The winner of the 2017 Spiel des Jahres will be announced next month and I have yet to finish up my series on previous winners. Today I am going to set the wayback machine to a summer nearly thirty years ago, before Klaus Teuber’s name was constantly on the minds and the pilsener parched lips of every game production company president. Jump on in time travelers, we are heading back to a time when The Joshua Tree album seemed to never stop playing and before you could ever make a pun about a fellow gamer getting wood for sheep. Today, we journey back to visit Barbarossa, the Spiel des Jahres for 1988.

Please rinse and spit

Klaus Teuber was still a dental technician in 1988, and he got the idea for Barbarossa while staring at a strangely shaped set of gums, daydreaming as he worked his way through the tartar crusted ivory colored masses, thinking to himself that a particular tooth looked like Margaret Thatcher or that a section of gum looked like the front of the Joy Division t-shirt worn by the pretty girl he saw yesterday at the Supermarkt. Would anyone else see that shape in that particular way? Wouldn’t it be great to make a game of that? If only there was a way to play without having to stare into the mouth of your fellow player, he mused. Thus, Barbarossa was born.

Fact check: Klaus Tueber was a dental technician. True. Everything else. False.

Barbarossa has nothing to do with a Roman Emperor

Barbarossa was actually based on a set of German fantasy novels about a group of wizards who created riddles, Die Schule der Rätselmeister, or School of the Riddle Master. Players create shapes out of plasticine clay and then attempt to score points as they move along a track by landing on certain spaces or by determining what is represented by the shapes created by other players. The fun part of Barbarossa is all about the clay shapes, but the actual game part is about how you choose to move about the board. You can either roll to see where you will land, or you can choose to spend elf stones. I’m not going to go into too much detail on the board spaces, but they have to do with scoring points for yourself, giving points to others, gaining elfstones, or getting clues about the shapes.

Pan flute? Nope, it’s a raft

The best thing about the clay shapes in Barbarossa, is that you’ll spend most of the game not knowing what they are. My buddy Davebo took some clay and made some tubes of similar length and set them next to each other. Apparently, it was a raft, but it could have been a representation of the gross domestic product for all I knew and Arnott’s urinal was a rectangular prism with a dent in one of the faces. That’s the fun of games like this. You know something and I’m trying to guess what it is. It becomes even better when something that seems impossible to figure out is suddenly clear to another player. I think that’s my favorite, that moment when you realize that other people see something you don’t see, even though it’s right in front of you.

Barbarossa uses what I call the Dixit scale of riddle creation, although this game predates Dixit by more than twenty years. You want to create a riddle, or shape, that is difficult enough to guess so that not everyone will guess it right away, but it can’t be so hard that nobody will guess it. You actually lose points at the end of the game if not enough players guess your shape. Oh, and once you guess a shape, you get to stick a black plastic arrow into it. How fun is that?

What do I think about it?

I enjoyed playing Barbarossa, and if I ever see an inexpensive copy somewhere, I would probably add it to my collection. I rate it a 6, using my new game ranking system, so I will happily play it if I am in the mood for something silly. The only drawback with Barbarossa is that it goes on too long for what it is. I was ready to be done with the game before the game was done with me. I suspect that it’s Teuber’s clever methods of balancing out the randomness of your movement around the board that slows things down, but I wouldn’t like the game as much without them. I feel like it was a step up from 1987’s winner Auf Achse, but nothing close to Cafe International, which won in 1989.

What do you think? Does Barbarossa sound like fun, or would you rather get your teeth cleaned? Cluzzle is a very similar game that you can often find in thrift shops. Are there any Cluzzle fans out there?

spiel_des_jahresThis is part of my Spiel des Jahres winner series. If you would like to comment on the 1988 winner, Barbarossa, then please do so on this post. If you would like to discuss or comment on the Spiel des Jahres award in general, please do so on the Spiel des Jahres series post.

5 thoughts on “Barbarossa”

  1. I have Cluzzle but haven’t played in a looooooong while, and the clay that came with game has hardened into rocks. Actually, I, long ago, replaced that clay with Playdoh and that has hardened into rocks — *that’s* how long it’s been since I’ve played.

    I remember liking the game, though, especially the free-form first edition rules. I think the second edition adds some dull procedure-following stuff, if I’m remembering right.

    1. I think I played Lincoln’s copy and we were all a little freaked out that the clay wasn’t dry at all. It was really unnatural, if that makes sense, like it was something that we probably shouldn’t be handling.

  2. Ah yes, the later edition had the bonus deal where you not only figured out what the other players were cluing, but you also had to figure what the hell exactly you were playing with to make the clues.

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