Designed by Jamey Stegmaier
Art by Jakub Rozalski
Published by Stonemaier Games - 2016
1-5 players - 30 min/player
Scythe is an action selection area control game with asymmetric player powers. Wait… no; Scythe is an engine building game about farming in a wartorn landscape. Hmmm… still not quite right... Scythe is a heavily thematic game about military conquest using primitive mechs in an alternate-history 1920s Europe…
The problem with opening this damned review is that Scythe is all of these things, and more. Everything about this game, from it’s artwork to the mechanics, is intended to blend and subvert traditionally opposing game philosophies. Which would be a problem if the result weren’t so good.
Fit & Finish
The first thing you’ll notice about Scythe is it’s beauty. Long before you play the game, you’ll be immersed in it’s world due to the incredible artwork and quality of the components. Its clear from the get go that Stonemaier wanted this to be a premium package; an object to behold as much as it is meant to be played. Fortunately, it comes across as sophisticated rather than flashy, as each component is both functional and richly thematic. Take the money, for instance. Instead of having uniform designs, each denomination is a coin from a different nation, depicting exchange rates and transitions of currencies during periods of conflict. Even the player’s components are a delightful blend of new and old world ideals, with farming and economic pieces made out of wood while the combat units (your leader and mechs) are beautifully sculpted miniatures that would feel at home in a Cool Mini or Not game.
And let’s talk about Jakub Rozalski's illustrations. Designer Jamey Stegmaier has said that Scythe was directly inspired by looking at a portfolio of Rozalski’s art, and it served to build one of the most interesting worlds realized on a tabletop. Everywhere on the box, the boards, and the cards you can find Rozalski’s sprawling landscapes, dotted with farmers laboring under the watch of their looming iron monstrosities. Which is great because the art captures a blend of perseverance and despair that I find really attractive; kind of like a Steinbeck novel, but with mechs.
How it works:
“Muscles aching to work, minds aching to create - this is man.”
The overall concept of the game is pretty straight forward; each turn a player selects one column on their personal board, allowing them to resolve the listed top and bottom row actions. The next turn, they will have to select a different section, resolving a new set of actions. While the individual actions are identical for each player, the pairings are unique on each player board; one player’s move may be paired with building mechs, another player’s may be paired with upgrades.
Players continue to resolve selected actions to expand their control of the board, increase their economic efficiency, and secure military power until someone has reached 6 of the various “triumphs” within the game, each granting a precious star (think: unlocking achievements in a video game, once placed they are permanent). Built all of your buildings? Star. Reached the highest level on the power track? Star. Fulfilled a secret objective? You better believe that’s a star. There are many different triumphs, and when someone earns their 6th the game immediately ends. Players are awarded money for each of their stars, territories, and resources they control; though what’s tricky (and awesome) is that the money each is worth is based on their popularity level; a coveted resource managed throughout the game.
Combat & Control
“Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.”
Combat gets it’s own section in this review because it’s costs and consequences are pervasive in every decision you make; even if it’s a relative rarity in Scythe. Units are separated between workers and combat units, which includes your starting character and up to four mechs that each faction can unlock. Much like the girls in my highschool, workers flee back to their homebase when you enter their territory, reducing your popularity. But hey, the upshot is that you get to keep the territory and any resources on it. It’s only when you enter enemy space with their combat unit that a fight breaks out.
For those who have played Rex or Tiny Epic Kingdoms, the combat will feel familiar. Each side secretly selects a number from 0 to 7 on their combat dial, which represents the amount of power they will pay to win. Power is a commodity tracked on the board that caps out at 14. Players may also choose to add combat cards of from their hand up to the number of combat units they control, each card granting an additional 2 to 5 combat strength. Then the victor is the player who had the highest total with the aggressor winning ties. And again, the loser’s units retreat to their home.
Combat is one of the weirder aspects of Scythe, and the area I have the most mixed feelings about. I really like that it’s not overly punitive, the losers still have their hard earned units (albeit at home). What I don’t like is that it’s so costly that players tend to only do it if they have an assured victory. Sure, you can’t tell what’s in your opponent’s hand, but you can calculate the maximum they could possibly contribute, match it, and win. BUT that means you spent all your resources, right? So instead, you only pick fights if it’s against someone who is too vulnerable due to lack of power, lack of cards, or both OR you wait until you can end the game by winning a combat and placing your final star. And having someone make one final unstoppable attack, taking away your land, resources, and ending the game with no chance for retribution can feel pretty frustrating. Not unfair, mind you; just not particularly fun.
