The Cardboard Hoard: Review of Scarabya
Abstract pentomino-laying game Scarabya, which plays one-to-four players in fifteen to twenty minutes, is a game created through two long-running partnerships. It was co-designed by frequent collaborators Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, who also co-designed Cyclades, Dice Town, and Mr. Jack together, and it is being published by Blue Orange Games, who also published Cathala’s Spiel de Jahre-winning Kingdomino, as well as Queendomino, Longhorn, and Niya.
In Scarabya, players each have a 10x10 grid that has 24 scarab squares and 8 obstacle squares on it, as well as twelve pentomino pieces -- polyominos that are made up of five squares. In each of the game’s twelve rounds, a card will be flipped to determine which pentomino the players will have to place on the board, with the goal being to enclose the scarabs within the pentomino pieces, attempting to score the most points. A scarab enclosed in a single square is worth one point, while each scarab enclosed in two, three, or four squares is worth that many points -- meaning if you are able to enclose four scarabs in a four square enclosure, that is worth 16 points. However, enclosures of five or more squares are not scored.
In addition to the multiplayer game, there is also a solo mode. Unlike solo modes from similar games like NMBR 9, this solo mode is not a high score chase. The game is turned on its head, and the goal is to cover each of the 24 scarabs on the player board with the pentomino pieces. You win if you succeed. It’s simple, elegant, and challenging. It requires more precise forward planning and spatial awareness than the regular game, as there is no room for error.
The game also features a one-on-one variant with significant player interaction, where two players face off against each other on one shared board. This quickly becomes a game of keep-away throughout the alternating turns, and ends very quickly, as each player only gets six pieces to place. I did not find this variant satisfying, and it actually left me wanting to play Bruno Cathala’s two-player game Longhorn instead.
Other than in the one-on-one variant, there is zero interaction between players, which will be a positive for some players, but a negative for others.
Pros: An excellent pentomino puzzle game that will be of interest to fans of Bärenpark, Cottage Garden, Indian Summer, NMBR 9, and the like. Nice production, with quality components and bright artwork. Good value, as online retailers have it on sale for less than $22. It plays up to four players without any additional downtime, due to the simultaneous nature of the gameplay.
Cons: People that do not enjoy spatial puzzles can safely avoid Scarabya. Like in NMBR 9 and Karuba, a player could theoretically keep copying another player’s moves and force a draw -- although I can’t see why anyone would enjoy doing this. While I am not colorblind, I did have some minor issues with the colors of the pentominos being similar to the boards they go on -- however, an easy fix to this is to just switch it up and give players boards that don’t match their pentominos. Also, the board -- made up of four punchboard pieces -- fit rather loosely in the frame, which occasionally made pieces jostle around when placing pentominos.
Some quick polyomino comparisons: I prefer Patchwork -- one of my all-time favorites -- with two players, but this plays one to four equally well. It’s also much more elegant than Cottage Garden, which has some clunky scoring rules. Unlike Indian Summer and Bärenpark, which are race style games, Scarabya has a set number of rounds. While the card flipping is identical to NMBR 9, Scarabya does not feature any stacking, and functions solely in two dimensions.
Overall, Scarabya is a welcome addition to the field of abstract polyomino-laying games. It plays quickly, but still has plenty of meaningful decisions to make. The board filling up over the course of the twelve rounds creates natural tension and gives the game a nice arc. It also makes the order of the randomly drawn pentominos matter, which -- along with the variable set-up -- helps to makes each game play out differently. I’ll be keeping Scarabya in my collection, both to introduce to others as a quick abstract puzzle game, and to challenge myself to play solo.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Scarabya from Blue Orange Games.