Review – Scholars of the South Tigris
|S J Macdonald, Shem Phillips
|Garphill Games (Renegade Game Studios)
|Strategy Game, Eurogame
Garphill games first became famous for Raiders of the North Sea, but not so much for the sequel games of the North Sea trilogy. However, the West Kingdom trilogy took off, with every game being fairly highly regarded. Now, they are at the second step of their third trilogy, with Scholars of the South Tigris. I greatly enjoyed Wayfarers of the South Tigris; can they keep the magic going?
I was so excited for this game, but so disappointed after playing it.
Over time, Garphill’s games have gotten more and more complex. I didn’t realize this at first until someone mentioned it, so I went back and played some older titles, and they are right. Sometimes this pays off, both in their titles and others. I really think Wayfarers of the South Tigris is the best game they’ve done, which made this successor all the more disappointing. And Wayfarers was an incredibly complex game, which is still true here. The difference is that I feel like Scholars of the South Tigris is complex just for the sake of being complex. I would rather play against the other players than against the rulebook, and the issues with this title are myriad.
The most egregious offender is the literal flow chart needed (though it’s not presented that way) in the rulebook for how to do a simple clean-up step that advances the game during a Rest turn, which is supposed to be a quick “get some stuff, get your dice and cards back, move on” action. Putting influence on scrolls, which charges other players a coin to use them, is purely a hassle, and it’s not even that much benefit to the player who did it. The circular track that moves scrolls from the… map… ? to the towers is completley unnecessary; scrolls could have just gone straight to the towers. The bag building itself even felt tacked on! Players could have just had a pool of dice to use. It also would have been much easier for the translators of the same type to each have the same “dismiss” effect, so players could actually plan ahead on what resources they need. Requiring your Rest action benefits to be activated left to right was also a completely unnecessary burden – there’s too much else going on to actually deeply consider this while playing, so all that happens is you end up frustrated with suboptimal sequencing during your Rest action (which is supposed to be an endorphin-inducing “get all this stuff!” moment). Lastly, in addition to just having a ridiculous amount of pieces and little decks of cards, the central board and the player boards were all very warped after just one play.
Forgetting that things are complex for a moment, they also just aren’t… fun? You’re not motivated to move the game along. The main way to advance the game (at least, its main idea) is to move scrolls from the map to the towers so that they can be translated, but moving the scrolls seems like an incredibly weak action, exacerbated by the fact that the color bonuses you might move across are fairly weak for the primary colors (placing influence on scrolls, as mentioned above). You are essentially setting up someone else to translate, a much more exciting action, although it also seems very hard to make the VPs on the scrolls actually work out well. The advantages on the research tracks – one of my favorite ideas in games – also seem miniscule compared to the amount of effort needed. There’s also a lot of “player aid” type information either not present, or in far too many spots – the corner of the central board, part of your player board, or the rulebook itself. And the rulebook is terrible, as most Garphill rulebooks are, explaining concepts broadly and vaguely without giving turn structure until far too late, but this one seemed especially egregious. As an example, the Casual vs. Epic versions of the game are not explained at all until you find the difference on a physical setup card, making it very hard to learn the game strictly from the rulebook. I could go on and on, but I’m upset enough as it is.
It’s so disappointing, because my hopes were so high. The theme is great, both translation itself but also the under-utilized academic setting (I am a college professor). It also highlights languages and areas of the world that either don’t get enough attention, or get the wrong kind. The artwork and colors are some of the artist’s best, and the “color blending” of the dice and workers is actually a wonderful new mechanism that I hadn’t seen before. If the game had just focused on that and used it in a Splendor/Canvas/Century level game to acquire translators and scrolls, this could have been a mega hit. Instead, given just how many Garphill games are out there, I’d rather play almost anything else, by them or otherwise. In fact, going off of the BoardGameGeek scale, I have to knock this one pretty low: if someone was desperate to play this, I’d entertain them, but otherwise I hope I never play it again.
The Bottom Line
I highly recommend checking out its predecessor, Wayfarers of the South Tigris, instead.