The Scepter of Zavandor
English language edition of Das Zepter von Zavandor
List Price: $49.99
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In this strategic game of magic, power, and political wrangling, the players represent young magicians who have gained possession of ancient magical knowledge, and seek to utilize it to gain the position of archmage, symbolized by the Scepter of Zavandor. To achieve their goal, they must seek out jewels to enchant in order to devise magical energy sources to tap into and increase their power and influence.
Players: 2 - 6
Time: 120 or more minutes
Ages: 10 and up
Weight: 1,007 grams
Language Requirements: Game components are printed in multiple languages, including English. Manufacturer's rules are printed in English. This is an international edition or domestic edition of an imported item.
- 1 Game board
- 6 player boards
- 100 magic dust tokens
- 162 gemstone cards
- 6 cardboard chits with concentrated energy
- cardboard chits depicting gemstones
- 9 Sentinel tiles
- 48 wooden pieces
- 6 turn order cards
- ziploc bags
Average Rating: 3.5 in 3 reviews
NOTE: This review was first published in Knucklebones magazine.
EDITOR'S NOTE: I have since played Outpost and enjoyed the game. However, I prefer this new adaptation.
I’ve never played Tom Lehmann’s Outpost, but through the years I’ve have heard some very positive buzz about the game. So, when I learned of the release of a new game from Lookout Games based on Outpost, I was intrigued and made every effort to secure a copy.
The setting has been zapped from the outer limits of space and sent to a fantasyland wherein players assume the roles of students striving to achieve magical knowledge and skills in their quest for the powerful scepter of Zavandor. The player who proves the wisest and most skillful practitioner of the magical arts reigns supreme.
In spite of its abundance of components and apparent difficulty, it is, in reality, a rather simple and straight-forward game. Ultimately, players are gathering items that will yield income (in the form of magical energy and fairy dust), which in turn they will utilize to improve their knowledge and skills. While the game has a strong solitaire element, there is some interaction with opponents in the form of card play and regular auctions for artifacts. The game play is quite engaging, albeit a tad long, so this solitaire aspect has not bothered me. The biggest drawback is that all of the components are in German, and there is a LOT of text on the boards and cards. Some enterprising gamers have posted English translations, player aids and paste-ups on the Boardgame Geek website, which help tremendously for the German-language impaired gamers.
A central board serves primarily as tracking charts wherein players can record their progress in the six areas of knowledge, as well as their current victory point tally. Each player receives a character mat, which numerically summarizes the costs and benefits of advancing on these tracks, but the summaries are a bit too brief and cryptic for my tastes. As is, players are forced to frequently consult the rules or player aid charts gleaned from the web. The player mat also provides space to track a player’s active gems, hand limit, and other assorted items.
Each player represents a particular character – witch, elf, fairy, etc. – and has a “leg-up” on his opponents on a particular knowledge field. Other than this start- up advantage, however, characters have no other differences or unique powers.
The game sequence is very straight-forward and easy-to-follow:
1) Determine Player Order and Refill Artifacts. Player order is based on the current victory point tally: highest to lowest. This is significant in that the first and second players must pay a penalty when purchasing artifacts or sentinels, while the players in the fifth and sixth positions receive discounts. Often, this results in players maneuvering to be in the last two positions, yet close enough to the leader to make a run as the game winds to a conclusion.
Finally, new artifact cards are revealed so that the number is equal to the number of players. These cards may be auctioned during the appropriate phase (3c).
2) Gain Magical Energy. Players receive income in the form of fairy dust and magical energy (cards). This energy is produced by gems, and is determined by the number and type of gems a player has active. More valuable gems yield higher amounts of energy, but, of course, are more expensive to acquire.
Energy is represented by cards and players receive a certain NUMBER of cards based on their gems. The value of these cards will vary depending upon the type of gems, so players can play the odds, but are never quite sure of the exact value of the cards they will receive. The range of values is known, however, and the differences within a particular gem category are not that vast.
3) Player Activities. Players can perform some or all of the following activities, most of them as often as they desire and/or can afford. The only exception is Improving Knowledge, which can only be performed once.
a) Enchant and Disenchant Gems. Basically, players can use magical energy to purchase new gems. Players may initially possess only five active gems, so this occasionally requires players to deactivate gems in order to make room for more valuable or desirable gems. A player’s gem capacity can be increased by the acquisition of certain artifacts or improvement on the Knowledge of Accumulation track.
Players may disenchant gems by selling back to the market for ½ price. This can be done in order to pay for auctions or other items the player desires, as well as to make room for more valuable gems.
b) Improve Knowledge. Once per turn (unless an artifact allows otherwise) a player may improve one level on one of the six knowledge tracts. This, of course, costs magical energy, but usually results in immediate or pending benefits. The knowledge tracts provide benefits such as increased gem capacity, ability to enchant rubies, immediate magical energy or fairy dust, discounts on artifacts and sentinels, etc. Choosing which categories to pursue and improve are key decisions in the game.
