SCYTHE

★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _TABLETOP.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.
publisher _STONEMAIER GAMES.   designer _JAMEY STEGMAIER.  players _1-5.   playtime _115 MINS.

February 19, 2023

box art © Stonemaier Games, photos © Things We Enjoy.

A cursory glance over Scythe, its components and glorious artwork – Jakub Rozalski’s rural dieselpunk vistas having been one of the game’s central inspirations – could easily suggest a game firmly ensconced in wargaming territory. Its board – a sprawling, intricately segmented map of a fictional 1920’s Europe (named here ‘Europa’) – offers glimpses of territory control a la, say, Risk or Game of Thrones. Elsewhere, the double-dip of character and action boards that each player has at their command, littered with cubes, meeples, wooden tokens and insignia, suggest engine-building, worker placement and resource management reminiscent of another hit from the Stonemaier catalogue, Viticulture.

It’s a testimony to the thematically and mechanically rich, yet relatively intuitive, design of Scythe, then, that this is a game that is all of those things (and more) at once, with little-to-no baggage. With its stunning depictions of hulking mechs – neatly realised in plastic form, to boot – and warfare-tinted symbols and embellishments, it’s perhaps the militaristic elements of Scythe that make the strongest first impact. And yet, despite clashes for territory and resources being indeed part of the tapestry here, combat plays a perhaps surprisingly minor part of most games of Scythe. Indeed, as we discovered in our sessions, even hotly-contested four or five-players games can play out on a knife edge with relatively few direct tussles even taking place.

Much like the aforementioned Viticulture, there’s a fair amount of visual language to Scythe. It can make for a slightly daunting first impression, but once the basic mechanics and symbols are understood, it all becomes pleasingly straightforward and responsive.

Play is divided between the main boad – a central map of ‘Europa’ – and each player’s pair of character and action boards. As expected, the map is where you will place and move workers, build structures, harvest resources, and send your unique ‘character’ on a journey to experience ‘encounters’ – narrative cards with one-off, multiple choice bonuses – and perhaps even engage in a combat or two. When you’ve gathered enough resources, you can start fielding your mechs – combat and movement-focused figures who can help carry your workers about, support your character in combat, or even engage in fights of their own.

How you do all of this is dictated by your two boards. Character boards, for the most part, govern special rules and unlockable bonuses tailored to whichever faction you are assigned at the start of the game. Your mechs, for instance, begin the game here, covering special ‘peekaboo’ bonuses; every time you field one (moving it from your board onto the map), you get to use the bonus rule that revealed when you do so. One such example is ‘riverwalk’ rule – which means that once that particular mech is fielded, your character and all mechs now gain the ability to cross otherwise impassable rivers that weave throughout the map.

“There’s a fair amount of visual language to Scythe but once the basic mechanics and symbols are understood, it all becomes pleasingly straightforward and responsive.”

Elsewhere on the character boards, unique rules for each faction are available from the offset. The fairly self-evidently inspired ‘Rusviet Union’, for instance, get to bypass restrictions on not repeating actions, whilst the workers of the ‘Nordic Kingdom’ are allowed to move through those previously-mentioned rivers, that otherwise bar passage to other factions. Each faction and character board have unique unlockable bonuses, too, including those hidden mech bonuses, meaning that your overall strategy and approach will likely differ depending on which faction you are randomly assigned at the start of play. The aforementioned Nordics, for instance, in being able to cross rivers, are not as territorially-restricted in the early game, meaning fast expansion and aggressive resource grabbing can be a legitimate approach. The ‘Polania Republic’ player, meanwhile, will want to be planning to send his character out to as many ‘encounters’ as possible, as their special rule allows them to harvest two benefits (of a possible three) from each encounter card, whereas other players are restricted to picking only one.

 Dramatic Expansion – With developers Stonemaier Games no strangers to producing quality expansions for their popular IPs, it’s unsurprising that Scythe has received the same treatment. The first of these, ‘Invaders from Afar‘ adopted the slightly more typical route of adding extra factions, playing pieces and expanding the player count, but the most recent in the Scythe ‘trilogy’, ‘The Rise of Fenris‘ (pictured above) is perhaps the most ambitious and exciting, adding an 8-episode campaign mode packed with mysteries and surprises.

Moving over to the action boards, these are sub-divided into four sections, and each turn players must move their marker to a new section from the one previously on – in a vein similar to, say, Ravensburger‘s Villainous titles – and may fulfil one or both of the actions of that section. There are some conditionals – if choosing both actions, you must complete the top one first, and you can’t complete an action if you don’t have the required amount of resources to pay for it.

