Monday 29 September 2014

Review - Arctic Scavengers

Arctic Scavengers

Arctic Scavengers
Designed by Robert K. Gabhart

Published by Rio Grande Games
For 2-5 players, aged 13 to adult

Sometimes, things just don't work out.

Sometimes, all the elements are in place for something amazing, but the result is less than the sum of its parts.

Sometimes, like a Rolex purchased on eBay, what you first perceive to be something exceptional, on closer inspection turns out to be a bit of a disappointment.

Take Arctic Scavengers, for example.

Arctic Scavengers is a game that, at first blush, seems to have it all. It has stunning artwork depicting a desolate, frozen world and the humans who struggle for survival within it. It has a simple set of rules that ensure you can pick up and play the game within ten minutes or so. It has a classic deck-building mechanism, with a healthy dose of bluffing and direct conflict thrown into the mix. It has a core game and several modular expansions squeezed into a box that is so modestly sized it even fits on my overstuffed games shelves.

Seriously, it sounds amazing. Right?


I'll admit. I was enamoured with this game. When I saw that the UK discount store The Works was selling off copies for just £10, I had to have one. But they sold out online almost instantly. I went to several local stores. They had sold out too.

With growing desperation, I realised that I was not alone in wanting this game. It had become a hotly contested resource, and I was going to need to use all of the tools at my disposal if this was going to be a successful hunt.

I went old school: I started phoning stores.

And eventually, I found a place that still had two copies left. I reserved one, and then drove out the next day to collect it.


Arctic Scavengers insert
Nice insert... Except it doesn't fit in the box without cutting the bottom off.

I had outwitted my opponents, and acquired this valuable commodity.

I had also, in essence, played a real life version of Arctic Scavengers.

Let me explain...

This game presents a near-future Earth, ravaged by a climate change that has brought on another ice age. 90% of the population is dead, and the few survivors desperately try to eke out a living in the frozen wastelands, building shelters, hunting, and hoarding resources.

There are no zombies. No monsters. No aliens.

Just desperate humans, living in desperate times.

For the theme alone, this game demands attention. It is brutal and unfair. It is shocking. It is like being hit upside the head with a spade. Violence and despair is embedded in the very heart of the game, from your ability to dismiss characters from your tribe (effectively sending them off into the wilderness to die alone and lost) to playing as a cannibal who is not opposed to eating members of the tribe when things get tough.

This game is an unapologetic punch in the gut.

And yes, when I first played the game, that theme drew me in. I suffered from snow blindness. But the game does not (perhaps cannot) live up to the theme.

At the end of the day, Arctic Scavengers is a deckbuilding game, and it plays like many others. I am not a huge deckbuilding fan, but I really like Thunderstone Advance. The problem with Thunderstone is that there is a lot going on. There are dozens of characters (which can all be upgraded to have different powers), there are dozens of monsters with special abilities, dozens of weapons, and limitless combinations in every game. That means every game is unique and exciting, but it also means that the game is a little intimidating at times, and sometimes certain combinations lead to dull or incredibly hard games.

You certainly don't get that trouble with Arctic Scavengers. There is a very limited card set, and almost none of the cards offer any kind of special power. It is an incredibly lean game. Almost emaciated...

Arctic Scavengers rules
The rules are clear and easy to read.

You start with a deck of almost useless refugees, a few scavengers, and some tools. Each of these cards gives you one or more actions or action modifiers. On your turn, you draw a hand of five cards, and then you use them to collect more cards. You can take as many actions as you want, but you can only take each action once per turn.

Arctic Scavengers Hunter
That polar bear needs to cover his nose. Fast.

One of the most common things you will do is hire a new character to add to your tribe, using the currencies of food and medicine (as money means nothing in a frozen wasteland). So, to hire a character, you simply discard cards that provide enough food and medicine to meet the cost of that character. You don't start with any medicine, so to get the best characters you will need to dig for some first.

Digging allows you to draw one or more cards from a common "junkyard" pile, and then put one in your discard pile. If you are lucky, you might find some tools or medicine. If you are unlucky, you will find some junk, or one of the refugees that another player kicked out of his tribe on a previous turn.

These are your main options for the first three rounds of the game. From the fourth round on, at the start of the turn the player with the first player token gets to peek at the top card in a deck of 14 contested resources. The round then continues as normal, but players have the option to set cards facedown in front of them to use for a skirmish later on.

After all players have taken their turn, the skirmish cards are revealed. For a brief moment the quiet frozen wastelands ring with the sound of battle as thugs with shovels charge into action. There is the crack of a sniper rifle. A scream.

Silence again.

And at that point, the person who has the highest fight value claims the top cards from the contested resource deck, secretly placing it in his or her discard pile.

And this was the first sign that this game was not all I hoped it would be.

Arctic Scavengers contested resources
The contested resources deck on its cute little play mat.