Further, each player only begins with knowledge in one category. To acquire the initial knowledge in a new category is quite expensive, and increases with each new category you pursue. It seems rare that a player will be able to reach the top of each category.
Reaching the top of a category is quite lucrative, as not only does it provide the inherent benefits of that particular category, but it also provides 2 victory points. Thus, it is a status highly sought-after by the players.
c) Bid for Artifacts and Sentinels. Each turn, there are a number of artifacts available for auction, as well as all remaining sentinels. Artifacts convey a wide range of special powers and/or benefits, as well as victory points. Choosing which ones to seek can be very taxing. Artifacts include such benefits as the ability to enchant emeralds or diamonds, increasing knowledge levels, increasing gem capacity, receiving additional energy, etc. There are three of each type (fewer with less players), so not every player will be able to secure one of each type. This often makes the auction rounds quite lively.
Sentinels are very expensive (120 magical energy or more), but they do convey copious amounts of victory points, based on their conditions. Further, once five sentinels are acquired, the game will end at the conclusion of the current round. So, once one is acquired, there is usually a race to acquire one or more of them before time expires.
At the end of each round, players must assess their magic energy cards and fairy dust to see if they are within the confines of their hand limit. Each card counts one against the limit, while fairy dust counts from 1 – 3, depending upon their value. Thus, it is usually wise to spend fairy dust first. This hand limit also forces players to perform actions just about every turn as opposed to hording energy.
Each game round follows this exact sequence, after which victory points are assessed. An important point to note is that victory points are NOT cumulative. They are assessed each round and a player’s total is exactly what he has for that round. We made the mistake in one of my games of accumulating victory points from round-to-round, causing a scorekeeping nightmare. Fortunately, the endgame results were actually the same in terms of player positions!
Players earn victory points from a variety of sources, including gems, knowledge, artifacts and sentinels. The more valuable the gem, the more victory points it yields. At game’s end, the player who earned the greatest number of victory points in the final round is victorious, and earns the prestigious Scepter of Zavandor.
In spite of the game’s length – up to 4 or more hours in some cases – I remain intrigued. The rules are short and fairly straight-forward, yet the dilemmas and choices facing the players are many and significant. There are numerous paths to pursue, and one must carefully weigh all of the options each turn. Surprisingly, this doesn’t result in much down-time, and I never felt I had to wait long before I was able to actively participate in the game. Auctions are present, but since they do not occur each and every turn, they are not overwhelming. And, in spite of the game’s strong solitaire aspects, there is still significant interaction.
Yes, some might be put-off by the game’s length. I’m sure “speed” groups could play the game in 2 hours or so. Each game I’ve played has lasted 3 – 4 hours. So, folks who balk at the idea of playing a game that lasts over 2 hours may be best advised to skip this magical test. However, if length isn’t a major concern, especially when a game is as engaging as this one, then participation in this contest is likely to be a real magical treat.
The buzz for The Scepter of Zavandor (Lookout and Z-man Games, 2004 – Jens Drogemuller) was really humming when it first was released; but I basically ignored it because the game was only in German, and it looked like a lot of text was involved in the game. However, when Z-man Games released an English edition, I was quite pleased and was interested in playing – especially on hearing that the game’s system was very similar to that of an older game, Outpost. Not having the chance to play Outpost, I’m always glad to see a remake being completed.
While I’m not sure I’m a big fan of the theme, it certainly works well, giving me a feel of satisfaction that few games do at the end. A lengthy playing time and initial learning curve will cause it to be played fewer times, but it has a wonderful feeling of income acceleration, while keeping the leader from getting far ahead. Strategies can be diverse, and plays people make on earlier turns can have lucrative payoff near the endgame. I highly enjoy the game, as it causes me to constantly watch my position on the board, helping keep the game highly interactive through auctions and changing tactics.
Each player receives a player board that shows their magic apprentice who is attempting to acquire the Scepter of Zavandor and victory. Each player places two opals and one sapphire on three of the five “active” gem spaces on their board and also takes the amount of “fairy dust” and energy cards shown on the card. Players take eight chips in their color – placing one on a scoring track on the main game board, five on five knowledge chip spaces on their player boards, one on a hand limit track, and one on the starting space of one of the five tracks on the main board. A deck of artifact cards is shuffled in a certain order and placed near the board with artifacts equal to the number of players turned face up. Piles of energy cards (blue – sapphire, green – emerald, white – diamond, and red – ruby) are shuffled and placed face down near the board, as well as piles of magic dust tokens in “2”, “5”, and “10” denominations. Stacks of “concentrated” energy cards are also placed face up near the board, as well as a pile of “Sentinels” – powerful artifacts. Turn cards equal to the number of players are shuffled and dealt out randomly, determining player order. The first of many rounds is ready to begin.
