Full disclosure: A preview copy of Bug Council of Backyardia was provided by Engro Games. Some art, gameplay, or other aspects of the game may change between this preview and the fulfillment of the Kickstarter, should it fund, as this is a preview of a currently unreleased game.
As I probably mentioned or will mention, this is going to be a pretty heady Kickstarter month. Or, at least, I think it will be. There’s a lot coming down the pipeline, but I’m not sure how much manufacturing and freight have cleared up. That might cause some delays, so if this ends up getting posted later, well, it happens. In the meantime, let’s hope for the best and see what’s happening! There are at least a few trick-taking games, a bunch of games from Sunrise Tornado, and some other interesting stuff. The first one we’re covering is Bug Council of Backyardia, from Engro Games!
In Bug Council of Backyardia, players find themselves appealing to the vast and powerful Bug Council among their various agenda items. From flies to mosquitoes to cockroaches, the council sees all and decides all, which might explain why all the ants are in your bathroom now. Never said the council makes good decisions. Anyways, you must appeal to them and ally with the strongest factions if you wish to make a name for yourself. Will your ambitions earn you a seat at this tiny (but powerful) table? Or will you just end up getting squashed?
You can set aside the score sheet:
Set up the Council Chambers by placing the various Council Tiles in a circle around the Chambers tile:
Shuffle the Council Cards and reveal one at a time. Place 4 Strength Cubes on the first tile revealed, 3 on the second, 2 on the third, 1 on the fourth, and none on the final tile.
Prepare the deck:
- 3 players: Remove all 11s and 12s.
- 4 players: Remove all 12s.
- 5 players: Use all cards.
Then shuffle it and deal 11 cards to each player:
Set the remaining cards aside and you’re ready to start!
For two players, you’ll essentially do the same setup as for three players, but then also also add a neutral player by making a deck of 11 cards after dealing out the cards to the other two players. Reveal the top two cards of that deck; these cards belong to the neutral player, known as the Emissary.
A game of Bug Council of Backyardia takes place over three rounds, each with three phases. At the end of three rounds, the player with the most points wins! Let’s walk through all three.
To start off, players will declare whether or not they plan to declare “No Allegiance”. This means that they plan to not align themselves with any faction for a potentially large bonus.
First, look at your hand of cards, and then place your fist out in front of you. Once all players are ready, count down from three and all players either show a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down simultaneously. Thumbs-down means that they are declaring No Allegiance, and must immediately discard one card from their hand. If you show a thumbs-up, nothing happens. You are planning to declare an allegiance at the end of the round (more on that in Scoring & Upkeep).
Now, the trick-taking. I’m not going to go over the basics of a trick-taking game here, but this game plays a bit differently than your normal trick-taking game.
Traditionally, a suit that is played by the lead player is the “led suit”, and each player must play a card from their hand of the led suit (if they have it), or, if they don’t, they must play any card of their choice.
If all cards played are of the led suit, the highest card of the led suit wins the trick. If any card played was not of the led suit, things get a little weird. Instead, the highest value of the strongest suit wins the trick. The strongest suit is, of the five suits, the suit with the most cubes on its Faction Tile. If there’s a tie (two or more cards of the same value from two or more suits with the same number of cubes on them), the card that was played latest wins. The winner takes the cards from the trick and sets them aside so that they can keep track of how many tricks they’ve won.
The player who followed suit with the lowest-value card gets to visit the Council! (Note that if the lead player was the only person to play a card of a suit, then nobody followed suit and nobody visits the Council.) When visiting the Council, choose a faction tile and take all the cubes from that tile into your hand. Then, starting with the tile one tile clockwise from the tile you just cleared, place one cube on each tile in clockwise order. If you’ve placed a cube on the Faction Tile you just cleared and you have more in hand (meaning you took more than 5 cubes into your hand), place the remaining cubes on the Council Chambers tile.
After doing this step, the player who won the trick starts the next trick. Do this until 10 tricks have been played. Then, move on to Scoring & Upkeep! Most players will have one card left in their hands (unless they declared No Allegiance at the start of the round).
Scoring & Upkeep Phase
Now for points! If you have a card in hand, reveal it! You score one point for every trick you took and every cube on the Faction Tile matching the last card in your hand. The latter is referred to as your Allegiance Bonus! Hopefully you sided with a valuable Faction.
If you did not declare an Allegiance (you have no cards left in hand), check: did you win any tricks? If not, you score 10 points plus any cubes on the Council Chambers tile. Just, keep in mind, if multiple players declared No Allegiance and took 0 tricks, you split those points. This means that if there were 5 cubes on the Council Chambers tile and three players somehow hit No Allegiance, they would each get 5 points. If it doesn’t split evenly, round up. If you declared No Allegiance but took tricks, just score 1 point per trick you took. You don’t get an Allegiance Bonus. Record the scores on the score sheet.
