Generations from now, what songs will they sing of your adventures? Come create legendary memories in Bardsung.
What Is Bardsung?
Bardsung is a dungeon crawler campaign game for 1-5 players, ages 14 and up, and takes about 60-90 minutes per session. Bardsung was designed by Mat Hart, Sherwin Matthews, and Fraser McFetridge, and published by Steamforged Games (SFG), with illustrations by Russ Charles, Thomas Lishma, Doug Telford, and Holly Woolford. You can purchase Bardsung directly from Steamforged Games for $199.99, or check your FLGS.
Bardsung comes in a big box. I mean a BIG box! This one isn’t going to fit into your KALLAX shelf, but it does make a nice work of art on top of it. So what comes in this monstrosity? A lot of monsters as well as a whole lot more.
- 1 Rulebook
- 1 Adventure Book
- 1 Double-sided Playing Board
- 10 Dice (2xd4, 3xd6, 1xd8, 1xd10, 1xd12, 2xd20)
- 5 Heroes
- 1 Miniature
- 1 Initiative card
- 1 Profile card
- 4 Equipment cards
- 13 Ability cards
- 63 Enemy miniatures (32 different models)
- 65 Enemy Profile cards
- 4 Mini-Boss Initiative cards
- 12 Boss Profile cards
- 37 Boss Initiative cards
- 18 Miscellaneous Boss cards
- 5 Wondering Monster Deck Event cards
- 138 Aspect Battle cards
- 214 Aspect Challenge cards
- 17 Dungeon Corridor cards
- 39 Dungeon Room cards
- 11 Behavior cards
- 78 Narrative cards
- 60 Treasure cards
- 8 Squire cards
- 28 Wound cards
- 1 Second Wind card
- 1 Party Marker
- 1 Reputation
- 7 Fate
- 3 Toolkit
- 3 Firewood
- 3 Healing Potion
- 3 Charm
- 10 Gold
- 5 3rd Action
- 2 Mirage
- 4 Devotion
- 5 Ghost
- 1 Grudge
- 90 Characteristic Modifiers
- 5 Blessing / Pinned
- 5 Bleed / Sundered
- 10 Burn / Frost
- 5 Fatigue / Silence
- 12 Poison / Stunned
- 9 Bane / Weakened
- 25 Wound / Time
- 10 1XP / 3XP
- 7 Possessed / Corpse
- 7 Possessed / Spore
- 6 Corpse / Spore
- 4 Hidden Passage
- 1 Echo
- 3 Lever
- 1 Stairs
- 3 Treasure
- 4 Cover / Drift
- 2 Vines / Firepit
- 2 Vines / Stalagmite
- 8 Water / Gas
- 1 Lava Pit / Old Well
- 1 Lava Pit / Pipe
- 2 Mushroom Patch / Forge
- 1 Mushroom Patch / Banner
- 1 Mushroom Patch / Elevation
- 10 Doors
- 1 Portcullis
- 7 Dead-ends
- 20 Double-sided game tiles
As I said, there is a lot of stuff in this box. The nice thing is the publisher provided lots of trays to hold all the miniatures, cards, and tokens. I didn’t have a problem getting everything back into the box. It all had its place and the lid closed without any lift.
How to Play Bardsung
Being a large dungeon crawler, there is a lot to learn and manage in Bardsung. But once you get the basics down, it’s not that complicated of a game. The rulebook does a wonderful job of getting you started right out of the box by walking you through some tutorials for exploration, combat, and player turns, before throwing you into the campaign. Because there is a lot of minutia to Bardsung‘s rules, I won’t go over every detail, but will provide you with the basics. You can find the entire rulebook along with other resources here.
Bardsung is a narrative campaign game. The overarching goal is to explore, fight, and crawl your way to the end of the campaign, acquiring new skills and weapons, upgrading stats, and discovering the Legend of the Ancient Forge. The campaign is broken up into chapters, and each chapter includes several encounters. Each encounter has a specific goal that will progress the overall story. This might be to defeat a boss monster, locate a secret door, or obtain a special item.
Begin by laying the board out. Unless directed, you will play with the exploration side of the board up. This side of the board is used for exploring the dungeon and consists of a large area where you will lay the dungeon tiles. Additionally, there are spaces around three sides of the board for tracking items, reputation, and initiative. One thing that’s unique about Bardsung is that the map is procedurally generated. Instead of having a predetermined dungeon layout, you will reveal the dungeon as you explore. Each chapter begins with the heroes entering through the starter tile, which is placed centered, at the bottom of the board with the three doors opening outwards. If indicated in the chapter setup, place treasure tokens on the board. These are placed on the symbols shown in each quadrant. If a dungeon tile ever overlays one of them, then you can find a treasure in that room. To complete the board setup, place the tokens for the Toolkits, Firewood, Healing Potions, and Charms in the circles at the top of the board, with the active side facing up. Then place Fate tokens equal to the number of players, but with a minimum of 3 in that same area. Lastly, place the Reputation token as directed on the left side of the board. Here’s what each of these tokens does:
- Tookits are used for various gameplay abilities and situations that will be discovered during play.
