How many times have you seen this event unfold in stories:
An intrepid scientist / engineer / doctor works furiously at a workbench, forsaking all other activities in the sake of their most prized pursuit. Their lab is as unkempt as their appearance, and they devotedly spend all of their manpower to achieving their goal.
‘I’ve done it’, they cry out. ‘I’ve invented the Flurgen-Gurger Havenburger!* This will change the world!’
And then they’re promptly bashed over the head with a blunt object by some rival, underpaid assistant, or unscrupulous business partner that they probably knew making a deal with was a bad idea but did so anyway.
When they wake up – if they wake up at all – the product of their hard work is gone, and someone else is left picking up the pieces.
That, in a nutshell, is Scrapyard Empire: a steampunk game of building, bluffing, and backstabbing. It takes place at the estate of the late Sir Winston Derbyshire, a terrifying brilliant man of science.
However, like most eccentric rich people, his death isn’t a simple matter, for with no heir to his vast holdings, Sir Winston decided to hand over his estate to the most innovating individuals around. A contest is held, wherein players must assemble some of his invention blueprints with parts strewn across his vast property. Inventions like this one:
Unsurprisingly – and quite fitting within the game’s fantastic steampunk narrative – not everyone who participates is necessarily an upstanding character. Ignoring the wisdom of Ian Malcolm, contestants race to complete their Inventions; the first to complete two of these remarkable inventions shall inherit the fortune.
Gold Is A Powerful Conductor
At its gear box and flywheel core, Scrapyard Empire is a game about hand management and interfering with your opponents. The hunt for fortune begins with each player being given a Character, eight Parts cards, five Small Machine cards, and one Invention. Part cards are visible to all players and are the various component pieces players find scattered across the landscape such as propellers, light bulbs, and control boxes. Collecting the right combination of Parts allows you to construct Small Machines, which in turn are combined to create an Invention.
We’re sure that building a Time Machine is pretty difficult, but the rules to Scrapyard Empire are not. In fact, turns are only comprised of four steps.
First, draw a Part card. However, if you happen to have exactly five Small Machine cards you may instead draw two cards instead from either the Parts deck or the Small Machines deck. Next, you take two actions in any combination. These include:
- Draw: Draw a Part, Small Machine, or Invention card.
- Dig: Pick one of the three discard piles, then roll a d6. On a 4-6, go through one card at a time until you declare which Part you’re taking.
- Trade: You may offer to trade a Part or Small Machine with another player.
- Steal: Pick an opponent, then roll a d6. On a 5-6, steal a Part or uncompleted Small Machine from them.
- Activate a Small Machine: Use the one-time ability of a completed Small Machine.
Players may also use their innate character abilities, but those don’t count as actions. What’s more, if you have to roll a die for any reason, you can increase the roll result by +1 for each Parts card you discard. This creates an intriguing game interaction where luck plays a role, but it can be overcome by sacrificing resources.
Next, it’s time to build stuff. No good steampunk game would be without this feature, and it’s in full swing with Scrapyard Empire. To create a Small Machine, discard the three Part cards needed and put the Small Machine into play. Each Small Machine comes with a special ability that can be activated in a later turn. Such abilities can only be used once per game; use them wisely.
Similarly, to create an Invention, discard the three completed Small Machines needed and reveal the Invention you have unleashed upon the world – in Sir Winston’s name of course – and draw a replacement. Lastly, unless someone has built two Inventions, discard down to eight Parts and five Small Machines. The first person to build two Inventions wins the game and the inheritance…though it’s likely that the person who invented the Doomsday Ray may dispute that.
Beware of Junkyard Dogs
From a mechanical standpoint, Scrapyard Empire is a fairly simple and straightforward game: you’re using Cards A to make Cards B to make Card C. While the game can be played in a more passive manner by focusing on your own tableau and hoping to acquire the right cards, it’s not recommended. Doing so both misses out on the interesting subtext of Scrapyard Empire, and it doesn’t make for very exciting gameplay.
Indeed, the appeal to Scrapyard Empire is via player interaction. This is a race for vast wealth, and scruples aren’t part of the rules. Be prepared to steal and antagonize your opponents – and have them return the favor. Need a part? Trade for it, Dig for it, or simply take it from someone else. Scrapyard Empire makes you pay attention to what other players are up to, for if you can steal something both of you need, that’s a hefty strategic advantage. For those who don’t enjoy ‘Screw Your Neighbor’ style games, Scrapyard Empire may not resonate, but for those that do, this would be a game to look further into.
The other fun aspect is bluffing your opponents into thinking you’re working on a different device than you actually are. It will take a few playthroughs to fully grasp which Parts are used with which devices, and so the idea of faking out other players is a strategic option that may not be immediately apparent. However, once the game becomes more familiar, Scrapyard Empire proves to be as capable of building items as it is about pretending to build them.
Scrapyard Empire is a decent example of a steampunk game done well. The artwork and flavor of the game is fantastic, and for those who enjoy the genre, there is plenty to appreciate. Building your Invention is a mini-adventure unto itself, and you have to carefully navigate both the junkyard piles and the nefarious twirly mustache behavior of your opponents. You also have less than an hour to accomplish this.
Players can (and should) do anything they can to gain the upper hand on Sir Winston’s money, and it is wise to remember that. Between stymieing other players and careful use of the few special abilities you’ll access to throughout the game, Scrapyard Empire has more strategy to it than it initially lets on. It’s a quiet strategy, with equal parts paying attention to other players and building your technologies. So quiet in fact, that you may not hear the other player sneaking up on you with a lead pipe.
If you think you have the skills it takes to inherit the Scrapyard Empire, then grab your goggles and spanners and head on over to Kickstarter. Good luck, brave inventors!
Photo Credits: Snidely Whiplash by Dreamworks Animation.