Players: 1 – 5
Time: ~45 minutes
Times Played: 10
If you have not played Scythe, I am not sure the following review is for you. That is not saying that what I am about to say is overly positive or negative about the game, but during my reflection, the more I thought about Scythe, the more I thought going in with a little to no preconceived notions would boost your enjoyment of the game. Once you play it three or four times, then come back and see what I have to say.
Or don’t. Whatever. Read ahead. I’m not your mom.
Scythe is a beast. Normally I try and run through, briefly, what your actions are for a player turn but if I were to do so here, I might leave you with eight pages of my hand written rules to read. So instead of doing that, I am going to give you a brief (oh so brief) run-through of the game and spend the rest of the time speaking about Scythe. That work for you all? If it doesn’t…too late as this has already been written and posted.
Basically, Scythe is an action selection, area-control, engine-building racing game takes place on a hexagonal-tile grid map of Eastern Europe. An alternate history Eastern Europe following the closure of the war to end all wars. There are giant mechanized war machines that roam the land for the different surviving factions, of which there are five in the base game. An expansion does boost that number to seven and the board has starting player points for all seven factions.
However, most of the gameplay actually takes place on a player’s individual player board. Player boards are actually split into two boards. The top is your faction leader information. This includes your factions special ability, where your faction starts on the big game board and what you unlock when you have built a mech.
The bottom board is your standing regarding your culture and society. This is where the bulk of the game takes place. This includes moving throughout Europe, gathering resources, upgrading your leader, building structures and more. Each round, a player can choose an action from their player board to perform. Not taking special abilities into account, players cannot perform the same action back to back. The goal of the game is to perform these actions to gain more money and resources, which can lead to achievements and stars, which correlates with the end of the game. Stars can be triggered by building all mechs or winning a battle against another player. Once a player has claimed six stars, the end of the game is triggered with a final payout and the player with the most coins wins.
That’s about as brief a run through as I can provide. Now, onto thoughts about Scythe. I thought about organizing everything into neat categories and such but realized everything would be simpler if they were just listed as somewhat coherent thoughts. They will be labeled so you can see where one starts and ends easily…I hope.
A) First things first. This game is absolutely gorgeous. The artwork for the cards is nothing short of stunning. The resource tokens are unique and individualized. They look and feel as they should. The mechs are different depending on which faction you are. The leader tokens are adorned with detail and character. The map, for being an alternate history post-war Europe, is vibrant and alive. Each space and symbol is easy to read and decipher. Nothing feels chintzy. The only thing I did not care for was the worker look. I appreciate stepping out and doing something that isn’t a typical meeple but I guess I thought they looked like little Picasso’s as opposed to workers of this new dystopia. Minor grievance. Doesn’t affect the gameplay in the slightest.
Scythe does offer my favorite player boards of any game I’ve ever played though. They are double-layered, which allows the cubes to fit in securely and not move if the table is hit or if your player mat is jostled. Such a novel concept that I wish more games would spring for (Looking right at you Terraforming Mars). They are easy to read, decipher and use. Once you have a basic understanding of the rules, the player boards solidify that knowledge and for the most part, you do not need to reference the rulebook. I could easily write another two or three paragraphs about how much I love these player boards. I won’t. But I could. Consider yourself lucky.
B) Now, let’s revisit the scene of this game. The war to end all wars has ended. Factions were able to create giant mechs to perform combat on behalf of them. Resources are scarce and need to be collected from the vast wilderness and tundra that is now Europe. In my mind, this screams two things: Area Control and Warfare. However, Scythe is not a combat game.
The game offers mechs and even victory points for going into combat, yet combat is treated as more of an optional aspect of your decision making. In fact, you are actively discouraged from going into combat with another faction as it will impact your popularity track negatively, as well as use up your power. Performing the combat falls flat as well. It never feels like two super-nations raging war against one another for the right over a plot of land. Nor does the gravity of two hulking mechs clashing over a war-torn tundra ever truly feel that awe-inspiring. Also, with the use of power that is publicly visible on the board and your hidden power cards for assistance, there really isn’t any mystery as to who is going to claim victory in a battle. I’m not going to say it’s always a foregone conclusion, but most suspense is suspended when mechs decide to throw down.
So Scythe is not a combat game. That much is established. It obviously falls into being a 4X game then.
As Lee Corso so famously says: “Not so fast my friend.” Scythe is not a 4X game, which many people make mention of.
But what is a 4X game? Let me brighten your day with a helpful definition. A 4X game is a genre of board game where players look to eXpand, eXploit, eXplore and eXterminate. Thus, the four X’s.
The game does offer exploration. You are able to move your pieces across the board. There is no denying that. I do not believe it offers any of the other X’s.
Expansion? You can set out and harvest resources from other areas but you’re not expanding into them. There’s no way to formally make them yours. If I go to a farm and pick an apple, I’m not expanding onto their property with my own. The game offers only eight workers and four buildings and normally you won’t need to utilize all of those pieces in a single game.
