, which give +1 to resources or defense depending on their type, Reinforcements, which permanently adds another die to your pool, and the Grand Offering, where you give your gathered wealth up to the Bear God to gain a new glory token. Finally, you may buy Upgrade cards, special buffs you can attain to help your bears during the game, most of which are centered around truly glorious puns. My favorite was “The 2nd Amendment,” which increases your ability to empower your bears and which has arts of bears wielding an assortment of weapons. Yup, its the right to arm bears.
Not all of the things in the Marketplace are for the Build phase exclusively, however. Two of them occur during the Plan phase: Hire A Mercenary, which add special purple dice to your pool and increase your bearpower for that turn, and Change Fate, which allows a die to be rerolled. The Empower ability is bought and used during the Brawl stage, and it allows you to give +1 power to your raiders or your defenders, depending on where it’s needed.
Ursome Game or Teddy-ous Chore?
I really enjoy this game. Strategy games are some of my favorite to play with friends, but it’s hard to cordon off the 38 hours needed to do a full game of Risk or Eschaton (as much as I love that game). Barebearians: Battlegrounds lets you scratch that strategic itch in under an hour. It’s something that is much less common than you’d think: a strategy party game. The easy to understand rules and adorable art means it also is a great gateway drug for people new to the genre. The mixture of hidden choices and open roles means that there’s also a deduction element thrown in as you try to guess your opponents moves even as you plan your own. They also allow for multiple playstyles, meaning you also have to get a feel for if your neighbor is trying to become a raiding juggernaut, a hero of the Trials, or something even more powerful.
If there is a downside to this game, its that it tends to snowball pretty quickly. While all players are equal in the beginning, a few successful rounds can put rival clans at a disadvantage that is very difficult to overcome. A lot of this comes down to the Trial cards, which add an element of RNG to how rapidly you accumulate glory. As an example, one player in my test game got lucky with a few easy trial cards that let them get close to victory very early. In fact, the other players didn’t even get a chance to finish their own trials. Even as players get more and more powerful, that extra buffer of Glory means the lucky player has much less work to do to win.
The other problem, albeit one I’m sure Greenbrier can easily remedy, is the rather small scope of the game. Maxing out at four players seems overly limiting considering the fun and accessible it is. Bumping the player max up to six or more would definitely open the game up to really become something that could be great for parties.
Despite a few minor issues that really don’t spoil and of the fun this game provides, this was a big surprise for me coming out of GenCon. It is very much a hidden-gem and a must have for anyone who loves strategy, deduction, and of course, bears.
It gets 4 stars (or honeypots if you like) out of 5
BarBearians: Battlegrounds releases this fall and will retail for $24.95. For more information on this game and others, you can visit Greenbrier’s website. And, as always, keep an eye on the Fandomentals for updates and reviews on the latest games and more from Greenbrier Games!
(Big thanks to GreenBrier Games and Julie Ahern for the review material and the images used in this review)