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Subject: They love me! They really love me! rss

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Tim Koppang
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"For the listener, who listens in the snow, and, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." -- Wallace Stevens
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Originally posted to my blog here on BGG:

Scythe

Scythe is a solidly built game, and I'm not just talking about its components (especially if you have the deluxe Kickstarter version). The mechanics all fit together smoothly such that you always feel as though the designer and developers have done their jobs, and done them well. You feel like they are taking care of you while you play, whispering soft assurances into your ear: "Don't worry, we've thought of everything." I recommend the game, and I want to play it more.

That said, I have to admit, Scythe hasn't yet managed to capture my imagination -- hasn't managed to charm me -- and that is something I look for when I try out new board games nowadays. With so many games on the market, with so many designers mixing and matching mechanics from a variety of other designs, putting together a game that makes me sit up and say "Wow!" is increasingly important. Scythe is rock solid, it really is, but it's also a remix that, for me, hasn't quite connected (but is ever so close).

The comparisons are multitude. In its Euro-influenced engine building aspects, Scythe resembles Terra Mystica. In its 4x exploitation and extermination elements, it resembles any number of games. I'll choose Eclipse because Eclipse is another game celebrated for combining Euro systems with AT themes (I think you could also choose something like Sid Meier's Civilization). In its clever upgrade system, where you remove cubes from your player board to reveal discounts and better special powers, Scythe even resembles, of all things, Hansa Teutonica (weird, I know, but the parallels are there). Finally, in its action selection mechanic, Scythe resembles a rondel game. For me, the strongest comparison isn't Terra Mystica or Eclipse, but instead another game often labeled as 4x-lite: Antike.

But let's put all that aside for a minute and talk about what the game is trying to accomplish and how it gets there. I'm not going to detail specific mechanics. That would be a waste of your time when there are so many great video overviews. Instead, let's talk big picture. Scythe is yet another entry in the 4x-lite category with a heavy dose of Euro influence. It's a space well explored, but also immensely popular. To me, there are two factors to consider if you want to know if Scythe is the game for you.

First, how do you win? In many civ-games, wiping your enemy off the map is a good way to win, as is collecting "achievements" in various areas of technology and culture. Scythe is a bit of a hybrid. The object isn't so simple as killing your enemies or advancing up a tech tree. Like most things in the game, everything is interconnected. In one sense, the object is to score achievements, which could be anything from winning a battle to completing all of your "upgrades." For each achievement you place a star at the top of the board (just like in pre-school; gold star for Tim!). When one player has placed all of his or her stars on the board, the game ends immediately. But! Stars are not victory points. So let's clarify how you actually win...

These two need some love.
(Image by Jimmydm90)
Achievements give you the sense that the game is all about variety. However, there is a sneaking truth in Scythe that takes all that variety and condenses it into one overriding statistic. Like the Hunger Games, everything ultimately comes down to the popularity contest. Stars alone won't be enough to win because what you really need are points. To get points, you need popularity. Popularity is the master point multiplier, and therefore the most important thing you can earn. Want to know how many points all those stars you earned are worth? -- multiply the number times your popularity level. Want to know how many points your territories are worth? -- multiply the number times your popularity level. Want to know how many points... you get the idea. For a game that presents the players with so many options, the focus on popularity is oddly monochromatic. It doesn't wipe away variety, but it does ensure that everyone will be competing equally in at least one area they cannot afford to ignore.

The second thing worth considering is combat. If you are looking for a combat heavy 4x game, Scythe is not for you. Combat in any civ-lite or 4x-lite game is probably going to happen. How the game handles such a potentially devastating effect can, in my experience, determine whether I love or hate a game. A game like Eclipse, for example, leans heavily in the direction of combat, with fighting and fighting technology comprising a significant portion of play. On the other hand, Terra Mystica doesn't include combat at all, preferring to handle conflict indirectly through the aggressive claiming of territory. Scythe occupies the middle ground, but leans towards the Terra Mystica side of the equation. The game's focus is on engine building, but combat is just enough of a threat to make you worry. The battles are not so devastating to take anyone out of game, especially with a little bit of experience. In fact, you don't ever lose troops. They are instead merely sent back to your home base. That's not to say that losing a combat is no big deal -- it is! -- but it's something from which you can legitimately recover.

