Best Bits is a series that highlights excellent mechanics or parts of a game. Whether they are thematic, intelligent or just enjoyable, this series wants to celebrate the best bits of games.
I have a lot of love for Arctic Scavengers. It’s a game dripping with a theme and creates moments where you decide to back out of a fight due to your opponent’s apparent strength, only to have them revealed that what you thought was a gang of thugs was a pile of spades. Everything in the game, from brutal card abilities to the bleak art style, lends itself to the idea of ‘survival at any cost’ in the game’s cruel winter wasteland.
Perhaps the most thematic mechanic, and my favourite part of the game, is the junk pile: a deck of tools and medicine mixed together with a lot of useless junk. Junk cards literally have no game value and, as the useful item cards are removed, you have to dig (draw) though more and more of the stuff in order to find anything worth using. None of the cards you’ll scavenge from the junk pile are particularly exciting but they are necessary. Medicine and tools are essential for survival. You won’t get anything flashy but you’ll find enough to keep going. Without medicine, your tribe (engine) will fail. Without medicine why would the toughest mercenaries ever consider helping you against your enemies?
The junk pile can be unforgiving. You send a group of refugees to search for supplies, entrusting them with the tribe’s only spade only to have them dig up nothing but junk and bitter disappointment.
The best bit though is how the junk pile interacts with refugee cards. As well as providing crucial resources, the junk pile acts as the game’s discard pile: a place to rid your tribe of its inefficiencies. Anything that slows down your group of frostbitten survivors has to go, otherwise, you’ll surely fall victim to a leaner, meaner tribe. Refugees do contribute to your score but they are the weakest card in the game and it’s often a good opening strategy to discard any refugees from your hand to streamline your deck.
If you step back to look at the thematic context of your actions, it’s horrific. You’re casting out families, children and the elderly from your tribe. It could be said the game is a little blasé in the way it encourages players to treat refugees. Though . This ruthless disregard for human life fits the theme perfectly; think of any post-apocalyptic fiction and you’ll usually find a scene in which people argue about the value of people vs the value of the group. It’s usually the villains that make the decision to abandon the weak. Think about that the next time you “make your deck more efficient”.
By the second round, the junk pile is often saturated with the frozen bodies of refugees. Throughout the game, you’ll have to dig past them as you search for something more useful – which is incredibly bleak. Toward the end of the game, it is finally worth rescuing the refugees from their cryo-sleep as they increase the size of your tribe, even if they water down your precious deck. Their end-game importance is increased when you play with gangs. Gangs are end-game rewards for players who have met certain criteria. While some gangs value tools or medicine, the Humanitarians will (surprise, surprise) add their strength to the player with the most refugees in their tribe.
The end-game scrabbling for tribe members is made even better if you mark the refugee cards. I learnt this from playing a friend’s copy in which they’d marked the cards in each player’s starting deck with different colour stickers. Toward the end of the game, when we went back to rescue our refugees from the junk pile, we knew whose tribe they had started in. You can take this one step further by giving each refugee card a unique name (sleeve the cards then write on the sleeves). It adds to the human element of the card and helps you track the refugee’s journey into and out of the junk pile.
The junk pile is a brilliant piece of game design. It subtly adds to the game’s theme in so many ways. The deck itself is customisable: as you bring in more expansion modules you can tweak the ratio of junk to useful goods as well as changing exactly what cards you find. No matter what though, the junk pile elicits a sense of desperation. You never know what you’ll find, so there is always a risk to searching. Arctic Scavengers manages to saturate every part of the game with its bleak mid-winter theme and in no part is it more apparent than the junk pile.