- Firewood tokens allow your adventuring party to rest while in the dungeon.
- Healing Potions keep you alive. If a hero’s life is ever depleted, one drink of this will revive your hero to full health.
- Charms can be used to replenish all of the Fate tokens.
- Fate is a central mechanic to in Bardsung. You will spend Fate tokens to pay for certain abilities and empower attack rolls. These can be recharged, using Charm tokens or through certain hero abilities.
The base game comes with 5 unique heroes – Stoneheart, the dwarven fighter; Lightweaver, the elven mage; Dawnguard, the orc paladin; Nightfeather, the avian rogue; and Wyldshell, the turtle druid. Yes, a turtle druid! Each player chooses a hero and gathers its miniature, profile card, starting equipment and ability cards, and a dashboard. Using the back of the Hero Profile card, place the characteristic modifier tokens in the dashboard along with the hero card. Place your equipment and ability cards in front of you as well, and put all the miniatures on the starting tile.
Each crawl will tell you what cards are required. Shuffle up the Dungeon Corridor, Dungeon Room, Battle Aspect, and Challenge Aspect decks separately. All the cards are numbered and the contents of these decks will alter throughout the campaign based on your progress and decisions you make during your adventure. Also draw the amount of treasure cards as directed and have them available.
Bardsung is played in rounds and players take their turns based upon the order of the initiative cards. To establish the marching order, collect all the Hero Initiative cards, shuffle them up and then lay them out along the bottom of the board. As enemies are revealed, you will shuffle their initiative cards with the hero cards and reveal the new marching orders at that time.
Note that Bardsung’s gameplay revolves around the d20 and borrows some rules from D&D. Throughout the game you will use the d20 to make attack rolls and skill checks. Depending on the situation, you sometimes might have advantage or disadvantage, which like D&D, means that you roll two d20’s and either take the best (advantage) or worst (disadvantage) outcome. You will also add any bonuses from your stats to each roll, depending on the skill, weapon, or ability being used.
As mentioned above, characters will take their turns in the order shown on the initiative track. Heroes can take 2 actions per turn as follows:
- Use Ability
- Open / Close Door
Let’s look at these actions in more detail. The Move action is straightforward. Each tile is separated into a number of areas, and a character can move from one adjacent space into another and continue moving up to their speed. Note that there is no limit to how many characters can be in each space; however, if you are engaged with an enemy and attempt to leave that space, you will take a parting blow. It’s like a goodbye kiss from the enemy’s weapon. If you succeed in avoiding the parting blow, then run to the next space. Otherwise, stay put and your move action is over.
The Use Ability action is where your hero comes to life. Each character starts the game with a few abilities and will be able to improve them as well as acquire new ones as the gain experience. Abilities are divided into skills and attacks and each one can only be used once per round. To perform an ability, following the text on the cards, roll the d20 and resolve the effect. Abilities include powerful attacks, ally buffs, and magical mayhem.
To perform the Explore action, your character must be standing in a space adjacent to a portal. If you are currently in a corridor, then draw a Dungeon Room card, and vice versa. Lay the revealed tile so that one of its doors is adjacent to your tile, and then place your miniature on the new tile. If the revealed card shows the door in blue, then you must connect that specific door to the portal you are standing at. Otherwise, you can connect any of the doors. If you cannot lay the tile because it would overlap another tile, or it would go off the edge of the board, then instead place a dead-end tile. Additionally, draw either a Battle or Challenge Aspect card as indicated on the Corridor/Room card. A Battle card will typically indicate where to place monsters on that tile while a Challenge card often has an environmental affect (i.e., the room is slowly filling up with water and you need to leave within so many turns) or a skill test (i.e., you trigger a trap. Roll to avoid or take the consequence). Some aspect cards will have effects that remain on the board. In these instances, place the card at the end of the marching order and resolve it during the End Phase.
Lastly is the Open / Close Door action. Some tiles indicate that a portal includes a door. In that case, put a door tile on it with the open side showing. While standing on an adjacent space, a hero can close that door. If there are enemies in the area, then you must use a Toolkit token to slam that door shut. Closing doors are important because enemies are not able to open them. Also, you cannot rest if there are monsters on the board with no closed door between you and them. Additionally, closed doors slow down the progress of the Echo token. More on that later.
