In the 19th century, Barcelona was the most densely populated city in Europe. Around this time, Ildefons Cerdà was busy planning an expansion called the Eixample, giving Barcelona its famous grid patterned neighbourhoods. So how would this redevelopment of Barcelona translate into a game? Well, Dani Garcia, himself a Barcelona resident, has created a game that might melt your brain as quickly as you rebuild the city.
Barcelona! It Was The First Time That We Met
Each player is working to construct the city and rehome the citizens who want to relocate from the old city. These citizens are divided into upper, middle and lower classes – the importance of this becomes clear as I go on. On your turn, you place the two citizens you’ve drawn from the bag onto an intersection and do two or three actions relating to where they’ve been placed. These actions can range from building roads, intersections, gaining modernisme tiles for end game bonuses and building public services.
Once you’ve done these actions, you must then build on one of the plots. This is done using citizens that are adjacent to the plot, and the wealthier the citizens around, the better the building. If it’s the first building on a row, you also score a five-point bonus, as well as any bonuses off the building you’ve built. You also take the rehomed citizens off the board and score your building the lowest visible number on the citizen track. This increases as the game progresses.
The game also has three separate scoring phases, triggered by the citizen track. Whilst you’re also striving to maximise points, you’re also trying to elevate yourself on the Cerdà track. This track adds an additional multiplier to the end of round bonuses. Once the third Cerdà scoring has been completed, additional bonus points are added for used cobblestone tiles, deposited passengers and modernisme tiles.
Whilst that summary may not convey the complexity of the game, allow me to explain what makes Barcelona tick.
When choosing where to place your citizens, you have more than your own actions to consider. The reason for this is because on the building phase, players can use citizens anywhere on the board, not necessarily the ones they’ve placed. This adds an extra decision: do you maximise what you can do on your turn, or limit what your opponent can do on theirs? This can lead to analysis paralysis, which in turn can slow the game down. However, whilst some may find this a problem, I think these decision points in Barcelona is what makes the game wonderful.
The set-up of the game can be varied by placing the action tiles in different parts of the board, meaning that no two games are the same. On top of that, the citizen track can add variability too. As you’re drawing citizens blindly, it can mean that one citizen track moves quicker than the other two, bringing a more abrupt end to each phase.
For me though, there’s one thing that I find particularly joyous about Barcelona, and this may split opinion.
Barcelona! How Could I Forget?
I remember the first time I played The Castles of Burgundy, and, whilst I was largely stumbling my way through the game, I was still getting points for my actions. It meant I could see the value in my turns. In games where points are harder to come by, you don’t always see the value in your turns. It feels that actions are part of a long-term plan. That struggle for points may be something that’s enjoyed by lots of people, but not me. I love it when a game throws points at you, and Barcelona does that in spades. On my first play I scored just shy of 200 points, and now score over 300 regularly. Before writing the review, I was about 50 points behind my partner after the first round of Cerdà scoring. Having that size deficit is not a lost cause, meaning that games never feel out of your reach. Thanks to investing heavily into modernisme tiles and upgrading them, I managed to overturn that deficit in the end game scoring. The route to victory is never the same twice. On the first play, I invested heavily into building roads, the second time I focussed more on intersections. To me, Barcelona is a delightfully crunchy game. There’s even the Sagrada track, which offers bonuses if you cross the four thresholds! Sometimes you’ll invest heavily in this track, and sometimes you won’t – either tactic is equally valid.
Why may some people dislike the swingy-ness? Well, as I mentioned before, the citizens you use to build don’t have to be the ones you’ve placed, meaning that you could essentially be setting up an opponent to score big. They can also score points for your roads if they add their own to streets you’ve built on. Some people may not like the amount of “free” points they’d be forced to cough up. My response to this is a simple one. Brass: Birmingham sees players scoring for their canals and tracks at the end of each era. Many of the buildings they score from won’t be their own. For me, I don’t see how this is any different from using other people’s citizens or roads in Barcelona.
This Gaudi Chap Seems Awfully Familia
If I did have a criticism of Barcelona, it’s related to the solo mode. In the solo mode you’re competing against Antoni Gaudi, famous designer of the Sagrada Familia. Whilst a lot of the actions are clear and well explained, sometimes knowing where Gaudi moves to onto the board is left to interpretation, and I just wish the rules were a little more watertight. I’ve only competed against Gaudi on the lowest complexity, so look forward to raising the stakes in the future!
Overall, I think that Barcelona has the capacity to not only be one of my favourite releases of 2023, but one of my all-time favourites. It gives me everything I want in a game: crunchy decisions, chances to interact with my opponents and it really is a gorgeous production too. You can tell from playing the game that Dani Garcia is a Barcelona resident, and this feels like a love letter to the city he calls home. A point salad that feels as fresh as a nice crisp pint of beer in warm Spanish sunshine.