Designed by: Jamey Stegmaier
Published by: Stonemaier Games
Playtime: 90-120 Minutes
Review copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.
You don’t gently put Scythe down on a table like a baby that must be coddled. Oh no, instead you thump it down with authority, the sizable box dominating the space and demanding that all present pay attention to its beautiful artwork! And then you open the lid revealing decks of cards, wooden pieces, plastic miniatures and a variety of tokens, as well as a substantial board and a bunch of other stuff. It’s a veritable feast of components. Despite its size and somewhat daunting visage, however, Scythe is actually quite easy to learn; every turn you choose one of four quadrants on your player board and perform one, two or none of the actions there. Simple. Well, kind of.
Scythe is a 4X game – which means it wants you to explore, expand, extort and exterminate – set within a unique world that mixes agricultural farming with towering mechs that look like they were built by a welder with too much time on his hands. Having just come out of a devastating war the world isn’t in the best shape, and you’ll be taking control of one of five factions vying for dominance because peace is for wusses. To that end it mixes quite a few genres and ideas into one large package with numerous moving parts, but designer Jamey Stegmaier – the same man who designed the brilliant Viticulture, a game I’ve never reviewed but that you should own – brings everything together extremely well without ever creating something overwrought and absurdly difficult to learn. Despite its sizable presence this isn’t actually a hard game to learn.
At the start of the game you’re plonked down on your home territory and given two workers in the adjacent spaces, plus your faction’s unique character who can amble around the board engaging in combat and even having special encounters with the locals. You’ll also be given two player boards of your very own; one is faction specific with a unique power and special abilities that can be unlocked, while the second is randomly picked and is where you choose what actions to perform. On your turn you pick up your pawn and put it into one of the four segments on the player board, each of these segments containing two actions that you can either take or ignore. That’s it. It’s so simple. So simple. So….oh, God. *puts head in hands*
The move action is seemingly the most straightforward thing you can do, letting you move any two of your pieces (workers, mechs or character) one hex each, or potentially more depending on upgrades and other factors that can come into play. But there’s a catch; almost every starting location is hemmed in by rivers that are initially impassable, bar one faction’s special ability that let’s their workers swim. To cross these rivers you’ll need to do one of a few things; either construct a mech in order to reveal the riverwalk ability that ever faction has by default, uncover a different ability such as one faction who is capable of submerging their mechs in lakes before moving them to any other lake on the board, or build a mine that connects with any of the six tunnels clustered around the centre of the board. As for workers they need to either use those tunnels systems to cross rivers or else must be picked up by a passing mech and taken along for the ride. Regardless of your decision a chunk of your initial playtime will be spent working toward expanding outside of your starting area.
Production is another potential action you can take and is interesting as it also ties into the amount of workers you currently have on the board. Taking the production action will let you pick two hexes (three is possible due to an upgrade) with workers on them and then produce one resource per worker based on the hex type, thus two workers on a farm will grant you two food, or a worker on a mountain will produce one metal. However, towns let you produce a new worker instead by removing them from the little track on your player board and adding it to the appropriate hex. As you remove workers from the track it will reveal new costs that you must pay each time you take the produce action, thus later in the game you may have to sacrifice power, popularity and money in order to get food, metal, wood or oil. In other words having more workers allows you to occupy more territory for scoring at the end and to have instant access to a wider variety of resources at any given time, but it also makes producing those resources much more costly. Knowing when you expand your worker count is very important, and I love that because normally having more workers in games is automatically a good thing, whereas here it may not be.
The trade action simply lets you take any two resources of your choice or earn a single coin, so obviously it’s a useful action if you need things that can’t currently get via normal production. As for coins, they count toward your final score at the end of the game, so it’s always nice to have a stockpile for both spending and points.
Bolstering gives you two points on the power track, which is a representation of your current military might and gets spent in battles. More on that later. This action can also be used to earn you some popularity instead. We’ll come back to that one later, too, because it’s arguably the most important thing in Scythe.
That covers the four top actions on the player boards, these all being things you can almost always do regardless of whether you have few resources or are a tad strapped for cash. The bottom row of actions are done less frequently but represent much bigger things happening in the world. Mech construction, for example, lets you pay metal in order to deploy one of your four mechs to the board, revealing a new ability on your player board in the process. Aside from the aforementioned Riverwalk, a universal skill, each faction gets unique traits as they build their mechanized army that also affects their faction’s character, too.
