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Hungry’s Wander: Cult of Barnacle Bay Review

Like many of you reading this review right now, I have a bit of a Kickstarter problem (I’m working on it though!). A while back I was discovered a new Dungeon Crawler called Wander: The Cult of Barnacle Bay. Since backing a Kickstarter is as much an experience, as it is a purchase, I thought that while I wait for my copy of the game to finish making its way from New England to California, I would start by commenting on the Kickstarter experience with this new game company: Panda Cult Games, as well as my initial impressions from playing the digital tabletop version. Then I will let this whole thing sit on ice until my copy arrives and I get to play at last.

The Kickstarter and Initial Impressions. If you are not interested in this part of the review skip ahead to just under the first picture below.

So the first impressions, and why I backed it initially. The art and theme are delightful, the character art is just fun. It clearly does not take itself too seriously, after all the villains are animals that have been partially transformed into sea creatures…I mean a Bear-shark is just a fun villain, not a terrifying one. I love co-op dungeon crawler games. That is my jam. This particular game does not reinvent the wheel with its mechanics, but what it does do is take concepts that work, and mash them into a new game in a new way. This game is a smash up of Arcadia Quest, Zombicide, and Mice and Mystics. In so many ways that sounds horrible, but it just seems to work. There is a mix of the combat mechanics from the latter two games (exploding dice from AC, and automatic damage mechanic from Zombicide), with a few modifications here and there, colliding with the initiative track (with an awesome variant unique to Wander) from Mice and Mystics. Add this to the delightful world of anthropomorphic animals and you have a light dungeon crawler that feels fresh. 

Wander: Cult of Barnacle
Wander: Cult of Barnacle Official Image

So let’s talk about the campaign. The kickstarter was well run. PCG was responsive to questions and queries, they put out regular updates and did a lot to keep folks excited about the game. They put out stretch goals that really had value, I am talking about extra characters, minis, not just cards. The campaign featured add-ons, but not a ton of them. There was an enemy expansion to add some variety to the enemies you face, two character add-ons, dice and tiles. Price wise, the game was right in line with what you would expect for the amount of stuff you get, maybe even a little cheaper. The campaign ended, with a few stretch goals in reach, that folks were excited about, I view that as a well run campaign. Heck, even the infamous Overturn: Rising Sands campaign lifted from Wander’s page. In my opinion you want to do a campaign that people will steal from…so well done PCG!

However, now we get into the misses from the Kickstarter. I am talking about shipping and fulfillment. The first miss was that shipping wound up being significantly more expensive than anticipated. My personal guess is that they did not take into account the added weight of all the stretch goals. There were so many additional character minis, that it had to have an impact. For me, personally, this wound up being an extra $10, I still think the price was solid for me. For some folks overseas, it was more. There were calls for refunds, and I thought PCG did the right thing by refunding most of the pledges when folks asked (they only held onto the KS fees I believe). I thought this was awesome of them, after all KS is not a store, that is the risk we all took. 

Then there are the delays. The game was due in August 2018, and it is arriving in March 2019. Is that horrible? No, but it is significant. Here again, I get the impression that the stretch goals did them in. It simply took longer to sculpt all the new minis, and that pushed everything back, then you add on to that the, almost expected, factory delay and we are where we are. 

As I mentioned, none of the misses are unforgivable, rather I think they are signs of a new company who is learning on the fly. If PCG has learned from the misses, I am very excited about what is to come, if not then…well I am not. I also hope that on future campaigns they take a more pro-active approach. I often felt like an update would come, and there would be bad news, and a new timeline. I think there was another miss there. PCG would give a new date that would be hit if everything went perfectly from there, of course when that did not happen they would have to rinse and repeat. I think there is a lesson to be learned there as well: add a buffer to the estimate. Add three or four months to the shipping date, then if everything goes well, awesome we get the game early, and everyone is happy.

Would I back another Kickstarter from PCG?

Yes? 

I am extremely excited for this game to arrive. I think they are a new company of good people. I think they made a few mistakes, but if they have a good set of lessons learned, then I would absolutely consider backing another game from them, and from what I have seen they are taking their first KS lessons to heart. Above all, this was a good campaign, a promising game, and one that I am excited to get to the table.

TIME TRAVEL- I now will actually write the review of the game itself, having received it and gotten to play it a few times. If you would prefer to watch a video review of this, just check it out below.

