Barony is a design by Marc Andre, designer of Splendor. I missed the Splendor party and didn't get to play it when it was at its hottest. I did see it being played, but each time that happened I was already sitting at another table playing another game. Then on my recent visit to Boardgamecafe.net I got to play both Barony and Splendor. Sometimes good things come in pairs.
To explain what Barony is, I want to start with the scoreboard. You are competing feudal lords trying to claim and develop territories, gaining power by building towns and forts, and then cashing in your power to elevate your status. The first player to get promoted to Level 5 triggers game end, and whoever has the most points wins.
The scoreboard is your career path. You start at 0VP at the top left corner. Every time you amass VP chips worth 15VP or more, you may turn them in to get promoted, moving your marker one step right. There is a reason for the second and third rows. Towns that you have built can be upgraded to cities, and each time you do this, you gain 10VP by moving your marker one row down. When the game ends, it is not necessarily a player at Level 5 who will win. A Level 5 player who hasn't built any city (i.e. 60VP) may lose to a Level 4 player who has built two (65VP). In addition to the VP on the scoreboard, any VP chips you have in hand are worth points too. These are the chips that you have not yet redeemed for a promotion.
These are the VP chips you gain every time you build a town or fort. They represent your power. Which chip you gain depends on where your town or fort is built. Farmland is the most valuable terrain. Mountains are least valuable. The numbers on the left are what the chips are worth when you redeem them for a promotion. The numbers on the right are what they are worth at game end if they are still in your hand.
This player reference sheet lists all 6 action types you have. On your turn you can only pick one action. You may recruit soldiers at a city. You may move your soldiers. As part of movement, you may be attacking an opponent's soldier or town. Combat is simple. You just remove his piece. Full stop. If you remove a town piece, you may rob one VP chip from your victim (your pick). So players usually need to protect their towns. You may convert your soldiers to towns or forts, and towns may be upgraded to cities. As mentioned earlier, you may redeem VP chips to get a promotion. The last action type is a little unusual (#5 in the photo). You may permanently remove one soldier from your stock to place another soldier from your stock to any empty edge space on the board. You only have 7 soldier pieces in the game, so sacrificing one permanently seems a rather high price to pay. However in the game I played, this action was used.
The largest building is a city, the smallest a town. The medium sized building is a fort. Cities and forts cannot be attacked and also block enemy movement. However quantities are limited so you need to use them wisely. The number of soldiers you have is also limited. You need to manage them carefully.
We did a 4-player game, which was the maximum. Ivan was yellow, Ainul red, Allen blue and I green.
The map is constructed from large tiles consisting of 3 hexes each. The map is set up randomly. The number of tiles to be used depends on the number of players. As part of game setup, every player needs to place 3 cities. The first cities of the players are placed in player order. Then the last player places his other 2 cities, followed by the 3rd player, then 2nd, then 1st player. So this is a little like The Settlers of Catan. Farmland is most valuable, so everyone eyes them greedily. Lakes are valuable too, because cities built next to lakes can recruit 3 soldiers at a time instead of the normal 2. This photo was taken in the early game. No towns or forts were built yet. Some players recruited soldiers. For my (green) first move I sent out my initial soldiers to claim land.
In the north, Ivan's (yellow) city was sandwiched by mine (green) and Allen's (blue). It would be hard for him to expand from this city. There were many farmland hexes here, so everyone wanted a piece, and wouldn't let anyone else easily monopolise the area. We ended up in a lose-lose situation. Not good, but perhaps necessary.
At the top left, I (green) had built two towns, and each was protected by a soldier. Any space with two pieces was completely safe and couldn't be attacked. Cities and forts are safe too, and are also permanently impassable to enemies. The advantage of cities and forts over two-piece sets is they don't need maintenance. Two-piece sets mean tying down your soldiers for defense. The moment a soldier moves and leaves behind a town or another soldier, whatever is left behind becomes vulnerable. My towns were right next to Ivan's (yellow) city, which meant he could recruit soldiers and send them to burn my towns. At this moment there was no immediate threat, but as soon as he started recruiting I would have to stay alert. Ivan himself had a soldier protecting his town next to Allen's (blue) city. At the top right, Ivan had recruited soldiers and they were rampaging the countryside. I needed to watch that direction too.
Protecting towns is important because if you don't, your hard earned VP chips may be snatched away. However, Barony is an efficiency game. Having to commit many soldiers to guard duty is inefficient, and that's very bad.
Ivan's (yellow) soldiers were advancing towards me (green). Were they going to be builders or raiders?
In the west, Ainul (red) had a big swath all to himself. He took his time recruiting soldiers, then sending them out, and eventually he would be converting a whole bunch of them into towns and forts all at one go. He was going to collect a lot of VP chips.
