Add lands, various special buildings, and knights to your barony in the race to build a cathedral. An interesting taxation mechanic and a variety of cards give this strategic little card game plenty of replayability.
Time: 60 Minutes
Designer: Thomas Colthurst
Publisher: Cambridge Games Factory
Components: The usual Cambridge Games Factory plastic case (alas), well-explained rulebook, a setup reference card, and 212 cards -- 50 of each land type (color), 6 to swap in for two-player games, and 6 starting castles. The cutting on some of the cards was a little off, with the result that the occasional card has an edge of another color.
Each player gets a castle in the middle of his board, and one facedown card of each color to fill the four adjacent edges. This forms the starting barony, with one of each land. Players then draw three cards of a single color, discarding one to select a starting player.
On your turn, you take three phases in order:
1) You may play any action cards, knights, or abilities on buildings you already have in play. Some buildings, once played in a previous round, allow a special ability once per turn. Playing cards (including action cards) may have an associated cost, requiring you to discard cards of a certain color to play them. Knights, if used to attack, destroy a card on an opposing field that is not protected. (The starting barony is protected.) Knights used to defend are placed on your board, protecting all adjacent cards.
2) Play one building or land. Most buildings have a cost to play. Some will allow you to use activated abilities in phase 1, while other buildings give you a benefit simply for being built. All cards played onto your board must be connected to the castle through a series of adjacent cards. Any cards not connected to your castle are not active. If you do not play a building, you may play any card from your hand facedown as a land of that color.
3) Tax your lands by picking one contiguous set of lands of a single color, and drawing one card of that color for each land in the set, to a maximum of four.
The first player to build a cathedral wins.
NOTE: This is only a brief summary, with many details omitted.
The Good And Bad
Fast but interesting gameplay. Turns are relatively short, generally consisting of a couple quick actions or knights, followed by a single building or land, and then taxation. This keeps the game moving at a pretty good clip. However, the diversity of cards ensures that after your first turn or two, you'll have plenty of tempting card plays to choose from.
The multi-use cards force you to make a lot of interesting decisions. Each card in your hand has three possible uses: It can be discarded to pay another card's cost, it can be played face-down as a land, or it can be played face-up as whatever it is (building, knight, action, etc.). The flexibility gives you a lot of strategic options -- not only which cards to play, but what to play them as.
Taxation is a clever mechanic that lets your early decisions nudge you in certain directions. Whatever color you start with is likely to be a color you tax and play early on, expanding those lands and drawing more of that color. If you've started with green, you're likely to accumulate a full grip of buildings, whereas if you started with yellow, you may soon have a hand full of action cards. Regardless, the cards you draw will likely guide which color you tax next, and a yellow into blue strategy will feel very different than a green into red one.
The large variety of cards definitely makes the game a lot of fun. There are many ways the cards interact to give you various benefits. With so many cards that do so many different things, the replayability on this game is very high.
The gameplay is fast and fun, and I have nothing bad to say about it.
The components, on the other hand, leave something to be desired. Many of the cards have a bland-feeling clip art type of illustration that does the game no favors.
In addition, some of the cards in my copy were mis-cut, with the result that off-color edges on a few card backs result in what are essentially marked cards. I do not know if this problem persists throughout the entire run, or is a rarity present in only a few early copies, but seeing the occasional yellow edge on a non-yellow card is an annoyance.
Barons is a top-notch game, marred only by sub-standard components. Easy to learn and fast to play, but with plenty of strategy, this is a fun one for sure. Right after you finish, players are likely to start thinking and talking about what they are going to do better or try differently next time.
The game leaves you hungry for more, with enough strategy that you can make plans in advance and enough different cards that there will be another plan you want to try next time.