Full disclosure: A review copy of Scarabya was provided by Blue Orange Games.
Gen Con is just around the corner! I’m literally getting on a flight tomorrow; that’s exciting. To that end, this whole week in reviews is just games you can pick up at Gen Con, which is also great. Let’s kick them off with Scarabya, from Blue Orange Games!
Scarabya, like a good archaeologist, wears many hats. On one hand, you can play as archaeologists across multiple sites digging for lost scarabs from a long-gone civilization. Another version will have you head-to-head against another archaeologist to see if you can dig up the most. A third has you, the last survivor of this lost people burying your scarabs to make sure that they cannot be found. What path will you choose? And which game will you play?
Alright, so, regardless of the game you’re playing, you’re gonna want at least one of these frames:
Each one will hold a set of these four boards in their color. Have one player shuffle theirs and place them into the frame, and then all other players must match:
You should end up with something looking like this:
Those non-tiles are rocks; you should add the ones in your color to your frame (or don’t; mix it up!):
That’ll form your Archaeological Site. Give every player a set of tiles, also in their color:
These tiles correspond to pictures on the 12 Mission Cards:
Finally, set the Scarab Tokens within reach of all players. I use some very helpful felt trays that a friend gave me and I’m going to shamelessly plug, forever:
Anyways, once you’ve done that, you’re all ready to start the main game! I’ll talk about variants further along. If you’re playing one of the variants, setup is the same, but you only use one board.
So, there are three games of Scarabya: the main game, head-to-head, and solo. They all play differently, but I’m going to cover the main game, here, and then touch on the others a bit further down.
In Scarabya, your goal is to create Excavation Areas around scarabs, with larger areas leading to more valuable scarabs. There’s a catch, though! An area only qualifies as an Excavation Area under certain circumstances:
- It must be fully enclosed on all sides (not diagonally) by either tiles, rocks, or the board’s edge;
- It must contain at least one scarab;
- It must be four tiles or fewer.
So that’s fun. At the beginning of a round, one player (doesn’t matter who; all players play simultaneously) will draw a card from the Mission Card deck and all players will simultaneously add that tile to their board, under the following conditions:
- Your first tile must overlap at least one of the four central squares.
- All subsequent tiles must be placed adjacent (diagonally doesn’t count) to another tile.
- Tiles cannot overlap each other or rocks.
- Tiles must be placed within the frame completely and cannot overlap it.
If you can place a tile, you must place the tile. If not, it’s discarded. If you form an Excavation Area, great! Take some Scarab Tokens and place them on the Scarabs. Each Scarab in your Excavation Area is worth 1 point for each square in your Excavation Area. So, if you had a 3-square Excavation Area with 3 Scarabs in it (every tile is a Scarab), then you would earn 3 sets of 3 points (9 total).
That’s … honestly it. Play continues until the 12th card has been played, and the player with the most points wins!
If you’re looking for a more directly competitive game (Scarabya: The Duel), you can play a one-on-one version on only one Archaeological Site! Now, play works about the same way as the initial game, but you only score on your turn. So you need to make Excavation Areas on your turn and deny your opponent opportunities to do the same. For simplicity, when you make an Excavation Area, keep the points on your side of the play area rather than on the Scarabs, themselves. Other than that, the gameplay stays the same! You can also play again after the first game; don’t shuffle the Mission Cards, just change the player order.
In the Solo Variant, you flip the script; you are the last survivor of this lost people, and their final instruction was “don’t let archaeologists take our stuff”, which, fair. Your goal is to play the same game as previously, but you want to cover all the Scarabs, rather than building Excavation Areas. You win if you manage to do it, but if even one Scarab goes uncovered by the game’s end, you lose! If you lose, turn the difficulty down a notch and play again, but don’t change the order of the Mission Cards.
Three games in one box!
Player Count Differences
So, there’s no real difference in player counts beyond the differences in the games, because the 2- to 4-player game is basically like NMBR9 / Avenue in that it has zero player interaction whatsoever. To that end, would happily play at any player count.
- Plan ahead. You’re going to want to leave certain spaces open for certain tiles (since you know that they will eventually come your way). This should let you set up enormous combos, if you’re lucky. Just, uh, one thing.
- Make sure you’re planning for getting the tiles you don’t want, as well. Remember, you have to play every tile you’re given, and if you aren’t careful, you might be forced into a non-optimal play, which can really hurt you no matter what game you’re playing. It’s also a bummer, though I suppose that doesn’t matter too much.
- Be okay with covering a few Scarabs. You’re not going to be able to get them all, and trying to do so is just going to leave you in a world of hurt. You gotta sacrifice a little to gain a lot.
