Posted by: gschloesser | August 11, 2011

Scarab Lords

Designed by:  Reiner Knizia
Published by:  Fantasy Flight Games
2 Players, 30 minutes
Reviewed by:  Greg J. Schloesser  

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in Counter Magazine #22 

Yet another Reiner Knizia 2-player game, this one set once again in ancient Egypt and filled with cards bearing beautiful artwork.  This was a must for my collection.  It seemed like a sure-fire hit.  

My first playing left me wondering, “What went wrong?”  Fellow Westbank Gamer Jim Fairchild and I played two games of this and the game fell completely flat.  No … worse than flat.  It was bad.  As we were playing, I just couldn’t believe a Knizia game could be this poor, so I read and re-read the rules.   To my knowledge, we hadn’t overlooked anything and were playing correctly.  Much to my delight, however, I later discovered that we had missed three very important words in the victory condition section of the rules.  Those words had to do with determining when victory was earned, which according to the rules occurs AT THE BEGINNING of a player’s turn.  We missed the “at the beginning” part, awarding victory whenever the victory conditions were achieved.  This made for an abysmally quick game.  

Players represent great clans fighting for control of the great land of Hekumet.  Players will struggle for dominance in the two regions of Hekumet, with each region being divided into three areas of conflict:  military, religious and economic.  The player who controls two of these areas in each region emerges victorious.

The game centers around card play, with players taking turns playing cards to these six locations.  The colorful and artistic cards carry a variety of symbols and numbers, which gives the player a slew of information, including:  

a)  In which column the card may be played;
b)  In Which phase the card may be played;
c)  The strength of the card;
d)  Whether the card is a Minion, Building, Leader, God or Fate. 

At first glance, this appears to be a case of “information overload”, but in reality, it is easy to decipher and not cumbersome.  

In contrast to the attractive cards, the board is a narrow, interlocking strip of thin cardboard, which has already warped.  It depicts six symbols representing three areas of conflict (military, religious and economic), three on each side of the central god symbol.   There are also six plastic pyramid tokens (which have the appearance of unnumbered 4-sided dice) and a host of cardboard scarab tokens.  

The cards are divided into two decks, with each player taking one.  Interestingly, these decks are different and I have read some discussion on the internet that they may not be balanced.  I truthfully haven’t noticed any problem in my playings so far.  These decks are shuffled individually and each player draws a starting hand of five cards.  Each player’s turn is broken down into four phases: 

Phase 0:  The player may play any number of “phase 0” cards or take any number of “phase 0” actions.  There aren’t many “phase 0” cards in the decks (two in the blue deck and four in the red deck) and these cards are low in strength, so you won’t likely see a flurry of activity in this phase.  

Phase 1:  The player may play ONE “phase 1” card or take a “phase 1” action.  Like the “phase 0” cards, all of the “phase 1” cards are strength cards and will be played directly to the columns.  Cards must be played to the column bearing the same symbol as depicted on the card.  Some cards give the player a choice as to which column it may be played.  In either case, the player has a choice as to whether to play the card to the upper or lower portion of the board. 

Phase 2:  Same as Phase 1, except you may only play ONE “phase 2” card or take ONE “phase 2” action.  Unlike “phase 0 & 1” cards, not all “phase 2” cards are strength cards.  Some are Fate cards, which operate like an event card.  The event or action occurs and the card is discarded. 

Phase 3:  This is called the “Supremacy” phase in the rules.  A few cards are marked “S” and may be played in this phase, but the major action during this phase is determining which player has dominance in each column.  Basically, each player adds the total value of the strength cards he has played in a particular column. The player possessing the greatest value has supremacy and places a pyramid marker on his side of the board.  If the total is tied, no player has supremacy.  

Once supremacy is determined in all six columns, the phasing player may exercise the supremacy power for each column in which he has supremacy.  The powers are: 

Military:  Your opponent must discard the top card from his draw deck.  This is important since you can achieve victory if his opponent has no cards remaining in his deck at the beginning of your turn. 

Religious:  You may curse one of your opponent’s minions, buildings or leaders in the same region (upper or lower Hekumet).  Mark the card with a scarab marker.  Cursed cards have no strength rating and any power they convey may not be executed.  Players must use their action during the appropriate phase in order to remove a scarab marker. 

