Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Way back in 2008, the one thing that prevented me from getting along with good old Dominion — and disclaimer, I haven’t played it in a very, very long time — was the fact that my actions felt almost entirely divorced from the kingdom-building I was supposedly undertaking. Armed with gold and some estates, my fair land was soon filled with nothing but cellars and laboratories, while my only policy was the daily festival. Dominion deserved every ounce of heaped praise, but while it may have been the grandfather of an entire genre, it was also a classic example of the gulf all too often situated between theme and mechanics in deck-builders.
I might seem erroneous in besmirching my elders. After all, this was before, well, every other deck-building game. And certainly, they’ve come a long way over the last
century seven years. Valley of the Kings and Core Worlds and Star Realms were mere twinkles in their designers’ eyes. Hybrid designs like A Study in Emerald, Baseball Highlights: 2045, and City of Remnants were radical heresies not yet uttered. There was one deck-building game, however, released the year after Dominion. To everyone’s surprise, it was every bit as smart and mechanically sound as its daddy, except it also had a dash of real personality. For all its pizzazz, it got locked up by Rio Grande Games to prevent it from competing with its father — possibly the most accurately medieval thing Dominion had ever done.
An apocalyptic ice age has brought the world as we know it to an end. Foremost, it’s cold. Survivors wander the frozen landscape. Food, medicine, ammunition, and warmth are all scarce. The aggressive and violent are the most likely to have survived this long. And right at the center of it all is you, a leader willing to bring together the warriors, innovators, and tribe families that yearn for stability.
But you aren’t the only person with aspirations. There are other leaders out there, other tribes. If resources were more abundant, maybe more than one of you could thrive. As it stands… well. Nothing for it but to compete for what little remains. The scraps.
Your scouts report that one of these other groups has discovered something important — but what? A cache of weapons? A dogsled team? Another family of survivors, unskilled but vital to your efforts at rebuilding? Your competitors have reportedly sent a large group to take possession of whatever they’ve found, but you’ve fallen for that one before — last time, they made off with a box of grenades even though all they’d sent was a bunch of refugees. A single scavenger armed with nothing but a shovel could have scared them off.
Unfortunately, you only have time to give orders to a few members of your band. Should you send your hunter off to gather enough food and your medic to use his expertise to convince someone to join up? Then again, perhaps the medic could help out if your competitors show up to the fight with a sniper. And what about your engineer? He’s a smart cookie, and claims he could set up a hydroponic garden. More food sounds fantastic; sounds like it might take a very long time to get running though, so maybe he would be of more use rummaging for equipment in the junkyard. You’ve got a toolkit that might help him in either case — though hauling it along to the fight might look scary and frighten off other scavengers.
What to do, what to do.
The genuinely awesome thing about Arctic Scavengers is that it actually offers these sorts of decisions on every single turn. Nearly everyone you recruit into your gang has multiple uses — even the brawler can choose between fighting and digging — and figuring out which jobs to assign your guys provides a challenge that makes for great moments of indecision and uncertainty. Hunt? Dig for tools? Let one of your guys make use of his special ability? Send everyone to the skirmish? It’s a world where everyone has their uses, and highly specialized survivors (the sniper comes to mind) might sound nice, but they’re also highly inflexible, a liability when they appear on a turn when your goals don’t coincide with their narrow set of skills.
In short, more than just telling you that you’re leading a group of survivors through a post-collapse world, Arctic Scavengers makes you feel it.
Every deck-building game has an inbuilt element of chance, though it’s usually limited to the shuffle of your draw pile. Here, one of the major assets in selling the notion that you’re living on the fringe between survival and being thawed out by paleontologists ten thousand years later is Arctic Scavengers’ complete willingness to let you fail without it being your fault. At least not entirely. See, there are two additional random elements, and they’re the game’s smartest inclusions. The first is the junkyard. This is filled with all sorts of useful stuff: medicine and rifles, pickaxes and spears. Unfortunately, these aren’t always useful, and worse, sometimes you’ll just find trash. It’s a junkyard, after all. But digging through the junkyard is still one of the most important actions you can take, because even though it’s fickle and occasionally turns up a selection of four identical shovels, it’s still the best way to pick up those items (especially medicine) you need to thrive.
Then there’s the contested resource pile. And let me tell you, this baby blows the junkyard out of the water.
Sure, it goes without saying that the stuff in there is in a league of its own. High-value tribe families might look useless, but in terms of numbers they’re great — and population is the only final score that really matters. Excellent weapons, sled teams that are way more useful than they first look, and the occasional all-murdering field crew. Yum.
What makes this pile so devious is that it’s the reward for each turn’s skirmish, but only the first player gets to peek at what’s hidden there. So it might be the best find since that time you found a junkyard medkit on the first turn, or it might be another box of grenades in a game where your opponent is cycling four item-disabling saboteurs through his deck. Armed with the only knowledge about what’s hiding there, the first player wraps up his turn and sends anyone left over to the skirmish. Face down.
Suddenly, Arctic Scavengers is no mere deck-building game. It’s also a game of bluffing, of staring each other down, of setting up mannequins in the windows to scare off competitors. That wad of cards might be a bunch of multitools and nets; or it might be two sniper teams, some thugs, an assassin, and a drill sergeant.
The downside is that Arctic Scavengers has the same pesky tendency as an ice age to overstay its welcome, and with only the base set on the table it can start to feel about as varied as the snow-on-snow landscape before too long. Not that it’s always easy to notice — this is seriously great stuff, especially once everyone knows how to play, and doubly especially once you mix in the two expansions that are included in the newly re-released box. Then you’ll be setting up buildings, recruiting from an enormous pool of options, and even less certain of what the junkyard and contested resource piles might conceal, which certainly aids the variety problem (while doing precisely nothing to improve the length).
Look, I really dig Arctic Scavengers. More than most modern deck-building games, it feels like a throwback to the Dominion era (largely because that’s when it was designed), but with a savvy sense for player interaction, setting, and really selling the idea that you’re struggling to survive a crummy situation. This is pure deck-building at its finest.