Wander: The Cult of Barnacle Bay – Panda Cult Games – Review

Wander: The Cult of Barnacle Bay - Panda Cult Games - Review 1

Panda Cult Games should be very proud of Wander: The Cult of Barnacle Bay because it certainly doesn’t feel like it was their first game as a studio.

Kevin Billman

MeepleGamers

8.5/10

Theme and What is it?

8/10

You are members of the Wanderer’s Guild and the time has come for you to save the village of Barnacle Bay.  Elder Bane, driven mad with power and twisted by powerful magic, has created a cult of mutated followers. You must work together to defeat these otter-crab fishermen, tentacle-armed rabbit zealots, fish-bat casters, and even the brutal Bearsharks as you make your way toward a final showdown with Elder Bane.  Grow your power, choose your path, and put an end to his corruption to save Barnacle Bay.

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Gameplay Mechanics

10/10

Wander: The Cult of Barnacle Bay is a cooperative game from Panda Cult Games for one to five players.  Note: Panda Cult has used all caps for some game terms and I have repeated this for consistency. Players begin by selecting a scenario from the campaign book, likely the prologue if it’s your first time.  Next players will take a Hero Dashboard and select a hero to play before then placing all heroes on the Start token. Heroes start with specific equipment and maybe some treasure cards. Players begin with zero experience.  Panda Cult recommends taking four heroes into battle regardless of player count. Next shuffle the treasure, event, and spawn decks, as well as the darkness tiles. Players should then place out any walls and tokens as indicated by the scenario.  Finally, players spawn enemies (the rulebook has a detailed description of the spawning pattern) and setup the initiative tracker. Note that scenarios are split up into encounters, and each encounter may require its own setup.

When setting up the Initiative tracker, an initiative card for all heroes and enemy types is shuffled and placed onto the track.  This will determine the order of play. Heroes can forgo taking any other actions on their turn to move to either the top or bottom of the track.  If a player takes this option, play continues down the tracker from the new position, granting a level of tactics to this decision. There is also an advanced option where each space on the track confers a different bonus to either attack, defense, or movement.  

At the beginning of a scenario, players will be able to take two actions on their turn, with a third action unlocked through gaining experience.  Players actions include being able to move, attack, dodge, interact, ready equipment, trade equipment, drop items/tokens, step up, or fall back. The last two pertain to changing your initiative as described above.  Unless modified, players may move two spaces orthogonally during a move action. They cannot move through walls or red borders on tiles. Water spaces can also impede the heroes and they also may not enter spaces that have four points worth of characters (heroes and grunts are 1, brutes are two, and bosses are 4)

If at the beginning of their move they are in attack range of an enemy, they will have to dodge, rolling dice equal to their defense trying to block one incoming HIT, regardless of the number of enemies.  Whenever a player rolls dice, a CRIT counts as a success and the player gets to roll another die and this can continue as long as CRIT results come up. If a hero moves onto a Darkness tile, their movement ends and they immediately resolve the tile which could reveal treasure, or an event.  Event cards may require a knowledge or defense check in which case the player rolls the appropriate amount of dice. For knowledge players need AXE or CRIT results and for defense players need SHIELD or CRIT results (this is similar to blocking damage with SHIELD and CRIT results).

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When a player attacks, they roll dice as indicated by their equipment and any bonuses.  Melee attacks have a range of CLOSE meaning within the current space or one space away, but not diagonally.  Ranged attacks can hit any target without an unobstructed view with an unlimited range. Full spaces, walls, darkness tiles, and red lines block line of sight.  Rolling for attacks is similar to the aforementioned skill checks. Players need AXE or CRIT results for melee and RANGED or CRIT results for ranged attacks. Most enemies have a defense rating, any damage above which will inflict wounds to the target.

The ready equipment action allows players to swap an active piece of equipment with one from their inventory and can only hold two paws worth of items.  Players may trade with anyone within CLOSE range, as described above, but can choose to simply drop an item and leave it for another player though it does cost an action to pick it back up.  Finally, heroes can use an action to interact with things such as treasure chests, potions, and objectives.

When an enemy’s turn comes up on the initiative tracker, determine if any enemies of that type have line of sight to one of the heroes.  Any enemy with line of sight is considered ENGAGED and will take a turn. Using the enemy reference card, players will move the enemy their full movement and execute an attack if in range.  Brutes, Mega-Brutes, and Bosses, will displace any models necessary when moving. Enemies do not roll dice for their attacks, rather they have an attack value and players must roll to defend.  Players need SHIELD and CRIT results to block incoming damage and as always, CRIT results explode and allow further dice rolls.

Any time a hero or enemy is damaged, place the appropriate amount of wound tokens.  When enemies are defeated, the hero who killed the creature gains experience as indicated by the enemy reference card.  When a hero is the first to enter a new tier, they not only gain a new ability (sometimes they have a choice between two options) but the other heroes gain experience equal to one less than the tier being entered.  This first entry to a new tier also causes an “experience spawn” where a number of spawn cards are drawn and enemies placed accordingly.