These actions are the crucial mechanics enable you to fulfil the key objective of Scythe – which is, namely, to be the player at the end of the game who has accrued the most cumulative wealth. Sample actions include being able to move your pieces across the hexagonal territories of the Europa map, harvest various resources – wood, oil, food and more workers – from territories currently under your control, engineer buildings and structures for further resources and bonuses, enlist recruits to get short term but also game-long benefits, build and field your four mechs, and even upgrade and tinker with your boards in ways that will make future actions cheaper, and the benefits from doing so even better.

A fairly straightforward but robust ‘star’ system tracks both individual players success, and the overall progress of the game as a whole. Each player begins with six stars, and when certain achievements, thresholds or milestones are hit, players will place a star on the respective section of the board. Much like actions, the variety and breadth of options for star placement is fairly broad – max out your ‘reputation’ by doing good deeds and avoiding scaring off enemy workers? Place a star. Win your first combat? Place a star. Successfully complete one of the unique ‘objective’ cards you’re given at the start of the game? Place a star. Manage to field all four of your mechs? …You get the idea.

As soon as any player lodges their sixth and final star, though, the game ends immediately (even if this takes place in another player’s turn), meaning Scythe as a whole is something of a managed and calculated race. With wealth being the final barometer of victory, though, you can easily get situations where a player may hold back on placing their final star (thus ending the game) until they’ve spread out a little further, or acquired that extra bit of wealth or resource. The worst thing you can do is prematurely end the game, only to realise that one of your fellow players actually has notably more territory or gold in the bank.

 Dramatic Expansion – With developers Stonemaier Games no strangers to producing quality expansions for their popular IPs, it’s unsurprising that Scythe has received the same treatment. The first of these, ‘Invaders from Afar‘ adopted the slightly more typical route of adding extra factions, playing pieces and expanding the player count, but the most recent in the Scythe ‘trilogy’, ‘The Rise of Fenris‘ (pictured above) is perhaps the most ambitious and exciting, adding an 8-episode campaign mode packed with mysteries and surprises.

It’s the sheer wealth of options and approaches that makes Scythe such an absorbing and multi-faceted puzzle of a game to tackle. Unlike many other games of its ilk, it’s rarely about being just the most overtly aggressive or expansionist player. Indeed, for some factions, the resource and reputational cost of simply going all-out on the offensive can be entirely counter-productive. Some players and factions may yield success by carefully cultivating their own area, focusing on getting their mechs and buildings out, and possibly never encountering a fellow player at all. Others, such as the aggressive ‘Saxony Empire’, contrarily, have unique rules that favour being combative and warmongering. The stars system and action boards are robust and diverse enough, though, that there are countless approaches and strategies that can be tackled with practically every faction.

For some, there’s the risk that this can cultivate a curious dichotomy in the wealth of choices and pathways that Scythe entrusts its players with. Once the initially intimidating catalogue of iconography, actions and mechanics become understood and familiar – which is, to say, likely quite quickly (so neatly-designed and instinctive as they are) – it’s very easy to become lost in a broil of attempting to do all things at once. Indeed, Scythe gives you so many options and routes to victory, it is very easy to get bogged down trying to accomplish too much at once.

“It’s the sheer wealth of options and approaches that makes Scythe such an absorbing and multi-faceted puzzle of a game to tackle.”

It isn’t really so much a criticism of the game as it is a word of strategic warning, but it’s still likely that the more focused thinkers will dominate early games, until the realisation that targeted efficiency is the name of the game here truly sinks in. Said efficiency, and being willing to disregard (or at least not prioritise) entire chunks of the game’s mechanics, isn’t something that the surplus of options makes immediately obvious or organic, though.

Indeed, there are whole elements of play we haven’t even touched upon yet, too, such as the ‘power’ scale, a chart that your faction will climb up and down on, and one completely separate from the similarly numerical ‘reputation’. ‘Power’ governs your ability to dish out damage in combat (more on which, shortly), but can also be both another resource and another pathway to placing a coveted star. Of ‘reputation’, your faction’s placement on this important scale provides an at-times decisive end-game multiplier to your wealth, territory and resources. And then there’s the ‘factory’, a unique space in the centre of the board that not only counts as multiple territories during endgame calculations, but also gives a powerful expansion to action boards for any players that manage to guide their unique character figure there (which can, in and of itself, be a risky, exposing journey).

