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What more can be said about Scythe?  I will offer my own review of this exceptional game – and I’m not someone who particularly enjoys ‘dude...

Scythe by Stonemaier Games Scythe by Stonemaier Games

Scythe by Stonemaier Games

Scythe by Stonemaier Games

What more can be said about Scythe?  I will offer my own review of this exceptional game – and I’m not someone who particularly enjoys ‘dudes-on-a-map’ games.

Scythe was originally released in 2016 after a hugely successful Kickstarter. It has continued to romp up the bgg rankings and currently sits just outside the all time top 10 games.  Scythe is based in an alternate-history version of Europa in which a heavily mechanised city-state collapsed allowing its neighbouring countries (the players) to target its natural resources and compete for its leftover territories.  What follows is 2 to 3 hours of ‘aggressive walking’ with your Mechs and workers into new territories whilst trying to optimise your own engine; assuming your opponents don’t get in the way.  Scythe is your traditional 4X game wrapped in some very pretty and clever clothes.
It's Starting To Get Busy

Gameplay

Before you start each player selects a faction and player board. The player factions have unique, but balanced, powers and the player boards have asymmetric yet balanced action spaces.  Each player board contains two rows of actions which are not only different between player boards from top to bottom but the cost and reward for each action is subtly different as well.  Which means that you’ll probably have to play dozens of times before you have the opportunity to play the same faction and powers again.  This combined with the randomness of your opponents provides a unique experience almost every time.

The winner is determined by scoring players amounts of territories, stars, and resource.  This is added to your remaining money and whoever has the most (of everything) wins.  There are a number of different viable strategies that can win a game of Scythe but these can be largely pre-determined by your player and and starting Faction.  To be successful you have to optimise your engine to exploit your player board advantages and mitigate your weaknesses. 
The Popularity Track - Essential For Scoring

The turns in Scythe pop along at a quick pace and if everyone’s familiar with the rules you can complete your top actions (which may have an element of interaction and combat) in about a minute or two. The bottom row actions will never involve another player and the next player can start their turn whilst you complete your bottom row actions.  This means that even in a six player game your turns come back around in about 5 minutes, which is mighty impressive when you consider how much is going on. And in those ‘spare’ 5 minutes you may be defending in combat and watching for your neighbours actions that give you bonuses.  There’s always something to do even when it’s not your turn.  I’ve found that there’s often just the right amount of time left in between turns to deal with any other players effects on you and then plan your next turn.  I have never felt bored or inactive in between my turns in Scythe.

Almost everything you do, if you do it enough, will gain you a star.  After any player has accumulated 6 stars the game immediately ends.  If you concentrate on getting 6 stars and finishing the game there is no guarantee that you’ll actually win; if you don’t get 5 or more stars, I can almost guarantee that you won’t… This push and pull of strategic objectives and tactical rewards is perfectly executed.  However, after one player gets their sixth star the scoring of coins, territories resources, popularity and stars etc. feels a little anti-climactic to what has probably been quite an epic game.
These Stars Tell A Great Story

The rules are extremely well written and contain helpful strategy snippets throughout.  They also include a ‘Delay of Game’ variant rule which I think should be applied to every game, not just Scythe: “if a player delays the game for more than 10 seconds by trying to calculate the final score, they lose 2 popularity”. This is one of my favourite rules ever! It is intentionally difficult to glance at the board state and determine who is ahead at any point in time, it can obviously be done and AP-prone player may delay a game that, in my opinion, was designed to be played quickly.

Each player mat contains 4 top row actions: Move, Bolster, Trade and Produce.  These do pretty much exactly what they say do, you pay the cost and then you can take the relevant action although each of them have an alternate action as well.  Move allows you to move …(duh!) (or gain $1 if you don’t move as the alternate action). Bolster provides more combat power (or combat cards), trade converts money into resources (or popularity) and Produce uses your workers to generate resources.
Two Different Player Mats

The bottom row actions that you take are dictated by the top row action taken.  You have to do the bottom row action immediately beneath the selected top row action. However, each player mat, has a different alignment of top row and bottom row actions; the cost and benefits for the actions are also subtly different as well.  This asymmetry, for me, turns this game into a work of genius and gives each faction a different feel and play style.

The bottom row actions are: Upgrade, Deploy, Build and Enlist. These aren’t as intuitive as their top row counterparts but are arguably more crucial to getting your engine humming.  You’ll never be able to afford a bottom row action on the first turn of the game but after that working out how to pay for a bottom row action along with an acceptable, if not good top row action, are the key for success.

Deploy allows you to place your Mechs on the board and consequently gain new abilities. Build allows you to build one of four buildings which each provide a top row action bonus.  Enlist allows you to gain an immediate bonus and provides an ongoing bonus anytime you or your neighbours choose the relevant bottom row action.  I always enlist my Upgrade recruit first as I think that’s the most important bottom row action and assume my neighbours will think the same.  Sadly for me it doesn’t always play out that way though.  
Two Different Faction Boards

Upgrade allows you to decrease the cost of a bottom row action and subsequently increase the effect of the top row action.  These are tracked by moving cubes from the top row actions into any available slots in the bottom row actions.  I’ve not worked out whether upgrading your good asymmetric powers further or reducing your negative asymmetric powers into parity with your opponents is a better choice.  I believe the decision comes down to a myriad a factors and which are different every game.  However, calculating it is often straightforward and immediately obvious.  This is another example of why this is truly a genius of game design and why Scythe fully deserves its place at the top of most board game charts. 

