Full disclosure: A review copy of Bargain Quest was provided by Jonathan Ying.
I remain a theme-first kind of gamer. It’s just helpful for my personal gaming style; if I see a game I really want to try then I’ll often even ignore mechanics that I don’t love as long as they support the theme, and there are a lot of games with exciting themes coming out. There are games where you’re trying to pack a suitcase or corral delinquent penguins or … say tomato a bunch? That last one’s weird but it does exist.
One such delightfully-themed game is Bargain Quest, a recent game from Jonathan Ying (designer of many other games, including IDW‘s recent Splat Attack!). In Bargain Quest, you are competing RPG-style shopkeepers who seek to Praise Capitalism by selling wares to heroes as they move through town to go on adventures. You’ll stock them with the best (or at least the priciest) goods that you can give them in the hopes that at at least they’ll look sharp for their untimely demise. Or maybe they’ll live? Who knows. You’re a no-refunds kind of place, so once they leave they’re someone’s problem. Will you be able to out-deal your opponents?
So, there’s a buncha stuff here, but first assign everyone an item shop:
They also open up to reveal their interiors:
Truly delightful. You can set aside the money, for now:
Give each player 5, to start. Also, set aside the Star Tokens:
Now, an item shop with no items is … pretty bad, so shuffle up the Item cards:
Give each player 4. You’ll also want to shuffle up the Hero cards:
Flip X face-up in the center, where X is the number of players you have. Then place money equal to the value in their top-right corner on each of their cards. There’s also an Adventure Card deck that you should shuffle:
More on that later. Next up, create the Monster deck. You have to give the heroes something to fight, right? Monsters come in I, II, and III types:
For your first game, you’re supposed to pick these three:
- I: Bandit Captain
- II: Orc Warlord
- III: Vampire Queen
Place those in a face-down stack with I on top.
There’s also a deck of Employees you can hire:
Shuffle that and set it aside, for now. Last up, set aside the Display and Storage Upgrades; you’ll need those for your shop, later on.
That should be all of it! You’re ready to talk shop.
A game of Bargain Quest is played over several rounds, each with 6 phases. You’ll perform various shopkeeping actions on those phases in pursuit of getting paid, which is the dream. The player with the most money at the end of the game, wins. So let’s talk phases!
The Supply phase is pretty simple: first, if no Monster is currently visible, then flip the top card of the Monster Stack face-up. That’s the monster your heroes will need to be able to defeat. Next, if you haven’t already been dealt a hand of four cards, get four cards (if you have cards remaining from previous rounds, ignore them for this phase.
Now, you’ll draft! Choose a card from your hand, add it to the shop, pass the remainder to the left, and then keep doing that until there are no more cards in anyone’s hands. Your goal should somewhat be looking for cards with high appeal (the number of hearts it has) and class icons (the icons in the top-left corner) matching the Heroes’ icons. More on that in a bit.
Take all the cards you’ve drafted and the cards you’ve kept from previous rounds. Now, you’ll need to attract a Hero to your shop! You do this by adding a Display item to the window. Unfortunately, it’s a display item, so if you place a Display item in the window, that item cannot be sold, this round. Hope it’s worth it!
Each card has an Appeal between 0 and 4 hearts representing how interesting that item is to Heroes, and most cards have an icon or two in the top left corner showing which Heroes can actually use that item (yes, not everyone can use everything). So, keep that in mind, because you’ll be determining turn order by who has the best display. Place one card face-down and once everyone’s ready, reveal! You’ll each choose a Hero, now, from Highest Appeal to the lowest.
Choosing a Hero is where you’ll pick a Hero from the center and place it near your shop. You may take any Hero you want, with the following rules:
- At least one of your Display Items must have an icon on it matching one of the Hero’s icons. You can’t just expect them to show up because you have something nice but irrelevant!
- If there are no Heroes you can take, you get moved to the back of the turn order, regardless of Appeal. Note that this can happen because other players took the Hero you could recruit, so make sure you’re playing the right cards to get the Heroes you need. If that happens, you’ll be able to take any Hero remaining in the center, once it becomes your turn.
- If there are any ties, settle them with the Quest Token. The Quest Token is given to whichever player picked the last Hero in the previous round.
Once you’ve all gotten a Hero, go shopping!
