Review: Scythe

Map of scythe

Length 90-115 Minutes

Release Date 2016
scythe, game boxDesigner: Jamey Stegmaier
Publisher: 
Stonemaier Games
Category: 
Economic, Farming, Territory Building
Price:
$52.99
Most in the hobby know Stonemaier Games for high-quality components, and interesting gameplay ideas and mechanics. Owner and designer, Jamey Stegmaier, is regarded as somewhat of a board game Kickstarter paragon, having run multiple successful projects on the site, writing a book for those looking into Kickstarter, as well as developing and writing a blog on his site, focused on giving advice for those in the industry.
These things said, my introduction to Stonemaier was through Viticulture, a game about winemaking. I was stunned by the collection of wonderful, wooden pieces, and the very beautiful artwork of a European countryside, full of vineyards. This sparked my interest with Scythe, which has gone on to become one of the largest, most-hyped Kickstarters the hobby has ever seen.
Scythe is based off Jakub Rozalski’s artwork of an alt-era 1920s Europe clone, following the Stonemaier trend of atmospheric artwork that draws you into the game.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: None
Violence: There is combat between players depicted on cards. Some encounter cards suggest using weapons on civilians, though no artwork shows any violence.
Language/Crude Humor: Some drinking and revelry is written into encounter cards.
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: One or two encounter cards mention drinking some sort of alcohol.
Other Negative Themes: I want to take this space to reiterate that the only alcohol and violence included in this game is in the form of a quick sentence, something like “buy a round of drinks for the people in the pub.” It’s very minimal.

characters and mechs scythe

Review

I’m stuck. None of the citizens like me because I ruthlessly stole a mech and food from them. I’m guessing it will be okay in the long run, because I’m hoping I can build back their trust over time with a monument. That will solve some long-term problems, but I’m faced with a more pressing issue at the moment: the Nords are pushing across the river, directly towards the factory. I’ve also seen the Polanian people at work on mines, so the clock is ticking on being one of the first to reach the factory.
Eying the Rusviets across the river.

Eying the Rusviets across the river.

This is imperative to my strategy for victory because the crazy stuff located inside the factory will give my civilization such a boost over my enemies. But now I have to make the choice. Do I spend my turn creating more workers at the village, or do I enforce my ranks and increase my power so I’m ready for combat?
Steely-eyed across the table at the Nordic player, I make my decision: Neither. I burrow through the mine with my mech, embracing combat as a dear friend I can’t stay away from for too long.
These are the kinds of choices one must make while working their way through a game of Scythe. The game is not particularly revolutionary from a mechanical viewpoint, but one should find themselves thoroughly invested in becoming a well-oiled machine.
Scythe hosts 1-5 players over multiple rounds on a hex-based map, featuring rivers, encounter opportunities, and resources. Players begin at a specified faction location, and are given a plethora of wooden components, miniatures, and variable player mats, alongside their specific faction mat. These are balanced to give players direction in their play style, since their starting location will play into their tactics.
player and faction mats

Top left: Combat Dial. Top Right: Faction mat, not random. Bottom: Player mat, random.

The brunt of play is focused on the player mat, which is decidedly random, and will be the method players decide on actions for their turns. By choosing a section, a player will first complete whatever top actions are on the mat, followed by the actions printed onto the bottom. Aside from the Rusviets, players cannot play the same action twice. This forces players to become creative in developing an engine that will appropriately sequence their actions, driving them to victory and objectives in the most efficient method possible. This is one of my favorite aspects of the game, and I think it separates Scythe from your typical action selection game.
Top-row actions are the meat of the game, allowing movement, bolstering your combat power, drawing combat cards, boosting your popularity, etc. The bottom-row actions enable you to enlist recruits for passive bonuses, upgrade top-row actions so the cost/bonus for each is lower/higher, build structures, etc.
Players work towards completing various milestones, like winning in combat, building all of their mechs, producing all of their workers, completing an objective card, etc. Once one of these goals are satisfied, the player may place a star onto the corresponding milestone. Once he has placed six of these, the game immediately ends. Players count up their money, adding to it, respective game-end bonuses (occupied hexes, excess resources, and placed stars), and the winner of the game is the person with the most money.
Staying popular with the people of the land is critical, as your game-end bonuses are multiplied based on how high you are ranked on the popularity meter. You can lose popularity by forcing innocent workers back to their home base or by choosing negative encounter card actions.
scythe player board

Mats in action.