Construction costs wood but lets you plonk one of four buildings on any of your currently occupied hexes. We’ve already covered how the mine lets you travel between it and any of the tunnel spaces, so let’s skip that in favour of talking about some others. The mill allows a hex to produce one resource regardless of whether or not you have a worker on it, and it doesn’t count toward the hexes you get to choose when taking the action so it acts as a bonus production. The monument does nothing by itself, but it uncovers a space that boosts popularity every time you take the bolster action. Finally, the armoury gives you an extra point of combat power whenever you perform the trade action.
Recruiting lets you take one of the cylindrical recruit tokens arranged along the bottom of your player board and place it on your second player board on one of four spaces, each granting a one-time bonus. By recruiting you also reveal spaces that give you a bonus whenever you or the players to your left or right take the corresponding action. This was probably the most forgotten rule/ability that my group encountered as we’d always fail to take note of when a player did something that would trigger our recruit bonuses.
Finally, you can toss away some oil in order to upgrade your faction, done by taking one of the cubes from the top of the board and placing it onto any of the empty square spaces on the bottom. What this does is increase what the top actions can do, giving you three hexes to produce on rather than just two, for example, while decreasing the costs of bottom row action, such as dropping the amount of metal to deploy a mech from four to three or even two.
I love this gradual movement of buildings and mechs and recruits and cubes around your personal board or to the main board, unveiling new benefits or abilities as they’re shifted. It’s an intuitive system that always reminds you of what you can do, the various icons giving clear indicators. It’s a satisfying way of representing your empire being built without becoming overly fiddly.
I also love how you have to move your player pawn each turn, selecting a different section every time. There’s a clever rule which states you cannot select the same quarter of the player board as last turn, forcing you somewhere else with the exception of a single faction whose unique ability lets them stay exactly where they are. It creates a methodical pace to the game. Nobody can suddenly amass resources or hunker down an gain nothing but popularity. It lets you consider what everyone else is doing and then adjust accordingly. This does come at the cost of surprise somewhat, though. It’s rare for Scythe to ever have shocking moments where a player does something you never saw coming. You can see everything coming here. A player amassing metal is going to deploy a mech soon, while someone with lots of wood plans on building. It takes time for mechs to be moved into place for an attack or to bolster an area a player views as important.
At some point, you might just feel the desire to go and fuck things up with your chunky mechs, because it’s utterly impossible to have mechs without wanting to fight things. Everyone knows this. When you enter into enemy territory that contains a mech or their faction’s leader combat is determined by each player grabbing a dial and secretly choosing an amount of their Power to spend, up to a maximum of seven. You can then also select one combat card per mech (your character counts, too, as they can also be used to initiate combat) you have in the fight and add the listed power to your total. These cards can be gained a few ways during the game. Both players reveal their wheel and cards at the same time, and whoever has the highest power wins. However, the defeated player doesn’t have their mechs destroyed, rather their mechs, workers and avatar are all sent back to their home base, making the horrible trudge of shame. There’s a further catch, though, because for each worker that is ejected in this manner the victorious player loses a point of popularity.
Despite the fact that there are numerous mechs stomping their way around the board combat in Scythe is actually rather rare. Instead, there’s a Cold War feeling to the game that I love, the constant threat of mechs as they guard their borders or edge closer to your territory creating a great atmosphere that conjures up images of the USSR and America locked in staring contests. The fact that you can’t take the same action twice in a row combines with having to spend power to fight and potentially losing all-important popularity to keep players from fighting too much. Power takes time to replenish, so waging war against a player could leave you vulnerable to someone else. You’ve got to pick your battles.
And yet while combat may not be frequent, with it not being uncommon for there to be only two or three fights across a whole game, when it does occur it’s very important because pushing someone away from the factory or sending their workers scurrying home can really damage their plans. It’s just a shame that after all the build-up toward combat the actual act of resolving a fight feels underwhelming.
