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Pawnbarian is a simple, but fascinating little game where brains are infinitely more useful than brawn. The name might be a play on the word barbarian, but it’s definitely less of an “I would like to rage” type game. And more of an “I proclaim my intention of luxuriating in the splendor of my wrathful indignation” kind of game.
Pawnbarian is a roguelike puzzler that plays on a chessboard. Every move you make is dictated by the movement patterns of chess pieces such as Pawns, Knights, and Bishops.
Every battle is a puzzle where you have to balance taking out your enemies in the least amount of moves, with taking as little damage as possible. The quicker you clear each stage, the more gold you gain for upgrades, but if you risk too much on a Queen’s Gambit, the only thing you will be checking is a game-over screen.
Rook, Line, & Sinker
Pawnbarian is an incredibly simple game to learn and can be played solely with a mouse. Each turn, you draw three cards that correspond to different Chess pieces, and you move your character around the board by playing those cards.
If you play a Rook, you can move as far you want in an orthogonal line. If you play a Bishop you move diagonally instead. Landing in a space occupied by an enemy figure defeats them, and that’s the game. Even if you aren’t familiar with Chess, the concept should be easy for anyone to pick up and play.
The tricky part comes from dodging attacks and using your character’s abilities and upgrades. The game always outlines squares where you will take damage. Hovering over an enemy will show you how they are contributing to that damage. So you have to really dig deep and plan out how to make your moves without getting hurt yourself
The faster you win, the more bonus gold you earn to spend before the next level. At the same time, you only heal 1 HP per stage, additional healing requires that precious gold.
Pawnbarian can be a really satisfying brain burner to work out how to land the best combos. Enemies aren’t just dudes on a grid. Each one has different quirks, such as being invincible as long as you are adjacent to them, or spreading a blight on the board that inflicts damage.
You have some tricks of your own too. Every card can be upgraded with four different effects. A shield that protects you from damage, a bonus action, or two different abilities that attack spaces orthogonally or diagonally adjacent to you.
It might not sound like much, but choosing what cards to upgrade really matters. Each of the game’s three dungeons has its own approach and strategies you need to use.
The three playable characters have their own playstyles as well. They all do a good job of taking the game’s simple concept and altering how you play with it. The Pawnbarian, for example, focuses on pawns and can turn them into queens during battle. While the Templar can gain extra actions by using two knights in a row.
The game’s visuals are simple but elegant. Its design remains consistent throughout the whole game, lending Pawnbarian a distinctive identity in a crowded market of puzzle games. Pawnbarian simply feels polished compared to a lot of games that cross my path for the same low price.
If you manage to master the game enough to clear all three dungeons with a single character, You can begin to take on ascending handicaps. They are similar to ascensions levels in games such as Slay the Spire. Alternatively, you can continue within the same dungeon to see how many stages you can win in a row before failing. If you want to test yourself, Pawnbarian gives you the option, which is nice.
Pawnbarian is a bite-sized game with a very focused design goal. The advantage of that combo is the game feels very polished and cohesive. The downside is that the game, while mentally challenging, is still a fairly shallow game for the genre.
The variety of upgrades you can obtain is small. You can never change the number of cards in your deck, and the enemies can get repetitive fairly quickly.
A big difference between Pawnbarian and other games is that feels intentional rather than an unfortunate shortcoming. Pawnbarian is single-minded with a specific experience that it wants to offer. That experience is a challenging brain teaser using a classic and timeless game in new ways. Limitation is often king to innovation, and with that Pawnbarian calls checkmate.
You may also enjoy my review of Rogue Summoner.
While I’m a big fan of roguelikes, I’m not really a puzzle gamer, nor do I have an interest in chess. Despite that, I still managed to enjoy Pawnbarian. I would have to wager that it would be that much more impressive to someone that had even a passing interest in either one.
Pawnbarian really is just a puzzle game with a few fairly thin roguelike elements. It doesn’t have the kind of variety, or longevity to keep my attention. Once I played all the characters and beat all the dungeons, I was ready to say goodbye. I had a good time, but no urge to play again and maybe that’s okay. It was me, not Pawnbarian, and we’re separating on amicable terms.
I may not have ever bought it on my own due to our incompatible nature, but I still had fun. I can clearly see that it’s worth the price, especially for those with a palette different from my mine.