So this is why one must carefully balance their actions. You might choose to lose popularity in order to gain extra metal and cash, or maybe you should wait a turn to produce that metal from a space on the board. Or even at game start, how do you efficiently allocate actions? Should you produce more workers at the start, or focus on upgrading your actions for better bonuses throughout the game?
Balance is a joy of Scythe. The game centers each person’s specific player ability that will either sit uselessly by the wayside, or be used to the fullest. Once you can figure out why your player power is what it is and why you start where you do, this is where things start to click. One might argue this is to the detriment of the game, since you are sort of pigeonholed into a specific strategy. However, I think one could manage to work with his abilities to vary his approach each game so it isn’t always tailored to the same tactics.
Scythe is a well-timed, evenly paced game that rewards thoughtful examination of the board state and consistently timely action selection. Timing is everything. Your move might easily change the course of the next four turns around the table. If you go for a factory, this forces other players’ hands to rush their tunnels or riverwalks. Is it more wise to make someone else drop in first for a fight, and then you rush in to take out the remaining player?
All of the different cards you will encounter in Scythe.

All of the different cards you will encounter in Scythe.

Combat is incredibly rewarding, while not essential to the game. Each battle will cost power, and likely a combat card from your hand. In addition, if you land on a space with an enemy’s workers, you will lose popularity for each one on the tile. After all, these are the innocents of the land, so thematically, your thirst for blood does you no good. You cannot warmonger, but the advantage to spread out is too great to turtle.
I think the idea of the mech miniatures is very cool. I’m very interested why certain mechs walk like spiders, while others have short cannons attached to the front. Overall, unfortunately, these minis leave something to be desired. However, the entire slew of wooden components are some of the coolest bits I’ve played with in a board game. Viticulture was astounding, but this takes it up to another level. Just amazing woodwork and design overall.
While I love the artwork on the board and cards, for a game claiming theme and story, I feel it’s not quite there. This is addressed by Jamey in the rulebook, where he gives players the option to figure out what is happening on each card on their own. However, I really want flavor text to be plastered across each card, and while a focus of the game is story and art, I wish there was a little more guidance with exactly what happens on each encounter. Artwork tells us a lot, but I still want more. This is a huge benefit to the game’s rich taste, but a flaw for those of us desiring a more straightforward storytelling approach. Maybe I’m not creative enough.
I can’t really convey the complexity of Scythe in words, but I think this can shed some light on it. My first game included myself, two veteran
Carefully choosing combat cards!

Carefully choosing combat cards!

gamers, and one player who isn’t as familiar with our hobby. A typical gamer isn’t used to a game playing over an hour and a half, nor a rules explanation that takes at least half the time. He made some abysmal plays at the beginning of the game, and wasn’t able to catch up much. He mentioned later that he couldn’t believe we could understand how this game works as well as we did on our first play.
You can chalk this up to our experience with games, but I think this speaks to the reality: Scythe is not at all a difficult game, but its simplicity is hidden behind lots of moving parts. For example, what milestone should you even push towards first? Why do you need more workers? How can you balance your civilization without losing too much popularity? I think a lot of these choices start to prioritize themselves, but to the inexperienced, it could be a total loss.
Scythe does come with a few new-player strategy suggestion cards, although, when unsure of how to get set to win, these are not even particularly helpful (he played a second game with us, and it did go over more smoothly). Bear in mind, this isn’t a big complaint of mine, but it shows me the under-workings of Scythe, and I can see this game isn’t as heavy as it first seems.
All of Crimea's components laid out to see.

All of Crimea’s components laid out to see.

Another note of interest is the aforementioned designer notes throughout the rulebook. Jamey seems the kind of person who has been burned by people not understanding what he told them the first time. I’m exactly this way also, so both of us over explain.
Examples are extensive, and his notes help to explain precisely why certain design decisions were made. While this is sort of annoying in real life, it feels revolutionary in a rule book. I love the extra time and ink taken to ensure players can grasp and appreciate Jamey’s approach to the game, and how he hopes we can enjoy it as well.
One other facet of Scythe is an included solo-variant. I’m not one for solo games, as I’d rather play Dark Souls II to get my single player fix in, but nevertheless, it is included. I haven’t had a chance to test it, but Stonemaier partnered with Automa Factory to create a self-functioning version of the game that should cater well to players who can’t always get friends to the table, or who very much enjoy the thrill of tabletop solitaire. More power to you.
All of Scythe's components. Yikes, lots of stuff!

All of Scythe’s components. Yikes, lots of stuff!

At four players, by end game, our small plots of land have filled with war, stolen resources, terrified civilians, and one player who managed to make himself seem less tyrannical than the rest of us.
This once empty board is now full of the tales and the legends of how we shaped the history of our game.
It’s fascinating, and the depth of this game (despite some flaws) leaves us talking about the game days later, recalling moments of betrayal, engine building, and how we can play a better, more efficient game next time.

Scythe final game

The Bottom Line

Scythe is another consistent Stonemaier game. Scythe is not for every gamer, but for those interested, it boasts enough attention to detail, investing gameplay, and room for replayability to be an instant addition for most gaming collections.

 

8.9