ISAW Library Game Night Review: Scarabya and Garum

By David Ratzan , Gabriel McKee

Game night officially returned to ISAW last night! 

Well, that’s not strictly true, but it does make a good lede. But the truth is that not even a pandemic could derail game night at ISAW: we just moved online

Thankfully, we are now back in person, playing ancient-themed board games. Last night we put two games through their paces, Scarabya and Garum. Our an eclectic panel of ancient studies gaming experts gathered in the Oak library to kick back and kick the tires of these two popular games, including VRS Andrew Chittick, Taylor McBride (Publications and Interpretive Manager, ISAW Exhibitions), Patrick Burns (ISAW Library’s new Associate Research Scholar for Digital Projects –- Welcome, Patrick!), Christine Roughan (ISAW’s newest graduate -- Congratulations, Christine!), yours truly, and, of course, Gabriel Mckee (Game Master).

Both games have been reviewed elsewhere (see Dale Yu’s reviews of Scarabya and Garum), but here at ISAW we are as much concerned with the way in which these games model something about antiquity or its study as we are with playability, strategy, and fun. In other words, games that use antiquity merely as an excuse for a play mechanism otherwise divorced from any ancient dynamic or phenomenon rate pretty low in our book. Even if they are fun and manifestly excellent games (think Settlers of Catan: great game, setting and story largely irrelevant to the mode, dynamics, and strategy of play, except that the abstraction erases all of the indigenous people and conflict associated with "settling"!). That said, games designed by academics that model something ancient accurately but are boring, unplayable games are … terrible games. We here in the ISAW Library are looking for the right balance, a simulation that gets people to think about some aspect of antiquity (or its study) by engaging and entertaining.

If you are interested in ancient games, we can recommend the collected papers of Re-rolling the Past: Representations and Reinterpretations of Antiquity in Analog and Digital Games (ISAW Papers 22).


The publisher of Scarabya describes the game thus:

As the head of an international archaeological team, it is your job to establish camps across the four corners of the globe and uncover the long-lost golden scarabs of Scarabya.

Scarabya is a tile-laying puzzle game, in which your goal is to score scarabs by positioning your tiles such that they create enclosed zones of 1 to 4 squares. Each scarab in an enclosed zone is worth a number of points equal to the number of squares in its zone. Players all play the same tiles, in order. The game is over after all 12 tiles have been drawn. The player with the most points wins.

Essentially, Scarabya is a version of Tetris, but you need to resist your now deeply-seated habit of making all the tiles fit together perfectly, so that you can enclose scarabs between tile pieces. In fact, you have to learn to try to leave large “gaps” (I suppose, trenches) of up to four squares. Each of the game boards represents a different habitat, some arctic or  underwater -- and oddly, they all have scarabs! The tile pieces have small cartoons of archaeologists at work or archaeological equipment, predictably in the Indiana Jones tradition.

IMage of Scarabya's "desert" game board. Scarabya’s “desert” board in play

The game is relatively simple, but the good news is that it only lasts perhaps 15–20 minutes; and certainly we found it sufficiently engrossing for those 20 minutes. I think most of us would play it again. What does it teach us about antiquity? As Gabriel commented about three moves in, as the rest of us struggled not to cover some scarabs in our quest to enclose others, “You are going to have to cover some scarabs: there is no choice: archaeology is unavoidably destructive.”

While I cannot say that object lesson had occurred to anyone at BlueOrange Games, there is a central truth to it. Archaeological excavation involves choices, insofar as you cannot dig up everything. These days one has ground-penetrating techniques that make these choices easier (though not as easy as in Scarabya!); but you really do not know what you will be finding until you dig, and of course the balks have to go somewhere. That said, this is a rather shallow lesson, and nothing about the game play in any way models the decision tree that archaeologists negotiate when deciding when, where, and how to place trenches. Not to mention that modern archaeologists are not looking for treasure!


Garum is a game designed by a Portuguese publishing house, Pythagoras, founded by a history professor. Their marketing slogan is (translated): Have fun and learn! So, one might expect a deeper engagement between the play mechanism and some historical phenomenon. 

The designer describes the game thus (courtesy of the translation published by BoardgameGeek, but lightly copy edited here):

Garum was a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment in the old ages; its manufacture and export was an element of prosperity and perhaps an impetus for the Roman penetration of Lusitanian and Hispanian coastal regions.

Garum from today’s Portugal and Spain was highly prized in Rome and has now inspired a versatile strategy board game for the whole family, ages 8 and up, that plays 2 to 4 players. Garum is a tile-laying game, which plays in about 30 minutes, it is language independent and features endless replayability, due to its board system, which ensures no two games are alike.

