Pawnbarian Review: Chess with Goblins

Okay, remember in the first Harry Potter movie when Ron and Harry are playing wizard chess and Hermione calls the game barbaric? This is a crazy connection, but I feel like there has to be some unintentional wordplay allusion with the title “Pawnbarian” here.

This is an extension of my short YouTube review.

The Basics

Pawnbarian released in September 2021. It’s developed and published by Jan Wojtecki (“j4nw”) with visual and aural input by Piotr Wojtecki and Aleksander Zablocki respectively. Pawnbarian is a chess-based puzzle roguelite. Your character is a piece on a chess board, and you play cards which represent chess pieces and move your character around. Landing on an enemy will defeat them and give you gold, which you can spend to upgrade your cards. Beat all seven levels of a dungeon to complete the dungeon and gain access to higher difficulties.

Pawnbarian Review: Chess with Goblins

Satisfying Solutions

Bluntly put, the fun of puzzle games comes from solving the puzzles. If the rest of the game is great, but the puzzles are boring, then why play? Pawnbarian is incredibly fun to solve. Landing multi kills with one more or barely avoiding damage through careful feats of thinking is incredible. I would find myself cussing and jeering at the enemies who are nothing more than lines of code after making a good play. And I even found it fun to fail; when I brashly burst into a group of enemies forgetting I have no way out and succumbing to damage was actually quite funny.

See and Hear

Visually, the graphics accomplish everything they need to. Movements were smooth, user experience polished, overall very calm and simple aesthetic. The sound effects were great, they added to the experience of killing multiple enemies at a time. The music was fitting, sometimes a little ominous, which was good. I think these two are actually quite important for a puzzle game; you spend a lot of time stopping to think, so having those two elements in the background is important to do well.

Pawnbarian Review: Chess with Goblins

Variety and Replay Value

Something I frequently look for in roguelites is variety between runs. Having different characters to play, different enemies to slay, different items to build, they’re important to me to spice up the gameplay. So far there are six characters in Pawnbarians. Each has a mostly unique take on chess, with certain passives and different moves available. There’s even a Japanese character with cards based on shogi pieces, which I thought was a great idea. Personally, I enjoyed the nomad the most, and I believe there’s a character for every person to enjoy.

However, I found the variety between dungeons, monsters, and items lacking. On one hand, it simplifies the game. For a puzzle game, this is beneficial to consistency and challenge. But from a roguelite perspective, it is a little disappointing. There are only 3 different dungeons available, each with a unique difficulty mechanic. And the monsters don’t really feel unique; they each have a couple special passives that make it more difficult to interact with. But, most of the enemies in the same dungeon have the same passive. After only one or two runs the monsters and combinations of monsters didn’t feel unique.

Thus, most of the replay value I’ve found in Pawnbarian is from playing harder difficulties (chains). Consequently, the replay value is dependent on what you look for in games. Personally, I tend to find the most value in trying different characters, builds, or strategies and the lack of variety detracts from my experience. But another person may find more value in trying to beat high difficulties, which would make Pawnbarian the perfect game for them. I should mention that the game is still receiving content updates which introduce more characters and dungeons.

Pawnbarian Review: Chess with Goblins

A Slightly Overdrawn Discussion on Blight

Quickly (not so quickly, as it turned out), I wanted to talk about blight. If a square on the board has blight, you take damage from being on it at the end of your turn. Unlike the other two main passives, I found blight uninteresting to face, annoying to strategize against, and hardly interactive. Consider the other passives. Spark surge traits activate when the player uses cards with the cantrip effect, which grant an extra turn. Spark surge effects usually include damage or immunity. You can plan around spark surge by not using cantrip cards or using them carefully. Another is void grasp, which moves you in the direction of the enemy you kill, or if that is not possible, deals damage. You can play carefully and strategize to avoid void grasp, even sometimes use it beneficially. I actually really enjoyed using void grasp to reposition to avoid taking damage. However, blight feels very restrictive and not interactive. Only certain characters are able to remove it; if you chose a different character, you’re stuck dealing with it. Then it becomes annoying and not fun to play against; game mechanics that add difficulty but aren’t fun or interesting to interact with detract from the enjoyment from most players. Okay, rant over.


Pawnbarian is a wonderful gem that lives up to its expectations. It lands where it needs to and checks all the boxes for a relaxing but challenging puzzle roguelite. It came in the Stand With Ukraine Humble Bundle, it was a great pickup for a great cause and if you bought that bundle, I definitely recommend giving this one a try.


+ Fun puzzles
+ Interesting characters
+ Great visual and sound design
– Shallow run variety
– Rough “blight” mechanic

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