I’ve been wanting to get Scythe to the table for a really long time. Even the simple name and the box art were enough to make me want to get my hands on it, and the more reviews I read, the more I wanted to try it out. The artwork was stunning, the components were high quality, and it looked complex enough to be a game I could really sink my teeth into. Plus, I figured there had to be a reason that it kept holding a steadily high ranking on Board Game Geek’s list of top games. (It’s currently #8 at the time of this writing.)
While it subverted a lot of my expectations, in the end, Scythe did not disappoint.
On its surface, Scythe looks like it revolves around combat and area control; one of my buddies referred to his expectations as “a more complex version of Risk.” If that’s what you’re looking for, then Scythe is not at all the game for you. In spite of the detailed, warrior-like depictions on the hero figures and all the mechs tromping around on the board, combat plays a very minor role in this game. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a game to end without a single combat. Once you get past that expectation, however, Scythe is a very rich, very enjoyable game—so long as you’re willing to invest some time in it.
Buckle up, ’cause this is gonna be a big one.
Scythe is not a game to be entered into lightly. Before I played this game, I watched Rodney Smith’s “How to Play” video at least four times, and I still wasn’t entirely certain I understood everything. Fortunately, once we actually started playing, things felt a lot simpler than I assumed. The rules aren’t complicated—there are just a lot of them.
Fortunately, that is because there are several different ways you can win, meaning each player can choose the strategy that works best for them. Players take actions and gather resources to achieve objectives, which award wooden star tokens. Once a player has achieved six stars—by accomplishing six of the ten possible objectives—the game immediately ends. At this point, everyone counts up their score, and whoever scores highest is the winner.
Because there are so many ways to earn stars, players have several avenues to victory, whether it comes from combat, deploying mechs, recruiting workers, achieving secret objectives, growing in popularity, or meeting other criteria.
Each player has two unique mats—one faction mat, and one player mat. The faction mats (pictured above) grant special powers—one that the faction gets from the beginning, and four that can be unlocked by deploying mechs. These abilities are powerful and can open new options to players as the game progresses.
Meanwhile, the player mats represent a type of economy and play style—Engineering, Mechanical, Industrial, Patriotic, and Agricultural. Actions on the player mats are grouped into four columns consisting of one “top-row action” and one “bottom-row action.” The actions on the top and bottom rows are the same across all of the player mats, but the pairings and costs of those actions differ, allowing for asymmetric, but essentially balanced, play.
One issue I did end up having with the game is the way that attacking spaces that include enemy workers negatively impacts your popularity. While it makes a kind of sense thematically, it encourages a very passive-aggressive sort of gameplay, where it’s in players’ best interests to create a sort of wall around their holdings using their workers. While combat isn’t intended to be a huge part of the game, this mechanic discourages combat more than I believe is intended. It might make more sense, even thematically, to have outcomes where the workers flee negatively impact the loser of the combat. After all, it’s the loser who failed to protect his workers in the first place. It makes sense that the leader who used his workers as meat-shields is the one whose popularity would suffer.
I do like the way the Popularity mechanic influences the game. Certain decisions you make over the course of the game will increase or decrease your popularity among the in-game population. As your popularity rises, you cross into higher tiers that turn into multipliers for your score at the end of the game. By playing ruthlessly, players can amass points more quickly, but players who are more careful and build their popularity can still build higher scores in the end. Both strategies are viable, so it’s up to the player to decide which they prefer.
Speaking of combat, I’ve got a fun Crazy Game Story about something that happened during one of our playthroughs, which I’ll post over on our Patreon page for our Patrons.
Altogether, the gameplay in Scythe is excellent. There are two main reasons it loses points from me: first, the passive-aggressive play style it encourages, that I mentioned earlier; and second, the fact that it just feels like combat should play a bigger role. Instead, it feels like you’re entering a sort of Cold War between players, except that in the event that things build to the point where someone decides it’s worth pushing that big, red button… nothing really happens anyway.
Still, I’m looking forward to playing it again.
The theming of this game is what first caught my attention. The game takes place in an alternate version of Eastern Europe, shortly following World War I. Except that it’s different, because in this version, there are giant mechs tromping all over the countryside, and the heroes have animal companions.
The theme of the game actually has very little to do with the actual gameplay, with only a few exceptions. The biggest exception I can think of is the Encounter cards that heroes can gather in certain spots on the board. These cards present players with a visual scenario and three options that have different benefits and costs. Some of the options are rather amusing while others are less so, but each of them can be incredibly beneficial. Still, even though this is the strongest “thematic” part of the game, it’s only loosely tied to the story.
Stonemaier has announced an expansion for the game coming out later in 2018, called Scythe: The Rise of Fenris, which will present an eight-episode campaign that presents more of a story-based experience, along with several new tokens, tiles, and plastic miniatures.
