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Review: Pawnbarian – clever chess-themed dungeon puzzles

Developer: Jan Wojtecki
Price: Free demo, $7/£7 full game
Size: 149.3 MB
Version: 1.2.7
Platform: iPhone & iPad


An awful lot of roguelike games – that is, games that emulate some or all of the key attributes of the seminal 1980 dungeon crawler Rogue – essentially give you the equivalent of a randomly-generated chess board. Pawnbarian makes that link explicit.

Your spiky-helmeted barbarian hero faces down gangs of goblins and ghouls across a succession of 5 x 5 game grids. Each move you make is informed by a randomly dealt hand of cards, each representing a familiar chess piece.

Play a knight, and you can move and attack in that piece’s famous L-shaped fashion. Draw a bishop, and you can move the entire length of the level at a diagonal angle.

Once your limited allotment of moves is up, it’s the enemy’s turn to attack, so you need to take into account where you leave your barbarian. Red icons predict how much damage you’ll receive if left in each square, while touching and holding on an enemy informs you of their unique attacking and defensive patterns.

In between levels you can upgrade your units

Certain enemies will dodge your initial attack, others are only vulnerable from a particular direction, whilst others still are invulnerable until you mop up their minions.

It’s a battle system with plenty of tactical permutations, which is a good thing, as there’s precious little variety elsewhere. Level sets differ only by the enemy type, and the graphics are extremely basic, calling to mind an early ’90s home computer chess game intermingled with artwork from a classic choose-your-own-adventure book.

There’s a clean, minimalistic, monochromatic style that works to focus you on the tactics above all else, but there’s no denying the game would benefit from a little spit and polish. The music, by contrast, is suitably doomy and dramatic, and the sound effects are satisfyingly squelchy.

Further interest is added by new playable characters that unlock after your first successful run. These add intriguing tactical variations like ranged attack pieces, or ones that have access to different unit power-up options during the between-floor shops.

All in all, Pawnbarian is a fascinatingly direct take on roguelike strategy, combining proven chess mechanics with familiar turn-based dungeon crawling. For those content to cut through the niceties of modern game design and cut straight to the tactical heart of the matter, it’s a no-nonsense delight.