Now, Upkeep! New Recruits go first. Look for the tile(s) with the most strength cubes; all other tiles gain one cube from the bag. Shuffle all the cards up and deal 11 more, then start a new round with a new Declaration Phase! The player who won the last trick of the round will lead the first trick of the next round.
End of Game
At the end of the third round, total up all of your scores from the previous rounds. The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
This one’s kind of a hoot at higher player counts, since you all decide if you’re going to try to go without an allegiance at the same time. At higher player counts, you have a bit of an easier time getting a No Allegiance play pulled off, but, there’s also a higher risk that another player will attempt to “join” you on a No Allegiance play. I think at three players, it’s pretty difficult to get by with a No Allegiance move; there are too many tricks and not enough players for you to likely avoid taking any of them. I think the sweet spot for this game is probably 4 – 5, for me. There, you have a lot of options as to when you can go for Allegiances or don’t. That said, another challenge of higher player counts is that you might not all want the same suit to be strong, so you may end up moving a bunch of cubes around and seeing your bonuses slowly fade away. Or rapidly; I mean, the cubes get removed pretty quickly. It can be as tough to win as it is to successfully play the lowest card in the led suit! I enjoy trick-taking games that can get a bit chaotic, so that kind of things appeals to me, hence why I’m leaning towards the higher end of the player count spectrum. I didn’t get a chance to try it at two with the Emissary (or the solo mode), but I’m definitely interested in those modes! I’ll hopefully try them once they’re finalized. A solo trick-taking game sounds pretty neat.
- Unless you have declared no allegiance and won no tricks, your goal is to win tricks. Your primary motivator is just take as many tricks as you can. The more you take, the more points you score, and the fewer points that your opponents get. You hate your opponents scoring points, so try to make sure that they don’t. Plus, you want points so that you can win.
- As with many trick-taking games, it can be helpful to try to get rid of suits from your hand so that you can play more flexibly. Especially in this game, where the suits can vary in strength from trick to trick, not being locked into playing any one type of card can be helpful (especially if the only suits you have are strong, relative to the other suits). Just keep in mind that this means you’re fairly vulnerable to the whims of other players, as you can’t necessarily adjust the suit strengths if you’re always playing off-suit.
- If a player has declared no allegiance, try to mess them up. This is perhaps easiest at lower player counts, since there are a lot of tricks and not very many players, but forcing a player who has declared no allegiance to take a trick is a great way to mess up their score. If you are planning to do that, try to do that later in the round. Otherwise, if you mess them up too early, they’ll shift to taking tricks that you probably want and / or need, which can negatively impact your score.
- If you’ve declared no allegiance, make sure the card that you discard is going to help you on your quest to take 0 tricks. I usually try to discard high-value cards or a card that is the only card I have of a suit. Trying to stay flexible is really the only way to get through a round and take zero tricks. It’s pretty tough!
- You’re also going to want to try and go last as often as possible, if you’ve declared no allegiance. Going last as much as you can gives you the optimal amount of flexibility (because you get to see every other card in the round). This is, granted, not something that you can entirely control, but it’s something you should keep in mind as you’re taking tricks. Going first or second in a trick isn’t great, as your opponents may be gunning to try and force a trick on you.
- If you end up taking a trick after declaring no allegiance, shift your scope and start trying to take as many as possible. Might as well! They’re points, now, and you also want to keep your opponents from getting points in the same way that they just blocked you getting points. It’s mostly punitive, at this point, so try and mess them up as much as you can. Also try shifting the Council strength around to keep all suits low-value, so that they don’t get much of a bonus, either.
- It’s worth thinking about what cards your opponents have. You particularly want to keep in mind what Allegiance Bonus your opponents are going after so that you can devalue those cards. It’s mean, but, you’re not here to make friends.
- When going to the Council Chambers, try to buff your own cards and keep in mind that you want to take a high-value Allegiance Bonus at the end of the round. The thing to watch out for here is that if you buff a suit too much, you risk a player with no allegiance taking those cubes and dumping most of them into the Council Chambers to try and boost their own score. Generally, going above 5 on one tile is dangerous, because with 6 or more cubes it’s possible to move cubes to the Council Chambers. Beyond that, though, the higher-value a suit is, the more points you get for an Allegiance Bonus of that type at the end of the round, so it’s worth going for a high value if you can guarantee that the suit is the one you’ll take as an Allegiance Bonus.
- If you’ve already gotten an Allegiance Bonus, try to keep the number of cubes in play down so that nobody can catch up with you. If nobody declares a No Allegiance in a round, for instance, try to force as many cubes as you can to the center. That way, players won’t get as much of an Allegiance Bonus at the end of the round. Even though that cuts in to your points, if you already have a large lead, it’s worth trying to prevent other players getting a lot of points.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The mancala mechanic is super interesting. It’s such a cool thing for a trick-taking game, being honest. I really like how dynamic it makes the game feel! The cards in your hand can shift in value and strength pretty drastically. I particularly like letting the player who followed suit with the lowest-value card (likely because they had to) determining which suit is going to lose its stored power. Letting them rebalance adds a strategic element to losing tricks. Is it worth losing a point (if you have the option) to rebalance the suits so that you can set yourself up for subsequent tricks? I really like the tension that adds.