Usually with my reviews I do not spend much time on the mechanics as I am usually not close to being the first review. However, at the time of writing this, there are no other reviews with the actual version of game, just reviews from over a year ago. So I will go a little more in depth. This review does, however, expect that readers have a basic idea of how dungeon crawler games work. I will be talking about mechanics that I particularly like, be they culled from other games or unique to Wander (at least to my knowledge.)

The Good

Honestly, most of it. I think this is a very good game that delivers on what it promised. It is a light dungeon crawler, that plays quickly, I actually played 5 games in about 5 hours when I first got it. (To be fair I was playing with only two heroes not 4 or 5). Overall it sets up quickly as well. Unlike heavier Dungeon Crawlers (looking at you Gloomhaven, and Descent) there are only 13 map tiles, all two sided (8 big, 5 small). They are all square so it is very simple to set them out on the table. There are a variety of tokens but it is not an overwhelming amount of them (looking your way Shadows of Brimstone). All in all there is just enough to have some variety without it taking an eternity to find the map tiles and tokens you need to be able to play. I suspect that it will take about 10 minutes to set up once I get into the swing of things. 

Moving on to the game play, again I am very happy with it. Like most Dungeon Crawlers not named Gloomhaven, it is dice driven. However, like Zombicide only the heroes actually use the dice. The damage and defense of all the enemies is set on an easy to read and concise card. I am a fan of this. It streamlines the game play and allows for a more tactical game, than say Massive Darkness (which I also enjoy). Wander also borrows some of the best things from other games. From Arcadia Quest (and other games too) it utilizes exploding dice. For those that do not know, this means that if your roll a crit (the explosions on the dice below) not only is it an auto success, but you get to roll another die as well…get another crit you keep going. I LOVE this. It really brings in that story telling RPG feel. It gives you that chance to take a hail mary shot and hit the dragon in they eye and kill it. You can see below a roll I had in my second game. I started with only 3 dice against a Bear-Shark (A brute, high armor, high damage), yet that turned into and incredible amount of dice and damage. It is just plain fun.

The next mechanics that deserves mention in the “good” section are the event cards and the initiative track. Like many crawlers there is an event deck, but this one is just delightful. Event cards are drawn when you choose to enter an area of darkness, when you do you either find a treasure or an event. What I like about the events is that there is a solid balance of beneficial events and harmful events. What’s more there are actually events where you are better served by having a low stat, rather than a high one. That is a lovely spin on a common mechanic.

Now the initiative track. This is similar to the one in Mice and Mystics, and unless memory fails, Shakespeare. I have always liked this method. It gives a game that RPG feel, without dealing with dice and modifiers, it also adds a bit more unpredictability to the game. Now, what Wander does differently, I believe uniquely, is it has made the initiative track matter beyond who goes first. Each slot is associated with a bonus, be it defense or offense or speed. Whatever character or monster is in that slot gains that bonus. Additionally, characters are able to use their actions to jump to the top of the track or fall to the bottom, thus gaining some control over the bonuses. This is SUPER cool. It adds a nice element of strategy to the game. If a melee enemy is far away, adjust the track to put them in the attack bonus, got a Brute next to you, adjust it so it only gets a speed bonus. Facing a high armor enemy, get yourself into the position for a bonus attack. 

Wander: Cult of Barnacle Official Image

Wander: Cult of Barnacle Official Image

The last thing I want to focus on is the Campaign, and scenario variance. This is quite well done. Unlike all the other Dungeon Crawlers I have played (Sword and Sorcery is close) this has the most story out of all of them. However, the awesome thing is PCG has added in an element of “Choose your own Adventure”. After each fight you have three choices, but they are not specific. By this I mean the choices are not “Do you want to fight the Boss or not? Do you want to fight in the sewer or meadow?” Rather they give story driven choices. “Do you think the Wanderers traveled through the sewer to the inn, or do you think they left the sewer and headed toward the town square?” These choices lead directly to another chunk of story, that clearly explains why you are fighting where you are fighting. It explains, through story, why you have an objective that is unique to the scenario. I love this. It gives you control over the game, taking it off the rails, adds re-playability, and is packed with theme.

I also really like that they included in the rules that ability to swap out heroes between scenarios, and since character levels do not carry over scenario to scenario there is really not loss in power. This allowed me in my 5 games to experience 10 different heroes without resorting to house-ruling. 

