Scandinavia and the World: A Heap of Trouble – KS Review

I made a promise to myself not to do any more Kickstarter preview videos. I know, never say never right? And already I want to make an exception. But I’m going to justify it to myself by doing a written piece instead of a video. Promise still kept.

So, why the exception?

I’ve been following the career of this man, this designer, with keen interest, since he produced 404 Law Not Found for 3D Total Games in 2013. After that, a collaborative designer’s challenge 6, and then Greg Carslaw followed with the big box thematic co-op, and his biggest game to date, Wizard’s Academy in 2016. Since then, Greg followed with a series of small ‘party’ card games, the latest of which is the subject of today’s review, Scandinavia and the World: A Heap of Trouble.

It seems that Greg took on SatW as a new type of ‘designer challenge’, something that he has explored as he seeks a niche in this market. 404 was a standard competitive game, but showed the first indications of Greg’s appetite for the obscure, his penchant for the weird and quirky, attracting me with its humour and interesting sandboxy mechanics.  Then came 6, which was a different kind of designer challenge. This time he and his co-designers challenged themselves to come up with a collection of games using the same set of components – a simple tin of dice. In doing so their rules made use not just of the dice,  but also of the physical rules, the tin, and the playing surface.

With SatW, the challenge was to build a game around a theme, in this case a comic strip. It was important to embody that game with the spirit of the comic strip, not an easy feat, as well as make it an interesting game; and added to that, Greg challenged himself to develop a game that would mean something to all gamers, not just those familiar with the comic strip. To summarise the comic strip: SatW is a world where countries are people, and the way those people behave and react to each other personify the traits of those countries. In this way, the comic strip satirises world politics seen through a Scandinavian prism.

I’m not sure Greg has succeeded in delivering a game that can be fully appreciated without knowing the comic (you will enjoy the humour much more if you know the comic), but he has succeeded in delivering a game that wears the theme very well, and one which delivers interesting game mechanics.

What he has delivered is a set-building and bidding game, with the ‘party game’ spirit, which I believe embodies the character of the comic strip very very well, with the sophisticated comedy, the light-hearted mickey-taking, and tongue-in-cheek character of the comic strip.

The game plays 3-5, with more chaotic fun being had at higher player counts, but some tighter strategy at 3. It’s a small card game that sees players trying to be the first to collect three small ‘sets’ of cards, whilst bidding for cards to complete those sets. I use the term ‘sets’ loosely, because it’s not really a rummy-style game. Instead you are bidding on Character cards, each of which represents the personification of a country of the world, which must be partnered with an Item card to ‘satisfy’ that Country and complete a ‘set’. So the demands of the game are simple enough. What makes it more chaotic is that the characters you play [to your tableau] have abilities, and those abilities can mess with opponents’ tableaux, their hands, and their bidding power. Not only that, and this is the most interesting part of the game, but some characters have negative effects, and this brings strategy to the bidding element of the game…

Your hand contains Item cards (you are drawing new Item cards each turn, or picking up Items from Character abilities), and these Item cards are worth different amount of coins. You have to decide which Items you wish to keep hold of (with a view to satisfying Characters and completing sets) and which you wish to spend for their coins as you bid to obtain Characters each turn. Bidding high means you have less cards in your hand, severely impeding your ability to complete sets; bidding low means you are more likely to be left having to take Characters with negative effects, which could destroy your tableau. This puts pressure on turns where these negative characters turn up, and it’s these turns that will draw the biggest howls of laughter (at the misfortune of others), and sighs of relief as you bid just enough to grab a positive Character card.

It’s these extra layers of design that give Greg his credibility as an accomplished craftsman, and which sets his games apart from the crowd. His little twists are the consequence of an investment of rigour and creativity in his art form, and if you wish to hear the man himself unravel his design process, and the types of questions he asks himself as a designer, than I highly recommend his blog as an insightful read.

And of course, the subject matter of the comic itself offers a wealth of opportunity to entertain: to make as smirk, to make us laugh, and to create horrendous twists and turns to shake up the game table. From cards with simple effects, like the King of Europe who lets you swap Characters with another player; to the more quirky cards like  Wales, who has you giving coins to other players whenever you speak a word with fewer than 3 letters (you know the Welsh are famed for their very long place names!).

SatW is a playground for a designer like Greg Carslaw. If you want to join in the fun and watch this one play-out, I encourage you to seek out the Kickstarter page, back the game, enjoy the comic strip, and be a part of this characterful world.