If you’ve never thought about the history of big cities you might be surprised just how many were designed for maximum density rather than livability, with narrow cobblestone streets just wide enough for a donkey cart rather than two lanes of vehicles plus parked cars and a sidewalk. When everyone was on foot, dwellings could be piled one atop another, with the wider areas, parks, and architectural decoration reserved for the wealthy. As the centuries passed, ancient cities like London and Rome were constantly torn down and rebuilt with different configurations. Still, cities reflected the needs and socioeconomic character of their denizens. Until the mid-1800’s, when radical architect Ildefons Cerdá was commissioned with rebuilding the world’s most densely populated city: Barcelona.
Cerdá’s vision was to have a city with wide boulevards perfect for strolling and socializing and buildings that incorporated greenspace and had the same basic architecture whether they were housing city workers or their wealthier employers. Transit would be accomplished through trams, which meant that they needed space to safely run without interfering with other uses of roadways too.
The board game Barcelona from designer Dani Garcia and artist Aleksander Zawada drops you into this architectural planning task. Published by Board & Dice, the game is bright, colorful, and has an organic flow and feel to its components that appropriately reflects the architecture of the era (most notably embodied by Antoni Gaudí, who famously designed the Sagrada Família church).
It’s also a complex game with lots of different ways to score points, enough ways that it’s almost inevitable that players will forget one or another scoring mechanism. The goal is to score the most points possible, but individual moves can result in a half-dozen or more scoring opportunities, and the end game can add 50 or more points, depending on how well the player strategized. There’s also a solo mode that offers the chance to compete against the famous Gaudí on building out Barcelona. That’s what I opted to play for this review.
Since it’s such a complex game, I’m going to focus on setup and the first round and it’s still going to be a long article. Thanks for sticking with it, dear reader!
BARCELONA SOLO GAME SETUP
Setup is almost identical for solo and multiplayer – the game supports 1-4 players in total – and the Gaudí automata is card-driven, so it’s fairly straightforward. There are a lot of icons and a complex iconography in the game too, however, revolving around street building, public service building construction, additions to the Sagrada Família, cobblestones, intersections, and even Modernisme building tiles. The heart of the game is a 5×5 grid of streets and intersections that comprise central Barcelona, as can be seen:
Starting at the top and going clockwise, the main board includes the city grid, a side track known as the Cerdà track (which is essentially a measure of how close your construction matches his original egalitarian vision of the new city), Citizen Tracks along the bottom that track how much housing each of three classes of citizens, worker, middle class, and upper class, have had built in the city. On the right, in the two bowls, are gold coins and cloth, representing financing for construction and materials for craftspeople. Below that are four different types of buildings, three roughly square, and one that’s a triangle, to fit the spots on the grid.
Along the bottom, right to left (since we’re still going clockwise!) are the purple Gaudí automata cards and board and the orange player board that represents our progress along the Sagrada Família track (the very top), tram passenger deployment, construction of narrow and wide roads and intersections, and our warehouse where we store our coins, cloth, and cobblestones. At the bottom are tokens to mark ownership of newly constructed buildings.
Lower left is a bag that allows players to randomize their choice of new citizens, two shortcut cards (very helpful!), and the Side Board that shows Modernisme tiles, Public Service buildings and a cobblestone grid that can help players obtain otherwise difficult resources or points.
Complicated, right? I did warn you, it’s a classic Euro design with lots going on. BGG’s complexity score is 3.3/5 but I’d give it a 4, particularly for solo play where it’s all on you to remember every single rule and nuance of play. Let’s look at these various aspects more closely…
This is the player board up close, and you can see the Sagrada Família track along the top (each time your token “hops” a gap, you then take a Sagrada tile and gain its benefits), the tram line (each passenger cube has an associated cost, but reveals end of game points), the pile of roads and intersections, followed by the Warehouse (currently showing 1 cloth, 1 coin, two open spaces, and 6 cobblestones).
