Scout

Designer: Kei Kajino

Artist: Rie Komatsuzaki, Jun Sasaki, sinc (小川)

Publisher: Oink Games

Awesome color scheme here! (Photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

I think some folks believe SCOUT is a much more deserving game to win the 2022 Spiel das Jahres. No one is questioning the wisdom of the jury, but I do know that for my family, Cascadia which won the SdJ, fell flat. I think it might actually be the first awardee in recent memory that we didn’t enjoy. I guess this made me even more curious about SCOUT, which is billed as a trick-taking game with a twist. Then again, all trick-taking games these days come with a twist. So, is SCOUT’s twist, twistier than others?

SCOUT is a multi-card, ladder climbing, trick taking game where successive tricks played to the table must be stronger than the previous trick. The tricks in Scout are simple as you only rank the numbers in the trick. There isn’t a second variable involved in the ranking and there are no special cards in play. This is one reason why SCOUT can be played with kids. There are only 3 rules to the ranking: A trick with more cards will always beat a truckwith fewer cards; if cards of equal number are in play, then sets ( doubles, triples) are more powerful than runs with suits of a higher numerical value being more valuable (i.e. a pair of “2s” beat a pair of “1s”). This is all pretty standard stuff as far as establishing the hierarchy of suits go for a trick taker.

I count three twists to SCOUT. First, cards are kept in the order they are dealt. There can be no shuffling or rearranging of card order once you see your hand. This is not entirely unique because it is already featured in Krass Kariet (aka Dealt), a recent trick taking game that garnered favorable reviews. The more unique twist to SCOUT comes from the fact that each card has two numbers – one on opposing ends of the card. That means if you don’t like your hand, you can rotate all your cards 180 degrees and you will have another new set of numbers. The decision to play either end of the cards can only be done before the start of play and must but all or none. You must keep your entire hand or rotate them. No cherry picking of cards to rotate. Each paired combination of numbers on a card from 1-10 is unique and occurs once in the entire deck .Hence, you only get a total of 45 cards in the deck (10-1, 10-2, 10-3….etc.)

The final twist for SCOUT, which is the most profound, involves the actual game play. During a player’s turn, one can either 1) Show, which is to play a trick on the table, 2) Scout, which is to pick up a card from the current trick on the table and insert that card in your hand to build a stronger trick or 3) Scout and Show, which is to take both actions. This can only be done once per entire round. The Scout action is the unique action here. If you cannot or don’t want to beat the current trick on the table, you can pick up a card from either ends of the suit in the trick and insert the card in either direction (remember, each card has two numbers) in your hand to build a stronger trick. Once this is done, the current trick on the table will be depleted by a card, thus reducing its strength and making it easier for the next player to play a higher ranking suit to win the trick. This action comes at a cost: 1VP is given to the player who played the trick. If a player plays a new trick to the table, besting the previous one, cards from the previous trick are flipped over and converted into points. This way, there can only be one active trick on the table and the strength of the trick will ebb and flow over time. As cards are converted to points, the hand size for all players will also shrink.

The winner of a round is decided when either one player depletes all cards from the hand or if every player performs the scout action and eventually, the turn comes back to the player who played the original trick. At that point, players will tally up the VP chips and the number of cards for each trick won while subtracting the remaining cards at hand. The winner of the round does not subtract the cards at hand. In some cases, players can gain negative points for a round which must be subtracted from the total score. A number of rounds equal to the number of players is played before the winner is declared.

If this sounds very atypical for a trick-taking game, then you are not far off. In fact, this is less a ladder climbing game as the tricks fluctuate over time after each scouting action. This makes the single Scout and Show action very valuable as it prevents a premature end to the round after a strong trick is played. It also does have a king-making feel to it. If your turn is up and the current trick is played by the next person in line, then you are forced to play the Scout and Show if you want to game to continue.

I have played SCOUT with 2 and 3 players and have two distinct experiences playing the game. For a 3p game, I noticed that you have two ways of winning: first, you can aim to deplete your hand. That is actually quite challenging and while we have had that happen, it is rare. To deplete your hand of cards, you want to play as many tricks as you can, as quickly as you can and rack up points by winning tricks. Obviously, you want to build up your hand, but should not wait to play the strongest trick. Your main goal is to reduce your hand size quickly and score points along the way. Now, if everyone plays this way, the points are fast and furious and the point totals at the end of each round are fairly high. Even if the second victory condition ends the round, most players won’t have many cards left at hand. So scores for the round are usually positive.