The contested resource could be anything, and only the first player gets to know what it is. You could turn up a card that instantly grants you five victory points, or you could get  a card that grants you three. You could find the ridiculously overpowered Field Crew, that gives you two digging, two hunting, two fighting, and a massive four victory points, or you could just as easily get the Wolf Pack, which grants you a hunting and fighting modifier (that must be used in conjunction with another card), and gives you no victory points at all.

It is absolutely possible for a player to win this game through dumb luck of the draw, winning all the high-value contested resources simply by having the right cards to win the skirmish at the right time.

Arctic Scavengers resources
Some of those bloody contested resources.

However, the biggest problem is that the game simply moves too fast. There are 14 contested resources, and the game ends when the last card is won. Adding in the three rounds in which there is no skirmish gives you a total of 17 rounds for each game. That just isn't enough time to build an engine for your deck, especially when many of the cards you add to your deck are drawn at random.

In most deckbuilders, you gradually build your deck. You use special abilities to trim the fat, and you carefully collect the cards that build into your game-winning strategy. In contrast, Arctic Scavengers lives up to its name. You are scavenging.

You make mad grabs for whatever you can get, because you don't have time to play the waiting game.

You randomly draw a bunch of cards from the "junkyard" and you just take the best one, which is not necessarily one that keys into your strategy.

You win a contested resource (hurrah!) only to find the card is a Wolf Pack that grants you no victory points, when you are already loaded up with weapons and actually want some victory point cards instead.

It is mad and maddening.

The game even acknowledges the limited time frame by allowing you to trash any number of cards you want each turn in an attempt to give you some way to control how your deck plays. You just ditch cards you don't want and then carry on with the rest of your turn as normal. You can even chuck your whole hand into the "junkyard" (where it gets shuffled in) if you feel like it. Of course, if you do that, you may not ever get enough cards back into your hand to make up the shortfall due to the randomness of digging, the battle for contested resources, and the short playing time.

Arctic Scavengers thugs
Did I mention the artwork is stunning?

Ultimately, the game is a triumph in terms of integrating the theme with the mechanisms. You do feel like a desperate scavenger, struggling to get anything remotely useful into your hand. Digging for random cards truly reflects the struggle for survival in a hostile wasteland. Fighting over resources like dogs over scraps feels real, and dangerous, and feral.

Really, I should love this game.

But I don't.

I just felt there isn't enough control, and there isn't enough time to gain control. Furthermore, the core game seems to lack real depth. There are a very limited number of cards available to purchase, and fewer still that offer any kind of special power. As a result, every card you buy feels a little bit the same: Do you want the card that gives you two hunting and one fighting, or the one that gives you two fighting and one digging? They are different, but... You know... Not that different.

Fortunately, the game ships with a bunch of extra expansion modules. They don't really add complexity to the game; they just add extra options. For example, there are extra victory point cards that get dished out at the end of the game based on what kind of tribe you built, giving you a more defined goal. You get avatars that represent your tribe leader and offer distinct special powers. You even get new building cards, that allow you to build structures to grant you in-game benefits.

Sadly, these expansions all suffer due to how short the game is, giving you loads of new options without giving you the time to take advantage of them.

Take buildings, for example: First, you need to dig for some medicine. Then you need to hire an engineer with that medicine and some food. Then you need to dig for a building schematic with the engineer (giving you a random allocation from four different types of building). Then you have to put the building in play with a number of cards from your deck face down on top of it. Then, each turn, you have to remove one card from the building (plus one card for each tribe member discarded to assist in construction). And then, when all the cards are removed, you can use the building for the rest of the game.

Arctic Scavengers buildings
Why build a pharmacy? Just build a medicine cabinet.

Honestly, there seems little incentive to go through the process of making a building, because by the time it is up and running, a good chunk of the game has already been and gone, and you are probably losing.

It is infuriating.

It is infuriating because this is so close to being a game I love. The theme is there, the streamlined rules are there, the relatively quick playing time is there. Gameplay flows effortlessly, the artwork is evocative, there is a sense of dread, there are tense skirmishes, there is a fun bluffing element. There is just so much packed into this little game to enjoy.

And I know there are many people who enjoy this game, or would enjoy this game.

And for a little while I enjoyed Arctic Scavengers too.

But I've spent enough time scrabbling in the snow for buried treasure. Unfortunately, all I've found are broken tools. The game has left me cold.

And now I'm suffering from exposure.


  1. i only wish i could find a copy. i played this once at a club with friends.

  2. Did you play Xenoshyft? It's good game, like Death Angel but with deckbuilding mechanic.

    1. I've never played. Thanks for the recommendation.

      I got rid of Arctic Scavengers, and I rarely play Thunderstone anymore. I think I'm just a bit "off" deckbuilding at the moment (with the exception of the small amount of deckbuilding in Mage Knight, which just forms a part of the whole experience).


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