I’m a big fan of deckbuilding card games, especially since Ascension was my introduction to the modern boardgaming scene.
There are a lot of deckbuilders out there, so many that newer ones need to have some sort of hook in order to draw me in. Some new mechanism, some additional stuff in addition to the cards themselves.
Arctic Scavengers is one of those games that just struck me hard when I first played it, forcing me to play it again because the concept was just so cool. The theme of it is outstanding because it’s relatively fresh; sure, it’s a post-apocalyptic survival game, but it’s about a never-ending winter instead of some lame zombies.
Before I get into the mechanics of the game, can I just say (again, as I said it once before here) that I love the insert to the Deluxe box that includes the base game and the HQ and Recon expansions?
Arctic Scavengers (designed by Robert K. Gabheart with art by Matt Burton & Martin Hoffmann, published by Rio Grande Games) puts players in the role of leading their tribe of apocalypse survivors, trying to amass the most population at the end of the game. They do this by hiring mercenaries and fighting with other tribes over the scarce resources available on the frozen wasteland. The winner of the game is the player who has the most population in their deck, via Refugees, Tribe Families, and Mercenaries.
The game lasts 16 turns, which is a nice, round number. In the first two turns, players play cards to get more cards to bolster their deck. Each player starts with 4 Refugee cards, 3 Scavengers, 1 Brawler, 1 Spear and 1 Shovel in their deck. Turn 3 is when everything changes.
There are two stacks of cards in the center of the table.
One of them (on the right) is the Junkyard, a place where there’s all kinds of crap and some good stuff. It’s so hit and miss that you don’t really care if other players go there as well. Maybe you’ll find something good, maybe they will. But your guys (and gals) who are digging pass by the other guys who are digging, maybe swapping stories of their loved ones back home, chatting away, having coffee. But then you discover a medkit hidden underneath the junk, and you quietly slip into your parka before saying “Toodaloo! I’m done for the day. Just heading back…nope, didn’t find nothing. Just more of the same. Have a good night!”
Then there are the Contested Resources on the left. This is effectively the timer for the game, as each turn beginning with Turn 3, you’ll be fighting over the top card of it. This is the good shit! Grenades, Rifles, Dog Sleds, this stuff is awesome! You’ll be fighting tooth and nail over this pile. No “hey, let’s take a break and have a coffee” here. Instead of spreading good cheer, you’re spreading snarls and violence! This is the meat of the game.
On your turn, you can do a number of actions one time each, depending on the cards you have in your hand (you have 5 cards in your hand to start) and what skills they have. If you want to do something multiple times (such as draw multiple cards), you play all of the cards with that skill that you want. You can’t play one card, not get what you want, and try it again. It’s one and done.
Here’s a Scavenger, who can do an ok job at everything.
The actions, in the order on the card, are:
Draw: For each Draw skill point you play, you can draw one card from your deck.
Dig: For each Dig skill point you play, you can draw that many cards from the Junkyard. However, no matter how many cards you draw, you can only choose one to keep. It goes into your discard pile (hidden, if possible, so others don’t know what you drew). If you draw nothing but junk, you can return it all to the bottom of the pile
Hunt: For each Hunt skill point you play, you get one food that can be used to hire a mercenary. (You can see at the top right of the Scavenger card that you can hire him for 1 food)
The other skill on the card will be used later, so I’ll mention it then. It’s called Fight.
Other actions you can do include hiring a mercenary from the 10 assorted mercenaries available.
The Engineer, for example, costs 2 food and 1 med to hire, but the Medic only costs 3 food.
You can also trash as many cards in your hand as you wish back into the Junkyard, shuffling the Junkyard so some other hapless loser can stumble upon the Refugee that you ditched.
Once you’ve done everything you want to do, starting in Turn 3, you hold back the rest of your cards for the “Skirmish,” which is where the Fight skill mentioned up above comes in.
You place these cards face down in front of you. Once everybody has taken their turn, everybody reveals their Skirmish cards and you compare the Fight value. If there is a tie, then the winner is the player who has the most population in the Skirmish (how many people each card represents is shown on the bottom left of the card).
The winner takes the top card of the Contested Resources deck mentioned above and hides it in their discard pile so nobody knows what it was.
Except possibly one person.
The first player card rotates every turn to the left. That first player looks at the top card of the Contested Resources deck. So that player knows how much they want to fight over the card. Maybe it’s a 5-member Tribe Family? That’s 5 points right there! Or maybe it’s a great weapon or something else. Nobody else knows what it is, so you have a bit of secret information that nobody else has.
Don’t lord it over everybody, though. That’s cruel.
That’s pretty much the basics of Arctic Scavengers. After the Contested Resources deck is empty, the game ends and you total up all the population in your deck. Whoever has the most wins!
The expansions add new mercenaries to hire as well as new things such as Buildings (a third pile to dig into is added with building schematics).
It also adds Tribal Leaders whose power you can use once per turn.
(Not the friendly face I want for my tribe)
And Gangs that you can attract to your tribe, which are basically end-game victory points based on whatever the gang wants.
Opinion? (Otherwise known as “should I buy this?”)
Arctic Scavengers is a very underrated game in my opinion. It’s flown under the radar so much that I bought the Deluxe edition with both expansions for $50 CDN at my local game store.
Because there is so much in it, I have introduced it to my game group slowly, starting with the base game.
And that almost killed it for me.
The base game just isn’t really that interesting. It’s fun, and I love the Skirmish mechanic, but it just kind of sits there like a dog looking up at you with those eyes, saying “Please love me” but while it’s cute, it won’t chase a ball or do anything else that would impress you.
When you add in even part of at least one of the expansions, that’s when the game gets really good. Buildings can be a bit of work to get out, but they add something else to do and if you spend a turn or two discarding cards early, the building can really help you in the later turns.
The Tribal Leader abilities add new things you can do, though I didn’t find the Cannibal pictured above that useful, and yes I chose it because my other Leader choice was the Butcher who kills your tribe members for one food and one med to hire mercenaries.
I’m really not a bloodthirsty guy!
But anyway…what was I saying? Oh yeah, the Tribal Leaders have interesting abilities that aren’t hugely game-changing but add a lot of interesting possibilities to how you play the game.
I love the Skirmish mechanic, where there’s a card that only one person knows what it is, but everybody knows that it must be something better than what they have. This requires you to make a decision that can be hard to make. Just how much should I keep back for the skirmish, when if I use the cards, they will definitely get me something, but if I hold them back, they could get me something cooler?
I love that stuff.
I would recommend trying this game out unless you completely hate deck-builders (in which case, you are a heathen and I don’t want to know you…ok, come back! I didn’t mean it!)
This won’t change your mind about deck-building mechanics, even if it does add interesting themes and other stuff as well.
At the price this is typically offered now, I highly recommend picking it up. It’s a great game, only enhanced by the expansions that come with it.
You’ll be glad you did.
(Review written after 9 plays)