In Barker’s Row, you take on the role of a carnival barker trying to assemble the best attractions in order to fill your stands. Be the first to get 13 members of the gullible public—known by you and your fellow barkers as Rubes—into your Grandstand and you win the game.
How to Play
The game starts with players choosing a color and taking their corresponding grandstands. Next, place the Strongman’s Tower in view of everyone, with corresponding colored markers on either side of the number four at the bottom of the Tower.
Place the Barker cards within easy reach of all players. These cards come in five suits: Freaks, Beasts, Horrors, Oddities, and Wild. Draw the top three and place them face up within reach of all players, leaving the remainder of the deck nearby.
Deal each player five Attraction cards. Players choose three to keep and discard the others.
The area above the three Barker cards is known as The Midway. On each turn, a player’s only required action is to move one of the three cards from Barker’s Row into the Midway. Cards are stacked by suit, with the number in the upper left corner remaining visible. Then, turn over a new card from the Barker deck and place it into Barker’s Row.
Moving cards into the Midway isn’t enough to score you any points, however. To do that, you’ll need to compare the suits of the Attraction cards in your hand against those in The Midway and that numerical value in the corner of each Barker card. If there are enough matching suit cards (including Wild cards) to equal your level on the Strongman Tower, you can collect those cards from The Midway and place the Attraction card from your hand in front of your Grandstand.
For instance, let’s say you have the Freak Attraction, Professor Pyro, in your hand. (“This one’s gonna be a scorcher!”) This will be the first Attraction card you play from your hand, so your marker on the Strongman Tower is still at 4, meaning you’ll need four points from The Midway
There are two Freak cards in the Midway, each with the value of one and a single Wild card. Luckily, there’s a Freak card waiting for you in Barker’s Row. On your turn, you can move that Freak card into the Midway, then claim the three Freak cards and lone Wild card to play Professor Pyro from your hand.
Now that you’ve played an Attraction from your hand, your Strongman Tower marker goes up by one number. So, while your first Attraction only took four points to play, your second will take five, and your third will take six and so on.
Each Attraction also comes with a special, one-time power that can be played on your turn at any point throughout the game. Once you use that power, move the card behind your Grandstand.
And, Attractions intrigue the public! Take two Rubes for each Attraction card you play and place them in your Grandstand. Then draw another Attraction card.
Play continues until one player claims their 13th Rube, at which point the game immediately ends.
Despite being a luck-of-the-draw card game, there are still some strategic decisions to be made. Determining which card from Barker’s Row to move into The Midway quickly becomes a tricky decision. Do you move one you need in hopes that no one else is trying for an Attraction of the same suit? Or do you put up a suit that you’re not playing for but has low numbers in the Midway, hoping someone else will play a card you need? Or do you put up another Wild card, hoping no one else claims it before your next turn?
Knowing when to activate the special powers of your played Attraction cards is another important choice. Early in the game, they can keep someone else from using the suit you needed. Saved until later, they might be able to create combos with other Attraction cards for even better rewards. Wait too long and you might never get a chance to play them.
As the point values of the cards in The Midway grow with each turn, players will be playing Attraction cards from their hands every few rounds. Sometimes this means the game stays tight from start to finish. Other times, this means one player may initially pull ahead. However, by increasing the number of Barker card points subsequent Attractions require, the playing field has a good chance of evening back out.
By the end of each game my group played, we were all in contention to win. The final rounds were all tense. We were each looking over Barker’s Row, the Attractions in our hands, and the Powers your Attractions have available, trying to find the right combination that will get you that 13th Rube.
Barker’s Row has some very entertaining elements. The flavor text for each of the Attractions is both amusing and in keeping with the setting. Andrea Olgiati’s artwork is striking and likely to be something you’ll remember for a long while. It combines Sideshow Freakish characters with enough cartoonish qualities to be okay for kids.
One of my favorite parts of Barker’s Row requires buy-in from the players. In keeping with your role as carnies, the rules recommend you introduce each Attraction you play from your hand with the adjectives at the bottom of each Barker’s card you’ve removed from the Midway, as in:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, step right up and witness the Humongous, Ferocious, Majestic, Fantastic, and Extraordinary Mutant Cow!” (It’s udderly stupendous!)
The grandstands are made of thick cardboard and have helpful Turn Rules on the back. The Rubes are exceptional—they’re not generic meeple, but come in different shapes with colorful, odd characters screened onto them. These Rube-meeple tie in well with the rest of the game’s artwork.
Kudos also for a good, clear rule book. It’s well written and designed, making learning the game quick and easy.
The Strongman’s Tower is the only downside to the finished game. It stands upright by fitting into a T-shaped plastic piece that sticks through a slot in a cardboard base. As a result, the Tower wobbles and fell over several times during our playthroughs.
My review copy came with all of the Kickstarter stretch goal bonuses including a fantastic neoprene Midway mat. This mat has a section for each of the five suits, with large versions of the icons used to represent each suit. It’s brightly colored and engaging. We all agreed that it was a very nice addition to the game.
One major complaint, however: The “How to Play” video QR code on page one no longer points to the instructional video. In the years since the game was first published, the game manufacturer has changed their name from Overworld Games to Pull the Pin Games. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. However, not maintaining the overwordgames.com domain name to allow for an auto-forward of that prominent QR code is a major problem. The QR code now points to an Indonesian gambling page which is not appropriate for kids.
Game designers, if you’re going to add URLs to your rulebooks or include an App in your game, you have made a commitment to that page/app for the lifetime of your game.
Barker’s Row is a fun, easy game to teach and learn. It’s one I’ll use with my more lightweight gaming friends as well as my regular gaming group. The clever, slightly creepy artwork will engage both adults and kids alike. And the increased difficulty in acquiring that next Attraction keeps everyone’s attention on the new card being added to Barker’s Row.
In the end, it may be the luck of the draw that rules the Rubes, but the Attractions more than make up for that.