- Having the player who lost have the ability to dynamically re-value suits also makes the game chaotic, which I appreciate. I also like some chaos in my trick-taking games, and nothing will make things more chaotic than “suddenly, this suit is worthless”. The best part about it is that it can come back around, and a suit that was once worthless can become valuable again. It takes some time, but that’s half the fun of losing tricks to try and build up your hand again. Some of my favorite trick-taking games can get wild, and I appreciate that Bug Council of Backyardia is down to get wild as well.
- I think the Allegiance Mechanic is pretty interesting, as well. It incentivizes players to essentially bet big and try to save at least one card, but it also really punishes players for over-strengthening one particular suit, since any player (and especially a No Allegiance player) can dump all of the cubes over 5 into the center, where nobody can take them again. I think that’s a fun little danger to try and skirt. You can’t build the suits’ power up any faster, but that also means you may need to commit to losing a few tricks to get allegiances where you want them to be. If another player reads your intent correctly, however, they may zero it out.
- I think the idea of relative “trump” cards is pretty interesting, especially as you’re trying to decide what card to keep for the end of the round. Especially since the strength of cards is such a moving target, it can be fun to try and plan ahead or decide which card you want to try and keep for your Allegiance Bonus. It can be kind of thrilling to suddenly see your hand go from being an absolutely awful hand to a very powerful hand, just based on the shifting of the suits’ strengths.
- Going without an Allegiance can make you fun and dangerous, which are two good things to be in a trick-taking game. This is even more true if you actually pull off a No Allegiance Win and take 0 tricks. You become a target, which is tough but fun. I wouldn’t recommend going for two No Allegiance rounds. But I do like the intensity of players trying to make sure you take a trick. You don’t see that in a ton of games. I’m always a fan of trick-taking games that have a shoot the moon mechanic.
- Very portable. I mean, the game fits pretty easily in a Quiver, which is sort of my Ongoing Standard for how portable a game is. Plus, it’s only card and cubes, and not a lot of either. I’m building up a trick-taking Quiver for these sorts of things, and it seems like this might be a decent contender to get added.
- I kind of wish there were a way to rescue cubes from the Council Chambers instead of them just getting stuck there, but oh well. It’s not really a problem; it’s just something that seems odd. They just kind of end up getting stuck there forever if you leave too many cubes around. It seems like an odd thing to do with the extra cubes, rather than repurposing them.
- At three players, it seems easy enough to force one player to take a trick that choosing not to declare an allegiance doesn’t feel particularly worth it. This is a small-scale problem that I think will work itself out pretty quickly as you learn how to play, especially with a group, but there’s a balance that is important to strike early on. At lower player counts, the number of tricks doesn’t change, so there are just … more tricks than players who can tank them. This makes it hard for a player to win 0 tricks in a three-player game without a specific player mistake (or, at that scale, a specific series of consecutive player mistakes). I think players will notice pretty quickly, but it can be a bit dissatisfying. At higher player counts, it’s funnier, since multiple players might risk going with no allegiance and then getting screwed, but I struggle to see how it’s actually possible at lower player counts. It’s definitely a risk / reward calculation, though, so maybe you’ll find a situation where it’s worth it.
- I don’t love bugs. That’s kind of the challenge with the theme, but, what can you do? There are a lot of themes in games; I can’t love them all.
Overall: 8.25 / 10
Overall, I think Bug Council of Backyardia is quite fun! I’m generally a fan of trick-taking games, anyways, which is part of why I’ve got three trick-taking reviews coming down the pipeline this month. But I think Bug Council of Backyardia changes things up in a way that I really like! At least, in all the ways but the theme. Thankfully, the art isn’t that realistic, so it doesn’t explicitly creep me out. As far as the game goes, the mancala mechanic for determining suit strength is neat! It gives the game a bit of an ebb-and-flow dynamic, as different suits become strong and weak and strong again over the course of the round and game. I like dynamic, chaotic trick-taking games, and giving players the option to either collect a bonus for whatever card they have left or let them try to risk it all with a “I’ll take no tricks” shoot-the-moon style play. Those are exciting for me. I am particularly interested in how the solo and two-player modes play; I haven’t seen many solo trick-taking games, so, that does seem pretty neat. I probably like it most at the higher end of the player count spectrum, since that kind of maximizes the chaotic potential of this game, but I think it has a lot to offer trick-taking fans with its variable suit strengths. I do wish the art were less … bugs, but that’s definitely just a taste If you’re a big fan of trick-taking games, looking for something new in the space, or you’re just really into bug-themed games, you might enjoy Bug Council of Backyardia! I think it’s going to end up in my trick-taking Quiver for a while. At least, when I can travel more again.
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