Barrage Review

Barrage - Cover

Apparently, you can’t polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter; the experience where one is given a poor product and attempts to improve it with bling or add-ons. Whilst this slightly latrine-based phrase is all-too-common, I am yet to hear its antonym; the also common situation where you have a fantastic thing and by fair means or foul, gradually reduce its quality from mirror shine to greasy smear. A situation we find ourselves in here.

Barrage from Cranio Creations is an engine-building, worker-placement, economic game. I realise that covers a lot of bases, but Barrage is very hefty with a lot going on. You, as the representative of your chosen country, run a power company trying to generate power through hydroelectric means. Barrage is thematically set in an alternative 1930’s ish era where Nikolai Tesla is a major player and all things electric are being used. Electropunk isn’t a word I’d heard until recently and to be fair, the rest of Polyhedron Collider hadn’t either. The suggested phrase was “Steampunk” but since the water in Barrage is in liquid form, “Steam” didn’t seem appropriate, so Electropunk it is.

Barrage - Gameplay

Barrage simulates very well the relatively benign task of damming a valley and piping the resultant backlog through a turbine to generate that all-important power. The board is made up of three areas; mountains, hills and plains, each of which can hold a number of dams and pumping stations. Where you put each of the dams, pipes and stations are the important decisions you as a player need to make. Water flows downhill naturally, but your pipes will divert it perhaps to your advantage or if you’re not careful, to your opponents'.

And so we begin to build our engine.

Water falls down from the mountains, and you generate more power from water that falls further in a single stage (remember potential energy from school? That’s science, folks!) but a chain of generators can benefit you in many ways. Thinking caps on, people, this is a brain burner. 

Barrage - Player Board

Your company can build a limited number of dams, conduits (pipes) and turbines which are represented by very lovely custom wooden pieces, stored on your dual-layer player board. Each set of pieces varies with player so they’re all different.

So far, so high quality.

Playing these bits onto the map unlocks additional ongoing asymmetric bonuses so you have an incentive to get them onto the board as quickly as possible. Building them is the tricky bit however as dams are not small things and need a lot of kit to construct them.

Part of your arsenal of resources are cement mixers (which resemble alien landing craft) and excavators (which resemble traditional Jewish beards when inverted) which you need to assign to a given construction project for a period of time and this is where we take a divergent path. One road in the fork leads to the Clever ThingTM that makes Barrage very good and the other leads to torment, annoyance and questionable decisions on the producer’s part.

Barrage - Project Wheel

First, the good. Building something is immediate – just put your piece on the board location and away you go. Brand spanking new dam. However, projects that size take time and resources and this is very well simulated by the use of the project wheel. Assign your building and resources to a slot in the six-spoked wheel and rotate it to assign that kit. You get it back once the wheel rotates fully so you can use it again and this I really love. It forces you to think ahead and prevents players spamming stuff onto the map willy nilly. You can build pretty much whatever you want, but to do so you need to use quite a large proportion of your available resources, halting your gallop. You can gain more during the game, but it’s a slow process.

But to the Yin must come the Yang. To the wearing of a new suit comes the seagull guano on the shoulder pad. The component quality in Barrage is almost paradoxically bipolar. It’s like half the office at Cranio Creations wasn’t talking to the other half. For each good decision like the wooden pieces or double layered board, there is a counterpoint where the components are laughably terrible. One such example is the project wheels, which are, frankly, unacceptable. They’re flimsy, warped out of the box, too thin and result in components getting stuck under the spokes when they are rotated.

Barrage - Gameplay

The other ball-drop is the water droplets simulating water flow down the rivers. They look like something on a 12-year old’s necklace bought from Accessorize. Cheap, tacky and too small to see and pick up. Honestly, blue cubes like those in Pandemic would have been a far better choice and they won’t have been expensive to make. I substitute in gems from the Stonemaier Treasure Chest, which works well. Considering Barrage is marketed as a deluxe product, one has to question how and where the money was spent.

Component quality aside, the gameplay is where Barrage absolutely shines. Actually doing things is controlled by the worker placement aspect. There’s limited numbers of spaces, some personal and some shared so you again need to decide where to assign your pool of twelve workers. Sounds like a lot, but many of the tasks need more than one worker, so you rattle through them quite quickly. Especially when someone bags the cheap spot you wanted, forcing you to use more workers and rethink your plans around increased spend. 

Barrage - Contracts

Energy production is key and there is a race to make the most each round (of five). Ultimately you’re trying to score points, which are largely gained through the fulfilment of energy contracts. Produce enough energy to meet a requirement and bang, lots of points for you and probably a few additional bonuses like components or the ability to rotate your project wheel an important notch or build a construction for free.

There’s an additional bonus for those who produce the most power each round, which leads to a possible runaway effect. It feels most severe in a two-player game as the person with the best engine will almost certainly produce the most power and it’s very difficult to catch up, perhaps impossible, which leads to a little frustration on the parts of those who are behind. Whilst you can get in the way of your opponents, once a construction is down, it can’t be shifted so that engine keeps running. The only thing you can do is try to disrupt it, so you get a sort of armed comradery with opponents. But it doesn’t last long.

Barrage - Gameplay

Ultimately, Barrage is an absolutely fantastic game, heavy but simple to play with lots to think about and a huge amount of variation in approach. It’s let down a little by some of the components being the sort of thing you’d see in a cheap family game bought in a supermarket, not from an expensive Kickstarter. Thankfully, Cranio are addressing the component issues so we’re left with a top notch game that has quite effortlessly crept onto a possible contender for Game of the Year here at Polyhedron Collider. 

Conclusive proof that it's not always about the bling.

This review is based on a full crowdfunded copy of the game.
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