Which leaves combat. Again, often neither as ubiquitous nor decisive as perhaps expected, it nonetheless hinges upon another neatly-realised mechanic. Any instance of shared territory – where one player moves a mech or character into a space occupied by an enemy counterpart (lowly workers do not initiate fights, they simply flee) – immediately initiates combat. Courtesy of a hidden dial, each combatant then secretly assigns some – or none – of their accumulated power (which is then lost, win or lose) and can further buttress this with a number of combat cards equal to the number of fighters (characters, mechs) they have in that particular combat. It’s a hidden numbers game, essentially, and when both players reveal their combat ‘total’ – power spent and any bonuses on cards played – the highest wins (attackers breaking a tie), sending the loser packing back to their starting spot. The secretive nature of assigning power and cards can lead to genuinely tense stand-offs and, like much of Scythe, there’s flexiblity to try out different tactics. Can you bluff or double-bluff your opponent into thinking you’re not even going to add any cards, or perhaps even force another player to overspend and waste power on a combat you are going to throw anyway? It’s another enjoyable and flavoursome wrinkle in what could have very easily been a simple card or dice throwdown.

“Combat… another enjoyable and flavoursome wrinkle in what could have very easily been a simple card or dice throwdown.”

Moving from mechanics and gameplay over to realisation and design, and the components, build quality and aesthetic of Scythe prove just as impressive and absorbing as its gameplay. Rozalski’s sumptuous, evocative artwork underpins it all, including a well laid-out and accessible rulebook. The myriad cards, player boards, character designs et al, are all at the pinnacle of what you can expect from a contemporary board game. It all looks and feels premium, quality and, crucially, sturdy. The five plastic faction characters – each complete with animal sidekick – are suitably detailed, distinctive and dynamic, which extends through to each faction’s mechs being of a unique design, too.

There are some quality of life and future-proofing touches, too; whilst initially a 2016 release, it’s nice to see the base map and board natively providing spaces and insignia for its eventual expansion factions. A bespoke deck and additional set of rules for solo mode (courtesy of Automata Factory) are further indicators of a considered and inclusive approach to the game’s design and release. Whilst we have yet to test the solo mode, Automata have a solid reputation in this area, and general consensus from both critical and user feedback seems to be that Scythe’s 1-player experience can be an exciting – not to mention surprisingly aggressive – experience.

There’s a fair amount in the box, and if the recycled plastic bags that contain many of the wooden components and cards are expectedly flimsy, it is nonetheless always nice to see a manufacturer being environmentally-conscious. Two branded Stonemaier plastic tubs are included (and can open out to provide four trays for in-game use) for the numerous card tokens that the game requires – currency, encounter markers etc. – but you’ll likely want to handle the bags with care, or otherwise source some inserts, as there is plenty to keep tidied away that you really don’t want left loose rattling around and getting mixed up in the box.

For a relatively recent release (first landing, as mentioned, in 2016), Scythe has become rapidly established within the board game community as a title of real substance and renown. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from playing and reviewing the game, is how it isn’t at all as ‘heavy’ an offering as first impressions could perhaps suggest. Again, it’s reflective of the hallmark of Stonemaier’s approach (and doubtless exhaustive testplaying) that its expansive, diverse catalogue of strategies, options and approaches become second-nature remarkably quickly.

“That its gameplay excellence is equally matched by its aesthetic and artistic quality only sweetens the deal.”

For certain, it likely won’t sway casual gamers, and at higher player counts you’re likely looking at a circa 2-hour time sink, but it cannot be overstated how this is an intuitive, responsive and engaging board game experience that will likely appeal to a far broader base than its optics (and reputation) may first suggest. Contrarily, for those who may enjoy getting lost in the headier, day-consuming, endlessly-intricate machinations of, say, Twilight Imperium or its contemporaries, then Scythe will perhaps feel a breezier, lighter affair (for better or worse).

On balance, though, this is a masterfully and robustly designed offering from Jamey Stegmaier – a rich, involving, asymmetric playground of consequence, competition and choice. Part worker-placement, part engine-builder, part territory-control, part resource-management, Scythe practically demands repeat plays. To test out the elasticity of its factions, to try out different approaches and strategies, and simply because its mechanics are so damned fun. That its gameplay excellence is equally matched by its aesthetic and artistic quality only sweetens the deal.

It may not be for everyone, but for those who take the (refreshingly brief) time to get a grasp of its gears, they’ll find in Scythe a rewarding and compelling dieselpunk challenge of very few equals.

As thematically and mechanically rich as it is sumptuously depicted, here is a wholly absorbing, surprisingly intuitive and utterly replayable playground of dieselpunk riches. Fire up the mechs, this is a clear scythe cut, right through the competition.

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