“We could live offa the fatta the lan'.”
Combat aside, it’s the little nuances in Scythe that makes it shine. Each player has two personal boards, one is their “Faction Board” which determines their special powers and abilities throughout the game, the other is their “Player Board” which shows the action pairings. At first glance it may seem like the pairings are relatively insignificant, but each game I’ve felt like I’ve controlled a wholly unique civilization with different strengths and economic focus. The action pairings especially impact your choices and opportunities throughout the game. And Scythe is all about taking advantage and chaining those small, turn by turn opportunities.
Another subtle and really cool thing about Scythe is how resources are controlled. Unlike most games where resources are earned and kept in some abstract pile separate from the environment, in Scythe they exist in territories you control and can be moved along with your units. This simple adjustment provides you both a thematic and mechanical ownership of these pieces which organically reinforces a player’s immersion in the game’s story. Furthermore, the presence of resources on the map creates interesting strategic decisions, as opponents may lust after rich, smaug-like piles of wood, wheat, iron, and oil.
And finally, that endgame scoring. Perhaps my favorite mechanism in Scythe is how points are distributed. By increasing the endgame rewards based on an expendable resource, the game naturally encourages balanced play. Suddenly the value proposition of each action is much more fluid; when attacking a player to gain a star may also cause you to drop into a lower reward tier. It’s nuances like these that provide the game with tons of meaty decisions turn after turn.
“There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do.”
People don’t discuss the tone of games much, but Scythe presents a unique opportunity. Both tabletop and video games are dominated with exciting power fantasies; even the harshest environments are depicted in a thrilling, fun, and empowering way. This contrasts to some of the best fiction ever written, where characters occupy sad, destitute worlds that I would never want to visit. Perhaps that’s what makes Scythe so unique; beyond the high production and tight design, Stegmaier and Rozalski have expertly utilized art and design to craft a fascinating and unique world, but one that is also humorless and grim.
Like the muted browns and greys dominating the box, the strategic choices in Scythe reinforce that it is a cold, unforgiving, and morally agnostic world. Often times your best defensive strategy is to put your workers on the front lines, daring your opponents to attack civilians at the cost of precious popularity. Players are incentivized to consolidate power and make one final aggressive push to end the game. Many of my sessions have ended with a sudden but unstoppable combat, earning a final star and collecting a few extra territories along the way. Like humanity’s worst fears during the real cold war, a sudden offense by either side means the end.
I’m not saying this is bad, in fact the thematic and mechanical tension is one of it’s high points, but it is very bleak. There are no good or bad guys in Scythe; only power, land, and resources. Even if you choose to play peacefully, war will be at your doorstep, influencing each and every decision you make. And that looming threat of attack is pervasive, and perhaps the defining characteristic of Scythe. Players exist in a state of paranoia as they explore and tend their crops, lasting just long enough to prey upon some poor lone mech who wandered too far, like a calf separated from the herd.
“And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good.”
Overall, I really love Scythe. I think it’s one of the most successful attempts at blending competing American and European gaming philosophies; heavily thematic and confrontational, yet also strategically rich and predictable. Best of all, the mature tone of the game feels organic and delicately interconnected throughout; a true harmony between mechanic and artist design. The game isn’t without flaws; players “turtling” until assured victory over a deterministic combat can be frustrating, and the intense-but-grey world borders on unwelcoming; but the high points by far outweigh the low. Scythe is a satisfying, extremely well produced game, and one I can easily recommend.
BONUS: Bits & Pieces on Scythe that didn’t belong anywhere else:
-Solo is really good. The automa design is well crafted, fun, and provides a challenging experience. Bonus that there are several difficulty settings.
-The 3rd party app “Scythekick” (which has Stonemaier’s blessing) is a slick design that helps with endgame scoring, automa management, and random faction & player board pairing.
-I really like the plastic sculpts, but part of me wishes that we could have unique wooden abstractions of each faction’s leaders and mechs. I’m a sucker for cute wooden bits.
-This review was of the base retail edition of Scythe. I do not have the higher end resources, metal coins, or extended board. Those are all great but also unnecessary.
-The expansion “Invaders from Afar” is an easy recommendation if you like Scythe. The base game doesn’t feel incomplete without it, but the addition of two new factions is welcome.
-The miniatures smell like Vanilla Cupcakes. Seriously, check it out!
Want to hear Jack chat with Scythe designer Jamey Stegmaier? Check out podcast episode 7 on our site, iTunes, or Stitcher.