Playing time: about two hours
Ages: 14 and up
Skill factor: complex
Luck factor: minimum
My score: 9.5/10
Welcome to Diesel-Punk 1920s Eastern Europe
What is Scythe the board game (not the agricultural tool)? Game is set in an alternate reality Eastern Europe, just after The Great War. As people are trying to recover and rebuild, the peace is not yet destined to happen. Cold war looms over the region as factions fight over land and resources with war left-overs – giant mechs stomping the rural land.
Scythe was created by Jamey Stegmaier in 2016 after a very successful Kickstarter campaign. It is based on the world and art built by Jakub Rozalski. Theme settings and artwork are one of the stars of the game as Rozalski’s artistic style really shines in all elements of the game: the board, cards, mechs, miniatures.
What is in the Box?
Quite a lot, for start. Scythe is a complex game with a large repertoire of resources, coins, tokens, structures, cards and miniatures. In total, there are several hundred individual pieces in the box, many are faction specific.
There a 5 factions in base game, each of them with a uniquely designed main character and mechs: Rusviet, Crimea, Nordic, Polania ans Saxony. Every faction has a special ability(ies) which makes them unique to play.
Each player receives a randomly selected faction mat who start in a predefined location on the game board. Faction mats determine faction’s special abilities, their starting power and starting combat cards. Variety is added with (also randomly selected) player mats which tell you what actions (like building, producing, trading and moving) and at what cost you will have during the game. They also set your starting coins, popularity objective cards and starting order.
Your main character miniature is placed on the starting point on the board with your two workers on the tiles adjacent.
How to play Scythe?
On turn, player chooses one of four action sections on his player mat. This will be his action for the turn. Each action has two rows: top and bottom, with top one being performed first. The trick here is that every action cost something (resources, coins, popularity or power), and gains something else (produces resources, workers, grants movement, coins, cards, popularity or power). Top actions are cheap and basic (like moving and producing), but bottom actions are more advanced and require more resources to perform. You can perform both rows (if you can afford it), just one or neither.
Indeed, during the early turns, you will mostly be moving and producing resources. Moving can be further upgraded several times.
Producing is tightly bound to how many workers you have (you can increase that by producing more workers at villages) and resources produced stay on the board until they are spent. That means that you have to protect them, since they can be captured by other players.
There are five (tile specific) different resources: food, wood, metal, oil and workers.
After you have gained some resources, you can start building up your faction by:
- deploying mechs (which unlocks more special abilities: moving over rivers, moving through lake or tunnels etc),
- building structures (which give extra bonuses every time you play corresponding action on player mat: resources, power, popularity or mine to mine movement),
- upgrading your player mat: pay less to trade more resources or power, produce at more tiles, make it cheaper to deploy mechs,
- enlist soldiers to get extra popularity, coins, power or combat cards immediately + every time your neighboring player does the same.
When the first player is completing the bottom row action, the next player can already start with his top row action, keeping the game running smoothly.
Mech versus Mech Combat
There is player versus player combat involved, but it is usually best to stay out of it, since even a single defeat can be very costly. The meeples you had on the losing tile are sent back to your starting location and any resources are captured by the victor. In a tight game, such a setback can quickly seal your fate. Players tend to keep to themselves (and in true cold-war fashion form informal alliances) and focus on building up their faction.
But sooner or later (especially when contesting a lucrative Factory tile at the center of the map with its extra bonuses) the inevitable happens and players collide. Game uses a very clever combat system, completely eliminating the luck factor. Each player decides in secret how much of his power will he use (that can be further increased with combat cards for each mech or character involved). Use too little and you will lose the fight, use too much and you will be left very vulnerable to other players in subsequent turns.
Random Encounters of the Eastern-European Kind
Only element of luck in Scythe is implemented through encounter cards, which you capture by exploring certain tiles on the board. They are a work of art by themselves, each picturing a unique scenario: you run upon forest workers, into a festival, a lonely farmer.
Under the picture you have 3 choices on how to react, each giving or taking something from you (i.e. steal the wood from workers to gain resources and lose popularity). Positives outweigh the negatives (if you choose wisely). That means encounter cards give you free stuff and encourage you to explore and upgrade your movement abilities.
As you can see all this combined makes a very deep and complex game, full of choices, different things to do and ways to interact with the board.
Being Popular Gets You Money, Money Wins Games
We’ve seen how the game is played, now let’s look at where this all is leading. Goal of the game is to be the wealthiest faction in the Eastern Europe. You can start accumulating wealth during the game, but most of it will fall to your hands after the game has ended and scores have been calculated.
At the game setup, each player received 6 stars. Stars are a tool to keep track of special achievements:
- complete all 6 upgrades,
- deploy all 4 mechs,
- build all 4 structures,
- enlist all 4 recruits,
- have all 8 workers on the board,
- reveal 1 completed objective card,
- win combat (up to 2 times),
- have 18 popularity and
- have 16 power.
Every time a player completes one of these achievements, a star is placed in the special table on the board, and when the first player places all of their starts, game ends immediately. But that does not mean, that this player is also the winner (although he gets more coins for his stars), it only means that the scoring can now begin.
Games are usually tight, so it’s not going to be like one player having 5 stars up and the other having none. More often than not, you are trying to frantically maximize your points by expanding and boosting your popularity as players try to reach for that final star. That leads to some very tight and tense end play.
Now we can start counting the money: coins in hand, stars, territories controlled, resources controlled and structure bonus tile (what that bonus will be is randomly determined pregame: extra points for structures near lakes, near encounter tiles etc). Now the popularity kicks in – it works as multiplier for stars, tiles and resources and it can really make the coin flow. It makes sense I guess – after all, to be a winner, you’ve got to earn the love of the masses.
Opinion and Recommendation
Scythe is not a family friendly pick-up and play game (unless your family is full of geeks – in that case congratulations). It’s target audience are more advanced board gamers, gamers that will take their time to explore the differences between the factions and how to exploit them best.
With all the things in the box, it’s no surprise that the price is also a bit higher, even though the creators tried to keep it down with cardboard tokens and plastic miniatures. Metal ones can be ordered as an upgrade, as well as the larger board.
Game mechanics and rules can be overwhelming at the beginning, but don’t despair. I found them very intuitive and easy to understand after a game or two. But some study is still required.
If you have a group of dedicated friends (one will do), that you play together on a regular basis, this is a great addition to your library. With a special ruleset (included in the base game), you can even play single player and enjoy on your own.
I recommend Scythe very much, and if you read any other review out there, I’m definitely not alone in this opinion.
What do you think about Scythe? Leave a comment below.