The Arena of Baradum – a fistfight with impact

The Arena of Baradum – a fistfight with impact

The Netherlands doesn’t have a large pool of board game designers, so it is always heartening to see a Dutch designer approach an idea with a new, cool perspective. The Arena of Baradum, by publisher Horned Toad Games, takes a stab at delivering an arena skirmish game (what could one have expected with such a name) that is quick to play and easy to learn. Does The Arena of Baradum manage to grab a quick win, or does it blow away under its own weightlessness?

This review came about a bit differently than my normal ones, as this time around we approached a publisher before their game had even been released. The Arena of Baradum is currently on crowdfunding (up until the 17th of April), meaning that I’m going to be discussing a game that technically does not exist yet. Take the following with an appropriate grain of salt, as things are still liable to change or be developed between now and its eventual release. Having said that, let’s take a look at The Arena of Baradum!

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The game in action! | Photo: Yorom

How do you play The Arena of Baradum?

Arena combat typically means one thing – punching noses until everyone but you is left in your dust. The Arena of Baradum lets you crush your opponents in two ways: you either knock everyone else out of the arena, or you collect enough points to win. Points can be collected either by landing successful hits or by collecting orbs (if you’re lucky). Neither orbs nor combat always offer the rewards you seek, so you’ll be needing a healthy pinch of luck as well. Luckily though the game provides you with ample tools to turn the tides of combat in your favour.

You start the game by choosing a unique character, each with their own stats, abilities and character deck. Each deck is more or less unique except for a smattering of miss-cards (more on those later), making each character feel unique as you pick them up to play. During your turn you get to order two different items from an action menu with four options. You either get to walk up to your speed, draw a card, play a card or punch an opponent. I’m going to assume you understan how three-fourths of those options work, so let’s talk combat. When you’re next to an opponent, you get to try and successfully punch them by having a roll-off and adding your relevant stats. If the attacker’s roll-plus-punch-stat is higher than the defender’s roll-plus-don’t-punch-me-bro stat, the attacker wins and scores a point. And that simple framework is how you’ll fight to the death until only one victor remains!

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Your player board in action! | Photo: Yorom

So what’s special about this?

Firstly, the teach is dead-simple. You’llv be able to get everyone at the table up and running in about five minutes, meaning you’ll be able to go in no time. This game was a hit at our game night for that exact reason; people who joined in later were able to suss out most of the rules just by looking, and could get taught the rest in mere minutes. The characters feel balanced as well, meaning you don’t have to worry about sheparding power levels. Players just get to choose a character that looks cool and they’re ready to punch face. A rarity in a genre that tends to lose itself in simulationis navel-gazing that causes many of its titles to drown in a morass of their own ambition. It’s refreshing to have a game that just comes in, punches faces and then dips back out again.

The Arena of Baradum also managed to find a solution to a major pet peeve of mine – players only clumping together. The only place you typically want to be in games like this is right next to your opponent, but the orbs in Arena of Baradum entice players to roam and fully use the provided space. They’re not straight upside, making it so that the right move isn’t ever necessarily ‘just grab the orb‘, but they’re a proper incentive. Plus, they typically provide you with an avenue to get fist-punch-points if the orb itself doesn’t provide you with points on its own. I like this approach much more than games that only really allow you to stand next to a guy until they explode into a shower of their own suffering.

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All characters together. | photo: Yorom

Cowboys in the arena

The Arena of Baradum also has an alternate game mode, which is my preferred way to play when you’ve got a large player count. Instead of winning by scoring points, you play a hidden-role game that’s a crossbreed of the regular game and Bang!. Each player gets dealt a card showing their role, followed by finding out which player is the flagbearer. Most players will win if they manage to kill the flagbearer, while some will only win if they kill everyone else first or if the flagbearer manages to survive until the end. Players will be flying left and right through the arena attempting to score hits on each-other in an attempt to obfuscate their real motives. It’s a bit of extra rules, sure, but I think the gameplay value is worth it.

Although this flagbeearer mode creates a much different dynamic from the regular game (devaluing orbs in exchange for vastly increasing the value of combat) I’d only ever play The Arena of Baradum with this game mode at five or six players. It does need that count to be good (as I think the assistant character is necessary to have a real interesting game), but I like what this game mode does for the game. It really does give life to a game that I’d typically only play with three or four players. It’s a nice addition that I was surprised to find when learning the rules, and it’s an economical addition as well (only really needing a few cards and some lines in a rulebook). Clever stuff!

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Materials for this game mode. | Photo: Yorom

Head to head, game to game

The Arena of Baradum isn’t unique of course. You;ve got other arena skirmish games like Unmatched, Sodalis (which I wrote about quite recently) and lesser-known games such as Battle of Gods and about 200 Warhammer 40K variants. The Arena of Baradum differentiates itself from those titles by achieving what it sets out to do while still having a thin rulebook and lightning-quick actions. Drawing a card takes a second. Moving is quick and painless. Playing a card is Love Letter-level easy. Fighting is rolling a die and adding a number. It’s a lot quicker and more direct than its contemporaries, while still offering interesting choices and explosive moments.

And, to circle back to orbs for the third time, the orbs really do a lot of work in this game. They’re the grease that allows the engine to run smoothly. They don’t always offer the exact reward you want, but they give you good things enough times to always be an enticing option when they’re around. Scoring a point feels good, but getting a bonus on a die roll indirectly allows you to score points as well. There’s negative effects as well, which others mentioned not liking when they drew them, but I thought they were hilarious. There’s nothing like having one HP and needing one point to win the game, only to fall into a snake pit. It’s actual comedy from a game whose genre typically takes itself so very very seriously.