With big hulking Mechs and Characters roaming the landscape you’d be led to believe that combat is a fast and furious affair.  However, I’ve had games with fewer players where combat didn’t happen at all.  However, once it does it is quickly resolved and often rewarding.  Thematically, I like to think the countries are all a bit war-weary and will only enter another fight if absolutely necessary.  Unlike some area control combat mechanisms where buckets-of-dice randomly determine the winner, you enter combat in Scythe with some intelligence of how much power your opponent can bring to bear.  This allows for a nice element of bluffing and calculated risk management, although it is quite a simple affair.
Will They, Wont They?
There are a number of other mechanics (Structure Bonus Tile, Player Objectives, Encounters) which I won’t describe here as they’re all fairly minor parts of the game; they all serve to change the game from play to play and suffice to say I like them all.
Encounters, Factory Cards, and Objective (left to Right)

During the Covid-19 lockdown I have had the opportunity to play a number of solo games of Sycthe using the Automa provided which plays very well and truly gives a feel of playing scythe against an aware and intelligent opponent.  However, you do need to wrap your head around the valid territory selection process which I initially found a bit cumbersome.  Arguably, the Automas provide an interesting opponent and if you were every caught playing Sycth with 2 or 3 players I would definitely add in an Automa.  I’ve managed to beat the Autometta, and Automa levels (beginner and normal difficulty respectively) and have attempted the Veteran level (Automasyna) twice and lost handily.  I’ve not bothered with their Ultimasyna – an expert level AI (AI may be too strong a word for what is quite scripted).

Components

The production of Scythe is an exemplar of how good board game components can be.  I know we’re experiencing a golden-age of board games with glorious components but I don’t think it gets much better than Scythe.  There are even intrinsic game functions intrinsically built into the component material (e.g. plastic pieces fight, wooden pieces do not).  I think this shows how well designed and published this game is.
I Love Me Some Double Layer Cardboard

The cardboard components are similarly fantastic and I really appreciate the effort to put double layer player mats into the game (even in the retail version).  This helps you to place your upgrades and buildings with much less risk of dislodging them and forgetting where there were.  (Here’s looking at you Terraforming Mars)

Criticisms

I had to think hard to find my criticisms.  I think this is a marvellous game and one I would play anytime.  I’m not the world’s biggest fan of dudes-on-a-map games so let me tell you my very minor gripes.
Mmmm Marvelous Mechs

When played with lower player counts the map feels quite empty for a long time and combat is a rare beast.  This fundamentally changes the flavour, for worse, of the game.  To shine I believe you need a minimum of 4 players (even if one or two of them are run by the Automa). However, it scales well at higher player counts.  Out of the box you can play with 5 players, and with the expansions you can play with 6.  I’ve tried both and would recommend both as long as you’re not teaching it.  I have been in a learning game with 6 players and that did outstay it’s welcome.

I would like to have an option of playing with a smaller map, or increasing the number of resources of pivotal hexes, for example instead of 1 resource produced in a hex, there could be a few bountiful hexes which produce 2 resources per worker. This would provide more chokepoints, particularly among games at smaller player counts, and combat would occur more frequently.

Conclusion

The Game Ends - I Came Third

Scythe tries to unify the typical Euro game (worker placement resource management etc.) and Thematic game (area control, miniatures, direct conflict etc.) functions into one game.  And you know what? I think it’s the best game that manages to implement features taken from both camps, albeit favouring the more thematic mechanisms.  It is evidently a huge success and has spawned a slew of expansions that expand the game further. Unfortunately, it won’t appeal to a more casual gamer, or on the other side of the spectrum, a die-hard grognard/18xxer but the game that appeals to both will probably never exist.  The fact that it can provide an epic-feel in close to 2 hours and broadly appeals to typical gamers, makes it a perfect game to take to game night.

I’d like to thank Asmodee UK for sending this review copy. This is in stock in many stores and you can use this link to find your FLGS

Designer: Jamey Stegmaier
Play time: 120 minutes +
Players: 1-5 (I recommend 4, 5 and 6 with expansions)

2 comments :

  1. Great review! The slow combat IS what I love about this game. Another game that does this well is March of the Ants by Ryan Swisher and Tim Eisener. Combat should be a weighed decision...much more than mindless advancement all the time. In Scythe, if you get too weak...you put blood in the water. What gave you a star and a few resources along with an extra territory...might now have cost you the game as all your opponents now kick the tar out of you and make you retreat back home. The game IS about optimizing those turns to get what you need in resources and stars. If you can easily do that in 5 turns : you need to find out how you can do it in three. Combat exists so it is not a solvable puzzle. It's my favorite game and I'm not the best at it...but it fires up my brain in all the right ways

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  2. I think it's over hyped Carcassonne. No idea why people rave about it so much.

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