I (green) had two starting cities in this southern region. This was good country too - not many others around to harass me. My city on the right was next to a lake, so it could recruit three soldiers at one go. Two of my soldiers had been sent out to "chup" (reserve) farmland hexes. More were coming to claim spots. I wanted to do the conversion to towns and forts at the same time, saving me precious turns.
Ainul (red) had thought he was safe, and had underestimated the threat posed by Allen (blue). After Ainul converted his army of soldiers into towns, Allen sent in an expeditionary force, which now threatened to burn many towns. Ainul only had one soldier handy, which was not sufficient to protect his towns. This would become disastrous for Ainul who had many VP chips on hand. Barony is an open information game, so it sometimes feels chess-like. You can think ahead a few steps - if I do this, my opponent will likely do that, and I will then do this, and so on. The possibilities are many, but not endless. Yet sometimes you will miss out a possibility, and your opponents will exploit that. Or sometimes when your opponents decide to gang up on you, it is difficult to stop them. Diplomacy and psychology are tools you can use. There is a human side despite the game sometimes feeling like an abstract game.
In the south, I managed to build many towns without being bothered by others. I had built both my forts here, and together with the city between them, they formed my Great Wall. That town on the right could be upgraded to a city, which would complete the Great Wall. You can see that Ivan (yellow) had raised troops in the background. If he advanced towards me, I would need to quickly upgrade that frontier town.
In the first half of the game, I felt there was much land, but in the second half I started to feel the pinch. Available land dwindled, and whatever remained to be claimed had lower value. That meant more spaces needed to be claimed to make up the 15VP required for promotion. Thankfully I still had enough land within easy reach. Else I would need to invade others.
In the west, many of Ainul's (red) towns had been burnt by Allen (blue). Now Ainul had raised fresh armies and surrounded Allen's raiders. One of Allen's soldiers had settled down and converted itself to a town. The other was going to retire here and be on permanent guard duty. The two-piece rule meant Ainul could never attack Allen here, as long as that lone soldier stayed with the town piece.
My (green) situation was looking good. I was able to build aggressively without being hindered much. Barony is very much an efficiency game. Whoever manages to avoid getting embroiled in war is in a good position, but that's easier said than done. Now I was preparing for my final push, sending out my last batch of soldiers to build towns and collect VP chips in order to do my last VP chip redemption and promotion.
Ivan (yellow) hatched a plan to slow me (green) down, recruiting two soldiers here. I had one soldier here, while the other six were in the south preparing for my final push. I had no more soldiers in my pool to recruit to protect my tiny northern province. So I had to position my lone soldier this way. I could not protect that town on the left, but at least I could limit the damage to just that town. The soldier would protect the town he is in, and also the town to the north, at least from attacks from the southern direction. I examined the positions of my other six soldiers in the south. They would get me more than 15VP when they converted to towns. After taking into account one highest valued VP chip that Ivan would rob from me, I would still have exactly 15VP. I was still on track for that final crucial promotion.
In the far right you can see a lone blue town - Allen's. He had performed that sacrifice action, removing one of his soldiers from the game to place another soldier on that hex. The soldier was then converted to this town. Later it was upgraded to a city, and became a threat to Ivan (yellow). Cities can recruit fresh soldiers.
Eventually I got promoted to Level 5 and ended the game. I had the most points, but just barely. Allen was at Level 4 and had built two cities. I had built one. Had I not built that one city, he would have outscored me.
Barony is a succinct game. It is a development game where everyone tries to be as efficient as possible, making it feel like a race to the finish line. However it is also a merciless war game where one miscalculation can put you out of the race. It is almost an abstract game, because it is a perfect information game. There is no randomness once the game starts. No dice. No cards. Only the map setup is random (and this provides variability). Ideally you want to be able to focus on your own development without being disturbed by your opponents. However warfare, or the threat of warfare, cannot be avoided. A threat will at least force you to spend actions defending yourself. In the worst case you will lose towns and precious VP chips. Robbing VP chips from others is lucrative. A pure race of efficiency is not going to happen because whenever a leader begins to emerge, the rest will collaborate to slow him down (assuming a non-two-player game). There can be diplomacy and negotiations, since this is a multiplayer wargame. How heavily they are used depends on the play style of the group.
The actions in the game are simple. Your turn consists of only one action, so the game progresses briskly. The simplicity allows you to quickly understand the strategy and appreciate the tactics. When I first saw photos of the game, I had no interest at all. It looked like yet another Ameritrash style multiplayer wargame. Barony turned out to be a much more Euro design. Slick, clean, lean and mean. Sometimes downright mathematical, and sometimes frightfully brutal. It can feel a little dry because it is an open information game. It can also feel intimidating and serious, like how chess can be. It depends on your group.
It is a highly interactive game. Players will fight for lucrative locations. They will bump into one another and they will be either tempted into launching attacks, or forced into making defensive moves. Barony is a wargame requiring precision and forward planning, and not one where you simply holler and charge and hope to win. More intellectual, less visceral. I find it a clever design.