Literally, dam, because that’s what you’re building in Barrage – dams. Also conduits, powerhouses and elevations, but ‘Coooonduit!’ doesn’t have quite the same ring. It’s a game of worker placement and network-building as you and your friends compete to generate electricity from the limited amount of water flowing downhill. As far as Euro games go, it can be pretty cutthroat and there’s a ton of interaction. It’s a confusing game, for sure, but an excellent one.
Come hell or high water
Barrage puts you in the role of CEOs of energy companies. Your goal is to produce hydroelectric power to fulfil contracts, which in turn score VPs. The board is gorgeous and represents a map, starting at the top in the mountains, moving down into the hills, before finishing up at the bottom in the plains. Four rivers start their journey way up in the headwaters in the mountains, collecting in basins as gravity pulls them ever-onward.
Being the corporate giants you are, and understanding the nation’s need for energy, it’s your job to harness the flow of water to generate electricity by redirecting water through conduits towards powerhouses. It all sounds simple enough, but there’s a problem. There’s a limited amount of water flowing downhill and all of you are competing for it. In order to get enough water through the turbines in your powerhouses you’ve got to build dams on the edges of the natural basins for the water to pool behind. That means if you build dams up in the mountains, you’re going stop – or certainly delay – the flow of water to lower basins.
So what happens to the players building dams, conduits, and powerhouses further down, when the water can’t get to them? That question is the blood pumping through the beating heart of Barrage. It introduces some of the tastiest interactions in any modern Euro game from the last five years. It’s a game of combining plans with opportunistic swoops to either benefit from someone else’s loose ends, or to just be a pain in the arse.
To run the energy generation action you need three things. You need water behind a dam, a conduit leading away from that dam, and a powerhouse at the other end of the conduit. It brings this timing puzzle with it. You can use anyone’s conduit to channel water to your powerhouse, but if you use one that’s not yours you have to pay the owner for the privilege, and they generate VPs at the same time. You could build the conduit first, but if someone else builds the dam on that space, you can never generate energy, because the water has to come from your own dam. Maybe you see someone with a really good setup near the bottom of the board, but you don’t like that. It’d be a shame if someone else built a tall dam directly above it, wouldn’t it…?
Keeping your head above water
Sticking with the water puns, it’s easy to see how Barrage is a deep game. On top of all of that posturing and planning for the buildings on the map, you’ve got a tight Euro game to manage which overarches everything. Resources are tight, and unusually in these games, reusable. This brings me to my favourite toy in all of board games for the last few years: the Construction Wheel.
Each player has their own wheel which is split into six sections. When you want to construct a building you first have to have the building’s tile available, i.e. it can’t already be on the construction wheel. You place that tile and the required concrete mixers or excavators (your resources) into the top-most section of the wheel, and then rotate the wheel 60 degrees so that the next section reaches the open slot at the top. Any building tiles or resources on that section which is now at the top come back to your supply, ready to use again. The fly in the ointment being that the resources and tile you just used are trapped until that wheel spins all the way around, so planning is key.
To play Barrage well you need to have your head on a swivel, so the saying goes. You need to keep track of what things are available in your supply, what’s happening on the map, how many engineers (workers) you have left, where you could generate power, and importantly, which tiles other players currently have trapped in their construction wheel. Balancing it all is tricky, especially during your first couple of plays because the water flow isn’t as simple as you might imagine. Understanding the difference between a dam and a powerhouse isn’t immediately obvious, nor is the fact that water simply flowing past your powerhouse doesn’t generate any energy, unless you play as the USA, in which case it can.
There’s a reason this game currently has a 4.10 weight on BGG at the time of writing, with 5.00 being the heaviest, most complex a game could be. None of the actions is particularly difficult or drawn-out to perform, but understanding the way the game’s many, many gears mesh together is hard. On top of all of the various ways the actions work together, there’s even more to consider. You’ve got different player boards with different bonuses, different executive officers that grant you unique powers, and variable setup for how much water flows from which headwaters, and when. After your introductory game, you can throw in advanced technology tiles for construction too. Barrage is a big, wet sandbox, designed for repeated play with a group of players keen to explore all the game has to offer.
Barrage is a game that I wanted to play for a long, long time. The idea of the construction wheel had me hooked on its own, let alone the level of interaction sewn in. When it arrived on boardgamearena.com I got stuck in and enjoyed it so much that I knew I had to have a physical copy of the game. I’m glad I own it now because the production is absolutely gorgeous. The water basins on the board have UV spot marking which makes them shiny and smooth. The excavators and concrete mixers are tiny and ridiculously detailed when something basic would have sufficed. Each player board is dual-layered with places for everything to sit neatly, and that’s despite the fact that each player’s buildings are slightly different. A green powerhouse looks different to a pink one, which looks different to a white one etc. It’s a level of extravagance I really appreciate in a game that’s designed to be played a lot of times, and the sort of thing usually reserved for Eagle-Gryphon’s Vital Lacerda games, like On Mars (review here).
Let’s make no bones about it, there are a bunch of players out there who won’t enjoy Barrage. It’s a tricky game to learn, there’s a lot of stuff going on at any one time in the game, and it can be really mean. If you don’t like games where your plans get knocked into a cocked hat because some swine has built above you, diverting everything past you, you’re not going to have much fun. Most of the time the game isn’t so overtly combative, but it certainly can be, and it’s worth being aware of. This brings me to another relevant point – player scaling. The only difference between a two- and a four-player game is the number of shared action spaces available. The board layout doesn’t change. It means a two-player game has the unspoken option of players choosing to build far apart from one another. In a four-player game, forget it, you’ll be under each other’s feet from turn one.
If you want a heavy game that’s deep, thematic, and has plenty of variety and scope for strategy, Barrage is superb. It will break your brain, you’ll get annoyed with the other players around the table, and you’ll find yourself making use of every last resource and coin at your disposal. But you know what? You’ll have such a blast doing it that you just won’t care.
You can buy this game from my retail partner, Kienda. Remember to sign-up for your account at kienda.co.uk/punchboard for a 5% discount on your first order of £60 or more.
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Design: Tommaso Battista, Simone Luciani
Publisher: Cranio Creations
Art: Mauro Alocci, Antonio De Luca, Roman Roland Kuteynikov
Playing time: 120-180 mins