Alternate reality 1920s Europe was a foggy place. It’s a few years after a great war, and the nations of the area are beginning to see economic recovery. Leftover from war-time, large Mechs litter the countryside. Many remain operational, having been re-purposed for peaceful farming and transport uses. Peace shan’t last for long though, where men are concerned. As nations struggle to rebuild, they begin again to jostle for territory and resources. Forgotten in the middle of the deepest fog, a mysterious factory awaits, containing mystical technology that promises power to those bold enough to claim it. In Scythe, players take control of one of these battered nations, and whomever brings their nation the most prosperity, whatever the cost, will emerge as the victor, and likely dominant power over 1920s Europa.
1-5 Players | 2 Hours | Designed by Jamey Stegmaier
Scythe was originally launched on Kickstarter and received a lot of attention during its campaign and subsequent retail launch. As the publisher Stonemaier Games had already established a solid reputation from popular games Euphoria and Viticulture, Scythe was an instant success, becoming one of the most well funded games of 2015 and one of the first highly visible Kickstarter games. Scythe certainly redefined production quality in the boardgaming industry. It was one of the first games to offer premium as a base, with optional upgrades to even more decadent components, and this influence has been seen reflected in many games produced since. In addition to this, Jamey Stegmaier shows an amazing level of commitment to the boardgaming community, in being constantly engaged with community discussion. Where many other games are released and left to stagnate, there is no question Scythe is a game that receives ongoing support and continued development from its publisher.
How does it work?
Scythe is an action selection, engine building and area control game, that blends elements from euro games together with a thematic world and allows for players to interact with each other via a map. The aim of the game is to be the richest player, with the money in the game (which is spent to perform some actions) being counted up at the end as points. Additional income is earned during the scoring phase at the game’s end, for controlling territory, resources, and having completed objectives. Objectives can include deploying all 4 of your Mechs, winning combats, or building all 4 of your buildings to give a few examples. A player completing their 6th objective (from a variety of 10), will immediately end the game, at which point money is counted up to see who wins.
On their turn, a player will choose from one of four available actions to perform. The one they did last round will be unavailable. Actions each have two parts (a ‘top’ and ‘bottom’), and are paired differently for each player. ‘Top’ actions include things like moving your units around the board, generating resources with your workers, trading for resources with the bank, or generating power (which is used for combat).
‘Bottom’ actions are concerned with upgrading your abilities, deploying powerful Mechs to the board, constructing buildings for bonuses, or enlisting recruits (for other bonuses). A player may do either the top part of an action, the bottom part of an action, or the top and then bottom part of an action. Movement actions can result in a combat, which is executed by spending a determined amount of cards and combat power (there’s no randomness).
Through sequential turns of using their available actions, players will generate resources and earn money. They will spread out on the board, and possibly fight other players capturing territory. The player in the best position when the game ends (whomever has the highest score) will be the winner, and it’s interesting to note that the player that triggers the end game does not necessarily become the winner.
What do I think?
I backed the Scythe kickstarter in 2015 (collector box #2715!) so I’ve owned Scythe since 2016, and I’ve played it about 15 or so times at this point. I’ve added both the Invaders from Afar (2 new factions) and Wind Gambit (airships) expansions to my collection as they were released, and played with them a fair few times as well. All of my games of Scythe have been with 4-7 players, most commonly on the larger end. I find Scythe a bit of a difficult game to teach. It has a lot of ‘different’ concepts in it. It really is one of those games where once you have played a few rounds it just makes sense, but I don’t feel comfortable starting a game with mixed new and experienced players (this is my most common play scenario) without giving the new players a bit of a run down on the rules.
The Good Stuff
- Scythe is well known for its lovely production values. The clear, well thought out graphic design, thematic and foggy art, amazing wooden and resin pieces, and detailed plastic miniatures all take the game from being ‘just a game’ to being a highly engaging experience.
- Scythe doesn’t have rounds, with play continuing around the table from player to player until the game is finished. This is a refreshing change from the more common ‘play a round, do some upkeep and reset for next round’ sort of play that is common with this style of game.
- Doing well in Scythe means having a long term strategy. The way the actions work, to be efficient, you probably need to have a couple of things in the pipeline at once. When you pull these combo strategies off, it can feel very satisfying.
- Needing to spend money (which is points) to do actions is an interesting trade-off. Initially I didn’t really think about this, but when you consider this cost (e.g every time you trade you are giving up a point) it forces you to think about how powerful certain actions actually are.
- I like how the virtual fleet principal has been turned into a game mechanic in Scythe with the power meter and combat mechanism. (Virtual fleet is the strategy of holding your fleet/army in the form of resources and only deploying them as required, creating a looming threat of either attack or defence against your enemies)
- It is a very social game. The turns are quick, and there is a lot of table talk. Speculation runs rampant due to incremental nature of actions.
