My Kingdom for a Skull: A Review of Tribes of Balbur

June 11, 2017

I stumbled across this game because one of the pixel artists I follow on twitter did the art for the game and posted about it. Saint’s pixel art tutorials are a thing of beauty and to see the rich hand drawn line art in this game really conveys his range of competence as an artist. The art is nice but that is not what drew me to this game initially. A pay what you want distribution, model while not unique in board games, is certainly rare.

Almost by definition such a model fails to optimize monetization but otherwise it has rather strong selling points for both publisher and consumer alike. It signals confidence on the side of the publisher by removing the hard sell completely and even the soft sell often to post game play. If the experience does not hold up, the money will not dry up since the spigot will not flow to begin with. Early on in the life cycle of a publisher it also allows for the maximum distribution of the game by removing the pain point of the sale entirely. The last upside for the publisher is common to all forms of digital distribution, and print on demand for that matter, in that it limits your downside risk. In the case the game tanks you are not out your first print run, but solely the sunk costs in art and gameplay development.

From the consumer’s perspective there is a veritable feast. There is almost no downside in trying out the game and seeing what it is worth to you. I do not know if MiniBoss is happy with this interpretation but that is how I have chosen to handle it and similar product offerings. If the game ends up not being your cup of tea you are out nothing but your time and still learned something, even if that is what not to do in game design.

How does Tribes on Balbur fit into all of this? Yes the distribution platform is novel but is the gameplay any good? Indeed, it is quite good. Gameplay is fluid and engaging. The RNG inherent to dice can be influenced and be brought to heel through proper planning. The combat is fun and meaningful. Moment to moment decision making rewards long term strategy as well as short term tactics. All this in a game that does not overstay its welcome, clocking in around 20 minutes per game. Sadly this fine game is somewhat undermined by the skull resource.

Skulls can only be acquired by losing in combat and are required to complete the monument to win the game. With the locking mechanic, which is otherwise spot on, you must lose 4 combats to get the needed skulls to complete the monument. This can end up gating you far more than any of the other pedestrian resource concerns. It is no fun at the end of the game trying against hope to lose to anyone to gather skulls but that will be an inevitability for half the players. My problem with skulls I could see fixing in one of two ways.

If the skull was not required on the monument itself it would not be required to win the game. Otherwise if there was a way to acquire skulls, outside of combat regardless of how hard, it would not gate the end state in the same way. Changes in either case would result in a more competitive more interactive games. This review concerns version 0.83 of the game and I do expect some changes to the skull mechanic to address its implications in future versions. I am grateful to Studio Miniboss for releasing this unique game how they did and for having faith in the support of their fans. Fire up your printer and try this game out.

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