Exploitation? Who are you exploiting? You really can’t treat anyone unfairly, unless you attack them without cause. But even doing that can negatively impact you. Winning a battle brings us to the last X…
Extermination. No one is destroyed or killed. Buildings aren’t razed. If one of your pieces loses, it is sent back to home base to redeploy next round.
With all that being said, playing this game was not at all what I expected. I honestly thought going into my first play through that there would be robot carnage and civilization expanding throughout the alternate history Europe. Instead, we are given an engine building game. Which is not a bad thing. Let me clear that up right now. But it is definitely not what I expected.
C) I just want to hammer something I glossed over a paragraph ago. Units/workers/buildings are not destroyed when they lose combat. They just retreat back to your home base and that is so lame. If I’m taking a risk by launching into combat, the reward should be that I can set my opponent back a turn or more. On the other side of that coin, that would absolutely wreck a player. You would fall so far behind that catching up (which is already difficult) would be damn near impossible.
D) Player interaction. Or lack thereof. Rarely am I concerned about what another player is doing. Since this is an engine builder for the most part, if they’re doing something that I wanted to do, they’re probably already ahead of me and I should carve my own path. Like I mentioned earlier, the majority of the game takes place on your lower player board, which is the exact opposite of where your opposition plays. There is some planning and interaction when it comes to the action upgrades, as players can benefit from another player triggering an action. This will grant that player a resource but that’s all. It doesn’t make or break anything and by the time you have unlocked the ability, you shouldn’t be too hard off for collecting resources.
In the few games that we played, combat happened not because a player wanted a territory or felt threatened, but only because they wanted the victory point for winning a battle or their hidden objective asked them to fight. Even with a player’s mechs waltzing along your frontlines, it never felt tense. This might be due to the fact that your units don’t die, they just “retreat” to the home base. Granted, having someone run roughshod through your territory and having to redeploy would set you back turns, it would also mark you as the aggressor for the game and utilize one of your few actions to be aggressive.
On the other hand, if you worry about what your gaming group will think if you attack them or are aggressive, you can just sit tight and turtle and do nothing. So that might appeal to you.
One big area of interaction that I feel does not get much notice is the recruit action. Basically, once you recruit from your player board, you are awarded a bonus whenever another player performs one of their four actions. So while you may not be directly interacting with another opponent, you should be aware of what they are doing so you can benefit directly from it.
E) Speaking of the engine aspect, if another player is able to garner more movement and pick up benefits from the board before anyone else, there really isn’t any good way to stop them. And that fact holds true for the victory conditions for the game as well. If one player gets a sizeable lead, they’re not relinquishing it. Everything in the game regarding victory points is completely public knowledge so no one is holding a card or resource that will turn the tables. We have been fortunate to mostly have games where two or more players are closely tied in points but we have yet to have someone clearly in last come back to take the lead. I’m not saying that it cannot happen. I’m only saying it has not happened with our group.
F) For what the game is (or what I thought it was supposed to be), it’s short. Once you have the rules down, you can get through a three player game in under an hour. Four and more players really depend on the familiarity and skill level of the players but again, shouldn’t last more than an hour and a half, which is really surprising when you see how much stuff is available in the box. Mechs, workers, multiple player boards, different decks of cards, a two-sided board, resources, combat wheels and more. The game is about getting what you want done and preparing for what is just around the corner but that corner comes at you quick. It is not uncommon to spend a few turns building your engine and then having a turn where you complete two or three star conditions. You could complete an objective, win a battle and upgrade something, which puts you half way to the end of the game in one turn.
The game length is a good and a bad thing. It’s good because you can fit in multiple games if Scythe is your jam. It’s good because if you don’t like Scythe, it’ll be over soon. But it’s also bad because it feels like this game should be an epic back and forth prize fight between heavy hitters but then it ends not with a haymaker, not even a jab, just the last round ending. The crowd saw what they wanted to see and got their monies worth, but they still feel robbed of the experience and memory they thought they were agreeing to.
Most games end in one of three ways:
A player meets the victory conditions and wins outright as they were the first to meet the criteria;
A player meets the victory conditions and triggers a final “turn” before the game officially ends; or
The round limit was reached.
Regarding the victory conditions, Scythe just ends. Once the first player gets their sixth star on the score track, the game ends immediately right there. There is no “let everyone finish out the round” or anything like that. Some people complain that this is unfair but that doesn’t bother me. Everyone knows (or should know) the victory parameters before the game begins, so there shouldn’t be a surprise there.
I don’t really mind that the game just ends without letting the other players finish out their moves. This rewards optimal play and really does solidify a winner. I do mind how the game just stops though.
I also don’t know if thematically, the end game scoring conditions work. You’re trying to gain stars by recruiting, fighting battles, building your structures and more but the player with the most money is the winner. That just feels off.
G) I almost forgot that Scythe has a double-sided board. One side is the normal side of the board for all players. The other side is a board that is fifty percent bigger. It’s so big in fact that you will need to purchase a separate copy of the board extender for Scythe to complete the map. This does not add additional hexes to the map; it just makes each hex bigger. I don’t quite know why you would want to play that way. Maybe with the expansion that adds two additional factions and ups the player count, but I haven’t encountered that yet.
