Full disclosure: A review copy of Battle of the Bards was provided by Junk Spirit Games.
Alright, we’re starting to get into games I got at Gen Con or received while I was at Gen Con, this week. Windward and Battle of the Bards both fall into that category, since Battle of the Bards was one I picked up there and Windward ended up at my desk while I was out of town. Unfortunately, as of writing, I also got Wayward, which is making hard for me to keep those straight. Thankfully, Windward’s review is already published, so I just have to get it right, here. Anyways, let’s stop talking about other games and launch into Battle of the Bards.
In Battle of the Bards, you’ve got some shows to play in Tessandor! Gather up all your illusionists, dancers, singers, and other musicians and bring the house down. Naturally, you will need to recruit some Veterans if you want to play the big shows, but only the biggest band will be able to pull off an incredible encore! Skill alone won’t win this one for you; you’ll also need a bit of luck to pull off the perfect show. Will your cast of bards be able to rock out on the stage? Or will your biggest performances just end up falling flat?
Shuffle the Audience Cards:
Flip three face up. Give each player a starter deck:
Also give each player a Lead Bard, randomly (top four cards). Shuffle up the Veteran Bards:
And place a row of four underneath the bard line token. You can give the first player token to the starting player, as well:
The Performance Tokens and Tune Tokens should be set aside for now:
Give each player a Performance Token and two dice of the same color as their Lead:
Finally, give each player an Encore Card (the black cards), randomly; players should set them aside and keep them secret. Have each player shuffle their deck and draw five cards. You’re ready to start! The first bit is played simultaneously:
Alright, so your goal here is to impress audiences with your bard and recruit some veterans to take your show on the road. If you do well enough, you may even get an encore! At the end, the player with the most points wins.
A given round is composed of three phases, the first one being simultaneous. I’ll go through each in turn.
Take the Stage
During this phase, players select three cards from their hand to put on stage for the round. This is done simultaneously, with all players revealing at the same time. When that happens, in turn order, players gain the die indicated at the top-left of the card into their dice pool. If it’s a white die, players may gain whatever color die that they want.
All cards (including Wanted Posters) may be played during this phase.
Once this is done, every player rolls all dice in their dice pool.
Put on a Show
Now, you take two actions on your turn until all players have taken the Pass action. These actions may be taken in any order, and you may take the same action more than once.
- Create a Performance: Use three dice in a sequence to gain a Performance Token. You do this by returning dice with three numbers in order (1/2/3, 2/3/4 3/4/5, 4/5/6) to the supply and taking a Performance Token that matches the color of the majority of the dice returned. If there’s no clear majority (as all the dice are different colors), you may choose a Performance Token matching any of the dice you returned.
- Use a Bard Ability: You may use a die on one of your bards to activate all of its abilities from left to right. That die cannot be rerolled, stolen, or used for anything else. Each Bard may use its ability once per round, and any dice you gain or Tune tokens you gain may be used this round, as well. Certain Bards have Sustain abilities, which allow you to either gain an extra action or turn the Bard on its side and gain that ability for the rest of the round.
- Hire a Veteran Bard: If you have a Wanted Poster, you may discard it and two dice with the same value to hire any Bard from the Veteran Bard Line (except the Newest Bard in Town). If you want the Newest Bard in Town, you have to discard three dice with the same value. Either way, immediately refill the Veteran Bard line by sliding the Bards right and adding a new Newest Bard in Town.
- Capture an Audience: Similarly, you may discard Performance Tokens matching an Audience Card to take one. If you want the one on top of the deck, you must also discard a card from your hand. As usual, when you take one you must slide the others to the right and reveal a new one. The abilities on the Audience Cards are in effect for the rest of the game.
- Tune (free action): You may discard a card or a Tune Token as a free action to reroll any of your dice or increase or decrease a die by one pip (you cannot turn a 1 into a 6 or vice versa).
- Pass: You pass, and you’re out for the rest of the round.
End of the Round
All players discard all the cards they played in front of them this round and return the dice on Bards to your dice pool.
- If a player has any cards in their hand, they must discard them. They may also choose to trash one of these cards and remove it from the game.
