Staff Pick: Arctic Scavengers

Hello gamers! Welcome to my review of Arctic Scavengers. I've prepared a packing list for our trip. Pay attention, and make sure not to miss anything, because the world we're about to enter is brutal, grim, and really, really freaking cold:

  • A big coat. Heck, bring two or three. I wasn't kidding about the cold.
  • Weapons - anything you can find. Shovels, spears, you name it, we can kill with it.
  • Food.
  • Medicine.
  • Other people to eat.
  • Most importantly, a sense of fun and a good attitude!

    What? Did I say "people to eat?" Of course I didn't say eat. Uh... let's move on.

    Arctic Scavengers is the first game from Driftwood Games lead designer Robert K. Gabhart. Originally released in 2009, it was part of the parade of games that experimented with the nascent deck-building genre, introduced a year prior by Donald Vaccarino's Dominion. Unfortunately, due to the deluge of deck-builders at the time, Arctic Scavengers passed under the radar for a lot of folks, myself included. The HQ expansion was released in 2011, but it too failed to generate much hype, despite the small, but loyal fan-base. It wasn't until 2015, with the release of the Recon expansion and the Base/HQ/Recon bundle, that the game finally drew attention, and boy, does this game deserve it.

    Before we talk about the game itself, let's go to an aside real quick:

    Dear Robert Gabhart & Rio Grande Games:

    I wanted to say thank you for publishing this bundle. Currently, the bundle is ~$50. Inside, you get the base game - 149 cards - the HQ expansion - 49 cards - and the Recon expansion - another 140 cards. For $50, you get a fantastic game and two well-made expansions, one of which is nearly as large as the base! Few games give you this much content for an agreeable sum. Thank you for not being greedy. We appreciate it.

    Your friendly reviewer, 


    Anyway, back to the game.

    Arctic Scavengers is a deck-building game in the vein of Dominion: each player starts with a basic deck of sorta-useless refugees, a few useful mercenaries, and some tools. Five cards are drawn to your hand to start. At the beginning of the game, 10 random mercenary decks are laid out on the table. These can range from hunters to sniper teams to group leaders, among many others. Each mercenary has a unique skillset - hunters are better at finding food, brawlers are only good for fighting, group leaders can bolster another mercenary's skills, etc. To hire a mercenary, you need food, medicine, or a combination of the two. Since you don't start with food or medicine, you need to put your mercenaries to work. There are three main actions depending on the abilities of the mercenary: hunt, which gains you food; dig, which allows you to dig through the junkyard for useful supplies, like medicine or tools; and drawing more cards from your deck into your hand. Each mercenary can be equipped with a tool that can improve their abilities: giving a scavenger a shovel will let him take an additional card from the junkyard, but giving him a spear will give you an extra food if you hunt. Only one tool can be equipped to any mercenary, which is a well thought out mechanic. Although realistically, it seems like a mercenary should be able to carry a rifle and a shovel, it keeps players thinking about their deck - if you grab too many tools, you run the risk of drawing a mostly unusable hand if you only pull one or two mercenaries. Players keep any unused cards and play continues to the left. The kicker here is what happens at the end of the last player's turn: the skirmish.

    There is a special deck called the "contested resources" deck. For the first two turns, it is ignored in order to give players some time to establish their colony. Once you reach the third turn, however, it's time to skirmish. This is where Arctic Scavengers differentiates itself from the pack. Although I love them despite this, deck-building games can feel like multiplayer solitaire. You buy cards for yourself, use them on yourself, and rarely interact with the other players. Arctic Scavengers pits you against each other in a visceral, competitive, and direct way. Any cards not used during your turn are kept in hand. These are the cards you send to the skirmish. At the end of the round, each player in the skirmish reveals their hand and you count up the fight score of your cards. Some mercenaries are great at fighting - brawlers have a 2 fight score, thugs have 3 - but some can't fight at all, like the refugees. Whoever has the highest fight score wins the skirmish and gains the top card of the contested resources pile. And hoo-boy, there are some great things in that deck. Grenades, medical kits, wolf packs, tribe families, and more - all of which can give you a big bonus in the coming rounds. A brilliant mechanic allows the first player each turn to peek at the top of the contested resource pile, letting them decide if the card is worth the fight. There's an element of bluffing at play too: the rulebook encourages you to leave useless cards in your hand to trick your opponents into thinking you're bringing heat to the skirmish. Showing up to the battle with five shovels may not seem smart, but if all your opponents back out before it, you still win the resource.