A big part of Bardsung’s gameplay is combat. As mentioned above, enemies will be revealed as you explore the dungeon. When they are, add them to the board and then reshuffle the marching order with those enemy’s cards included. Each enemy card indicates how fast they move, their toughness, how much damage they deal, and any special rules. Note that similar types of enemies only use one card in the marching order; thus, when that card is activated, all enemies of that type will activate. In addition to the enemy card, each type of enemy has a behavior card, which lists a series of actions for that enemy. Starting at the top of the card, see if they can perform that action. If not, then move to the next action until one is completed. Each enemy only gets to perform one action so once they complete one, move on to the next character’s turn. For instance, a “Ferocious” monster might attack a hero in it’s own space first while a “Cautious” enemy might keep its distance while attacking the heroes.
At the end of each round complete the following steps:
- Resolve any condition token effects.
- Resolve any delayed aspect cards.
- Perform an event roll (this is done only after 3 dungeon tiles are on the board).
- Reshuffle the marching order.
- Resolve, in any order, any hero ability effects.
- Resolve any other effects not previously mentioned.
- Move on to the next round.
Let’s take a moment to discuss the third step – the event roll. This represents the presence of other creatures in the dungeon. Roll a d6. on a 3-5, nothing happens and you move on to the next step of the End Phase. However, on a 1-2, place the Echo token on the starting space. Each time an event roll fails, the Echo token will move one area closer to the heroes. Note that an area is defined as any number of dungeon tiles separated by closed doors. Therefore, it is important to close doors behind you as you traverse the dungeon to slow down pursuing threats. If the Echo token reaches your area, draw a card from the Wandering Monster deck and resolve it. Perhaps it was just the wind that you heard, or it could be a ravenous giant rat! Lastly, if you roll a 6, then resolve any hazardous terrain on the board.
The game ends when you get to the final battle and defeat the big bad boss…I assume. Bardsung is a long campaign game and because of that, I have only played a few chapters to date. However, each encounter ends with either completing that crawls objective, whether that is getting through the dungeon or perhaps finding an ancient relic. Or the session ends with the death of the party. At this point, move onto the Maintenance Phase before beginning the next encounter, or replaying the current one if you failed.
When you defeat monsters, you gain gold. And when you successfully complete encounters, you gain XP. At the end of each encounter, the players have an opportunity to upgrade their heroes using the gold and XP earned.
Upkeep Step: During this step, remove all wound cards from the heroes and clear the board of all tiles, monsters, etc. However, do not flip over any used Toolkits, Charms, Healing Potions, or Firewood tokens. Also, heroes keep any Grudge tokens and cards with timer tokens. If you completed the encounter, perform the next step. But if you failed, discard all gold from that encounter, and replenish the Toolkit, Charm, Healing Potion, and Firewood tokens until at least one of each is active.
Gold Step: This is when you get to spend that hard earned cash. You can use gold to replenish consumable items, flip the Firewood, Toolkit, Healing Potion, and/or Charm tokens, or draw a random treasure card. Additionally, you can detach gemstones and runes from your equipment.
Level-up Step: Now is the time to use that XP that you accumulated. XP can be spent to increase character modifiers, enhance abilities, or purchase new abilities.
Once these steps are completed, you can begin the next encounter.
Why You Should Play Bardsung
When the Kickstarter for Bardsung was originally announced, I was super excited. Everything about the game called to me. The theme is intriguing. The characters are cool and unique. The dungeon layout is different than other dungeon crawls that I own. The miniatures are gorgeous. I followed the campaign closely, reading every update and participating in community choices, anticipating that next stretch goal. However, in the end, I didn’t back it. My biggest hang up was the combat. The previews I watch didn’t seem exciting or engaging. It felt lackluster. So, when I got the opportunity to review Bardsung, I jumped at it like a goblin snatching for something shiny.
But before I give you my final thoughts, I want to note that this is a long campaign game with many branching paths. I have played through only four chapters to date, so take my thoughts and opinions with that knowledge in mind.
Hit: I love the procedurally generated dungeon. Unlike a lot of other dungeon crawls, in Bardsung you never know what’s around the next turn. Not knowing what’s through the next door or whether that next corridor will take you in the right direction really brings out the theme of being in a dungeon. And then you add in the aspect cards that reveal monsters, traps, or some other environmental hazard that you have to contend with really makes every card flip an exciting moment. Not knowing the map layout ahead of time forces you to make decisions in the moment since you can’t premeditate a plan for achieving the end goal. Do you use a healing potion now, not knowing what else you might face? The procedurally generated dungeon is a wonderful mechanic that provides theme, excitement, and replayability. Even if you fail an encounter and need to replay it, it will still be a fresh experience.
