When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, most of the kids in my neighborhood had one of three answers. Astronaut, police officer, or firefighter. I, however, didn’t see these as valid options. Math and I have a tenuous relationship at best, so the idea of having to do deep physics equations on the fly or die a horrible death wasn’t viable. We had family friends who showed me that police work was mostly paperwork and boredom. And volunteer fire departments are a thing, so I could do that and something else at the same time. Armed with this information, what did my young mind want to do with my life?
Carnival barker. The herald of the midway. A showman that doesn’t steal focus from the show. Equal parts entertainer, educator, and enticer.
Barkers are an anachronism these days. In an age of well-honed, multifaceted hype machines, the idea of a loudly dressed person standing on a platform trying to convince passers-by to see a show seems inefficient to say the least. Yet there are still those of us who would hit the stage with bamboo cane and straw hat in a second to shout, “Hurry, hurry, hurry. Step inside, ladies and gentlemen, to see wonders so mysterious you’ll doubt your very eyes.” We’re the people who have seen a Fiji mermaid. The people who would have gladly shaken hands with Joseph Merrick. The people who occasionally look at a blade and wonder what it would feel like to swallow it. We’re also the people who need to have Barker’s Row in our gaming collections.
How do you play?
It’s the barker’s job to fill the seats. Your stage is obviously important, but, like real life carnivals, the midway is where the action is. The midway is a communal pool of barker cards that come in four suits that match the different types of attraction cards in the barker’s hand – freaks, beasts, horrors and oddities – as well as wild cards. On their turn, the barker will choose from one of three face down barkers cards to add to the midway. If the total value of cards in a given suit matches the player’s target number (starting at 4 and increasing for every prior attraction played), the player can bring an attraction of that suit from their hand to the stage.
Attractions that have made it on stage do a number of things for the player. Every attraction played adds two rubes to your grandstand, drawing you closer to victory. They also can be used for powerful one-time-use actions that can dramatically effect the rest of the game. They include flooding the midway with a pile of barkers cards all at once, lowering your target number to make it easier to get future attractions, and even adding extra rubes to your grandstand.
Players continue to add cards to the midway, setting up and using their attractions as they desire until someone gets to twelve rubes, ending the game. The strategic element of the game is in keeping an eye on the Midway. You want to be adding cards that will help get your attractions on stage, but you need to be watching what other players are collecting in order to ensure you aren’t just helping your opponents build up their shows instead.
Theme is at the heart of my pitch for this game, and it shines in two primary ways. What is instantly appealing is the component quality. I was sent a preview copy, as the game doesn’t hit kickstarter until later this month. Yet even with missing art assets and proxy materials – I’ll still tell you that this game’s components are doing their own barking. They grab attention from everyone who sees it on the table.
The grandstand is just a score tracker, but the decision to make them three-dimensional physical objects on the table has never failed to get people walking by to wonder what we’re playing. The card art I was able to see is done in a style similar to Mike Mignola that looks like a combination of comic book and promotional poster. The cards are also decent quality and is still easily legible.
And then there’s the main reason this game became far more than just a light game with some strategic card play for me. There is a reason I have chosen to use the term ‘barker’ instead of ‘player’ in my description. Every barker card has a word across the bottom of it. Words like eerie, awe-inspiring, fantastic, etc. When you gather up the barker cards to play your attraction – you use them to bring your attraction to the stage. You become the barker! For example, “Ladies and Gentlemen! If you are brave enough – if you are strong enough to resist its temptations, I challenge you to come into the tent to gaze upon the bone-chilling, amazing, and mysterious Pandora’s Box!”
If this theme doesn’t grab you, the game will be a pleasant experience – but might not be something to write home about. It’s a mechanically solid game, but nothing life changing. I could talk to you about how the game has a built-in catch-up mechanic as the target number the player needs to play attractions gets higher and higher, allowing those behind them to have an easier time to pull the right cards from the midway. I can tell you that there’s an additional level of strategy trying to chain a number of actions together into one turn by playing wild cards and using attractions effectively. But there are others that can say similar things. This theme – this theme unlike any other game I’ve seen on the market to date, is what sets this apart.
I never got to be a carnival barker in the truest sense of the word. There are only a few sideshows left in the world – and as much as I enjoy a trip out to Coney Island, I doubt it’s the sort of career change my wife would be keen on. At the same time – I never lost it. I never lost that hunger to bark on the midway. You could even say I found out how to do barking wherever I went.
What is barking, after all? Being a barker means you’re trying to introduce people to something that will expand their world. You hold open doors that they might otherwise have never opened and invite them inside. Barkers don’t demand. They invite. They don’t enforce. They entice. And when I look at my life now, I’m actually always barking. I’m constantly telling people about the power of gaming to change lives. I’ve spent years telling people about how much my life transformed from the moment I put my faith in Christ. There’s a litany of things that have crossed my path and changed my life, and how could I not want to tell people about something like that? I’m barking, and quietly hoping you’ll pay the nickel to see the show. Ultimately that’s all any of us can do. Hold the door and invite them. The job was never about making folks come in. It was to give them a picture in their mind so wonderful that they couldn’t do anything else.
This game will be hitting kickstarter on APRIL 25th. There will only be one version of the game, but there will be certain perks for getting a kickstarter edition, namely a neoprene mat for the midway and custom card sleeves (helpful, as the attraction cards are roughly tarot-card sized. You can check out barkersrow.com for more information about the game leading up to the kickstarter.