The automata board is quite similar to the player board, with the main difference that they don’t accumulate coins and cloth and therefore don’t have to pay for things. Their Sagrada Família tiles are also added, though don’t gain them points until their own Sagrada token hops that building segment.
The Side Board is another place where a lot is going on:
The Side Board is shared by all players and has the Modernisme tiles along the top, Public Service building tiles along the center (you randomly pick 5 of the 7 available buildings each time you set up) and, on the lower portion, the “Sidewalk”. Cobblestones are placed on this grid, always orthogonally adjacent to an existing cobblestone, and the player immediately gains the reward indicated. For example, playing a cobblestone tile immediately above the center starting tile will earn a gold coin, while immediately to the right will move the player up one on the Cerdá track.
Still with me? Let’s look at the Citizen Track (the bottom portion of the main board) since that’s also the game timer mechanism.
The game turns have you placing citizens, attempting to build new dwellings for them, then placing the newly housed citizens on this Citizen Board. Blue citizens are upper class, red are middle-class, and green are working class. As soon as a row of citizens (always placed left to right) fills a section, a Scoring Phase is triggered, tied to the randomly selected scoring criteria at the top of that section. In the above, each player will get 2 points for each intersection they’ve placed. Citizens placed on the track are worth points too! Finally, once the third section of the Citizen Track is filled, the game is over.
One more big area to explore: The main Barcelona city grid. You can see here that there are 12 full building lots and 8 tiny triangular building lots in the city, the latter divided by a wide boulevard:
Around the outside is a scoring track. On the left are bonus tiles earning a player 5 points for being the first to construct a building in that row. The right column is the Cerdá track, tracking how well your efforts are in alignment with his vision of an egalitarian city. Build fancy digs for wealthy folk and you might gain points, but you’ll go down on this track. Where this gets tricky (like it hasn’t been complex to this point!) is that every street or intersection on the grid has corresponding benefits at the top of the columns and right side of the rows. spots along the diagonal boulevard also gain an additional bonus (not shown in this image), the ability to move your tram on the grid and optionally drop off a passenger.
What do you place on intersections? You can build an intersection if you have the corresponding action but you always place citizens on those intersections and then aim to construct dwellings in unimproved squares where there are sufficient adjacent citizens. Don’t like the humble level 1 building in a spot? If you have the right number of adjacent citizens, you can replace it with a fancier building!
Speaking of which, buildings…
Each circular spot represents a required adjacent citizen for the building to be constructed. Blue are the fanciest, offering the best rewards, then pink are for middle class denizens of Barcelona, while green are Cerdá-approved all-class dwellings that you can build if there are two citizens of any class adjacent. Those funky shaped buildings near the main diagonal? Those also require two citizens but have no reward (other than for the construction itself), while the right side of each tile shows its rewards. Notice that building more expensive dwellings subtracts from your Cerdá score (which gives you multipliers to various scoring mechanisms and can be tremendously important, particularly in the end-game scoring).
Okay, we’ve finished this first chapter of the novel and I haven’t even taken a turn yet. So let’s have a single turn so you can see the basics, then I’ll share my impressions and commentary!
FIRST TURN: BARCELONA SOLO MODE
There are separate instructions included for all the nuances of solo play, mostly explaining how so-called Gaudí Points are earned and rewarded. In essence, the automata scores a lot each turn just as the regular player does. In a multiplayer game, each player scores at least 3-4 times on a typical turn. Turns begin by stacking your two randomly selected citizens from the draw bag and placing them on an intersection that offers maximum benefit. This can be coins, cloth, Cerdá points, and more. I’m going to start by placing my citizens, worker on top, in the lower left corner of the grid:
This does not earn me the coins or points shown (they’re rewards for building roads or intersections) but it does earn me three actions, one at the top of the leftmost column, one rightmost on this row, and the tram movement for being on the diagonal. The column action is to place an intersection, the row’s reward is to go up one on the Cerdá track, and the tram movement will be done too. Once those are done (and placing an intersection, even under my existing citizens, earns the rewards on all adjacent spots), I check to see if I can construct a building (the first turn you never can because there’s only one stack of citizens out) and replace my citizens with two from the bag.