During the Shopping phase, you’ll sell Heroes items from your shop that are still in your hand. Remember, you can’t sell your Display item (unless otherwise stated). There are again, some ground rules for this:
- Heroes have finite money. When they buy something, they pay you some of the money on their card. If they’re out of money, they’re out of money; if they still have money, then it’ll stay there until next round.
- Similar to the Display step, icons matter. Heroes can only wield items with one of their Class icons on them (top-left corner). If there are no icons on a card of a Hero’s type, they cannot take that item, no matter how well-priced it is.
- When your Hero buys a card, slide it under their card. You’ll want to see how it affects their Attack and Defense or what special effects it provides.
Once all heroes are done shopping, proceed to the Adventure!
I find it helpful to start this phase by cleaning up your shop. Pull your Display Item and other remaining cards back into your hand and close your shop, for now; you’ll need it later, but not now.
Now, Heroes will attempt to fight the Monster. First, to set the mood, deal each Hero an Adventure card. This is a random effect that might make your Hero anything from Awesome to Unlucky (and everything in between). It’s whimsical; roll with it.
It’s time to fight the Monster. Each Hero will get one shot at it; if the Hero’s Attack is greater than or equal to the Monster’s Defense, the Hero wounds it (adding a Wound Token) and you gain a Star Token. If not, the Hero does nothing. If the Hero’s Defense is greater than or equal to the Monster’s Attack, then the Hero defends the attack successfully and you gain a Star Token. If not, well, your Hero will be remembered fondly. Discard the Hero, all of the items, and any Money on the card. Note that you can gain one, both, or neither Star Token as a result of this phase.
If no Heroes manage to Wound the Monster, add one Wound Token anyways. If the Monster now has at least as many Wounds as players, it’s defeated! Each Hero (not you) earns money equal to the Treasure Chest in the Monster’s bottom-right corner. If not, the Monster survives and the Heroes need to regroup. They gain the money in the bottom-left corner instead. Either way, discard all items on surviving Heroes (but let them keep their money). Return the Heroes to the center, and draw new Heroes if there are fewer Heroes in the center than there are players.
During the Upgrade phase, you’ll be able to hire Employees or purchase Upgrades to make your Shop better. Flip two cards off the Employee deck, and going clockwise from the player with the Quest Token, each player may hire an Employee or buy one of the two Upgrade cards. You cannot have duplicates. In the event that you’d like another Upgrade of the same type, you can pay 10 money to upgrade it to its second level. Beyond that, well, you’re on your own. Upgrades allow you to have an extra card in your Display or in your Storage.
Whenever an Employee is hired, they’re immediately replaced from the deck, and the two face-up Employees are shuffled back into the deck at the end of the round. If you empty the Employee deck, though, do not reshuffle. You’re just spent.
Players may keep one card between rounds. That’s about all there is to this phase. Just put it face-down on your shop so you don’t confuse it with the drafted cards. Everything else you can’t store you discard.
The game can end a few ways:
- The Hero Deck runs out. Well, you’re out of heroes and you don’t know how to fight (the only thing you’ve cut before is prices), so … you all die. Everyone loses. Try to avoid this.
- The Level III Monster is defeated. Great! The game immediately ends. Tally up scores — each Star Token is worth a point, and every 10 money is worth a point. Player with the most points wins!
So, at 5 / 6 players, you’ll make a few changes. Whenever a Rank II Monster is out, you’ll draft cards counterclockwise (rather than the normal clockwise). You’ll also still deal a bonus Wound to the monster if only one Hero damages it. If nobody damages the Monster, deal two Wounds, instead.
You can also play a variant without the Adventure Deck if you hate randomness, so, up to you.
Player Count Differences
So the game naturally will take a bit longer at higher player counts (you personally can do less against the Monster, and the odds of players getting killed is reasonable, so it’s unlikely that you can end the game in three rounds). That said, it still plays pretty fast. In general, I’d probably say 2 – 4 is my personal preference, but I wouldn’t necessarily say no to 5+. There’s not a huge difference, otherwise, though you may experience bottlenecks in the drafting if any of your players are particularly slow (but that can happen at any player count).
- Focus on Appeal. I mean, the goal is to bring attractive (read: rich) Heroes into your shop, and how can you do that if you’re only putting like, nasty socks on display? Get some good Display Items and get the people you need. I often will put out an item with a lot of class icons and another item with a lot of Appeal, if I can. That way I have my choice of characters.
- Make sure you can sell something. The absolute worst thing you can do to yourself is misplay and end up with a customer who cannot buy anything in your shop! Don’t limit yourself super aggressively, especially if you can’t guarantee that you’ll get what you want.