Obviously I have not played through everything, but in only 5 games (I repeated the intro because I died), I have had a very good variety of scenario. I have had 1 kill everything, 1 kill everything, but it had a fetch and deliver mechanic, a race, and a boss fight. That is awesome variety. Far greater than any other dungeon crawler I have played outside of Gloomhaven. I am also a big fan of how the boss fights work. Each boss has its own deck of cards, after each player acts, the boss flips a card and acts. This really makes the boss frightening. There is never a break, and the bosses, it seems, do not follow the rules that the heroes and minions do. This makes each boss need its own strategy. 

Wander: Cult of Barnacle Official Image

Wander: Cult of Barnacle Official Image

The Middle

Let’s jump in with the components. Some of it is great and some of it is meh, so it lands the whole thing here. The mini’s are good, good sculpts, solid detail, evocative of the art and theme. The player boards seem very thin, I wonder if they will not see damage relatively quickly over time and many plays. The cardboard is good thick stock, but I did notice when punching out all the tokens the cardboard shed, for want of a better word. I have not seen that before, and makes me wonder if the tokens and tiles will not do so as well-though to be fair they have not yet. The insert is well organized and can fit everything, but it is a thin brittle plastic. Mine arrived partially broken, though PCG told me to contact them, and I suspect they will rectify the situation.

I also think that for the game to have maximum staying power the High Tide expansion is a must have. The additional two monster types brings the total to 6, and, to me, that is a good number. I can imagine that four types will get a little repetitive. 

Finally, the writing of the story itself. It is solid, quite solid, but it seems like it could have used just one more pass on the editing. There are things like repetition of words within sentences, but not for emphasis. These are things that only an English teacher would pick up on, but it is something worth noting. This is particularly true, because there is also an issue with the Campaign book. Every time the letters “o” and “a” are next to each other they appear as “OA”, and in some spots the tiles are labeled incorrectly. It is easy to enough to look at the picture to figure it out, but it is a bummer. It is just a case of needing a copy editor to go through everything before the final submission was made. Also it must be noted that PCG has already acknowledged that in the future they should hire an editor. As mentioned in the KS review, I adore that they are learning from mistakes so they can continue to grow.

My final quibble is with the rulebook itself. I wish that there was a more detailed index/table of contents in it. It is alright, but some more details would be excellent. There are also a few instances where it is not fully clear how actions work. For example the ability to “rally” an ally exists, but it is not clear if you need a potion to do that, or you can always do that. A PCG team member had to explain it in the FB group. There are very few of these instances in the book, but I suspect the addition of an editor will help. Again, it is not bad, just not good.

The Bad

I do not have much here. The only things that comes to mind is that if you did not get in on the Kickstarter you will have significantly fewer heroes to play with, and you will not have the extra final boss; and when you are leveling up each scenario there is no way to keep track of what choices you make. Yes, I recognize that I am scraping the bottom of the barrel to find something to put in this category!

Bringing it all together

Wander: Cult of Barnacle Official Image

Wander: Cult of Barnacle Official Image

This is a good game. It is fast, for a dungeon crawler, it is simple, it is fun. It is packed with theme, and all in all it does am excellent job of delivering on what it promises. This is a company of good people that are committed to making the best game and, if I was a gambling man, a company that is going to learn from the few mistakes they made and only get better and better. I am excited to share Wander with others, I am excited to play it, and I will certainly be excited to check out future expansions. If you like dungeon crawlers, this is one not to skip. 

If I wanted to read a novel I would pick up Harry Potter

*Fun, light Dungeon Crawler
*Plays faster than most crawlers
*Chock full of theme
*Excellent job of making old mechanics feel fresh and adds a few new ones
*Better replay value than most crawlers with heavy story
*Rulebook and Campaign book have some editorial mistakes
*Some of the component parts are middling quality, though the miniatures are very good
*Probably need to purchase expansion for the max replay value
*There are KS exclusives that are awesome to play with, but will be hard to get
*If you enjoy Dungeon Crawlers this one should not be missed

See more of my reviews here.

You can read the Rule Book and Campaign Books below:

The Ghosts Betwixt A cooperative and soloable Dungeon Crawling tabletop game set in the 1990s haunted heartland.

About Will "Hungry" Brown

Will "Hungry" Brown is an actor, producer, teacher, and passionate board game player, hoping to find new games and help you find new games to play.

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