Scrumpy is on Kickstarter for the next couple of weeks.
If you only looked at an image of Scumpy on the table you’d be forgiven for getting a bit of the ol’ eye glaze. Looking every bit the model of a modern mid-weight eurogame, it wears its aesthetics like camouflage. But look a bit deeper and you’ll find a crunchy, restless core mechanism that’s got its claws in me.
I suppose after all of the wine and beer-making games cider was inevitable. Often seen as beer’s simpler cousin, I think cider’s actually making something of a comeback, so a game about it shouldn’t surprise me too much. I’ll save you the trip to wikipedia: scrumpy is a sort of genre of cider from the western part of England.
First the benign. Close your eyes and imagine a game about producing cider and you’re 90% there. You collect raw materials and transform them into cider–both barrelled and fresh. There are public and private goals. Cardboard money tokens. Contract fulfillment. A neat player board with little cubes and a meeple on it.
Of course there’s a reason so many games look like this–it works. I can’t fault Scrumpy too much for using established features any more than I can fault a movie for using cross-cutting or establishing shots.
In fact, figuring out how to address my rather hum-drum response to most of what Scrumpy has to offer has gotten me thinking. True innovation in board gaming is so incredibly rare, and when it does happen it tends to slip into the cracks as a new twist on what we’ve come to expect. Even then, some of the best games ever made don’t necessarily even have that. They’re constructed of bits and pieces of what we’ve seen before, arranged in such a way as to outshine their peers.
What is Gloomhaven but a cross between Mage Knight and Descent constructed with an enthusiast’s zeal? The Castles of Burgundy takes tile laying established by Carcassonne and joins it with Feld’s mathematical precision. Heck, 2019’s best game–The Crew–is as high concept as they come: “what if trick taking was cooperative?”
The magic runs in the margins, in the assemblage of bits and parts in just the right way so that it inspires wonder. Compared to other artistic endeavors, board games are blessed and cursed with their emphasis on systems. A painting or film or sculpture or poem certainly gets translated through the mind of an observer, but not nearly in the same way as a game, which provides a structural skeleton for the players to fill in with flesh and guts and life in their play.
Experiences with games contain more variance, then. The projector at your movie theatre might be a bit dim, or the lighting at the gallery might not be optimized, but with a game you might have missed a key rule, or you might be in a loud, crowded convention center, or your two friends might be in the middle of a weird unspoken conflict of dubious origin affecting the vibe of it all.
Thus the difficulties I face as a reviewer. If I’m talking about a painting there’s no doubt as to what the painting, in fact, is. If I’m talking about a (multiplayer) game I’m necessarily talking about a social situation I had with other people with the game a scaffolding. The challenge is to separate what about the game itself has influenced my experiences and what was simply circumstance.
All of that to say that much of Scrumpy seems fine. Perhaps if I’d played it in person instead of Tabletop Simulator I’d think differently.
Fortunately designer Paul Harris has centered his game around a deckbuilding mechanism that occupies the same kind of controlled-but-manic space as games like Innovation and SPQF (recently reimplemented as Fort). In Dominion-style deckbuilders trashing cards is an extremely powerful effect, as getting rid of a bad card has the double-bonus of ridding your deck of nonsense and making your better cards appear more frequently. Scrumpy plays with this idea by having your cards constantly rotate in and out of a sort of intermediary space.
See, your cards are also your resources. “Gathering” an “apple” is simply a matter of taking the top card from your deck and placing it in the apple spot. There–now it’s not a card anymore, it’s an apple. “But I wanted to use that card!” you whine, ungrateful for your newfound produce. Well apples can turn into cider at a rate of 2-1. At that point you take two apple cards of your choice, move one to the cider area and toss the other into your discard pile. Voila! It’s now a card again, back in its rightful place.
This happens constantly, and the draw of Scrumpy is trying to herd the cards you need back into your hand when you need them. If you’re good enough, you can do this precisely enough to see long-running plans play out perfectly. I am not yet good enough. I want to play Scrumpy until I am. The game as a thing–its gears and pistons and levers–has challenged me to tame it and I’m compelled to do so.
I suppose the magic isn’t always in the margins. Sometimes it’s right there in front of you. Will Scrumpy hold my interest past a few more plays? I don’t know; it could contain depths. Regardless it’s a compelling enough debut design to explore.