The Sceptre of Zavandor

Designed by Jens Drogemuller, The Sceptre of Zavandor is a classic example of German boardgames.  Each player starts off with some gems.  The gems give you money.  You spend the money to buy more gems.  Do this most efficiently and you win the game.  This basic system is at the heart of many, many board games – it’s tried and tested and obviously very successful.  I’ve played this game three times now, though, and in each of the sessions I’ve felt there was something off with the implementation here.

In Dominion, the precise content of a deck is mysterious, so it can be tricky to know who exactly is winning.  Plus the fact that buying VP cards makes your deck worse implicitly punishes the player doing best.  Also, due to the variance in what hand you get each turn, it’s always possible that you’ll get a great couple of turns and suddenly be in the lead…

In Powergrid, there’s an extremely elegant system that punishes players who are doing better.  The disadvantages are not necessarily crippling, but they do open up possibilities for letting players leapfrog over each other from turn to turn.

In The Sceptre of Zavandor, there is no hidden information about who’s doing best, there is no (well, very little) variance in the resources you get every turn, and the mechanic that punishes players who are doing best is artificial, unsubtle, and of limited effect.

What this means, given that the number of resources you receive every turn is directly proportional to the number of resources you have  to invest, is that small advantages gained by a player early in the game magnify every single turn.  Thus, the player who is one iota ahead on turnn two, will be two iotas ahead on turn four, and three iotas ahead on turn six (or something like that)…

Basically, if you fall behind at any point during the game it seems as though there is no possibility for catching up.  Of course, this leads to very demoralising games for those in the rear.  In the games I’ve played this problem has also been clear to those in the lead, making the game not-fun for them, too.

I’ve read some stuff on boardgamegeek.com that suggests that this isn’t necessarily the case, and that there are different strategies that can circumvent this problem (e.g., the sapphire strategy or strategic sentinal bidding later on), but our group hasn’t come across them yet (although, in the last game, one of the two jockeying for first place went with rubies and the other went with diamonds).

Anyway, I was frustrated with it last night, but I’m willing to give it one more go.  It’s highly non-interactive, the mechanical nature of the game is far too visible (this is very definitely a case of bottom-up design [mechanics first], with the flavour not very convincingly pasted on afterwards), and there’s the problem with lagging behind; but I hate to let a game defeat me.

Oh, also, the production values are weak.  The game is pretty simple, but the rulebook is a nightmare to parse, and the player gameboards aren’t particularly attractive or intuitive…

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