Wizards, dragons, and burly people with swords. The fantasy genre is, from one angle, board gaming’s biggest in-joke. We quest-scarred veterans may laugh knowingly at the retreading of certain 'classic' beats, but sometimes forget that there are those on the outside looking in. For those not subscribed to multiple Dungeons & Dragons podcasts the great virtues of fantasy can often be hard to find beneath the generic art, silly names, and online neckbeards sneering because they confused orcs with orks.
Bargain Quest’s spin on the genre provides a grounding normally lacking from fantasy material. Like super popular train-em-up Ticket To Ride, it’s taking an area of board gaming that sometimes trends towards sleep-inducing and injecting it with some life. Each player is the owner of a shop that operates like one you might find in D&D or any typical fantasy RPG. Your objective is to sell as much fine equipment to prospective heroes as possible. If this gear helps them to defeat a deadly monster, that’s great! If not, at least you don’t offer refunds...
Bargain Quest looks fantastic, with Victoria Ying’s artwork teasing out so much character beyond the usual knights and rogues fare. The characters are refreshingly diverse. Each player even gets to pick their own little shop that folds out to become their player board! It feels cute without being twee, and self-knowing without being self-obsessed. Bargain Quest’s visual appeal may be one of the main reasons it could appeal outside of the usual fantasy niche even if, ultimately, this is a game about monsters and knights and magic.
Once everyone's unfolded their little shop, each round of Bargain Quest starts with players choosing items to stock their shelves with through card drafting: drawing four cards, a player chooses one, passes three to the left, and so on. After the item drafting round, each player chooses an item to display in their shop window to attract the eyes of browsing heroes. The player with the most appealing shop window gets to go first in choosing which of the available heroes will enter their shop.
It feels like the Rogue card's hair is a little nod to X-Men's Rogue
You must then hawk your wares to the hero and send them out ready (or not) for battle. Perhaps your customer this round was the Nobleman, a rich and inept hero able to use any class’s items. As he leaves your shop laden down with fake potions and dodgy shields, you rub your hands with glee like a mythical Del Boy. “Honestly mate, the crack's from when it stood up to a dragon... oh go on you’ve twisted my arm, take it for ten gold.”
At the end of this buying phase, each hero is assigned a random trait such as brave (stronger arms) or forgetful (left their bow at home), then takes turns attacking the monster. If your hero is strong enough to wound the monster, and hardy enough to survive a returning blow, you’ll get a victory point for each. Surviving heroes receive bonus cash to spend in any nearby stores and, if you’re successful in wounding the monster enough times (equal to or greater than the amount of players), it will be defeated. Each surviving hero receives even more money, defeated heroes are replaced by fresh faces, and the next monster is drawn. Players then have the opportunity to buy upgrades or hire employees for their store, pop a card or two in their back room to save for the next round, and then play moves on to the next round.
Each player gets their own little shop to manage. Cute!
The overall structure of a game feels snappy and well-paced. Drafting items at the beginning of each round rather than just taking them from the deck balances traditional tactical thinking with an element of chaos. One player in my game of four tried to count cards but was immediately stumped as everyone just decided to pass all of the 'worst' items to him. Struggling players still have a chance of prospering when a new round starts, and there’s always a sense of satisfaction in hoarding a card that you know another player desperately needs. The start of a new round is also a nice palate-cleanser for each player. You never feel locked into a downward spiral, and just because you did well last round doesn’t mean everything will keep going your way. There's room to experiment and few foolproof strategies for victory.
The game does particularly well at encouraging inventive play. Making the display item unavailable for heroes to purchase encourages players to engage in some lovely risk-reward tactics, but they can come back to haunt you. You draw the Warrior in, but your biggest sword is stuck in the window. “I’m sorry my liege” you stutter, “but that’s for display only.” Each hero has certain items they can and can’t use, as well as personality traits, so each player's stock is half balancing act and half gamble. The Witch Hunter is great with ranged weapons, but will destroy anything magical in your store. Bargain Quest is a game that revels in these little moments of schadenfreude, as all the shopkeepers examine each other’s displays and realise with delight how colossally one of them has messed up. It’s also these little nods to real-world retail environments that make the game even more endearing.
The battles are where you see how Bargain Quest has been focused. This does not transition into a dungeon crawler, tactical combat, or deck-building game. The monster encounters are kept extremely simple, and this is one reason why the game is so accessible. It does however mean that Bargain Quest may not deliver quite as rich an experience over multiple games with the same group, and the rhythm is hurt by a lower player count too. I played multiple times in setups of two and four players, and much preferred the game with a larger grouping. That may be true of many board games but here, as the number of players dwindles, so too do the opportunities to make gains in the drafting phase, the shared joy when things go wrong, and the balance that prevents one player running away with the game.
At its heart Bargain Quest is trying to achieve the same things as fine games like Settlers Of Catan or Carcassonne. It’s seeking to be as accessible to board gaming newcomers as possible, but with enough texture underneath for more experienced players: mechanically rich and attractively themed. It's not a game of untold tactical depth, designed for exhaustive dissection. This is a light drafting game that looks great on your table, is full of charm, and will give four players of any experience level a good few hours of entertainment whenever it is summoned forth.