Visual/Physical Appeal (10/10)
Whatever complaints I have about the combat and the loose ties to theme, Stonemaier makes up for it with the art and components for Scythe. The art is actually the first The game comes with 25 plastic figurines (5 heroes and 4 mechs for each faction), as well as a slew of quality wooden components. I suspect that the visuals are a large part of why this game was able to bring in $1.8 million in pledges on Kickstarter, along with the rich and meaty gameplay. The improved wooden components replaced the original cardboard pieces as the Kickstarter campaigns stretch goals, and Stonemaier really delivered.
Each of the heroes is unique and is accompanied by their own animal companion. Each hero comes with a brief biography in the back of the instruction manual, with more detailed bios on the website. The detail put into the figures and their portraits on the faction mats add a level of enjoyment to the game, though it does make the lack of story in the main game a bit more disappointing—but hopefully, the expansion will rectify that.
The design of the mech figures is really cool, and I love that they took the time to design different mechs for each faction. They’ve really worked hard to differentiate the factions in gameplay, and it’s details like this where it really shows. Also, when they designed the game, they differentiated between combat pieces and non-combat pieces by making the figures that can take part in combat out of plastic, while all of the pieces that have no direct effect on combat are made out of wood.
Again, I love the attention to detail and the effort put into differentiating the separate factions. The worker units are all shaped differently and wear different hats rather than just using standard meeples, which makes them all feel just a little bit special. (Plus, the blue Nordic faction’s workers look like tiny little garden gnomes, which is kind of amazing.)
One of the best parts of Scythe‘s design, in my opinion, is the player mats. Not only are they clearly marked, making it easy for players to see which options are available, but they’re made double thick and have indentions in them for specific pieces. This makes setup easier, but it also shows players who are taking the upgrade action which costs on the bottom can be removed. It’s another little detail that makes a big difference, and that’s where Scythe’s real strength lies—in the details.
Setup Time (~8–10 minutes)/Play Time (2–4 hours)
Setup for this game is rather involved, considering all the pieces. I’ve timed it at about 8–10 minutes, but if you have a group that plays regularly, I can see that decreasing a bit as players become more familiar with the setup.
Scythe does come with a very handy container for all the plastic pieces, the insert for the box leaves much to be desired, considering all the tokens and wooden pieces. Fortunately, the box does include a gajillion (that’s a technical term) plastic bags, so you can organize things the way you want. Still, this is the sort of game where a quick-start insert is probably worth the investment.
I have played Scythe with 2 players and with 5 players. The 2-player version ended up taking just shy of 2 hours, but additional players do significantly add to that. At 5 players, we were pushing about 4 hours. I suspect that a group of seasoned players could take that down to somewhere between 3 and 3 1/2 hours.
The game also includes rules for a solo variant, but I haven’t tried it, so I can’t make any calls regarding length or quality.
Complexity (Rank 8)/Teach Time (~20 minutes)
Scythe is a pretty hefty game, mainly because there are so many ways to win. With so many paths to victory, and each path carrying its own rules, the game gets complex pretty quickly. Fortunately, none of those rules are particularly confusing, though the Recruit mechanic did give a couple of us some trouble. We figured it out pretty quickly, though, and it didn’t hurt our enjoyment of the game.
Teaching the game can take some time, but the rules suggest giving each player the enclosed Quick-Start cards and covering each rule as it appears. Because all of us studied the rules beforehand, I’m not sure how effective this method is, so you may or may not find it useful.
Scythe does an excellent job of making each play feel unique without resorting to pure chance. The different combinations of factions and player mats have a significant impact on how you might decide to play the game. All the different paths to victory mean each player can choose different strategies and even change them up partway through the game. This is definitely a game that people who enjoy it can play over and over again without it becoming repetitive.
The other really cool addition they’ve included in the game is an Achievements sheet. This is a heavy-duty cardstock sheet with various achievements listed, such as First Player to Win with Each Faction, First Player to Win Each Year, and others. Players can write their names on the sheet to mark their victories. It’s a pretty cool stretch goal that was part of the Kickstarter, and it makes each copy of the game unique.
I’ll put it simply—I really like this game. It’s got its flaws, but each time I’ve played, I’ve had a lot of fun, and I am always looking forward to the next game. The visuals are stunning, the components are solid and well-made, and the theme gets my imagination gears turning. I’m especially looking forward to the campaign expansion, and I’m also looking forward to trying out the other two expansions, which have already been released: Invaders from Afar, which adds two more factions, and The Wind Gambit, which adds new mechanics like airships.
If you get a chance to play Scythe, and you’re the sort of person who enjoys a game you can really sink your teeth into, then it’s definitely worth your time. Just be sure to go in with the understanding that this is not a game about combat. It’s more about farming, unit placement, and a well-diversified strategy. Equipped with that knowledge, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.