I have a copy of Scythe on preorder, but I probably won’t be getting it until October. When my friend Guy told me that his kickstarter deluxe edition had showed up, I couldn’t over there fast enough to play it. Both because I love hanging out with Guy and his wife April, and because Scythe! It took me approximately 10 minutes into playing Scythe to realize that I would love this game.
It starts when you open the box. From the get-go the artwork is amazing on the cover of the box, and as you unpack the contents it just, gets, better. Each of the components are high quality and beautiful… but wait; I don’t want to spend too much time talking about the amazing components because this is a collector’s edition and you won’t be able to get these super high quality upgraded components. Except that you can. Because the metal coins and larger board and realistic resource tokens and extra faction specific combat power dials and extra encounter cards will all be available from Stonemaier Games store or the BGG marketplace. So if you missed out on the collector’s edition you can still get all of the amazing, beautiful upgraded components.
But enough about bits, onto the game. Because there is plenty to talk about when it comes to this game. In Scythe you are playing the leader of one of five factions in an alternate reality 1920’s Eastern Europa. Your goal is to make your faction the richest and most powerful faction by conquering territories, enlisting new troops, building buildings, upgrading your production and constructing huge mechs for combat. This may sound like a pretty straightforward 4x game, and in a way it is. But it’s also so much more.
You start off at your faction’s home base with your awesome faction specific character mini with your awesome animal companion. They are awesome in case you were wondering. The minis really add some flair to your faction, and they look great.
Each player gets a randomly selected faction board which determines your starting military strength and the abilities your mechs can give you. You also start with a randomly selected player board which determines your starting popularity and money, and it also randomizes which of your top row and bottom row abilities are paired together and what the cost and reward is for some of those abilities.
Let me explain: On your turn you choose one of four sections on your player board. Each section has an ability at the top and the bottom. You can do one or both of these abilities, depending on if you can afford it. The abilities on the top row are generally free or cost a small amount of money and let you move or gather resources or power. The actions on the bottom row of the card cost resources that you have to generate or trade for and let you upgrade your faction or your production.
As you take these bottom row actions, you move the wooden bits around on your player or faction boards and you start to quickly see the genius, and for me the extremely satisfying design of some of the components of this game. The top row actions you can take are; move (move your guys), bolster (gain combat power or money), produce (produce resources), or trade (trade gold for resources). The bottom row actions are; upgrade (upgrade two of your possible actions), build (build one of your four buildings), deploy (deploy one of your four mechs), or enlist (enlist one of the four soldiers you have access to). When you take your bottom row actions you take your wooden bits from the custom recessed spots they are in on your player board and move them around, revealing extra bonuses or abilities that you now have. In the instance of upgrading, you increase the output of one of the top row actions of your choice and reduce the cost of one of the bottom row actions of your choice. It is perfect. You get to get an instant and real time indication of how your little engine is upgrading as you make your choices.
So while this is a game where you might not be able to afford what you want to do every time, or you may not be able to select the action you want, (you can not choose the same section on your player board two turns in a row) you do get to see how you are growing your faction with every successful action. You always feel like you are working to become more powerful and more effective. And in addition to that you can see it as your abilities get better with so many of your actions.
From the moment I started moving upgrade cubes around and I was seeing how this made me better at the things I really wanted to do, I knew I was going to be very into this system. That gives you a basic idea of what kind of things you have access to on your turn, but let’s talk about the things that make those things hard and require strategy to overcome. When you start, you can’t cross rivers or lakes, and your workers can only get the resource that is produced on the hex space on the board that they happen to be standing on. Since you only start with two workers on the board, and you only have access to three spaces that aren’t blocked by rivers or lakes at the beginning, you have to get strategic about getting the resources you need to go about doing what you want to do.
The game gives you multiple options to spread out across the board and add more workers to the field, but it’s important that you are strategic about how you go about this. Why, you ask? Well, I am glad you asked! Because this is a great opportunity for me to explain one of the elements that adds the most balance to this game.
There is a hard stop to this game, and that is when any faction places all six of their faction stars on the board. As soon as any faction places its sixth star, the game is over and end of game scoring commences. The great thing about this though, is that there are at least ten ways to earn stars in the game. So if you try to do everything well, you will inevitably fail in this game. You have to decide early on what six things you want to accomplish and hope that you can get to those six things before someone else gets their six stars out. Being the first to get your six stars doesn’t guarantee victory, but it sure helps, because stars out is the highest scoring category at the end of the game.
The 10 ways of getting to put you stars out are; building all four of your buildings, enlisting all four of your troops, placing all eight of your workers on the board, upgrading all six of your action upgrades, winning combat (two stars max), completing an objective (one star max), deploying all four of your mechs, reaching the top of the combat power tack, or reaching the top of the popularity track.
All of this means that as you are craftily plotting your domination or Europe, your opponent may be setting all the ducks in a row in order to get three stars on the last turn and suddenly the game is over and your next four planned moves are pointless. Game over, man. You have to be aware of how quickly this game can ramp to ending after a calculated and cautious build up toward a strategic victory.