Now, I have also played with the second win condition in mind where you form a trick strong enough that cannot be bested by every one at the table. This usually means patiently scouting to grow your hand until you slap down at least a 5-card trick in a 3 player game. That’s because you need to ensure that when 2 cards are removed from scouting, your remaining 3-card suit is strong enough to force an end. With this strategy, you barely score any points as you must scout to increase your hand size. Scores at the end of each round are low, and sometimes in the negative for other players. I have won a round with virtually no victory points, while others all scored negative points. Now, strategy wise, this works too, but I can tell you, it is less fun to play this way especially if you playing with a 7 year old. There was a discernible dip in the mood whenever they have to subtract points.

I have no issues with this strategy, unless of course it becomes a dominant one. I don’t know if that is true yet. Being able to scout for cards to build a strong trick isn’t as tough as it sounds. This is especially true if you start off with a 3-card run or set at hand, something that is not hard to achieve. If you play the strong trick mid-round, then other players will have a hard time besting it, especially if they have already used their Scout & Show token. I pulled this off a couple times in succession and depressed all the scores across the board, including my own. I suspect this is more of an issue with 3 players, since your trick does not need to contain many cards to pull off a victory. With more players, your strongest trick is quickly depleted with each scouting action and so, your trick probably needs upwards of 6 cards to make a dent. Now, you can delay and pull this off late in the game when the chances of of other players able to best that trick is lower due to fewer cards at hand. But, other players would have accumulated more VPs to offset their losses, while you have little to show for. I need to try this a few more times to see how potent it is with 3 players.

Now, with 2 players using the Oink rules, the dynamic is very interesting. Here, there is no Scout & Show option. Instead, both players each have three Scout tokens which they can use back-to-back-to-back in successive turns. So, you can go three times in a row if you choose to use all 3 Scout tokens. However, after you have depleted your tokens, you must show, else you lose. Here, there is no pretense. You have to play a strong suit to beat your opponent. If you can’t, you must scout until you are able to do so. Basically, this is a race to deplete your opponent’s cache of tokens. Now, I haven’t played enough hands, but I can tell you that the Oink rules work. There is plenty of game here and the tension to go with it. Each round, you can set yourself up to deplete your opponent’s hand and sometimes, you need to go big to win. You can try to collect a gangbuster trick, but you must make sure it is enough to get an outright kill. I have lost a round even after playing a 6-card suit with all “8s”. My partner happened to have a pair of “8s” at hand and all 3 scout tokens left. So, nothing is certain.

Contrary to the polls, I think the Oink rules makes a decent 2 player game of SCOUT. This is a significant statement given that there are so few decent 2-player multi-card ladder climbing trick taking games. I can only think of Haggis. Now, I must admit that I have also grown a little tired of single card trick takers. This is probably due to The Crew where we have played hundreds of hands. Perhaps that’s why Knizia’s Marshmallow Test also fell a little flat for us. Luckily, SCOUT has remedied the situation and I look forward to the next hand. Go get this one. I think it is a gem.

Intial impression: Great

Kids Corner

7 years 7 months: I think with SCOUT, came an embarrassing realization that I am not a great teacher of games to my own kid. I insisted that my kid would find it too hard to absorb the nuances. So, I repeatedly refuse to teach her. Now if I come clean, I will admit that it is probably due to my own lack of will and patience. I instead challenged my partner to do the teaching instead. It was clear that she is way more patient than I am. Boy, my kid did just fine and is now our third player in SCOUT. She still has some trouble winning consistently, but she knows all the rules and has managed to get decent scores along the way. She is competitive in most rounds, at least.

Teaching SCOUT may sound intimidating for some, but honestly, the way I see my partner teach my kid makes me realize how little patience I have at teaching more complex games to her. I know my kid still needs to play one or two games to fully absorb all the rules and her mind appears to “wander off” when I explain the rules to her. I think this is huge turn off for me.

Coming back to SCOUT, it is a good game to teaching kids about trick taking because there are no special cards, the ranking aspect of the game is simple and involves only numbers, with no special suits and the trick taking is limited to sets and runs. All told, a perfect game to expose your child to the trick taking genre. As I said, it took her a few hands to get comfortable and we did explain some strategy to her in terms of card play. Not sure how much of that she absorbed though. Nonetheless, with a little patience, it can work. I think a 7 year old is a good age to start. What are you waiting for?

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