Barcelona. Do it. Go on, you know you want to. Belt it out! Sing the line from the song by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé.
“Barcelona! Such a beautiful horizon”
Are you feeling better now? Good. Barcelona is the latest Euro game from Board&Dice. It’s a mixture of tile-placement and action-selection, and while that sounds like a relatively easy mixture to cope with, there are a lot of things going on. The good news is that they’re a lot of really good, really interesting things. The question is – do you need or want another Euro with a lot of moving parts under the hood? Hopefully, I can help answer that question for you.
That’s not a typo. The Eixample is the name given to the extension designed for Barcelona in the 19th Century by the urban planner, Ildefons Cerdà. I won’t give a detailed history, but to set the scene for the game, the walls around Barcelona have come down and Ildefons has plans for the city: wide roads, green spaces, lots of natural light, and octagonal city blocks to name but a few.
You, the players, are the builders creating this new Barcelona. The main board depicts Barcelona and is divided into rows and columns, and at the end of each row and column there’s an action. To take your turn you pull a couple of citizen tiles from a bag and place them in a stack at the intersection of a row and column. From there, a whole bunch of things happen.
Firstly, you get to take the actions at either end of the row and column of your intersection. These actions range from the simple – take some cloth or coins, the game’s resources – to the more complex, like building streets or moving your tram. I call these actions more complex, but in truth their operation is really easy. Placing a street is as difficult as picking one of the tiles up off your player board and putting it on the main board. You don’t need to be a civil engineer to do that. The real game, however, the juice in this delicious Spanish Orange, comes from how you combine the knock-on effects of your actions.
Right off the bat, let me state that if you like games that have you planning combinations of one thing resulting in another, you’ll love what happens in Barcelona. There are few things as satisfying in all of board gaming as setting up the mental dominoes that represent your coming turn, and executing it to perfection with the simple act of tipping the first one over – or in this case, choosing your first action. There’s a strange phenomenon in Euro games where one player narrates all the things happening in a chain of actions – a combo.
“I take this action which gives me those things. I spend those things on placing this thing here, and get these bonuses for doing it. Taking that thing off my player board uncovered this bonus, which means I place another thing here, complete this chain, and get another bonus here…”
We all do it, and we’re all so proud of ourselves for figuring out our big brain moves, like a five-year-old who’s figured out how make their own bowl of cereal. The rest of the table might give you a polite “Nice one”, or more likely ignore you why they plan their own blockbuster turn. The point is, playing Barcelona is like spending two hours of people doing this. If that sounds like your jam, congratulations, you’re on the same team as me. I couldn’t give two hoots about what someone else does (unless it disrupts my plans), but I love the fact we all get to do it. It also means that more than once you’ll hear someone say “I had a plan but now I’ve forgotten it”, and that’s because this Spanish sandbox lays so many toys in front of you, that it’s easy to forget which one you started with when you built your own Sagrada Familia from sand.
The way Barcelona’s turns play out means that your options get more and more limited as the game goes on. You must place a stack of citizen tiles on an intersection, but the intersection has to be empty to place them. The only way to remove citizens is to build buildings, which is obligatory if possible at the end of your turn. The puzzle it presents leads to much furrowing of brows in the last quarter of the game, where you try to complete the goals – be they shared or personal – with a limited set of choices laid before you.
If you’ve got AP-prone players around the table, this is where the game starts to wade through treacle. The butter-smooth chaining of actions from the early game gets bogged down while the players look for the least-worst options available. The end of the game is player-driven too, which might divide opinion. It’s possible to see when someone can end the game, so planning past that becomes difficult and forces you to decide whether to bank on one more turn to finish your plans, or make the best of what you’ve got because you’re sure someone’s going to end things. It’s the polar opposite of games like Uwe Rosenberg’s, games like Hallertau (review here) or Atiwa (review here) where you know for sure when the game ends, and then spend ages figuring out how to eke out every last VP.
I mention these things because there’s a whole heap of Euro games out there, all doing similar things but with their own twists. For experienced players, the decision of whether to pick up a game like Barcelona comes down not to the theme, but to other details like how prone to AP it is, whether the end of the game is prescribed, how much take-that is involved – smaller details like that. Barcelona, for the record, has very little player interaction, save for the usual “I can’t believe you took the spot I was going to have!”.
I like Barcelona. I like it a lot. I like the way it takes what are now very familiar themes, like tile-laying and action selection, and adds its own little flourishes to them. You have this beautiful shared board that gets filled with a patchwork of streets of different colours, but rather than ending things with the laying of those streets and intersections, it adds another layer on the Z-axis and lets you move trams around. The trams move around on top of the streets, possibly getting you more actions, letting you transport people, and using your own streets for free movement. It’s just another nice touch that elevates Barcelona above other mid-heavy Euros.
As I mentioned above, it’s got a real sandbox feel to the game. You could play time and again and try a different approach, a different strategy, a different focus. In true Board&Dice fashion, the game comes with action tiles that let you randomise which actions are in which position, which is a bigger deal than you might think. Strategy in Barcelona is built on combining actions and buildings, so not knowing which actions will get paired and where makes a real difference, and I really appreciate it.
If you don’t enjoy thinking several actions deep ahead of your turn, you’re not going to enjoy Barcelona. If you don’t appreciate having to make plans B & C, lest someone block the spot you wanted, buggering your plans up, you’re going to have an especially bad time. For the rest of us though, Dani Garcia has put together a beautifully made game full of replay value. You’d be forgiven for thinking Ian O’Toole had his crayons all over this one, because it’s so colourful and bright for a city-building Euro, but no, it’s Aleksander Zawada we have to thank for the eye-candy this time.
If you like mid-heavy Euro games full of choice, combos, and attempted mind-reading, Barcelona is one of – if not the – game of the year so far for me. It’s fantastic.
Review copy kindly provided by Board&Dice. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Design: Dani Garcia
Art: Aleksander Zawada
Playing time: 60-120 mins