- All players draw back up to five cards.
- All players keep up to eight dice, returning the rest to the supply.
- Give the First Player Token to the next player, clockwise.
End of Game
After four audiences have been captured, the game will end. Like any good concert, though, there’s an opportunity for an Encore Round. To perform an Encore, take all the Veteran Bards you hired out of your deck. For each one that corresponds to one of the symbols on your Encore Card, you gain a die (up to four). Then, roll them. You may use Tune Tokens to adjust or reroll dice. The player with the highest total wins the Encore and gains 4 points.
Now, total your victory points:
- Unused Performance Tokens: +1 point each.
- Audience Cards: Score their printed value.
- Veteran Bards: Score their printed value (usually 1).
- Encore Winner: +4 points.
The player with the most points wins! If there’s a tie, reveal an unused Encore Card and have the tied players face off again as though that was their Encore Card (gaining one die for free). You cannot use Tune Tokens.
Player Count Differences
It’s just going to scale upwards in length. There’s no change to how many Audience cards that you need, so you’ll see the game just take longer with more players. That’s usually a good sign that I’m going to tend towards the lower end of the player count spectrum, when things like that happen. Sure, there’s also higher potential for stealing and the market changes more dynamically at higher player counts, but that’s to be expected in this kind of game. I will say that it’s nice that the Take the Stage Phase is done simultaneously, since it ignores player count. Beyond that, though, I don’t really notice other players beyond the downtime between turns, which, naturally, increases as player count increases. So if you’re looking for a shorter game, play this one at two players. If you’re okay with it taking about an hour, play it at four players. Personally, I tend to stick to the lower player counts.
- You really need to hire Veteran Bards. They are essentially the backbone of your gameplay. They have great new abilities, they’re usually more effective or efficient than your standard Bards, or they may even grant you bonus actions. That’s all well and good, but you also can use them to earn dice for the Encore Phase, which might be what you need to win. Either way, even if they don’t support your Encore, I’d still recommend buying basically whenever you can get a chance, especially if the cards give you a bonus action; that’s essentially a free play and a reroll of a die, if you can swing it.
- Trashing isn’t terrible. I was pretty skeptical of trashing cards, but, I mean, your new cards are inherently better than your old ones; just make sure you don’t trash the ones that let you gain a die of any color (so that you still have some dice you can use to get Performance Tokens). I think, generally, it’s not a huge problem if you lose two or three cards in a game.
- The rush strategy isn’t the worst idea. If you can get the Veteran Bards working for you, you might still be able to win the Encore, which generally gives you bonus points (since the lower-value cards are worth more if you win the Encore). I generally recommend against the rush strategy, but I think here it’s pretty viable, so that’s nice.
- Kinda try to get Performance Tokens whenever you can. Even if you can’t use them to win over Audience Cards, they’re still worth 1 point at the end of the game, which is great.
- Don’t bother with 5-point cards. I mean, they’re the same as 4-point cards with one extra Performance Token, and they still cost 3 Performance Tokens, so you might as well stick with 4s or 6s, in my opinion.
- Save some of your Tune Tokens for the end of the game. You can still use them to reroll / adjust your dice, which is awesome. I had a game where I got a 24 thanks to those helpful little tokens.
- If you don’t draw any Wanted Posters, use the cards in your hand to boost your dice. This is a good way to save Tune Tokens; use your cards instead to tune your dice a bit more. This is what I’ll generally recommend unless you’re planning on hiring or getting the top card of the Audience Deck during a particular round; you don’t need the cards anyways. I suppose you can hold on to one if you want to trash it.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Haven’t seen a deckbuilder with dice before. It’s an interesting concept for sure, but I also imagine that that’s kind of the hook, right? It’s a deckbuilder with a dice-rolling element. It’s definitely not that common, though I suppose Dale of Merchants had one die in it. That hardly feels like it counts, though, so I’m gonna give it to Battle of the Bards.
- The theme is very endearing. Who doesn’t want to get a bunch of animal bands together and see which one’s the best?