The intersection I choose offers maximal points, even if it’s a long way from my current citizens at the top of the board:
This earns me 6 points. Nice. I place my tram – and my first passenger – lower on the grid:
Deploying all your passengers is a savvy way to earn a bunch of points at the end of the game.
NOW IT’S GAUDÍ’S TURN
The automata has a similar, though not identical, play cycle.His turn is dictated by both the cards and some basic rules about placement. He begins the game in the center of the city grid (the brown meeple, visible in earlier photos). Cards detail one or more actions that he will take, but first, he moves to a new spot (seeking his own intersections, or those that will let him construct a building on this turn, or those crossings that do not have the other player’s intersection). Two citizens are drawn from the bag and then placed at the same spot as his meeple. he ends up placing his citizens and then being able to build an adjacent building. His action is to move his own tram, which ends up adjacent to him:
Notice that I’ve built two roads (they’re orange, not purple) and that we have our first building on the board! Completing the building means that the two citizens are added to the Citizen Board, which produces some points for Gaudí:
Placed citizens are always worth the lowest visible value on their track (and the few already on the board are as noted for a solo starting scenario). Placing the middle class pink citizen has earned 3 points and the working class green citizen 6. 9 points, not bad for early in the game.
LATER IN THE GAME
Some short time later, the first full size building is being constructed:
It requires two citizens, at least one of which has to be middle class (pink). It earns the builder +1 on the Sagrada track, but costs them -1 on the Cerdá track. Once all rewards are accounted for, the top citizen of each pile moves to the Citizen Track, offering more points, and the building is flipped over to show it’s built.
When it’s Gaudí’s turn, his automata card shows that he’s going to place a cobblestone on the cobblestone grid. The complex iconography on the right side shows the priority of placement, with +1 Sagrada as the top priority and +1 Gaudí as the lowest:
Since the grid offers neither placement (remember, orthogonal only) Gaudí’s turn ends up being gaining a cloth and coin at the top. Next turn he might be able to get that Sagrada +1, but not this time:
Much later in the game, there are streets deployed, tram passengers dropped off, and a decent number of buildings constructed:
Notice the position of the citizens: That spot on the lower right is ripe for building and has a middle class citizen adjacent, so will be a level 2 dwelling. Or the working class citizen on the upper left suggests that a move where a citizen is placed on one of the other intersections could produce a new building on the top left (or middle left, for that matter). And so it goes…
THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS
I really enjoy architecture and reading about architectural history and designer Dani Garcia has done a great job adding historical notes in the rulebook and instructions. But there’s no getting around it; this is a complicated game with a lot going on and lots of chains of events that can be triggered both deliberately and, sometimes, inadvertently. This is also what gamers like to call a “point salad” game where you’re constantly scoring a few points here, a couple of points there, a bunch of points for an unexpected action, and so on. Scores of 300+ are common.
As a solo game, this is also a serious time commitment; My solo games lasted a couple of hours and that was after I had figured out all the basics and had limited my forgotten steps to just one every so often (tip: Don’t forget to score the first-building-in-a-row points as you go). It’s honestly a bit much for all but the most fastidious and attentive players, which is too bad because the core ideas here are terrific. I’d like to see a Barcelona lite version where, for example, you eschew the cobblestones aspect, or omit the Modernisme actions in the interest of streamlining and making it easier to get into.
I think of Jaws of the Lion and how it’s a nice, simplified entré into Gloomhaven, offering all the basic concepts but in a more accessible manner. For hardcore board gamers, that 3.35 / 5 score on BGG might suggest it’s easy, and to be fair once you get into the rhythm of a turn, it is somewhat straightforward, but for the rest of us, it might just teeter on the very edge of being too complicated to be fun.
Barcelona, designed Dani Garcia with artwork from Aleksander Zawada. Published by Board & Dice. €60 at BoardAndDice.com.
Disclosure: Board & Dice sent me a copy of Barcelona in return for this candid writeup and review. Thanks!!