By John Prud
By and large, I am not a fan of economy games. Auction games in particular make me sad. I find it difficult to assign monetary values to how much a game piece is worth to me (let alone to someone else). Power Grid I can compete in, but I am hardly an expert. Games like Indonesia and Merchants of Amsterdam I am a complete loss at. This bewilderment usually translates to lock-brain, mental tetanus. Yes, I am often “that guy” holding up a game with AP. Sorry.
In The Scepter of Zavandor, the players are magic students amassing power to claim the game named scepter. SoZ is a brutal snowball economy game with an auction component as the main player interaction. Given this description, I should 1) not enjoy the game and 2) be fairly terrible at it. I was fascinated, if a bit overwhelmed, the first time I played it. With each subsequent play, I have liked it more and more. Even more surprising, I am very competitive at the game. After a few attempts, players learn what is and is not a good idea and then develop a sense of what strategies are viable.
Game Play Overview
The object of SoZ is to have the most Victory Points at the end of the game.
At the beginning of each round, you examine your gems, items and knowledge levels to determine how much magic power you have to spend that round. Power comes in the form of cards (in 4 different types, each with a different range of power), magic dust chips, and concentrated power chips (again in 4 types, each of a specific value). Artifact cards revealed from a semi-stacked deck until there are as many exposed as there are players. Artifacts not purchased the previous are again available in the current round.
On your turn you may purchase the ability to increase revenue (by enchanting gems of 5 types, each granting a different power card type of magic dust), increase your position on one of six knowledge tracks (each of which grant abilities, give discounts, or provide income) and start auctions on any or all artifacts (item cards that grant abilities, revenue or discounts) or Sentinels (Victory Point granting items). Each item purchased increases you VP total. Turn order goes from VP leader to VP tail. Depending on your turn position, you may receive a penalty or discount on the purchasing of artifacts and Sentinels. The careful observation and manipulation of turn order can be decisive in the game.
At the end of the round, players examine the number and type of power pieces they have and compare it to the maximum they are allowed to carry over into the next round. Rinse and repeat until at least 5 of the 9 Sentinels have been purchased.
The theme of the game may attract some and repel others, but does not impact the game at all. The game could be re-themed entirely and game play would not be more or less clear – no element of the game screams “tightly bound” to me. Why does the Crystal of Protection function like an Emerald with its own slot? Why does a Crystal Ball help you purchase an Elixir? Why does an Elixir grant the ability to enchant Diamonds? No reason at all. The names of the artifacts and Sentinels could all be swapped, and the game would play exactly the same.
SoZ suits 2 to 6 players. Naturally, adding more players adds more play time to the game. More experience shortens this some, especially if everyone is planning their actions on precious players’ turns. With more players, more copies of each artifact are available. In a two player game, one of each artifact is used. For 3 and 4 players, two of each are used, and three are used in 5 and 6 player games. This means more items are available per player in 3 and 5 player games, which gives more flexibility in play for odd numbered groups. The game plays perfectly at all numbers, but I find that even groups are more difficult because there is less room for error.
This game has a lot replay value. Each player starts with a different knowledge, which shapes (but not dictates) their strategies for the game. There is a random factor in the currency cards you get on your turn, so which cards you draw when will have an effect on how you pursue your goals. Finally, artifacts will come out in a random order which can drastically change the flow of the game.
I have played this on a dozen or so occasions with the same group of people, and no two sessions have been alike. There does not seem to be one correct way to play. In a recent session, I won a game without having purchased any of the Sentinels. At this point, I believe I have seen every starting character win a game, and I have seen the same character win in radically different ways.
Quite simply, I have never played a game like The Scepter of Zavandor before. (I am aware that this and Phoenicia are both based on Outpost, but I have not had the chance to play either of those. Yet.) The costs of various powers are meticulously balanced. Cards and abilities that initially appear ridiculously powerful can be demonstrated as being equivalent to other abilities. This lends the game an air of a puzzle to be solved before your opponents.
SoZ is an unforgiving game. New players may find it difficult to compete with more experienced ones. I have never seen a first time player defeat a veteran, but I have seen them come in a strong second place.
I think Scepter rewards flexibility. The ability to adjust to unfortunate card draws or unfavorable artifact orders marks a skilled player. Deciding on a single plan before the first round may work if everything goes your way, but you will be vulnerable to the unexpected.
Why do I enjoy this more than Power Grid or Merchants of Amsterdam? I like the asymmetry of initial player powers – it forces people to play differently from each other instead of just being better at auctions. The unpredictability of the artifact deck is also interesting. These make SoZ feel more dynamic than other games in the genre. The limit on how much currency you can bring from one round to the next adds some interesting tension. The game is not about amassing as much currency as possible, it is about efficiently increasing your capacity so that you can purchase exactly what you need when you need it. In other games, generating excess income is rewarded as you roll that largess into your next turn. You can organize a strategy based on this, but it is not the only way to play.