- Scythe manages to play 7 players amazingly well. The gameplay is still quick and engaging for all players, with games lasting 2-3 hours at that player count. I was wary when the designer mentioned he had only added 7 player mode to the expansion begrudgingly, but at least for my games group (we are pretty casual and everyone plays fairly quickly), it works really well.
- The way the map is designed to give each player a relatively sound sense of security in the beginning of the game is fantastic. I really like being able to build up my empire on my home peninsular with little worry of invasion until much later in the game.
- I really enjoy the encounter mechanism (when player’s characters enter certain spaces they trigger an encounter), and think it is one of the more innovative mechanics present in Scythe. This mechanic alone adds so much atmosphere to the game, and a big sense of player involvement in the story itself. Watching what players choose early on in the game gives a great picture of how they are approaching the experience (passively or aggressively).
The Bad Stuff
- Despite there being ‘just 4 actions’ there are many branches, options and caveats with those actions. There are a lot of rules to go through, and some of them don’t really feel like they flow intuitively as you explain. The ‘learn as you play’ thing doesn’t work for me or my group. Once you get into the game everything works pretty well but there are a lot of snags when getting started.
- For new players, seeing where the points really come from at the end of the game is difficult until the final scoring actually happens. While this is a common issue with most games (and I try to nudge players in the right direction while playing), as a longer game, it can lead to feelings of disappointment when new players have significantly lower scores at the end of their first game. Hopefully this motivates additional plays though!
- I find the objective cards generally lacklustre to the point I mostly ignore them (or only go a little out of my way to achieve them). I feel the are too random, sometimes even being essentially impossible to achieve.
- It can be frustrating doing actions that don’t feel like they accomplish much (e.g rearranging your workers or gaining power) either because you have to do it before you can achieve something or you’ve got nothing better to do. Turns can be very up and down in terms of salient results.
- The factions are, demonstrably by statistics, not balanced. Crimea and Rusivet are significantly more powerful due to their faction abilities. While this has not bothered me in my casual play of the game, I think it is an issue to be aware of. Tournaments mitigate this using a bidding system, though I don’t feel this is an ideal solution.
- It can be very difficult to stay focused on personal strategies without becoming distracted. To pull off some things in the game requires juggling a few things at once. Sometimes I find it mentally difficult to keep all these things in track. I often find myself distracted by playing a reactionary turn and then recalling my overall strategy, seeing how what I just did messed that up, and feeling frustrated.
- It feels to me like Scythe is marketed (at least by the boardgaming community, not necessarily the publisher) as a ‘for everyone’, borderline gateway game. I don’t agree with this. It’s a mid weight strategy game. It’s not for everyone and it is not a first boardgame, or even a step up from Catan or Ticket to Ride.
- It can be agonisingly slow to move your units around the board. You can be highly inconvenienced by other players getting in your way (at little cost to them, and massive cost to you to fight them), or even worse, sent back to your home base for losing a combat.
- More often than not being faced with combat is just disappointing rather than exciting. I’ve only rarely seen a player get attacked where they had the means to defend themselves. I feel like the combat system encourages beating down the already (militarily) weak players.
- The game ends immediately when a player achieves 6 objectives. This is the only thing about this game I absolutely can’t enjoy. It just feels to me like such an old fashioned way to end a game – ‘Surprise! It’s over!’. It is a common mechanic from the designer (Euphoria, Viticulture, and Scythe all share similar endings), and I don’t mind it in the other two games but it irks me in Scythe. Rather than leaving players surprised or even deflated it leaves everyone but the player who ended the game feeling upset or even angry. I’m always upset that the game finished so suddenly. To me, this feels like such a crucial part of the game (it’s what you remember most) but unfortunately I can’t think of a better way it could have been done. A fixed number of rounds is the obvious suggestion, but that would massively change how players approach the game. Maybe a few extra wrap up rounds? I would be interested to hear other options that were tried. To add additional disappointment to this point for me, the game ending is one of the reasons cited by players in my group for not wanting to play the game again. I know The Wind Gambit expansion offers alternate end conditions, but I’ve looked though them and they don’t really feel to me to remove the ‘surprise’ of the ending.
I think at its core, Scythe is a good game. The theming and production of Scythe are its ‘secret sauce’ – what elevates the game from good to great, especially for players who draw something out of the theme when they are playing a game. I think it is perfectly fair to consider modern game designs as a whole, not just valuing them for their raw mechanics, but the experience they produce. To me, Scythe sets out to provide gamers with a novel experience and succeeds with this, it is quite different from any other game in the way it blends together different genres of gaming. I enjoy playing the body of the game a lot, enough that I am happy to overlook my feelings about the game’s ending and have fun while the game is going. As a whole package, Scythe is a fun, thoughtful and engaging experience. Especially if you are a fan of fog. It is not in short supply of fog.