I played Beowulf: The Legend on Saturday, and understood it somewhat better than the first time, and I think it's a decent game. Of course, the first time I was completely frazzled from spending all day downloading the English rules from the FFG web site and then trying to convince my printer to print them for me. The kid managed to win that game, and the assessment from the gamers was that it was extremely random. I now disagree.
Consider the goal of the game: to get the most VPs (OK, so Reiner calls them fame). We always play advanced rules, because they are barely more complicated than the basic rules, and let you use all the cards and all the episodes. Weighed up against the goal to get VPs is the almost required subgoal of not getting 3 wounds, because if you do, you will lose 15 VPs straight away, and that will substantially interfere with the main goal. The risk mechanism of the game allows you to gain wounds in order to attempt to gain VPs. Thus wounds are resources which you accumulate to pay for the chance to get VPs.
Nothing else matters. It doesn't matter whether you get symbol cards, special cards, gold, or whatever, they are all just currencies that you trade in to get to the VPs. The episodes are the mechanisms by which that trading is done. Obviously to determine the best way to proceed in an episode, we need to be able to compare the values of the various results, and so need to determine the relative values of the currencies.
The scrolls have a random value between 1 and 3 gold or VPs. That, and the basic rules that equate gold to VPs make a strong case that 1 gold is equal to 1 VP, and so a scroll is equal to 2VPs (on average). The selection episodes, where a player may choose a scroll, 2 gold, 2 VPs, 2 cards or lose 2 scratches suggest that cards are worth 1 VP, and that scratches are worth -1VP. The Peace Returns episode at the end of the game reinforces the suggestion that 1 card is worth 1 VP. However the rule that each wound is worth -5VPs at the end of the game suggests that scratches might be valued at -1.7VPs. In any case, that gives us some basic values to compare rewards.
The episodes are obviously designed to, on average, increase a player's net wealth in VP equivalents, otherwise people would end the game with about as many VPs as cards they started with. In each major episode, a player pays a price determined by the auction, for one of the rewards which can be very valuable (7VPs) or very expensive (2 wounds and 2 cards is worth approximately -8 VPs). The art of the game is to get better value for money, on average, than the other players.
Given this philosophy, what then is the value of a Risk episode? You have a 16% chance of getting 2 cards, a 48% chance of getting one card, and a 36% chance of taking a scratch. That's an expected return of 0.16 * 2 + 0.48 - 0.36 * 1.7 = 0.188. If you value scratches at -1, the return is 0.44. So a Risk episode gains you between 0.2 and 0.4 VPs.
What about Selection? The gold, scroll, VPs, and cards selections are basically equivalent (as we assumed above) but the scratches are potentially worth more. If you've had bad luck with risks and taken scratches, this is a way for you to catch up.
How about King Hrothgar's Hall? All of the rewards are positive, although I am not going to try to put a value on the special cards today. The maximum reward is the 2 scrolls, worth about 4VPs. Hence it's not worth bidding more than 4VPs to win that auction. In Grendel's attack, the rewards vary from 5VPs down to about -3VPs for the wound. Hence in that episode, players are bidding on an 8 point turnaround in fortunes. The other major episodes can be analysed similarly, with obviously the climax of the game being the Fight with the Dragon, where the whole 15 point swing is available.
Of course, by this late stage in the game, the values start to become very rubbery. You can determine whether the value of any scratches you hold is going to be 0 (because you didn't reach 3 wounds) or negative. Any cards you have left after the Fight with the Dragon are worth only what you can get for them in Beowulf's Death. Depending on how much money you have compared to other players, you might want to save it for Recover Treasures, or you might want to try to spend it on the Iron Shield in order to help you win the Fight With the Dragon. From the Dragon's Rampage onwards, it's really a tactical exercise to maximise your VPs by spending all of your resources, and the approximated values of the resources give way to the old adage "it's worth what you can get for it".
I hope this analysis has presented this game in a more positive light. I don't think Reiner designed a bad game, I think he designed a game whose mechanics don't match what people would expect in a game about Beowulf. Armed with this analysis, I'm prepared to take on all comers...