In Garum, each player represents a master (dominus) in the preparation of a specific type of fish sauce and receives a set of 16 Cetarian Tiles [note: cetarium is a fish pond, or here the garum tank]; each one has 4 spaces filled by 4 colors in different proportions, though the color that the player is defending is the predominant one.

The goal of the game is to play Cetarian Tiles strategically, in order to get a huge number of his own color symbols in selected rows or columns – the greater the influence, the higher the reward! While placing the tiles, players may apply to score, collect some bonuses and also block their opponent’s intents. Whoever scores most points is the winner.

Clear? No? Well, here's how we understood the game:

Players are confronted with a nested matrix of 16 square “vats” (cetaria), each of which are further subdivided into four squares. Play proceeds one vat at a time, with players laying tiles into each of the vat quadrants in turn. The tiles are again squares divided into four colored symbols, with each player assigned a color. In total, then, there are 16 (cetaria) x 4 (cetaria quadrants) x 4 (cetarium sub-quadrants per tile), or 256 spaces on the matrix. The aim is to create runs of your color across this 256-space grid along two different axes simultaneously. A player earns  points for these runs only if they have deployed one of 5 vilici or a single dominus along a particular row or column. It is worth noting that both domini and vilici are represented by meeples borrowed (with permission) from Carcassonne, with the dominus meeple being about 10% bigger – in practice a distinction that is impossible to discern without placing the dominus meeple physically against the vilicus meeple. One  also earns bonus points for placing tiles on bonus quadrants within the vats, replicating the game play and strategy of bonus word or letter score tiles of Scrabble

Image of the Garum game board David Ratzan strategizes the placement of a vilicus during a game of Garum. Our Swedish Fish failed to ferment during the course of the game.

Indeed, playing Garum was very much like the experience of playing Scrabble, but without the interest stemming from finally getting to use that recherché vocabulary you have built up or the ability to improve by obsessively studying a Scrabble dictionary. That is to say, like Scrabble you must balance the often conflicting objectives of scoring points and blocking others, but there was no further dimension to the game, harnessing or gamifying some independent phenomenon, like language or vocabulary. Gabriel commented that he felt like he was "playing a spreadsheet."

There is certainly no meaningful connection in Garum between game play and anything related to garum production, distribution, or consumption. This, to us, is a prime example of using antiquity merely as a veneer. Consider the seemingly arbitrary deployment of Latin terms, whose choices are never explained, much less the social, production, or economic roles signified by them explored or modeled. A dominus, but of what? Why a vilicus (as opposed to one of the workers he would be supervising)? Curiously, these terms are translated as “foreman” and “apprentice” (in both Portuguese and English). Is this really what they meant in the word of garum production, as opposed to their more regular meanings of “owner” and “(enslaved) foreman,” respectively? (For the basics on vilici in the Roman world, see Jesper Carlsen's Vilici and Roman estate managers until AD 284 (L'Erma di Bretschneider, 1995).) More to the point, what did either of them standing over a row or column (which was described in the instructions as “influencing”) do, or what was it supposed to mean, if anything? (For useful discussions of engaging with slavery, race, and colonial violence in gaming, see these essays by Patrick Rael [2015] and Nancy Foasberg [2016].)  

By the same token, Garum has game pieces whose symbolism and function seemed historically unmoored and ludically underdetermined: why were the tokens that one flipped over to see which vat was the next locus of play an aureus? Why did one need a miniature Dressel 7 amphora to stand in front of the active player? Sure, points for using an amphora type historically important for the garum trade, but there is no identification of it as such, much less integration into the game. (We did not use it.) The instruction booklet advertises an expansion of the game online based on something they call “privileges”: perhaps here there was some deeper engagement with the Roman world or the garum trade; but nothing about the base level of engagement with antiquity will have any of us exploring this expansion any time soon. 

All of this is a bit of a shame: the garum trade is ripe for game exploitation, since it was large, capital-intensive, involved multiple industries (think of all those amphorae!), large and dispersed distribution networks, Roman corporate law (since most operations were run by societates), and seemingly Roman imperial intervention. (If you want to learn something about garum, the older, but still useful place to start is Robert Curtis’s, Garum and salsamenta: production and commerce in materia medica (Brill 1991).)

Final verdict: playing a spreadsheet for about 35 minutes with friends can be entertaining, and so it was; but if you are going to play a spreadsheet, we suggest sticking with Scrabble!