Personally, I like the balance that Scythe strikes between fighting and building. At times, it leans a little too heavily towards building, such that I start to worry that any fighting would upset my plans and feel out of place in the game. But that's a matter of misguided perception and overly timid players because combat certainly has its strategic place in the game. There is no other way to prevent someone from grabbing key locations on the board (especially the central factory). There are battles worth fighting, and without combat the game would veer dramatically into multi-player solitaire void of any asymmetrical challenge or overall tension. That said, as with any multi-player game with combat, beware of kingmaker situations. Group-think can easily turn the experience into a slugfest with one player beat down for no other reason than the other players felt like picking on him. Higher player counts alleviate this problem because, of course, too much combat by a few players opens up opportunities for the others (and you can only earn achievement stars for your first two combat victories). Still, it's worth mentioning the potential for abuse, which Scythe does nothing innovative to address.

Scythe isn't a clone of any of the games I've mentioned, but rather a mash-up of all them and more. There isn't anything wrong with a mash-up, especially if it's done well -- and Scythe is done well. But then why can't I get on board the Scythe train? I think the answer is actually quite simple. Scythe is so well put together, so well developed, so well polished, that... well... it's just too darn clean! Too symmetrical, too well-balanced, too clever, too well produced and packaged.

I know! I've lost my frickin' mind. But I want a game with some rough edges here and there. I want a game that doesn't have a perfectly symmetrical board with an even distribution of resources. Sure, players have special powers that make each side feel a little bit different from the others (and that helps!), but is it all just window dressing on top of an identical core? I think it might be.

Perhaps additional plays will help. For now, after a three-player and a five-player game, Scythe impresses, but also fizzles. I can't help but feel that I'm playing a well put together package of a game. On the other hand, I can't help but feel that I'm playing yet another 4x-lite game, remixed in a different way. So it fits comfortably in the same space occupied by many other games. The real decision you have to make is whether Scythe gets the mix right. Do you like the way it balances achievements against victory points? Do you feel it has just the right amount of combat? Like your favorite meal, you know what to expect. You just want to know if the cook put all the ingredients together in the proper way. It's personal taste at that point, and for me Scythe is just a little too safe, a little too mild. But that doesn't mean it isn't damn good eats.

Rating: (6)
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Reverend Uncle Bastard
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Great write up, thanks! I do have one minor quibble though. Popularity is not nearly as important as you suggest in your review. I am 20 games in and the person with the highest popularity has won in about 5 out of those 20 games. There are many paths to victory in this game! I have watched players who believe that popularity is key spend the end game turns racing up the popularity chart, while another enterprising player notices what is going on and snags a ton of territory, including some from the poorly armed "popular" player who has been ignoring bolster for popularity. In the end, much like in life in general, pursuing popularity in and of itself is rarely a route to victory.

tl;dr - It is actually quite easy to win while ignoring popularity. I have won at least two games with 0 popularity with another player in the top tier.
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M M
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It's weird. It's definitely not Just Another Soulless Euro. But I also couldn't find a soul in it. Even something like Survive! Escape from Atlantis grabs people and gets them really excited to play. But Scythe didn't. Even though I wanted to like it, it was so beautiful and obviously well developed.
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Tim Koppang
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"For the listener, who listens in the snow, and, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." -- Wallace Stevens
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reverendunclebastard wrote:
Great write up, thanks! I do have one minor quibble though. Popularity is not nearly as important as you suggest in your review.

Cool, happy to hear that. I don't think pursuing popularity throughout the game is a good idea. Do that and you end up, as you say, ignoring the other aspects of the game. However, I have a tough time understanding how you win games with 0 popularity. After all, popularity is a powerful point multiplier. Were those games outright slugfests, or something similar? Or was it that everyone was pursuing popularity to the detriment of the other areas, and you just took advantage of that weakness?
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Richard Dewsbery
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I agree with almost everything that Tim says, except that I'd rate it an 8. Although I am still looking for that soul, I'm hoping that with repeated play it reveals itself rather than retreating into scripted gameplay.
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Sebastian Grawan
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We really did feel the games' soul in our sessions. YMMV.
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Reverend Uncle Bastard
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tckoppang wrote:
Were those games outright slugfests, or something similar? Or was it that everyone was pursuing popularity to the detriment of the other areas, and you just took advantage of that weakness?