    All of this is just from the base game. The expansions, especially Recon, could be covered in their own reviews, but I'll condense it down here. HQ, the smaller expansion, provides a few new, interesting mechanics. The first is buildings and engineers. The engineer is a mercenary that can take cards from the special building deck. You take one of the buildings you find and place it in front of you. Each building requires a certain amount of "construction time" - in game terms, this means you place a number of cards from the top of your deck onto the building. Each turn, one card is taken off the building and discarded, but you can also send mercenaries to work on it, discarding more cards per the number of mercs you sent. Freezing up cards this way may seem like a huge setback, but buildings provide some massive bonuses if you're willing to make the sacrifice. The hydroponic gardens give you one free food per round, while the other three buildings let you store either medicine, tools, or mercenaries, which you can pick up on a later turn, letting you plan out some great combos. Other mechanics introduced in HQ are tribal leaders and gangs. Tribal leaders give each player a unique power - the Gangster gives refugees a fight score, which means they can now participate in skirmishes; the Excavator gives every refugee the ability to dig; the Mentor allows you to discard a refugee to increase any merc's skill by +1; and so on. A warning here: there are a few cards in the tribe leader deck that are pretty horrifying and may not be appreciated by everyone. The cannibal lets you take a refugee out of the game in exchange for three food (squick), while the fanatic lets you use a refugee as a suicide bomber to discard one of your opponent's cards (also squick). Gangs simply provide some extra end-game points based on who has the most tools, medicine, or buildings, but they are a nice thematic touch.

    Recon is where things really get interesting. As I noted before, Recon is nearly the same size as the base game, and a lot of new content has joined the fun. A new mechanic is at play here: scouting, which can give you crucial information about your opponents and the resources on the board. The new spy character can look at four cards that an opponent controls, whether it's from their hand or their buildings. The binoculars let you look at the top card of each deck in play. That means you can peek at the contested resources, junkyard, and building pile. As you can imagine, this can give you a huge leg up when it comes to searching or skirmishing. Other cards introduced are the provocateur, which lets you use your total number of fighters instead of their fight score, making a handful of useless refugees into an unstoppable army; the drill sergeant, which pulls cards back from your discard to play again; portable decoys, which can increase the size of your skirmish force; a variety of powerful tools; and a number of other mercenaries. These all bolster the base game instead of distracting from it, which was my main concern when I saw how many cards were included. Each expansion introduces a lot of new mechanics, but they flesh out these mechanics so well that they end up meshing well with the main game.

    All in all, Arctic Scavengers provides a brilliant, tense game experience. The introduction of direct combat to deck-building is pure genius. I've played plenty of games of Dominion where, half-way through the game, it was obvious who was going to win - someone built a good engine and became an unstoppable points machine, leaving the rest of us to play hopeless catch-up. Arctic Scavengers provides multiple strategies to stop a player from gaining a large lead. You can use a sniper team to take out a player's merc at any time, including the resource gathering phase. If you notice an opponent is gathering food to buy more thugs, just snipe her hunters before they can do anything. The saboteur can be played to disable a building, forcing an opponent to send another card to work on it. You just have to hope your opponent doesn't have a medic or guard, which can cancel out those two actions. This back-and-forth seems like it would be tiring, but it makes for some incredible fun. As a dieheard fan of Ameritrash, I also have to give the game big points for the integration of theme and gameplay. Every card feels right, not shoehorned in. The drill sergeant's power allows him to pull two cards back from the discard; I can't help but imagine him yelling at some poor sleeping refugees to get up and get back to work. Even the main mechanic, deck-building, supports the thematic idea that you are building your own colony of survivors in this awful, cold world. This game is oozing with theme. From the cool backstory flavor text, to the gorgeous art design, to the tense skirmish gameplay, everything in this game reinforces the post-apocalyptic vibes. If you've played Dominion and you're looking for something a bit more directly competitive, Arctic Scavengers is the perfect game for you. If you haven't played a deck-builder before, it's a great one to start with, as it's easy to learn and play (though I recommend you start with only the base game. It's tempting to jump right into the expansions, but you'll want to get a grasp on the game before you introduce the new mechanics). The addition of a fun, workable solo mode only makes this deal sweeter. Arctic Scavengers gets two big thumbs up from me. This is a permanent part of my game collection and I'm sure it will hit the table at many a game night to come.

    - Charlie: when equipped, +1 to reviewing, +1000 to length of review