In Arctic Scavengers, 2-5 players scrap for survival in a freezing, post-ice-age landscape. From a bare bones start, each player will build up their tribe through hiring new mercenaries, searching through piles of junk for anything remotely useful, and standing off against one another to claim precious resources.
There’s no beating around the bush – Arctic Scavengers is a brutal and bloody experience. You will spend a turn digging through piles of junk, only to find nothing of use. You will hunt for food to feed ruthless mercenaries, or bribe them with a pack of ibuprofen to carry out an act of violence or two against a rival tribe. All to gain control of some prized resources – grenades, huskies, assault rifles – to do it all over again the next round.
Scavengers is a deck building game with both a solid theme and mechanics. The aim is to grow your small tribe of survivors – your starting hand consist of a handful of survivors and items – into the largest by the game’s end, with a few wrinkles along the way.
Each turn, you draw six cards and put them to use for certain actions – Dig, Draw, Hunt, Hire – or, if you wish, save them for the skirmish, where your chosen fighters will duel with other player’s to gain one of the game’s contested i.e. powerful resources. Digging allows you to draw an amount of cards from the junkyard, a deck that contains some useful tools or, inevitably, ‘junk’ cards with no value. Drawing allows you to draw new cards (gasp!). Hunting and hiring are used to purchase new mercenaries for your tribe, making your deck better at whatever you feel it needs.
A couple of cards have special abilities – the sniper allows you to discard one of your opponents cards, either in the first resource gathering stage or the later skirmish – and the saboteur removes the effects of one of your opponent tool cards, which provide bonuses to whoever wields them.
The contested resources act as the games timer – each turn, you and your opponents will set aside a number of cards to use in the skirmish, the stronger tribe winning the resource card. There are only 14 resources in a two player game, and so game length is short – 14 turns. The winner is decided by who has the largest tribe, with each survivor card holding a value of ‘tribe members’ you sum up at the end of a game.
These very simple rules allow for a great flexibility in strategy and focus – do you want to be a dick and stock your deck full of snipers and saboteurs, or will you focus on finding as many meds as you can in order to hire a bunch of unruly thugs? There’s also a great gambling and bluffing element in the skirmish phase; if you are the first player, you can set aside a bunch of useless cards that provide no fighting value whatsoever, which fakes out your opponent who doesn’t bother to fight back. Voila – you’ve just earned yourself a powerful snowmobile for a pack of paracetamol and three shovels.
As a two player game, you do miss out on a few of the probable highlights of the 3-5 player variation – in the bigger game, one player gets to peek at the contested resource, which makes their play for the skirmish even more like poker. And as a two player game, the strategies on offer are a little less in conflict, as rarely does a stack of a particular mercenaries go empty, meaning you have free reign on who you want to hire.
But the simplicity of how the game plays means the theme is really allowed to come to life, common for the deck building genre but here more so, as your measly deck starts to fill out with more survivors and the resource-gathering/skirmish decision become increasingly more important to your chances of victory. All our games have been also been really tight, and the scoring mechanic means no-one knows who exactly is winning until the final turn.
The HQ expansion that comes in the box of this edition also adds a great element – tribe leaders. These cards, dished out at the start of a game, provide each player with a significant ability they can use and helps to bring new ways of playing the game to life. They are, also, horrifically dark, particularly as many of them deal with the refugee card and include such things as the ‘Fanatic’, where refugees can provide a lot of combat strength before being removed from the game, or the ‘Cannibal’, which provides some important deck-thinning abilities to your game via Hannibal Lecter inspired mechanic.
The expansion also adds building cards, which are also a nice distraction but not nearly as powerful or exciting as the tribe leaders. You can use these to store people or items for future rounds, or increase your hiring capabilities each turn, but in essence the only reason we have tended to build them is to satisfy one of the new scoring mechanics. These are 3 new end-game cards, which provide 5 bonus points to the player with a) the most buildings, b) the most tools, and c) the most meds. Like the leaders these do impact the game a decent amount, but are not as exciting or necessary component.
Overall, what’s not to like? Why wouldn’t you want to play as a tribe leader called ‘The Butcher’, who kills their own soldiers to provide the rest of the tribe their internal organs for food and medicine? The theme is relentlessly embedded, the mechanics are easy to learn, the game is balanced and competitive, and you will undoubtedly want to play a second game as soon as you finish your first. This is an excellent purchase and a great alternative to some of the other large, bloated deck building games on the market. Perfect for two.