Miss: This is a minor one, but it created some confusion for a while before I found some answers on the BGG forums. It has to do with the graphic design of the dungeon cards. The cards shows a very specific tile on it, matching the artwork of actual dungeon tiles itself, including floor patterns, lights, and other graphics. Which normally isn’t a problem, until you realize that you have placed that specific tile already. So now what? How can I use a tile that is already on the map? It turns out that you don’t need to place that exact tile. You just need to place a tile that has the correct layout (overall shape and portals in the correct locations). This confusion could have been avoided by simplifying the dungeon cards to only show those basic ingredients required instead of a specific tile. Like I said, this isn’t a big issue, but it speaks towards some of the bigger graphic design issues in the game that I will talk about soon.
Hit: The heroes in Bardsung are wonderfully unique and each one plays into its own strengths. While there are the traditional dwarven fighter and elven mage in the game, there are also some characters like Nightfeather, the avaian rogue and Wyldshell, the turle druid. And if you were to purchase the expansion, then there are even more amazing heroes to play with. I really like the design of each character, and like a traditional RPG, each one has a role to play. Stoneheart is the tank, charging into battle swinging her mighty hammer and axe, while Wyldshell has low damage output, but is able to provide bonuses to allies while weakening the enemies. As you level each character up, you will have opportunities to specialize your hero by deciding what abilities to take or stats to improve upon. However, you cannot take them out of their overall role. The Lightweaver will always be magic heavy while Nightfeather will be best at stealth attacks.
Miss: As I previously mentioned, there are some issues with the graphic design. Bardsung is icon heavy. There is a whole page in the rulebook dedicated to the meanings of each symbol. That alone isn’t a problem. My issue with the graphic design is twofold. The first is that the symbols are small and sometimes difficult to decipher one from another. And to exacerbate this, the color of each symbol is not consistent throughout all components of the game. Each hero is a primary color that represents them. For instance, Stoneheart’s color is blue, and instead of matching the colors of the symbols from the rulebook, SFG made them all blue on Stoneheart’s ability cards. Likewise the same symbols are green on Wyldshells’s and so on. That combined with the small print within the text box on the ability cards makes them difficult to read and remember without reference the rulebook.
Hit: I really enjoyed the writing and storytelling. Even during the Kickstarter campaign, Bardsung told an engaging story. I read all the backstories for each character reveal. From the few chapters that I played, that wonderful storytelling is still there. I found the writing to be engaging, wanting to hear the next part of the story and discover the Legend of the Ancient Forge. Also, I like the branching storyline of Bardsung. Right from the beginning, you are given decisions that will determine how you progress through the game. In fact, before you even enter the first encounter, you have to make a decision that will determine which chapter you begin your adventure on. This makes the game different for each person and also provides great replayability.
Miss: Unfortunately for me, my initial concerns over the combat still hold true. Overall, I like that the combat system is simple and it does provide strategic choices, but after a few chapters, it started to feel repetitive. I would enter a room and use the same tactics to defeat the monsters. Based on what creatures I was up against and the initiative order, I would have to decide who was best to attack first or whether to play this round more defensively, but overall, combat didn’t feel heroic to me. There weren’t any moments when a hero would just go off and save the day from the grip of defeat. While characters do continually grow and improve in abilities and stats, you are limited. Unlike D&D where you can min/max characters to make them super strong in one or two abilities, Bardsung limits the improvement of any stat to +4. This means that while characters can specialize in skills, no one is going to be an expert.
Hit: SFG makes beautiful miniatures and Bardsung is no exception. I think that every sculpt is wonderful and is infused with detail and character. It’s easy to distinguish between enemy types and each mini was scaled appropriately to each other. The artwork associated with the minis matched them closely and further enhanced the overall theme of the game. Speaking of the artwork, I really enjoyed the world and look that was created for Bardsung. It had a slightly darker vibe without being grim dark. All of the enemies and environments exude this gloomy, forbidden atmosphere while the heroes are a beacon of light within that world. The box cover artwork tells a story of adventure and mystery, and this artwork continues through all the game components.
Despite my struggles with some of the graphic design and the combat, I still enjoyed my time with Bardsung. The procedurally generated dungeon, cool minis, unique heroes, and wonderful storytelling makes Bardsung a quality game. I don’t know for sure how much farther I will delve into the depths of Bardsung given my hesitation with the combat system, but I wouldn’t let that deter others from exploring what this game has to offer. I think that this is a great dungeon crawl for those who enjoy D&D since it uses similar mechanics. I also think that Bardsung is a good choice for new players because the combat system is easy to grasp and since each hero tends to fit a specific role, it allows players to focus on doing what their character is good at. There is a lot of game in this big box and a lot to explore. The branching storyline, random map layout, and aspect cards provide a treasure trove of replayability. So if this game is calling to you, then let Bardsung tell your adventures for generations to come. Besides, don’t you want to find out what this guy is all about?!
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.