Economic:  You may draw a card from your deck. 

Earlier, I mentioned that players may perform “actions”.  Actions can take several forms.  Certain cards have text that can be “activated” and take effect.  To activate this text, a player must spend an action in the appropriate phase.  For example, in order to activate the text on a previously played “phase 1” card, a player must spend his “phase 1” action on a subsequent turn to do it.  As mentioned, a player may also spend an action to “un-curse” a card, removing one scarab marker from the card.  Cards can be cursed more than once, so it may take several turns to fully “un-curse” a card. 

As opposed to taking ANY actions on a turn, a player may opt to refresh his hand by discarding as many cards as he desires and re-filling his hand to six cards.  In addition to a special powers granted by a precious few cards, the only other way to get cards into your hand is to gain economic supremacy in one or both of the appropriate regions, which allows you to draw a card as part of that power. 

There are some further restrictions on card play.  Each column may only contain one leader.  Leaders tend to be very powerful, so, theory, this does somewhat limit a player getting TOO far ahead.  Further, players may only play ‘god’ cards to the center column and a player may only have a maximum of three god cards in play.  As soon as a player plays a god card, his opponent must remove all of his god cards in play.  God cards tend to be powerful, granting a special power.  So, it is wise to force your opponent to remove his by playing one of your own … provided, of course, you have a god card in your possession.  Did I mention “luck of the draw” yet? 

Play continues until one player gains supremacy in two of the three regions on EACH side of the board.  That player wins if this situation is present at the beginning of his turn.  That’s the critical rule we missed in our first game.  To prevent this from occurring in the first round, the start player may only take two actions on his first turn.  If no one fails to achieve these conditions, then the game ends when a player runs out of cards in his draw pile and it is his opponent’s turn.  The opponent wins. 

As mentioned, my first two games were a disaster due to the missed ‘end game’ rule.  This caused those games to last a total of about five minutes each.  It simply didn’t take long to establish supremacy in the required number of regions and once a player fell behind in a region, it was difficult to usurp control of that region.  Fortunately, playing by the correct rule vastly improved the game.  Subsequent games have been tense and enjoyable, but I still have some concerns.  Being able to only play one card in phases 1 and 2 (and, for all practical purposes, in phase 0, too) is VERY limiting and does not allow a player to quickly put a region back into contention.  Indeed, once a player gets a substantial lead in a particular category, it is extremely difficult to overtake his lead.  

This situation is particularly acute in the ‘religious’ sectors.  Why?  Well, having supremacy in a religious sector allows a player to curse one of his opponent’s cards in the same region.  As mentioned, cursing renders a card worthless.  The situation quickly develops wherein a player un-curses the card, only to have it cursed once again on his opponent’s turn.  Or, if he attempts to place another card in the region, it, too, is cursed on his opponent’s turn.  A vicious cycle ensues. Yes, there are certain cards that can be played to zap a powerful card, but this really depends upon getting lucky and having that card in your possession when it is needed.  

These situations are troublesome, but don’t destroy the game itself.  Indeed, I’ve enjoyed my playings of it and am still eager to play more to increase my skill level and better learn how to optimize my use of the various cards.  Indeed, further playings may reveal methods which render my concerns moot. 

The game includes an “advanced” version, wherein players play a best “two out of three” series.  After each round, players remove five of the cards from their deck and place them into the “bonus” deck (which is not used in the basic game).  Then, the loser of the previous round takes five cards of his choice from this bonus deck and places them into his deck, shuffling these cards before drawing his initial hand of five cards for the next game.  His opponent then does the same thing.  So, there is a small element of “deck building” involved in the advanced version.  I’ve not yet attempted this version, but am looking forward to giving it a go.  

This is one of those situations wherein I was completely relieved to discover we had been playing it incorrectly.  With the correct rules, the game is quite a good game, with some interesting choices and decisions to be made.  Future playings will reveal whether or not it will continue to rise in my list of personal favorites.  It truly is amazing to consider, however, the power of three little words can have on one’s gaming experience!

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