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The orb spread. | Photo: Yorom

The critical misses

It can’t all be good news though, which leads me to the things we ran into while playing The Arena of Baradum. My main issue is the composition of most character decks. We kept running up against the fact that each deck has about five or six miss-cards (a card that makes the attacker automatically lose a combat role) while also having a number of cards that amounted to saying “I’m a miss card with trinket text”. This made a lot of the combats amount to “I’M GONNA HIT YO- oh I miss. Next.”, which never feels good if that’s your whole turn. One player didn’t manage to get a single die roll going because people kept playing misses on him. I’d like to see an option to maybe tune the amount of miss cards that are in a deck, especially at higher player counts. That would probably do a lot to maintain the game’s all-important tempo.

That sense of tempo is essential, as that is (arguably) The Arena of Baradum’s biggest selling point. Turns fly by when you’re playing the game with three or four people, but it can really start dragging once you start playing with five or six players. Getting hit by a miss-card is a lot more devastating if you’re then stuck watching other players do cool intricate card combos while you’ve essentially skipped a turn. That said, a bit more curation (changing the number of miss-cards in higher player count games, or adding a second orb starting at five players) could do a lot of good in maintaining the game’s regular sense of momentum.

Lastly, there’s the rulebook. Large parts of the rulebook are clear and functional, but there’s certain details that either don’t show up in the places you expect or don’t show up at all. I was taught how to play the game at a con, so I kwen how you could score points, but I initially had a hard time finding those rules in the rulebook. Similarly, the rules for the flagbearer game mode don’t specifically say if a player is supposed to reveal their role once they get killed. I understand that the game is still under development though, so take this with the grain of salt it deserves, but I nevertheless do hope that the rulebook gets tightened up between now and full release.

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I’ve seen and done this a bunch. | photo: Yorom
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Gameplay (8/10): The Arena of Baradum, at its finest moments, plays quickly and has actions that feel direct and impactful. This is most effectively fascilitated by the fact that the rulebook is lean, gameplay text is clean and the rest of the systems are a well-oiled machine. Everything works well, just so long as you keep the player count at three or four.

Game feel (7/10): waiting times feel like they grow exponentially whenever you add another player, and some turns can kind of feel like a dud when you use your full turn to walk up to someone just to get hit with a miss card. It’s a good thing that those turns get compensated by turns where you feel like an action hero character after stitching together these cool combos and powers.

Aesthetics (8.5/10): key pieces like the board, characters and the box look fantastic. The cards are very clear (if a little utilitarian) and I’m not a fan of the white border around the character art on the standees, but I’m assuming that those things will get ironed out during further development. I’m hoping that The Arena of Baradum gets enough attention during crowdfunding to unlock the miniatures add-on, as I feel this game would greatly benefit from having miniatures on the table

Replayability (7/10): we played this game quite a lot during our round of testing, and I was happily surprised by just how entertaining the game remained after repeated plays. There’s of course the variance you get from switching up what character you play, but there were also a number of players who preferred to get really good at playing one character. I’m not sure that I would play this game a hundred times, but I can’t really say that about any game. All I know is that right now, I would absolutely play it again, which is rare for me.

Manual (6/10): the manual is mostly servicable and provides you the info that you want it to provide, although I’m still left with detail questions that the manual doesn’t have answers to. I’m talking about timing questions, weird interactions, and certain rules that the rulebook currently doesn’t cover. I understand that this game is still in development, but a core audience is full of people like me who want the nitty-gritty; that’s currently missing from an otherwise well-written and effective rulebook.

Total score: 7.2

The Arena of Baradum had a clear vision it set out to achieve, and I feel like it accomplishes that with aplomb. It’s rare to get an arena combat game that feels this fast and fluid, giving you quick and snappy turns. The headliners are obviously the characters, who feel diverse and like they’re doing their own thing. This game is highly recommended to players who are looking to punch face without having to memorize a rulebook as thick as a Bible.

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De cover van The Arena of Baradum | foto: Yorom

Other things of note

We were also given the characters that can be unlocked as stretch goals during the crowdfunding campaign, but I made the conscious choice to only play with gameplay materials that you would be able to get with the current version of the game. That said, the current versions of the characters do feel well-developed and feel like they belong in the setting along with the other characters. That’s a good sign; the designer isn’t just jamming things in his game just for the sake of content.

I chose not to compare this game to Sodalis too much, considering that (even though I love the game) that game wasn’t really able to take flight the way I had hoped it would. Both games did take time to consider the role mobility plays in its system, and I’m happy to see two first-time designers crack that egg in different but equally effective ways. Hopefully future arena brawl designers will take note of both of these designs when trying to solve that puzzle. Awareness of the role that space and mobility play in your game is highly important, and it’s heartening to see two people who are new on the scene solve it in unique ways that can most definitely be influential.

What do you think?

This was a bit of a different review for me, as this is the first time that I’ve been able to take such a close look at a game that, well… technically doesn’t exist yet. I’m obviously hoping that the game will be a runaway hit for the designer, but I also value my honesty quite highly. As the inimitable Nina Simone said before me, please don’t let me be misunderstood. This was not a paid review, and I’m actually not even keeping the game after this aricle goed live. I’m just a fan of game design who took a leap of faith messaging a designer about a game that looked cool, and I’m hoping this review was able to convey that to you.

Hopefully this piece will also help you make an informed decision on whether or not you would like to back The Arena of Baradum, as I feel like I’ve given it the consideration it deserves. We here at bordspellencafe.nl are looking forward to the final product! Should you be interested in helping the game become a reality, there’s still time to back the crowdfunding campaign over here on Gamefound. Are you looking forward to playing this game, and what other arena fighting games do you love? Let me know down in the comments!