- Neither the straight piece nor the + sign are your friend. Keep in mind that they’re coming but aren’t usually all that helpful.
- Use the rocks and frame to help you make your Excavation Areas. I know that’s one of the rules, but do that. Don’t just rely on the tiles to make things work for you; that’s what the other parts of the board are for.
- Remember to flip the tiles up and around and over. You can spin them any way you want to, just make sure you keep the tile in-bounds according to all tile placement rules.
- (Head-to-Head) You want to specifically not play optimally. Your goal should be to make great plays for you and ruin your opponents’ options. Make 5-square Excavation Areas; leave spots open that will force them to take bad plays. You’re going to have to be a bit mean if you want to win, but that’s quite often how the duel game goes.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- A lot of places would have packaged this as three games. I appreciate the variety of games in the box; makes it easier to recommend to people. The head-to-head version is probably my favorite? But I like the other ones, as well, so I’m glad they’re there. The nice thing is that some players won’t like the duel variant for its interaction and others won’t like the lack of player interaction at 2+ players, and you can have both with this game!
- The colors are really great. They’re bright and super fun! I’m a big fan of blue, as a color, so I’m also fine with there being essentially two blues, in the game. Thankfully, the rocks aren’t super gameplay relevant and the tiles are fairly well-marked, so it seems like it shouldn’t pose any accessibility problems, which is a relief.
- Fun theme(s). I like the four areas that you can explore: the ocean, the jungle, the desert, and the tundra. Maybe that’s because … those are very similar to the four areas from Majora’s Mask? Weird coincidence.
- Plays very quickly. It takes 20 minutes, tops. I was demonstrating the solo game to my housemates and they were interested so they just joined in and we played a 3-player solo game right after. Like, this is as quick as Shaky Manor or Kingdomino so, solid work, Blue Orange. Very on-brand.
- Very easy to learn. It’s similar to lots of other games you like, like a hybrid between NMBR9 and Patchwork. There’s a game I haven’t talked about in like, over a year. Wonder how that’s doing.
- The rocks are really nice sculpts. What? I can appreciate a nicely-sculpted mini of a rock.
- For my streaming friends, this is a perfect game for playing along at home. As long as someone sees your initial board and what cards you’re drawing, they can easily follow along with their own copy. I feel like you’ll likely get a number of the same scores, though, at scale.
- It’s kind of hard to see the Scarabs on the green board. I have pretty great eyesight and I get distracted by them quite often (they look like flowers, which isn’t super helpful). I generally don’t play green as a result. Your mileage may vary, with this one.
- I’m worried about the frames getting damaged when I transport it. They’re vaguely flimsy and not particularly well-braced by anything. I wish the insert had taken that into consideration, but, what can you do.
- It’s kind of weird, but I think this would make a really good roll-and-write-style game. In my brain, this kind of has the wrong implementation paired up with it. I’d love to see this game be more like Sweet Stack + Avenue, where every player has a randomly-generated board and they’re drawing the tiles on their board. I think it would let you expand the gameplay out infinitely, which would be cool (and useful).
- I wish there were an easier way to prevent everyone doing the same thing. NMBR9 addressed this somewhat with variable starting tiles that everyone got that essentially guaranteed the final setups could be different. It’s unlikely that, after 12 variations, you’re going to have the same board, but for me, it would be nice if that option were flat impossible. Maybe they’ll end up doing a promo for Scarabya, too.
- The boards don’t fit flush with the frame and that bothers me a lot. They kinda slide around and everything doesn’t fit perfectly, which is kind of aggravating. That said, this is pretty much the worst thing I can say about this game, so, in a way, that’s kind of a good thing?
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, Scarabya is pretty awesome. I like the tetris-esque aspects of the gameplay, I really respect the three different game modes, and honestly, I’ve just had a lot of fun with it! It’s puzzley without being too difficult, and the head-to-head variant is competitive without being obnoxiously aggressive. That alone would make for a fun game, but it’s also got a pleasant, engaging theme (both due to its colors and style and also due to a fun inversion on the theme that the solo mode takes on). It feels like it has a good amount of replay value to it, as well, since it’s got a lot of variations, but it also seems like it’s the kind of thing you could see more boards available for. Anyways, I’ve been generally referring to the game as “Patchwork meets NMBR9” and, while I haven’t reviewed NMBR9, it’s definitely a game that I enjoy. Scarabya manages to be more than the sum of its parts (I mean, not much more; they’re good parts), and I’ve had a great time with it, so if you’re looking for a fun spin on tile-laying games, love Tetris-like gameplay, or just want something quick and fun, I’d recommend taking Scarabya for a whirl!