The different factions all play largely the same, but subtle differences do a good job of making them feel unique, gently prodding players toward certain strategies without ever forcing them to adhere to one route and one route only. The Nordic race, for example, has workers who can swim across rivers, letting them expand early in the game, while the black forces can score as many stars as they want in combat, thus they might favour raw military power. There’s even a faction who can unlock an ability that lets them push enemy workers out of a territory without losing popularity. On top of that, while each faction has a specific player board, the other boards where you select your actions all differ from each other, mixing up the bottom and top row actions to form various combinations which again subtly alter how you play.
I mentioned victory stars, so let’s finally get around to those. Each player has six of them, and one of twelve different things lets players place them on the victory star track. Building all four of your mechs is worth a star, for example, as is constructing all of your buildings, doing all of the upgrades, maxing out popularity and power or getting all of your workers onto the board. Combat isn’t forgotten about, either, as you can earn a max of two stars for whooping other players. When a person places their sixth and final star the game immediately ends. Since there are a number of ways of earning stars but you can only do six of them it creates a natural push toward planning out what you want to do from the very start, and they also serve to create a fun tension-builder as one players start placing their fourth or fifth stars. During final scoring you also earn a good dollop of points based on how many stars you’ve managed to place on the track, so trying to get ahead of your opponent’s can be vital, unless of course you’ve let your popularity slide and…
Can you see it now? Figuring out when to end the game can be a puzzle in of itself. It’s always tempting to slap down your sixth star as soon as possible, but a glance at the board might show that it’s better to wait as other players could be holding a lot more territory or might just be incredibly popular.
Wait. Wait. Hold the hell on. What has being popular got to do with anything? Alright, well the driving force behind scoring points is the popularity track, which unsurprisingly measures your current popularity with the locals who tend to view your war mongering and general stupidity with a hefty dose of irritation. Who can blame them, really, since they’re attempting to recover after a lengthy period of devastation and are now just trying to get on with their lives? The point is that the popularity track covers three tiers, and each tier increases the points you get for territories controlled, resources and victory stars at the end of the game, so staying in the population’s good books is really worth the effort. And yet the game will often throw reasons to sacrifice popularity at you via encounters or just by entering into a fight where workers are residing. It becomes a choice; do you try to stay in the local’s good books, or do you seek to end the game hard and fast, gathering up stars and territory at such a rate that your low popularity won’t matter.
Scattered around the board are tokens representing encounters that your avatar can have with the local populace, and when you amble up to one of these you draw an encounter card and follow the instructions. Aside from having truly gorgeous artwork these cards contain small snippets of story and three decisions you can make such as helping out the local population or basically being a jerk. Aside from being a nice thematic touch these encounters can be hugely beneficial, sometimes giving you the opportunity to deploy mechs for free or claim resources. Basically, they boil down to being a good, kind person or being a jackass who can get some much better benefits at the cost of something else, usually popularity.
There’s an automata mode included in the box meaning it’s possible to tackle Scythe solo through the use of a deck of cards, but honestly I never managed to get around to trying it. I may, however, break out the Single-Player reviews again to do a solo review in the coming weeks.
The final thing we need to chat about before wrapping up this lengthy review are the components which are universally brilliant. There’s the massive board that will likely dwarf your kitchen table, a pile of wooden resource and player tokens, four storage trays, plastic minis and some seriously gorgeous artwork. I could find fault with the miniatures which are really basic, but that would be some supreme nitpicking. I mean, this is a game where all the five different factions get their own worker designs.
Big, scary-looking and beautiful it’s easy to see why Scythe became a massive hit, and yet at the same time it’s also easy to see why there’s a number of people who don’t like it. Personally, though, I loved it. It can feel ponderous at times, especially in the opening quarter of the game, but the action system and victory stars force you to think ahead, both in the short-term sense of turn-by-turn and in the long-term sense of what victory star goals you need to chase in order to win. With so many options open to you there’s a lot to consider in Scythe, but it never feels overwhelming or like there are mechanics purely for the sake of complexity. As you grow and expand it never feels like there’s too much going on like in some other games.
At this point in time Scythe sits as the 8th highest ranked boardgame of all time according to boardgamegeek.com. As much as I enjoyed Scythe I don’t think it’s quite that good. Still, there’s no denying that this is a wonderfully crafted experience, and yet another piece of stellar design from Jamey Stegmaier that’s backed up by stunning artwork from Jakub Rozalski. Everything comes together to form a cohesive, beautifully wrought package.