The Curse of the Scarab

by Nils Fagerburg profile

2020

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
An innovative optimization game that's also a lot of fun, December 2, 2020

It's a bit of an odd thing, reviewing a game that explicitly says it was inspired by one of your own. So I think I'll confine myself to a few general comments about the game -- instead mostly using this review to discuss how The Curse of the Scarab fits into the optimization game genre, at least as I see it.

So, yes, The Curse of the Scarab is an optimization game. It's set in an Egyptian tomb. Your goal is to enter the tomb, steal a scarab amulet and as many other valuables as you can, and then escape.

After my first few plays of the game (it's very easy to die), I thought, "Not bad, probably a 3-star game." After a dozen or so plays, I began thinking, "O.K., this game is pretty good. It deserves four stars." Several hours later... well, any game that engages me this much has earned a five-star rating.

I think that's it for general comments about the game. For a more traditional review, read one of the others already on IFDB.

Let's now look at how The Curse of the Scarab fits in the optimization game genre. The basic setup for an optimization game is that you're trying to maximize your score, usually by acquiring as many valuable objects as you can, subject to the restriction that you only have a certain amount of time. Different games offer variations on that basic setup. For example, Captain Verdeterre's Plunder (the other acknowledged influence on Scarab) innovates in the way it restricts the action space: You're on a sinking ship, and each turn the water level rises. Thus as the game proceeds you slowly lose access to locations and valuables that are on the lower levels of the ship. Sugarlawn (my optimization game) doesn't restrict the action space much from what you would see in a hypothetical basic optimization game. Instead, its primary novelty is that it adds a nonlinear term to the objective function in the form of allowing you to earn rewards by placing valuables in "target locations" rather than simply escaping with them.

So, what does The Curse of the Scarab bring to the optimization genre? Several things, actually. These mostly affect the action space, but they also affect the objective function some.

First, the action space. The main timing restriction in Scarab has to do with light. Your torch has only so much fuel, and once that runs out then you can't really explore the tomb anymore. But there's also a small part of the game near the beginning in which you don't need the torch. Thus, unlike Verdeterre and Sugarlawn, the game timer isn't always ticking. So Scarab effectively extends the action space. From the player's standpoint, the question becomes, "How much can I do in these lighted spaces?"

In addition, Scarab introduces a feature not present in either of the other games I mentioned: You can be chased around the tomb by (Spoiler - click to show)the mummy and (Spoiler - click to show)a swarm of flesh-eating scarabs. One of these will (Spoiler - click to show)curse your items, making them worthless, and the other will (Spoiler - click to show)kill you. So in addition to grabbing as much loot as possible within the constraints you have, you also need to find away to avoid these two entities.

There are also things you can find in the tomb that will allow you to relax both the rather severe carrying capacity restriction as well as the amount-of-light restriction.

Finally, Scarab makes a few innovations to the objective function. Two important objects are more valuable together, for one, and there's also a way to increase the value of one of your objects.

Each of these innovations by itself might not change the basic gameplay much, but when you put them all together you get a game that is a great deal more complex -- and so a great deal more fun. In particular, solving puzzles is even more rewarding than in a basic optimization game because not only can doing so lead to more treasures, it can also relax some of the restrictions you had been operating under. Overall, then, The Curse of the Scarab is a rather deep optimization game given how short a single play can be.

While I'm clearly biased here, I hope others will continue pushing the boundaries of the optimization game genre like The Curse of the Scarab has.