- It’s not necessarily a bad idea to sandbag a bit early in the game. The game tends to penalize people who have too many Star Tokens relative to their opponents, which means you might want to invest in just getting paid, instead. The game doesn’t bother doing the math to tell that a player with 60 money and 3 stars is doing better than a player with 10 money and 5 stars. Not that it should; it just doesn’t.
- Losing a Hero isn’t all that bad. Sure, you miss out on the Star Token, but if they had a really crummy ability (or a really good one), you’re not going to miss them too much (or you’ll be happy that your opponent can’t have them, either). Just don’t lose too many, obviously, or you’ll lose the game for everyone, which is impressively bad.
- Remember that Money == Points. When you’re evaluating how you’re doing relative to other players (or if you’re gonna steal from them), you should also account for how much money they have. Some players don’t think about it since it’s an alternate currency, which is strategically not a great move. Just be aware of what’s happening.
- You can effectively intimidate other players. If you’ve got the Employee that lets you add an extra card to your display after the fact, you can often leverage that to still win the Appeal contest by bullying players into effectively resigning because they think you’ve already won. It won’t work twice, but it might work once, which is often enough.
- Buying upgrades is often worth the point or two you lose to do so. If you have very good Display Items, it may be worth upgrading your Storage to hold on to them (or wait and save them for an enterprising hero who will pay out the nose for them). You do not want to have to throw away a +3 / +3 Holy Sword. That’s deeply upsetting.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Wowee the art is incredible. Victoria Ying is an accomplished artist in her own right and damn it shows. It’s both incredible art and absolutely spot-on for the theme of this game. The right blend of whimsical and earnest, with a splash of cartoonish influences and a certain upbeat vigor to it. I absolutely love it and wish there were like, prints of some of the art, especially the shop interiors. Or just more alt shops.
- The art’s also super diverse. I love it. Super representative, and it’s wonderful. Games should look to this one for inspiration.
- The theme is pretty great, too! I love the idea of being in a shop selling items to adventurers, rather than going on the adventures, yourself. It’s assisted by the art but it’s intended to be a bit silly, a bit whimsical, and a lot of fun.
- Plays in about the right time. Doesn’t feel like it takes too long to play, which is also nice, and the expansive player count means you can bring it to a lot of things and get a lot of play out of it.
- Pretty variable game. I do not find myself pursuing the same strategies over and over when I play, generally speaking; the draft and the Heroes mean that I have to think a lot more tactically with the cards in my hand, so I’m always looking for new ways to pull off big moves.
- Definitely expandable. You could add more items and Adventure Cards and Heroes and I’d be here for it, or you could take it to the next level and add an entire Black Market expansion, like they’ve done. I mean, either works, I suppose, and I’m excited for it.
- Pretty simple to learn. I wouldn’t call it too complicated. You could probably play it in a lunch, if you wanted, and I have, several times.
- Box is a bit cramped. It’s hard to get everything into the box, which is at least a nice variant of the “the box is stupidly large for no reason” problem. A nice insert goes a long way.
- This is a game that I wish had metal coins. You spend so much time interacting with the money in this game that metal coins would be super satisfying, if any of y’all are looking for a way to make that Kickstarter more expensive for no real reason.
- The “everyone loses” bit is a bit annoying. I understand why, from a gameplay perspective, it exists, but I imagine it’s likely very frustrating it happens to a group playing.
- You can get messed over pretty aggressively. Getting stuck with a bad draft and then basically sitting out a round is pretty frustrating, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about that. It’s not a particularly satisfying outcome, so hopefully the Black Market expansion will do a bit more to mitigate it. To be fair, it’s the consequence of being outplayed by another player, usually more than one, but it’s still frustrating from a player experience standpoint.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, Bargain Quest is a lot of fun! Like I said, I really like the theme, and I think that the implementation of the theme via the art and mechanics achieve a unity that other games should strive for. It’s got a nice table presence (or as nice of one as you can have without a big board and 3D pieces) and it’s a lot of fun to play. It helps that it’s offering a fun alternate perspective on your all-too-common Fantasy Setting, but it’s doing so in a playful way that really conveys the joy that exists at the core of the game. I’m here for joyful games, and so I’m here for Bargain Quest. If it sounds like the kind of game that’s up your alley, I’d definitely recommend checking it out!