H) Sticking with the boxing analogy, this game is the first round of a match for every round of the game. Nothing really changes from turn one to turn ten. There are many games where each and every turn is the exact same action and that works. Okay, that may have been an exaggeration as the first five or so turns are plodding as you are starting out. While plodding sounds like a negative way of describing the beginning, I don’t actually mind it. I did go back and forth in my mind about this though. The beginning of the game is slow and methodical as you plot your actions, but I can’t see any other way that the game would begin. But while the game takes a while to get going, once your engine is built the game moves very fast.
For this game, you have the actions you can take but it never really feels like the world is changing. Yes, a mech has been added or you built a windmill or you made it to the factory, but did it really change anything? When you play, look at where you started the game and look at where your pieces ended the game. Was there a big difference? Did you move around the map or did you meet your objective and just sit tight? You might not have a confrontation with other players. You might not build a structure or recruit new workers. Even with all that not happening, you might have won! This is a game that is filled and dripping from the edges with theme. The art is so well done and the backstory is there but when the final turn is over, was there really a story that could be told about your faction?
I) Each faction has their own special ability and each is unique and offers a new experience when playing the game. I cannot really say that one faction’s ability is greater than another as everything depends on how you utilize the ability. Each faction also has the same starting location and this is great. You have your own area to start with, to spread out into and to call your own. You don’t have to worry about being boxed in or left out of the cold. It’s a very nice dynamic to remove that randomness and place the decision squarely in the hands of the players. Do you stay within your boundaries or do you start to encroach on another player? Do you move fast to gain territory or do you sit back and utilize what you already have?
But does having the same starting spot hinder the variability of each play? No, because the player boards can be randomized. You may get a different combination the first few times you play. There are (with the base game) five factions and five player boards, which means there are up to twenty-five different strategies that you can tinker and toy with as you come back to the game. That variability is nice and means that you will have to branch out to best utilize what the game has to offer you.
There is also very little to no luck in this game. Your starting player board and objective cards are the only real luck based aspect of the game. Everything else happens because you either do or do not perform an action. I love that. But if you are not planning out your future turns, you are going to have a bad time and because of this, analysis paralysis is something that can happen to your group. Although I don’t know that it will. It is also really hard to get too bogged down in this game since each decision is made one tiny step at a time.
J) The game works. While there are a hodgepodge of mechanics, some made famous from other games (Kemet, Dune, etc.), nothing feels out of place or broken. The only thing revolutionary (at least to me) is that the resources you create are left on the space they are made and can be taken and used by opposing players.
K) The objective cards are all over the place. One of the ways you can score a star is by completing your single objective. Some are incredibly simple and easy to accomplish. Some are ridiculously demanding. I love hidden objectives in games and nothing gets my blood boiling like having my opponent complete their objective by merely existing while I have to occupy seven spaces with seven different types of dog breed.
L) You can’t move across rivers until unlocking a mech. So this world can build massive mechanical fighting robots but not improve their infrastructure to include bridges. Or maybe the mechs cannot get wet…which is bad if this game is set in Europe. Rust buckets for all!
M) The board is tight. Whether playing two players or more, the territory is still hotly contested due to the tunnel system and the player/mech abilities. Nowhere is truly off-limits.
N) Going back to the Victory Conditions, there are ten ways to place a star on the board. Six stars win you the game. So there are four ways to win that you are/should totally neglecting as you play. I love this. While the player boards do help dictate which direction you should be going with your star placement, the game lets you basically say “Upgrades? Nah dawg” and do something else to score points.
I expected the wrong thing from this game. Nothing felt new or inventive. Nothing wowed me with the mechanics or with how everything blended together. Yet it all works and I do look forward to playing this game. It makes no sense.
For players not accustomed to more complex games, I think Scythe is an excellent starting off point however. Like other Stonemaier games, everything just makes sense. The actions fall into place. Plus, like I mentioned earlier, the board, cards and pieces are artistically beautiful.
I don’t think Scythe is “fun”. Now that is completely subjective and what I like differs from another person. I look forward to and like playing Scythe, but I just don’t know if I would classify it as fun. You are constantly planning three to five turns in advance for moves and there is little to no player interaction so table talk is almost at minimum. I love games where you have to slowly plan ahead and build your engine in the most effective way possible. I rate Stonemaier’s Viticulture as one of my favorite games of all time; but Scythe just makes me feel like I’m scoring points to score points.
The more I think about the combat, the more I think about the pressure that should be bearing down on a player as their worker with their honey pot of food looks up at an opposing mech, just one space away. Yet that pressure never weighed on me as I played it.
Deep down, I think I’m honestly so negative about Scythe because my expectations were wildly different than what was delivered. And that onus falls on me. I could have read more descriptions and watched more videos and posted more on BGG or Reddit but my mind was so sure that I had the idea of what Scythe was down, I didn’t need anything more.
So if you are looking for a game with an assortment of mechanics that mesh well into a perfected machine, then you could do a lot worse than Scythe. This sits right between the heavy Euro-game that involves pushing cubes across a board and the “Ameritrash” style thematic game that people know and love.