The Scepter of Zavandor Review

The Scepter of Zavandor game in play

A neat auction game with some very nice engine building mechanics is The Scepter Of Zavandor.

In The Scepter of Zavandor, every turn consists of finding ways to improve your income.  This can be done in a few ways.  First, you can buy better "gems."  Each gem produces income for you, so having better gems improves how much money you make (and you can only have a certain number of gems, so you will need to upgrade them).  Second, you can auction artifacts.  The various artifacts can provide you with additional gem slots, give discounts on future items, increase your hand limit (how much money you can carry over from one turn to the next), etc.  Finally, you can improve your "knowledge."  Knowledge allows you to have various bonuses - a temporary boost of gems, unlocking better gems, increasing your base income, and providing you a better price when buying gems.  Ultimately, the game continues with players seeking to maximize their income every turn until a certain number of "sentinels" (super artifacts that are worth a lot of points) are purchased.  Once that happens, players add up points - from gems, artifacts, sentinels, and knowledge.  Whoever has the most victory points (most likely the person with the highest income) is the winner!

So, let's start out the pro/con section for Zavandor with this statement - I like a lot of things about this game.  First, I really like that you get a varied income from gems.  What this means is that each gem does not produce a set amount of money.  For example, you don't get $2 every turn for having an opal.  Instead, each gem provides you a card, and the cards have a range of values, with the better gems obviously having higher values.  This does a couple of things - first, it gives you some turns where you are able to have a "better" turn than you should (though at the cost of probably having turns later that are "worse" than they should be).  Secondly, it prevents your opponents from knowing how much money you have.  And this second element is very important in an auction game.  Now, instead of knowing that they can outbid you at exactly $52, your opponents know that you have somewhere around $40-60; but they don't know any more than that!

artifact cards from the Scepter of Zavandor
Various artifacts to be sold
There is actually a second element to the cards-as-money mechanic that I like.  There is a hand size that is enforced at the end of every round.  And, this hand size is fairly small.  Because of this, it really encourages you to improve your gems.  Since the better gems produce higher value cards, you are able to carry more money from one turn to the next if you have higher level gems!  And, while I'm talking about the cards-as-money mechanic, there is one more great feature.  In case you dislike pulling random cards, once you have enough of a certain type of gem, you get to pull a "concentrated energy" card instead of a normal card.  These cards allow you to get a set price for your gems that is slightly above average - and doesn't count (as much) towards your hand limit!

The next thing that I like about the Scepter of Zavandor is that it is really fun to try to get your financial engine going.  If you really enjoy one decision building on the next, and having one purchase pay off throughout the rest of the game, then Zavandor will have a lot of appeal to you.  I enjoy this kind of system, and so I have enjoyed selling gems in order to get better gems, carefully planning which auctions I need to win versus the ones I can hold back on, and where to improve my knowledge to get the most impact for my money.

The last two pros that I will mention briefly are these: I like the diverse starting position where each player starts with a different piece of knowledge (and thus should have a different initial strategy), and I like that the discounts provided by purchasing artifacts at the beginning of the game encourage you to buy a wide variety of items.

The Scepter of Zavandor player sheet
One of the different player boards
Yet, with all that I like about the Scepter of Zavandor (and, again, I like a lot about this game), there is one glaring con.  This game might have the worst runaway leader problem that I have ever seen.  Remember how I said that each decision builds on all of your previous ones?  So, if I make a few great decisions in the first 2-3 rounds, and they help me to earn some extra income, then guess what: I will have more money with which to buy the next things that come along.  And, that will help me earn more income.  Which, in turn, makes me more income.  There is a mechanic in the game to try to slow down the leader (and help the player in last to catch up).  The top 2 players are forced to pay extra on artifacts, and the bottom two players get discounts on them.  This is not enough.  In the last game that I played (in which I believe everyone had played the game before), the leader defeated the player in last place by about 80 points (the scores were something around 100 to 25, from what I recall).  And, in case you thought one player just played especially poorly, the leader also defeated second place by about 40 points.  Now, I said that I think that everyone had played the game before.  I know that the person in first, second, and last had played the game before - and it was still that uneven.  Whereas I like my decisions to matter in any game that I play, it seems that the decisions made in the first few turns set the course of this game a bit too much (the leader led from approximately 10 points until the end of the game).

The second con that I have for the Scepter of Zavandor emerges because of the previous con - the game is far too long.  Having an engine building game in which early decisions are unforgiving is completely fine.  It encourages you to make good decisions throughout the game!  But, more specifically, they are fine in a 30-45 minute game.  Zavandor is advertised as a 90 minute game, but I think is closer to 120-150 minutes as average.  Yet, the last hour (or more) of the game might not have any real impact on who wins or loses the game.  It can wind up being an extra hour of the player in first pummeling everyone else, while they watch helplessly (and with ever-increasing frustration).

Overall, I give The Scepter of Zavandor a 6.5/10.  As I keep saying - there are many aspects of this game that I think are wonderful, and that I enjoy greatly.  But, with how badly the leader can runaway with the game (and with how long everyone else in the game has to suffer), I just can't justify giving the game a higher score.  (Really, I think it speaks highly for the game that it gets a score this high while having such a frustrating element!)

If you enjoy auction games, you might also want to check out For Sale, Modern Art, and Biblios.


  1. I played this game this weekend and it was something like 4 hours of actual game play (and another 45 min of instructions). 5 players, 2 of us new to it. I really liked it, but gads was it long.

    1. From what I recall, that's on the longer side of things. But, the first time I played it, it did take a long time because we kept having to reference the (terrible) rules. I think if you play it more, it should speed up. Still might not be less than 2-2.5 hours, though.