Oh, to be Bruno and Ludovic. Individually and together, Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc are known the world over in board gaming circles as the masters of taking simple concepts with just a few rules, and making engaging games. I am sure that I am like most board game reviers and content creators — I always have a tickle in the back of my brain, a simple little concept for a game or an unusual theme that I think could work. The difference between Bruno and Ludovic and me — besides the obvious physical ocean dividing us — is that they make things happen while my game ideas float away like soap bubbles after a spring day at the car wash.
Recently, Bruno Cathala scored his first Spiel des Jahres win for Kingdomino, a dominos style tile laying game about scoring points by connecting crowns through your “kingdom.” Ludovic took the concept, added dice, and ran with it to make an elegant two player version called Kindomino: Duel.
Can the two find success together again? Does your game group like tile laying games that can be taught in two minutes and played in fifteen? Well, then, spice it up with Scarabaya from Blue Orange Games. Note: Blue Orange Games provided us with a review copy of the game (although full disclosure: our Southern Board Game Fest library also bought one that I have played many times before receiving this review copy).
Scarabaya is a one to four player game in which adventurers set to capture golden scarabs amidst amazing landscapes, from lush jungles to the stark Antarctic. (In other words, try to score the most victory points at the end of the game.) Leaving aside the fact that the game is essentially themeless, what Scarabya is really about are the ubiquitous polyomino pieces that we see in so many games now. Players will attempt to place them on a grid based board dodging rocky obstacles in an effort to “box” in the golden scarabs score big multipliers each time.
Yes, the theme is pretty much non-existent, but as is so often the case in these spatial puzzle games, is that really a bad thing?
The very first Blue Orange Games game I ever played was New York 1901, a game firmly entrenched in my top ten not only for the mechanics and fun, but also for the absolutely stunning presentation. That set a high bar for Blue Orange, but they are usually right around that bar for the games I’ve played since then.
Scarabaya does not quite exceed that mark, but the presentation is nevertheless well done especially for the price point and length of the game. The rule book is a gem — easy to read, with clear examples.
But before I continue this gush fest, I have to register a problem with the box art. The cover art has beautiful illustrations of four separate adventurers in the desert, undersea, in jungles and in the icy region. But, how is that there is very little diversity in the representation of characters on the box cover, especially in this age of modern board gaming?
Players set up their board by taking all of the tiles in their color along with four smaller player boards. The first play arranges her boards in a larger square, each with two holes to place the like colored rocks. All players do the same. This gives every player the same starting set up (a la Karuba) with the same places for the rocks and the scoring scarabs.
Twelve cards are revealed, one by one, and players must place the polyomino piece shown on the board, first piece touching the center square, and all other pieces touching orthogonally to an already placed piece. If they can “enclose” (by using other tiles, rocks or even the cardboard edge of the board) scarabs in areas of four spaces are smaller, then a player will place a point scoring token representing that number on top of the enclosed scarab.
In other words, close in two scarabs in a four space area, and each one is worth four points. Once all tiles have been placed, players score up and declare one of the players as the best trek leader in the history of Scarab Trekking. You should probably award them a Clif Bar in celebration, and make mine a White Chocolate Macadamia Nut, if you don’t mind.
Once the twelfth card is revealed, players will count up the points on the chips covering each of their scarabs, and the player with the highest point total wins.
BUT IS IT ANY FUN:
I love it when my wife’s face lights up near the end of the game. I know a game is a winner, because she will tend to repeat words: “I really like that game. That’s a good game. We should play it more.”
So, Blue Orange Games is going to get a few brownie points from me, for making a game that allows me a chance to game with my beautiful bride. I actively seek out games that have themes or mechanics that we both enjoy. We both also enjoy the relatively short game length, which is a plus on those busy school nights when we want to share our day together over a board game but just do not have time for Concordia or Wingspan.
Every time I have played Scarabaya, I’m always a little surprised by how much I enjoy the experience. It is not a very long or deep game; it has the same familiar tiles we’ve seen in so many games recently. So what is it that attracts me to the game play? I think there is something familiar about the “bingo” mechanic where one person calls out a number (or in this case, flips a card to reveal a tile) and something magic happens with it.
In the case of Scarabaya, there is a tiny little brain boost every time I am able to combo up a few files together to score one or more “four pointers”, and that dopamine rush is addicting. It comes in small bites due to the size and length of the game, so it is almost like enjoying a handful of your favorite M&Ms right before dinner. It rewards looking at the remaining tiles, and mentally pre-placing them on the board in patterns emanating from the center outward in an effort to find the best way to corral those big point opportunities.
Another reason that I have really enjoyed Scarabaya is that, other than a little bit of extra set up time, the game shines when you play it back-to-back-to-back. The play length practically begs you to set it up again and try to outdo your last score. When I played this last year with my friend Peter, his first score was so much better than mine. There was no way we were not going to set it up again to see if I could beat that score.
I got picked on by Sean Ramirez of the Dukes of Dice Podcast recently when I suggested that I would rather play Scarabaya than Cartographers. His comment was in the vein of “I don’t see the comparison.” I understand his confusion; Scarabaya shares more in common with Karuba than it does to any roll and write. But Cartographers is a flip and write, and essentially, in Scarabya, Cathala & Maublanc take the writing part out of a randowriter and give you cardboard pieces instead. How hard would it be to convert Scarabaya into a flip-and-write? About as easy as ordering two links of boudin at Nunu’s (and while you are there, can you pick me up a pound of chicken sausage?) There’s the comparison. Both are essentially flip and writes, but in one, you don’t ever get the opportunity to draw pretty little monsters.
So, if your game group has fun poking around with tiles to see if they can combo up big scores, and especially loves games that can be set up and broken down and played again in thirty minutes or less, then you should give Scarabaya a good look-see. If you and your family are fans of Karuba, you are going to find the bingo mechanic familiar, while the scoring mechanic here in Scarabya is the next step up for your kids to play but still something the entire family should enjoy.
If you do not like abstract euros that have a pretty simple rule set and play in under an hour, why have you read this far? But, you should probably check out ECOS: First Continent instead.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few more Clif Bars to stuff into my backpack to get ready for my next trek. Bruno & Ludovic would expect no less from me than a well organized adventure.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ @boardgamegumbo