At the beginning of each round, other than the first, player order is determined by whoever has the most victory points. New ones from the pile replace any bought artifacts. Players then gain magical energy from their “active” gems. Opals give a player magic dust, depending on how many they have. (One opal awards a player two units of dust, while five opals gives a player fifteen dust). For the other four gems, a player simply takes the top card from the matching pile, which is a random number within a certain range (Sapphires range from “3” to “6” in value, emeralds are from “6” to “10”, diamonds are “8” to “12”, while rubies run from “13” to “17”). If a player has four of the same gemstone, they instead draw one concentrated energy card of that type (Sapphires are worth “20”; emeralds are worth “30”; diamonds are worth “40”, and rubies are worth “60”). Players then take their turn in turn order.
On a player’s turn, they have several actions, which they may take multiple times. These actions include:
- Improve knowledge (this may only be done once a turn): A player can pay to increase their knowledge in one of six tracks on the main playing board. To move a disc to the next space costs the number shown on that space (between “2” and “24”). However, a player initially only has one disc on one of the tracks. To add a disc to another of the tracks, they must pay the number shown underneath the knowledge chip on their player board (ranging from “20” to “40”). Each track provides the player with different benefits. The Knowledge of Gemstones decreases the price a player pays to acquire gems; the Knowledge of Energy flow gives the player amounts of magic dust each turn; the Knowledge of Fire on completion allows a player to acquire rubies – the only way; the Knowledge of the 9 Sages gives instant cards of a certain type; the Knowledge of Artifacts decreases the cost of artifacts and sentinels; and the Knowledge of Accumulation allows a player to have more than five active gemstones. Some of the tracks also increase or decrease a player’s hand size.
- Buy or sell gemstones: The price of gemstones is determined by the player’s level in Knowledge of Gemstones and can only be sold for half the price. Players may decide whether to keep gems “active” – an initial maximum of five – or inactive. Initially players can only buy opals and sapphires, but through the purchase of artifacts or Knowledge of Fire track purchase the more expensive gems.
- Bid for artifacts or sentinels: The player chooses one of the available artifacts or sentinels and puts it up for bid. Players bid around the table, starting with the minimum price on the card, and continue until all but one player drop out, awarding the player that artifact. Players may subtract bonuses from their winning bid due to artifacts they control or their position on the Knowledge of Artifacts track. Additionally, the players who go first and second have a penalty when buying artifacts and sentinels, while those in the last two positions receive a bonus.
Artifacts give a player all types of different abilities. This includes discounts on future artifacts bought, extra spaces for active gemstones, an increased hand size, a gem that can never be lost, the ability to acquire diamonds or emeralds, cause others to discard one active gem, advance a chip on a Knowledge track by one, etc. Artifacts also award “1” to “8” victory points. Sentinels are more expensive artifacts (minimum bid is “120”!) and provide no special benefits other than bonus victory points. Each is worth “5” victory points, as well as bonus points depending on the player meeting a requirement (two points per opal, one point per diamond, two points for each completed track, etc.)
At the end of each turn, players calculate their victory points and adjust their counters on the track accordingly. Artifacts, Sentinels, active jewels, and completed Knowledge tracks all award points. Players must then discard down to their hand limit, if they are over. Each “2” dust chit counts as a card, “5” chits count as two cards, “10” chits count as three cards, energy cards simply count as a card, and concentrated energy cards count as three cards. The next round then occurs, unless five or more sentinels have been acquired. At this point the game ends, and the player with the most victory points is the winner!
Some comments on the game…
1.) Components: The box is made to look like an ancient tome, which is pretty neat – although a bit bland for me. The components inside – a myriad of them! – need to be bagged and sorted, simply because of their large number. All of them are decent quality, although they are in color on one side and black and white on the other – which is slightly odd. Still, all of them get handled fairly often during the game, and I haven’t seen any real wear and tear on them. The gems all have the number of points they are worth on the back, which is helpful, and the “concentrated” energy cards are actually thick tokens, making them “feel” valuable. One thing that I can’t get past mentally is that the bags of fairy dust look like a dead moth on a glance. In many of the games we’ve played, we simply referred to them as moths because of this. Still, everything does have a fantasy theme feel to it – especially the board and cards, and while this can lead to the game looking rather “busy”, it does help pull it together thematically.
