Arctic Scavengers

Reviewed by: Kevin Whitmore

(Rio Grande Games, 2 to 5 players, ages 8 and up, 30 minutes, $34.99)

arcticscav1The year is 2097, the world is swathed in ice. Civilization has been swept aside, leaving few survivors who must band together for mutual defense and the quest for food. Tribes compete for limited resources, and only the biggest tribe will reign… It’s a bleak future that Arctic Scavengers portrays. You know you are in a scrappy world when you aspire to be able to recruit thugs to join your tribe. But it was exactly this post-apocalyptic theme that captured my attention, where other deck-builder games had previously failed to do so.

In 2009, Dominion splashed onto the scene (featured in the Winter 2009 issue of Gamers Alliance Report), defining a new genre of games, the deck-builder. And as it happens, so did Arctic Scavengers, designed by Robert K. Gabhart, receiving a small press release from Driftwood Games. But recently Rio Grande games issued their own release of Arctic Scavengers. With the vast distribution of Rio Grande Games, many gamers now have the chance of discovering Arctic Scavengers.

Arctic Scavengers comes in a standard bookcase box edition. The cards are the heart of the game and feature thematic depictions of survivors, equipment and buildings/gear all set in a gritty, ice-choked world. Cards have a common format, with various attributes arranged across the top and left-hand edge of the cards. This makes the cards easy to hold in the hand, while leaving all the game info easy to access.

Let’s take a look at the mix of tribe members you begin the game with. You have three versatile scavengers; the scavenger isn’t powerful at anything, but he can do any task. Your four refugees are worse off; they simply cannot do certain tasks, and will need a tool to do much of anything. Your sole brawler, as you would expect, is a fighting specialist. In addition to your initial tribe members, you also have a spear and a shovel. These ten cards constitute your starting tribe. You’ll shuffle them up, and then draw five to start a turn.

Each turn of the game is structured into two main phases. First, everyone takes turns playing cards and gathering resources. Then, all tribes skirmish with each other for a contested resource. After 14 battles, the game ends and the tribe with the most people wins the game.

So how does it work? Let’s look at the anatomy of a card:

scavenger1SCAVENGER – The scavenger is useful because he has a score for every attribute. Looking across the top, we see an icon indicating he is a person. Other symbols are used for equipment and buildings. We also see his recruiting cost – 1 food. Looking down the left side, we see several abilities, all rated at “1”. He can be used to draw a card from your personal deck of cards, adding it to your hand. He can be used to “dig” in the junkyard (more on that later). He can hunt and will garner 1 food. He can fight at a value of “1’ to the skirmish. Finally, at the bottom, he counts as 1 tribe member.

Each turn revolves around the actions you can take:

Hunt: Play cards for their HUNT value. You may recruit one card from the available mercenaries available, just pay the stated cost. For example, if you want to recruit a band of thugs you need to get a combination of 6 food and/or meds.
Draw: Play cards for their DRAW value. Draw cards from your deck and add them to your hand. For example the Sled Team allows you to draw two cards from your deck, effectively making your hand size 6 cards for the turn.
Dig: Play cards for their DIG value. You draw cards from the Junkyard. The junkyard has a mix of junk and useful items in it, including meds – a critical resource. You draw as many cards as your DIG value but can only keep one, putting the rejects to the bottom of the deck. For example, two scavengers using a shovel may draw four cards, and keep the best one for the tribe.
Take these actions in whatever order you find convenient, but each action may only be performed once each turn. Once you are done, any remaining cards in your hand are committed to the skirmish.
Initially the game begins with two turns of peace. This gives each tribe a chance to develop their capabilities. Since each tribe gets ten cards to start, by the game really gets rolling, everyone will have had a chance to add some cards to their initial deck, reshuffle, and begin specializing.

arcticscav2Digging in the junkyard is a big part of the game. I find it quite thematic as you are truly sifting through unwanted items to hopefully find something of use. Characters that have the ability to dig can be supplemented with tools to enhance their digging ability. Also, multiple characters may dig together. You may pull several cards from the pile but you may only keep one. I liked this mechanism as it rewards the extra effort but doesn’t unbalance the game. Within the junkyard are the critical medical resources. Meds are desperately needed, especially in the base game. Many mercenaries will not be recruited unless you can offer meds.

Your tribe is in a bad way at the start of the game. The scavengers are useful but weak. The refugees are nearly useless, and that just leaves one brawler, along with one spear and one shovel. After two short turns, you will be competing with the other tribes for contested resources, so you better have a plan! Fortunately there are many mercenaries who will consent to join your tribe, so long as you pay their recruiting fee.

This is handled by the hunt value on certain cards. For example, refugees have a hunt value of “0”, but give them a spear and they can provide 1 food. Have a scavenger help them with his hunt value of “1” and now you have a hunt of “2”, enough to recruit another brawler to your tribe. As mentioned, some mercenaries won’t join your tribe unless you offer them meds. In the base game, the only access to meds is through the junkyard. Pills and med kits lie in the junkyard, and you will want to find them.

After the two preliminary turns, each game turn will end with a skirmish for a contested resource. These are high value cards that generally have great utility or a high number of tribe members (victory points). Whoever is going first is allowed to peek at what the contested resource is. I liked this rule as going first is a bit of a disadvantage. When you end your turn, you set aside any unplayed cards for the skirmish. This gives players later in the turn order more information based on how many cards you committed to the skirmish.

The Rio Grande Games release of Arctic Scavengers includes the HQ expansion. I feel this expansion really adds a lot to the game. While there are not all that many new cards added, they have a big impact.

The Medic: This card is added to the mercenary forces. He provides an alternate route to access to meds. I really appreciate this card. In my first few games, where we did not use the HQ expansion, one player had poor luck finding meds in the junkyard. Without meds, over half of the available mercenaries will not join your tribe. The Medic eliminates the possibility of being shuttered away from those cards.

Buildings: Now your tribe can establish buildings. Buildings allow your tribe to save a card for later, based on what sort of card it can store. For example, you can use the Bunker to save up to three people cards for use in a later turn. This can ensure you are well prepared for a skirmish or some other activity you feel is critical. However, buildings do not add to your tribe size so focusing too much energy on buildings will hurt your final score.

Tribal Leaders: At the start of the game you draw two tribal leaders, keeping the one you wish to play. This character gives your tribe a unique ability, adding a lot of theme and some further differentiation between tribes. These are great!

Independent Tribes: These three independent groups will join a tribe at the end of the game – if you have enticed them. The Gearheads will join the tribe with the most tools, the Pharmers will join the tribe with the most meds, and the Masons will join the tribe with the most buildings. Each of these tribes have 5 people, making them enticing endgame points.

Arctic Scavengers is clearly in debt of Dominion. It has taken some core ideas from Dominion and added some clever bits of its own. The game feels complete to me and, while I might look at future expansions for it, I don’t know that they will be needed. Arctic Scavengers has a fixed number of turns and, when expanded with the HQ expansion, uses all cards in the box. Consequently I have not bothered to sleeve it, as all cards should show roughly equal wear. I will complain that the cards were designed with black borders so wear is already showing. Another nit is that the otherwise excellent box insert is too tall. I modified it to allow me to fully close the box using the author’s helpful article on BGG.

In my opinion, Arctic Scavengers is a pleasant game worthy of consideration for deck-builder fans or people who like a strong post-apocalyptic theme. I liked this game. It may get “played out” but I’ve played the game 10 times and am still enjoying it.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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