If a hero runs out of health, they are DOWNED and the morale tracker drops by one.  On future turns, a DOWNED player will attempt to RALLY by rolling a single die and hoping for a CRIT though they gain an extra die for every other hero in their space.  If the party’s morale ever drops to zero, the heroes lose. If the heroes manage to complete the scenario they win. If they are playing through the campaign, they will reset their experience to zero, but keep all items earned (this allows for building your hero with different skills to fit the current scenario).  They can also trade in unwanted items for new items from the treasure deck at a 2:1 ratio. Players may choose different scenarios based on narrative choices they make.

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Initial Impressions

8/10

Panda Cult Games has some pedigree when it comes to games with miniatures and standout components, so I knew whatever I saw from them would look good.  Glancing at the game I saw the minis, the character sheets, some lite roleplay elements…and then when I saw the world they had created for Barnacle Bay I just had to take a deeper look.

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Game Build Quality

9/10

Wander: The Cult of Barnacle Bay comes with a number of tokens to mark areas on the map and to represent various status afflictions.  There are wall tokens, treasure chest tokens, health potions, ladders, spawn tokens, enemy-specific portals, objective tokens, morale token, status effects for sleep, poison, and curse, wound tokens, crabblings, +/- ATK and DEF tokens, and familiar tokens.  There are 9 large double-sided game tiles, 6 smaller double-sided tiles, and some darkness tiles. Additionally, there is are initiative cards for the initiative tracker, hero cards, hero dashboards, boss cards, and an enemy reference card, plus a stack of event cards for resolving darkness tiles.  There are also dice for resolving combat. Finally there are over 40 miniatures (5 Heroes, 8 Bearshark Brutes, 8 Bat casters, 10 Otter Grunts, 10 Rabbit Archers, a Megalopotamus, and Elder Bane). The cards are thick and durable, the card stock is sturdy, and the tokens punched cleanly. The miniatures are nicely detailed with a good amount of personality in a formed tray.

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Artistic Direction

9/10

The art in this game has a playful style that works with the anthropomorphic characters and slightly over-the-top enemy types.  Bright colors and stark contrast make the game world pop whether you’re looking at the board, the character sheets, items, equipment, whatever the case may be.  There is also just enough of a serious tone that the game never goes full camp and feels like a place you want to be trying to save.

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Fun Factor

8/10

This is a cooperative adventure game with light roleplay elements.  If you’re a group that can’t get enough, you’ll fit right in. The campaign takes a nice choose-your-own-adventure approach for players who like to feel they’re in control of the story.  Characters level quickly and often so there are lots of chances for you to shape your character.

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Age Range & Weight

10/10

Wander: The Cult of Barnacle Bay recommends ages 12 and up, but I think players a little younger than that can manage.  It is also fully cooperative so younger players can easily be assisted. Thematically, I didn’t come across anything that would be out of place for the age group and the anthropomorphic creature design gives it an approachable look.  The primary challenge comes from deciding your tactical approach to handling the enemies and navigating the board layout. It does become quite challenging in the later portion of each scenario.

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Conclusions

8.5/10

This is a really fun game that has a great rhythm to its scenarios.  They tend to start of relatively manageable, giving you the opportunity to power up your heroes a little bit, before ramping up quite a bit as you build toward the final encounter in each scenario.  The skill system is very straightforward and players easily learn what counts as a success and CRIT results are always a success. The fact that CRIT results explode can make for some great stand-up moments when the seemingly impossible is achieved.  The folks at Panda Cult have a lot of experience in making games with great components and quality miniatures and it shows. I really like the character of both the heroes and the enemies. I know anthropomorphic characters aren’t to everyone’s taste, but these really stand out because the enemies look menacing, but in a way that is cartoony enough to soften their edge, but doesn’t seem silly or childish.

I like that the campaign has some narrative choices to be made so while the campaign is 10 scenarios long (prologue and then 3 sets of three, each culminating with a boss fight) there are three options for acts one and two of each three act set.  There is also a large bit of world lore fluff to go with each scenario. I can see some players not liking that your experience resets between scenarios, but it is an interesting way to allow you to regularly tailor your character to fit the scenario you are presently facing.  The game plays pretty quickly and I like the way the advanced initiative tracker changes some of the tactical strategy, though I admittedly found myself remembering to give the bonuses to the heroes and forgetting it for the enemies. For a first outing, Panda Cult Games should be very proud of Wander: The Cult of Barnacle Bay because it certainly doesn’t feel like it was their first game as a studio.  I hope you check both the game and the studio out because they are already teasing an upcoming expansion, as well as a game based on the Shovel Knight video game, and have collaborated with IDW on the upcoming Men in Black/Ghostbusters crossover.