2.) Rules: My first and second games were rather slow, as the rules were a bit of a chore to bog through. This wasn’t due to formatting, in fact the full colored rulebook is quite nicely done, but it’s simply difficult to understand how the game works until you see it in action. Zavandor is one of the games that I would classify as “heavy”, because a newcomer will most likely lose their first game simply because the rules can seem overwhelming. After playing several games, it’s readily apparent to me how nicely everything works together; but I play the game completely differently now.
3.) Characters: Each of the six character cards starts on a different track, which usually set the strategy for that player. All of the characters seem balanced, and one’s who seem to have a good starting position – like the Fairy – are counted by the fact that the others can get to certain positions faster. I personally prefer the Kobold, who can get the extra active gemstones faster – but I’d gladly play with any of them.
4.) Money: The money system in this game (or energy, if you will) is rather unique and interesting. Fairy dust is the change and basic currency but takes up a large part of a player’s hand, keeping them from saving for future rounds. Obviously rubies are the highest valued gems, and a player with several can start raking in serious cash; but they certainly do guarantee victory. I’ve seen a player do well with all diamonds – or a mix between opals and emeralds, etc. Players must learn when to spend their money and the right time to strike for an artifact.
5.) Artifacts: I really enjoy the diversity of the artifacts. While they certainly all aren’t created equal – some of the earlier, “weaker” ones give a good discount when buying the extremely powerful ones near the end. A player simply can’t afford the benefits from artifacts, because not only are they worth a good deal of points, but they also have benefits that can push you that much farther in front of the opponents. This causes games to be close and exciting – even up to the very end.
6.) Time and Balancing: I enjoy that the game is a meaty one, and that players are engrossed throughout, but it certainly does seem to take a while. The analogy of a rolling snowball is certainly true, as the game starts out at a slow roll but picks up speed as players’ incomes increase to the point where they suddenly begin to afford the sentinels, bringing the game to a conclusion. Still, our typical games take around three or four hours, which isn’t always easy to come by. Scepter is definitely a game that will become the centerpiece of a game night; and because it can handle up to six players, it is a unique game in that regard.
7.) Fun Factor: A player must watch the auctions they win; because if they aren’t careful, an artifact that is a critical part of their strategy can be lost to an opponent. Fortunately, while this might often be devastating in a game of this length, it’s nice that the game has a built in catch up mechanic due to turn order. The player who is winning has to pay a higher price for artifacts and sentinels, while those behind get a nice boost. This really makes a big deal in a game with money this tight; and while it doesn’t penalize superior play, it keeps things close enough to be interesting. The entire game is really about the push to be able to buy the right sentinels – and the accomplishment when this occurs is the main fun factor for me about this game.
I can only recommend Scepter of Zavandor to serious gamers, but those who do enjoy heavy strategy games will most likely have a blast with this one. It has a nice payoff system and has a variety of paths to victory – modified by the actions of the other players. There are a few games that of this variety that I enjoy more (such as Goa or Maharaja), but this is certainly a top tier one – and has an interesting theme (perhaps not to my styling) and keeps me preoccupied the entire time. Not necessarily a family game, Scepter will still enthrall those who want a deep gaming experience with many choices and a tight, interactive system.
“Real men play board games”
Scepter falls into what I consider the "pure bidding" games. This means that though there is some manipulation of the stuff you own during the game, ultimately, the game is won by how well you manage your cash and the bidding. (Contrast this to Power Grid, where bidding for power plants is a big part of the game, but there is also the resource and network, i.e. city access portions.) Other games in his category are Outpost (on which this is closely based) and Phoenicia.
The basic concept in the game is that you want to upgrade the gems you have, which produce your money, to bigger, better, and more of them. Along the way you have to 'research' certain lines of magic to give yourself certain abilities: 'holding' more gems, regular non-gem income, etc. As is usual in such games, each round offers up a certain set of cards for bidding. Some cards give future advantages (discounts), some give immediate benefits. The person with the most points wins at the end (points are pretty much for having stuff,with some adjustments).
First, this game solves a problem I saw with Outpost, that of someone being able to get a breakaway victory by being able to bid on the right thing at the right time (an early/lucky purchase of the moon station, for example). The producers in Scepter (the gems) are more even, so this is far less of a problem. Further, they enhanced this by even more severely limiting how many factories, er... gems, a player can use at one time (basically, 5, one for each finger on your hand, plus a couple if you research the right path)
Like most pure bidding games, there really isn't a way to pull back or even hinder the current leader.
Adding the research trees, as well as some of the playable chrome (starting "characters"), rather than adding to the game, merely makes it more complicated and not completely balanced.
Ultimately, the game ends up taking far longer than it should. Even with experienced players, managing all the elements in the game is such a tedious and time consuming process that I have had games of this take 4 or 5 hours. For the amount of fun the game delivers the time played should be half what is.