So how does one go about trying to get out there and get the resources needed to establish dominance and build the economic, industrial, agricultural, militaristic superpower they desire? Well, that’s simple. You just balance your placement on the board with your particular faction and economy type to craft the custom strategy you will need to be successful in each different application of this game.
What I mean by that is that is that it is so different every time that you won’t know precisely the strategy that your setup will require. It’s brilliant. Here are the five different faction abilities: You may select the same action two turns in a row, your workers can cross rivers, you may choose two rewards in encounters, you may gain unlimited stars from combat or encounters, or once per turn you may use any one combat card as any resource. So you can see that the faction abilities completely ignore or reverse certain rules. As the developer points out in the instructions, this also serves as a way to help remind the players of the rules, because you are remembering how your faction’s ability and the abilities of the other factions contradict the rules.
So depending on your faction and player board, you might have to formulate a completely different strategy that you used last time you played this faction. The game can also dictate you needing to adopt a different strategy. If a certain player is making a bee-line for the factory and spreading wide across the board early on, you may have to focus on limited production and gaining might and popularity, eschewing enlisting or building your buildings. If the players to your right and left are bolstering power and popularity early on, you may want to focus on enlisting to take advantage of the bonuses you’ll get when they build, deploy, enlist, or upgrade. There are so many ways to take advantage of your position and to get stars on the board.
Add to all of this the fact that if your opponent chooses to, they can move a fighting unit into one of your zones with workers and the resources they have produced, and kick the workers out and take your resources, effectively drastically changing your strategy for the next few moves. But you have to be careful. For every helpless worker you kick back to the home base you lose popularity. Your popularity level also determines by how much your points are modified for stars, zones controlled, and resources left on the board when the game ends. So you really have to think twice before attacking another player’s workers.
If you happen to have a mech or your character figure guarding your resources, then you can fight back if someone decides they want to plunder your sacks of grain or your iron ingots. Then both players take their combat wheel and decide how much combat power they are willing and able to spend, and for each fighting unit involved in the combat they can choose to add to their power with a combat card. Whoever has the highest number wins, and takes control of that space on the board and any resources that happen to have been there. Plus, you can place up to two of your six stars by winning combat, even if you were attacked. But combat can be costly. Using up all of your power might leave you defenseless when it counts most. Building up combat power can take a while. And if there are any workers on the space that are forced to retreat to home base, you still lose that sweet, sweet popularity.
This all means that the threat of combat is ever present, but it doesn’t happen all that much in my experience. I love how the game gets that so right. War is costly, and it won’t earn you any friends, but sometimes it is necessary to get what you want or to cement your place of power in the world. It feels like the perfect balance of conflict.
“Then why even deploy your mechs?” You may be asking yourself. I’ll tell you why. Because the mechs each give you an ability. This lets any mech you construct and your player character take advantage of this new technology you’ve built for your faction. Every faction can build a mech that makes you move faster and lets you cross rivers, but each faction also has two mech that give you faction specific abilities. These range from things like letting you move into lakes and teleport to other lakes, to removing the popularity penalty for kicking workers off their spaces, to being able to add combat cards to your combat power for workers as well as fighting units, to being able to steal a combat card from a foe at random before combat begins. Suffice it to say, that building some of these mech can drastically change the way you approach the game, and these abilities really add another level of strategy to the game. Plus you get a star for deploying all four mechs, so it is definitely a strong strategy.
This game can seem daunting at first, and some of the iconography and terminology might be intimidating to some players. If you aren’t familiar with 4x games you might spend the first half of the game wondering what in the heck you’re supposed to be doing. But as you learn it and get more familiar with it you will realize that is one of the things about the game that makes it so great.
You have so many options, and at the same time, you have to optimize them in order to be competitive at the end of the game. I love the push and pull. I love the depth and the balance of this game. When my brother and I were sitting down at our local game store to play with a couple of friends, a guy walked by noticing that we were setting up to play Scythe and we offered him the fifth spot. He quickly accepted and we started the game. We had gone around the turn order a couple of times and he remarked,
“It’s so elegant. You don’t often see such elegance with such depth.”
It is a perfect description of this game . Elegance and depth. Add to this the beauty and artistry of all of the components and you have an overall, completely enjoyable experience from the time you sit down, to the time you finish tallying the points at the end of the game. And as you sit contemplating how you could have been more efficient, and what you could have done better to maximize your faction ability and move your popularity into the third tier, you will realize that not only will you be playing this game again and again, but you are already planning it out. Just know that it won’t quite go exactly as you planned, unless it does. And that moment will be so gratifying.
If you want a more in-depth tutorial, I will be uploading a how to play video soon.
My sincere thanks to Jamey Stegmaier and Stonemaier Games for this amazing game. All images are used with permission of Stonemaier games and are the work of the incredibly talented Jakub Rozalski.