Actually neither of those cases were true. There is actually a very fine balancing act between coins/territory/resources and popularity. Keep in mind that just a small handful of territories will overwhelm any bonuses from popularity. Even at the lowest popularity it only takes 4 or 5 extra territories to overwhelm any popularity gains. You only gain 1 bonus coin per level for each star, territory and pair of resources. Given that most people end the game with 6-10 territories, 3-5 stars and usually 2-4 resources the difference between top and bottom tier popularity is a range of 20-32 coins during scoring. It is easy to amass that many coins with smart action choices and spending during the game, let alone reaching for extra territories.

If you are bottom tier and spend the last couple of turns driving off workers from 3 unprotected territories of a single player, that costs a top tier popularity person 12 coins at end game. If you do that while in the bottom tier you gain 6 coins at end game for those spaces. That is an 18 point swing!
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Barry Miller
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An extremely well-written review! Plus, I really like how you wrote the last three concluding paragraphs.

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Tim Koppang
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"For the listener, who listens in the snow, and, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." -- Wallace Stevens
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bgm1961 wrote:

An extremely well-written review! Plus, I really like how you wrote the last three concluding paragraphs.


Thanks!
 
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Frank Hamrick
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I appreciate your excellent review. For me, they get the ingredients just right. It is one of my all-time favorites. It fascinates me and is by far my most delicious 4x style game. I say 4x, though some of the 'x's are larger than others, perhaps, but even that perfectly matches the type of 4X I like. FORGET 4x - it's just one of the best games I've ever played, up there with Terra Mystica as one of 'the great ones!'
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Michael Frost

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Just curious, Tim, if you ever played the classic game Wallenstein (re-done as Shogun)? And, if so, how you think it compares? I love Wallenstein (and Terra Mystic). Haven't played Scythe. Yet. Just not excited about the theme, unlike in the other two games. I think Wallenstein does a magnificent job of balancing a desire to conquer with a need to build. To both fight and to not fight. You only get to initiate a limited number of combats per round and there are only 2 complete cycles, so combat is limited. But important. Money is tight. And you want to build cathedrals, castles & trading posts. You can only spend so much on your military versus your construction. And you still have to feed and tax and watch out for revolts. In each province you control. So unlike a mythical/alternate 1920s E. Europe, you actually feel like you are competing to "win" the 30 Years' War in the early stages, around 1623-24. And that competition involves a lot more than just combat.
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Anton Nieuwkoop
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I own Wallenstein second editon and scythe so I hope mind I give you an answer as well. Both games are great I think and therefor I love to play them. There are some similarities as well as differences.

First the theme. I love history (I'm a history teacher) but I never get the feeling that Wallenstein has done a really good job in integrate the 30 years war into the game. I think that's why it got republished in a Japanese setting. Game mechanics didn't rely on war in Germany.
In Scythe the theme does come back in the artwork, miniatures and the cards. There is however little text which takes you along, so you have to be a person who is visually minded (how do you say that in English?) Although I think the theme in scythe is more present, its not all over the place. Just play a game and discover it yourself

Combat: In Wallenstein you can have at most 12 combats as attack with other players/peasants. You need it to get more territory to gain points, have available place for buildings and get other provinces from players to gain theirs. In Scythe combat could take place more, but its less needed. you only get two stars for points/ending the game and if you take a turn to move (and thus attack) you cant do anything else. In Wallenstein (if you have enough provinces ofcourse) you can always attack. So although i could take place more a lot most of the time its far less than in Wallenstein.
So when you see that Wallenstein is more then combat alone it definitely applies to scythe as well.

Last thing: In Wallenstein money plays a big role, but does not count as points. In Scythe it does count as points so you want to get more of it. This is not that difficult as it is in Wallenstein.

Ofcourse there are more differences and comparisons, But since you don't mention them in your thread I wont get in to them
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Tim Koppang
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Michael,

I have indeed played Wallenstein, but it's been too long for me to remember the details. I don't think I could hope for a better summation, though, than the one Anton provided. Thanks, Anton!
 
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Tristan Hall
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Mat628 wrote:
Even something like Survive! Escape from Atlantis grabs people and gets them really excited to play.


Except for in real life.
 
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