- I also quite like the art. It’s very upbeat and very fun. Justin Hillgrove did a great job with it.
- Decent amount of luck mitigation for the dice. I never felt like I couldn’t get the value I wanted, or at least a value that I could do something useful with. That’s pretty helpful.
- I appreciate that you can lose the encore round and still win the game. It makes the game feel like it’s not coming down to one dice roll, which is definitely good. It also feels like the numbers were chosen pretty wisely. Our games have clear winners, usually, but they still feel competitive up to and including the very end. It’s a nice feeling.
- Interestingly, with the right cards, the rush strategy may not be a bad one. It’s almost always not a good strategy, but if there are enough 2-token Audience cards, it may be worth trying to burn through them quickly to see if you can be the first to end the game.
- The take-that isn’t too egregious. It’s nice that you swap dice; I appreciate that. There’s a variant where you just steal, instead, but I’m probably never going to play that one.
- It would be nice if it were easier to know how many Veteran Bards of each color you’ve hired. I mess this up when I’m playing and I forget if I bought enough to fill out my Encore Card (I usually have not). It would be useful if there were some easier way to keep track.
- The process by which you get additional cards feels slow. Having to discard essentially your entire hand doesn’t feel great, since it means that usually you can only get two new Bards per shuffle (or worse, one, if you draw both of your Wanted Posters in the same hand). Generally, I prefer to have a deckbuilder with more cards being added than I feel like are in this game.
- It can depend a bit on which cards come up for you. I mean, you should always buy when you have the chance, but it’s very annoying if you can’t buy any of the people who play to your Encore because none of them have come up (or other players keep getting them). It won’t necessarily lose you the game, though, so don’t worry too much.
- Generally I only buy about 4 – 5 cards in a game, which feels like kind of a bummer for a deckbuilding game. Like I said, the overall progression of my deck doesn’t feel like it’s really happening that much. Even in Dale of Merchants, a far lighter game than this, I’m still powering through buying cards, usually, until the end of the game. I think the lightest deckbuilder I own is Tea Dragon Society and that’s still got a fairly significant number of bought cards, as well. It’s just odd, honestly.
- The player count scaling means the game can either be about filler-weight or take close to an hour. That’s just generally an issue, for me. I need to have a good sense of how long a game takes to play and X per player where X > 10 is usually too much of a time range for me to be able to make many commitments for. To be fair, I usually also get irritated about “30 – 60m” as a time range (vastly prefer 20 – 40), but it does feel like it just gets much longer with more players, and I wish that there were another way to play.
Overall: 6.75 / 10
Overall, I’ve had some fun with Battle of the Bards! I think, for me, it’s a starter deckbuilder that ends up being a bit more complicated than, say, The Tea Dragon Society, but it doesn’t quite have as much configuration as your Dominions or your Dale of Merchants series, which means it might struggle to find its place. The dice are definitely an interesting component and spin of the game, but ultimately I think I’d like to see a bit deeper gameplay with them beyond just rolling them and seeing what happens. Being able to use them to buy different things at different times is nice, but the nature of the game’s markets means that you usually can’t buy too many things, since you’ll run out of cards or dice fairly quickly. That can be a disappointment for players, too, since it’ll end up being a deckbuilder with very few cards bought, which is an odd state. That said, I don’t want to come down too hard on the game; it’s got a lot of interesting elements! It reminds me of Witches of the Revolution, a cooperative deckbuilder that was about building up elements to empower your Witches to turn the tide of the American Revolution, much in the same way you’re building up Performance Tokens to get Audience Cards. It’s an interesting task, and I think it’ll appeal to players who want something resembling light engine-building in a deckbuilder without the full-on headache that the genre can sometimes bring. What I think I’d like to see to boost my opinion of it is more cards entering your deck or more things to shake up gameplay so that I feel like I’m cycling my bards more and building up a stronger deck of veterans, but maybe I can try doing that by trashing more? Unclear. Anyways, if you’re looking for a deckbuilder that bucks some genre conventions or if you’re just wanting to win the stage for yourself, you might want to check out Battle of the Bards! It’s an interesting spin on deckbuilders.