Nostalgia excuses many sins, but it doesn't need to for the Bardsung board game. A dungeon-delving adventure that's just arrived on Kickstarter, it offers an experience that combines the best tabletop RPGs with something a little more like Frosthaven. In other words? It's coming for HeroQuest.
It's certainly got enough talent behind the scenes to steal the crown. As well as being developed by the studio responsible for a Horizon Zero Dawn board game and Godtear, Bardsung also has two big names on the docket: Rhianna Pratchett, a driving force behind the rebooted Tomb Raider games, and Ian Livingstone, creator of the Fantasy Flight books. That's been more than enough to convince punters, it seems - the Kickstarter campaign has already breezed past its £76,000 goal. In fact, Bardsung has more than doubled it after just a few days.
I recently got a chance to see why. Although I tried a prototype version online via Tabletopia due to Covid-19 restrictions, it was still more than enough to prove that this will be something of a monster in person. Stuffed with 66 miniatures, more than 800 cards, over two-dozen board tiles, and plenty of tokens, I suspect it's heavy enough to sink a ship without much fuss. And yes, it's broadly similar to other crowdfunded products such as the Divinity: Original Sin board game. You know the drill: your heroes brave murky dungeons and try to steal as much loot as they can carry. In addition, you'll level up their abilities over time and contend with lasting consequences from one mission to another. However, it stands apart in a couple of key ways. Namely, it feels much more accessible.
Even though similar RPGs like Gloomhaven or Talisman are some of the top board games for adults, setting them up is a bit of a slog. Bardsung hopes to break the trend by enabling players to start playing as quickly as possible, and that's why it features a procedural map. As per Betrayal at House on the Hill, you uncover dungeon rooms or corridors at random as you explore - you never know what you'll draw next. As well as keeping things fresh each time you play, it massively reduces setup time. All you need to do is put down a goal token somewhere on the board (which allows you to decide whether you're playing a shorter or longer session) and then build a dungeon on your way to it. It's simple, elegant, and straightforward.
Equally, you'll draw random events in certain rooms to spice things up. For example, our crew managed to find a blood magic ritual that offered extra 'fate' points - used to power abilities or level up - for each foe we killed in that corridor. In theory, this will keep things fresh and add longevity to Bardsung in the long run.
Hunter… or hunted?
That accessibility extends to combat. While it took a moment to get my head around, it's really quite simple. If you've tried D&D (the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set, say), you'll be very at home as it takes inspiration from 5E's gameplay. This means that your enemy has a score that you have to match or beat with your dice roll to hurt them. Just like D&D, you then use an attack die to determine damage.
This simplicity allows you to focus on chaining attacks that your allies can then capitalize on. Your warrior may break the shield of a larger foe, for instance, allowing someone else to finish them off with a well-placed coup de grace. Or another player might shove their enemy into another space on the board, allowing your rogue to take advantage of a special ability that lets them reroll damage if an opponent is by themselves. Throw in multiclassing that allows you to develop your hero in almost any direction and you've got a compelling system.
However, things get really interesting when you're a few turns into the dungeon - and it's because of something Bardsung calls 'wandering monsters'. These may not sound menacing, but you should definitely be afraid of them. You see, they appear at the dungeon entrance randomly during the game and will start relentlessly pursuing you and the party until it's caught and killed you. And don't think this is a straightforward combat challenge - you have almost no hope of defeating it and can only slow it down. Remember the Tyrant from Resident Evil? Basically, that.
The result is a sense of urgency that gives Bardsung a unique flavor. Rather than being able to saunter across the board at your leisure, you have to pick up the pace. Because certain tiles may also be dead ends, it makes doubling back all the more nerve-wracking.
That alone makes me more than a little intrigued to see how the Bardsung board game turns out. Sure, I'm very excited about the Gloomhaven sequel and a revamped HeroQuest. But Bardsung is doing something a bit different, and I'm very here for it.
Want some recommendations for the holiday season? Don't miss the best co-operative board games or great board games for 2 players. And if you'd prefer something more child-friendly for little adventurers, there's always Dungeons and Dragons: Adventure Begins.