Scholars of the South Tigris Board Game Review

Polyhedron Collider Scholars of the South Tigris Board Game Review

Scholars of the South Tigris has a lot going on.  It’s the most complicated game yet published by Garphil Games and in short, it’s bloody brilliant.  

In a nutshell, the game is about translating documents; you are trying to run a path through various translators to end up with an Arabic version of your scroll.  Along the way you’ll hire translators to the library, you’ll add more, and a greater variety of dice to your bag, and you’ll do some action programming as well as doing some colour mixing.
Polyhedron Collider Scholars of the South Tigris Board Game Review - In Play Main Board Long Shot

The main board has four key sections, the caravan, the seven schools, the three towers, and the library.  On top of this, you have a personal player board, a hand of cards, and a bag of dice.  Scholars weaves and twines a variety of board game mechanisms together combining them to make a pretty heavy Euro game.  A few weird squiffy things are going on too, which this review will only lightly touch on, if at all.  

Buckle up, we have a lot of ground to cover.

Starting with the main action, and the most clever of Clever Things™ in Scholars, is how the dice are used.  There is a bit of bag building but there’s really nothing unusual to see there. The interesting thing though is that it isn’t just the value of the dice, it is the colour too.  Some actions can only be taken if a blue die is used, or yellow, or a purple and if you don’t have that colour die, you’ll have to colour mix them.

A red and a blue die, well, now you can take a purple action.  But of course, you’ll need to make sure the combined value of the dice is high enough to take the action at the right level.  You can use the meeples to mitigate the colour matching and value, but that’s a squiffy thing number one.  With eight colours of dice (and you’ll never be able to draw that many), Scholars forces you to be clever and sparing in how you build your bag, but also that you can dynamically pivot and be flexible in your approach to your strategy.  You’ll never be completely stuck, and that perfectly optimised turn feels only just beyond your grasp to be both frustrating and tantalising.

Polyhedron Collider Scholars of the South Tigris Board Game Review - Player Board

Clever Thing™ Number Two comes in the form of the Translator cards.  These cards will be bought by players throughout the game and ensconced in the library for all to use.  Once they’ve earned enough gold they are then returned to the recruiting player, tucked under their player board and granting a special ability.

This key action of the game introduces some brilliant indirect player interaction.  Using any translator will cost gold, and gold isn’t an abundant resource in this game.  The most efficient translation may mean using and then releasing your opponent’s translator.   Of course, you can mitigate this and move some gold around (squiffy thing no 2), but this could have other ramifications, and there is no guarantee that the translator will be around by your next turn - especially if they present a particularly efficient translation.

Polyhedron Collider Scholars of the South Tigris Board Game Review - Library

There is almost a triple-layered offset of actions with these cards as you try to anticipate what your opponents are going to do, how, and when so that you can not only benefit from their turn but are still able to do what you need to do for your objectives.  Reading the board, seeing the scrolls that are soon coming into play, looking at what translation options are available, etc. Scholars of the South Tigris is a game about planning, preparing, and then being able to take the opportunities when the dice gods smile at you.

The last Clever Thing™ we should cover is the action programming, which combines your personal player board with the main section of the board: the seven schools, or in boardgame terms, the seven tracks.  Each track is colour-coded (obviously) and each is mirrored by a card in your hand.  At the end of your round, when you have no dice left to play, you’ll work through your player board, left to right triggering that track on the main board, so which card you use for each action becomes important, as these tracks score you points, grant dice, meeples and…well, all the really important resources you’ll need throughout the game.  But, to claim a resource, you might need to spend something else, which means if you don’t already have it, you’ll need to collect it first, earlier in this action programming.

So, as a quick recap: the order in which you take your actions is really important, the card you use: is also important, the dice?  Yup, they’re important too.  Some of these decisions are very short-term, others are much longer and there is this fantastic balance of planning, reacting, and taking advantage of opportunities. 

Polyhedron Collider Scholars of the South Tigris Board Game Review - In Play Main Board

Unfortunately, this game is let down a little by the rulebook, which is a crying shame since we are now on the eighth Garphil game and the clarity of the rules and explanation of the iconography has gone backwards, they’re just a little too verbose in places.  But, as I said at the top of this review, this a big game, complicated game with a lot going on, so much that I’ve skipped over the caravans, and the towers as although these are important aspects of the game, they are, by contrast to all the clever things, quite ordinary.

Scholars of the South Tigris has resonated with me, it is a fantastic, challenging, and interesting game.  It hits the Goldilocks Tax Level with a bullseye;  at no point in this game is it too taxing to think of all of the variables, too difficult to read all the different areas of the board, or to be able to progress my plan and strategy.  And it’s never an easy ride either, there is always something interesting and challenging to do, or to consider.  Each turn feels just ever so slightly shy of being perfectly under control which makes this game quite simply compelling.

We discuss this game in full on the podcast in Episode 143
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