Reviewed by Kevin Whitmore
SCYTHE (Stonemaier Games, 1 to 5 players, ages 14 and up, 90-150 minutes; from $80 on up depending on edition)
“It is a time of unrest in 1920s Europa. The ashes from the first great war still darken the snow. The capitalistic city-state known simply as ‘The Factory’, which fueled the war with heavily armored mechs, has closed its doors, drawing the attention of several nearby countries…”
Scythe is one of the biggest board game releases in 2016. It has rocketed up the ranks over at BGG, and has over 8,000 owners listed. Scythe is the latest game from Jamey Stegmaier and Stonemaier Games. Previous releases include Euphoria (featured in the Spring 2014 issue of Gamers Alliance Report), Viticulture (Fall 2015 GA Report), and Between Two Cities (featured last issue). Scythe has received several different editions, which all ship in the same box, but some editions have enhanced components.
Scythe is a physically heavy game, heavy enough so you will notice it when you pick it up. Each game will have a large map board, 5 factions with lots of plastic and wooden pieces, various decks of cards, play money, faction mats, player mats, and either wooden or enhanced resource markers. In addition to the rules, a separate set of solitaire rules are included. Some editions have metal coins and an oversized map. The top level pledge on the Kickstarter even included an “Art Connoisseur” book. The copy I played used the enhanced resources and metal coins which we found to be a nice addition to the game. I’ve examined the larger map and would love to use it but, so far, we have not played it on a table large enough to accommodate the large size of the big map.
Each faction’s assortment of materials is roughly the same: five unique plastic sculpted units (a unique leader and four “mechs”). Otherwise, the faction components are wooden and roughly equal to the other faction’s wooden components. All in all, the game is handsome.
At the start of the game, you and the other factions are on the edge of a large map. The terrain is varied and lots of water features will impede movement. In the center of the board is “The Factory” which offers a reward to any faction leader who enters it so initially, this shapes up like a wargame. But those lovely plastic mechs are not on the board; they are on your faction mat. Clearly, you will need to do some work to get properly equipped.
And indeed, before you lie two very important mats. One is your faction card. It stores all of your mechs and six wooden stars you will wish to deploy. The stars are the game’s timer. There are multiple ways to deploy a star and once a player deploys his sixth star, the game immediately ends.
You also have an even larger player mat before you. It is double thick with recesses cut into the top layer to accommodate easy set-up of several tokens. The mat is divided into four sections. Each section has an action in the top and bottom area.
Each turn you will select one area to use. This will define what pair of actions (top and bottom) you may use for that turn. Players are required to use a different section of the mat on subsequent turns. This means that a player may not repeat actions (such as “move”) but must do a different action from the prior turn. Each player mat is a bit different. The various actions are on every mat. But the sequence and pairings vary from mat to mat. This caused some confusion for us as we attempted to explain the game. Let’s review what you can do on a turn.
Each turn a player will be able to select one “Top Line” action and one “Bottom Line” action. The pairings are defined by which player mat you were randomly assigned.
Top Line Actions:
MOVE or GAIN GOLD / TRADE / PRODUCE / BOLSTER
Scythe is a game of controlling territory. Each area will be worth something at the end of the game. Therefore, moving your units is important. But Scythe is also a game of production, so keeping workers in places they can produce vital resources is also a key concern. The resources are food, oil, ore and wood. These resources can be produced on designated areas. In addition, there are villages on the map, where you can recruit additional workers.
Since some resources may be more difficult to produce, trading is also a pursuit. Trading is simple: for the cost of 1 coin you can take any two resources you may need. It is also possible to trade in order to improve your popularity. Popularity is a way to multiply your successes at the end game scoring. (More on that later.)
The BOLSTER action is a way to improve your combat prowess. Power is tracked on a central display. You consume power in multiple ways but especially in combat. The bolster action is a simple way to replenish your available pool of power.
Each of these actions can be optimized. Initially six cubes cover the improvements to these actions. As I will explain below, this cube can be removed, making the improved action available. For example, everyone may move two units when they select the MOVE action. Later in the game it is possible to improve the MOVE action to being able to move three units.
Bottom Line Actions:
UPGRADE / DEPLOY MECH / BUILD STRUCTURE / ENLIST RECRUIT
All of the bottom line actions cost resources to activate. The costs are variable from mat to mat. If your cost is inflated in comparison to another player’s cost, this can be addressed by taking the UPGRADE action. Pay the stated cost to UPGRADE, and take any cube from a top line action and move it down to any bottom line action. This does two things simultaneously: it improves the efficacy of the top line action and it also reduces the expense of the bottom line action. Pretty neat!
Mechs are important units. They serve as your army but also as your transportation grid. In addition to enjoying their use on the map, each one you deploy will add additional capabilities to your faction. On your faction mat, each mech has a storage circle. Uncover the circle and receive the added benefit listed in the circle. Each faction has 2 benefits that are identical to the other factions. But the other two benefits are unique to your faction.
Each faction starts with four unbuilt structures. If built, these structures can provide some nice in-game benefits. For example, the MINE can allow movement to the tunnels preprinted near the center of the board. In addition to the in-game benefits, structures will score some nice bonus points at the end of the game.
RECRUITS are another way to optimize your faction’s inner workings. Each recruit will give both an immediate bonus and an ongoing benefit. This ongoing benefit (money, power, popularity or combat cards) is keyed to what you and your opponents on your left and right do with their actions.
The player mat is very “Euro”. I arrange actions to secure resources, which then allow me to move a marker, which gets me more resources. Sometimes I may want to move a unit on the board. But sometimes not – if I am set up properly on the board, I will tend to my mat.
Players have a large number of ways to place stars. While some stars can be earned with combat, the game rewards several optimization pursuits, such as: improve all 6 actions, recruit all 4 recruits, etc.
A prominent chart on the board is the POPULARITY chart. The chart runs from 0 – 18. Each faction starts with some modest amount of popularity. It is in each faction’s interest to rise to the top third of this chart, as the payout for each star, territory, and resource held at the end of the game goes up for being popular. For example, stars will be worth 3 – 5 points each, depending upon your popularity. The player who ended the game will have 6 stars. So depending on your popularity, those six stars might be worth $18, or as much as $30. That’s a significant swing in fortune. Similarly, controlled territories can range in value from $2 – $4 each, depending on your popularity. A similar rule applies to a faction’s resources at game end. Clearly avoiding a poor popularity is in a faction’s best interest.
A game of Scythe will end when a player has achieved 6 “stars”, or end game objectives. Looking over the list, seven of these objectives do not require that you interact with the other players: Upgrade 6 times; Deploy 4 Mechs; Build 4 structures; Recruit 4 times; Recruit all 8 of your workers; Achieve 18 popularity; or Achieve 16 Power. One other possible star is for completing a secret mission card. I have not viewed all of these cards but so far the cards I have drawn have also not required player interaction.
Only the final two potential stars for combat activities force player interaction. And with the concern around retaining popularity, combat needs to be considered. You will likely want to do it. Here is how it works:
Movement is a “top line” action. Simply move your leader and/or mechs into a territory you do not control. If the owner just has workers there, they will flee, causing a hit to your popularity. But if he has his leader and/or mechs present, a full-on combat will be conducted. In a combat encounter, each side secretly allocates up to 7 power to the struggle from their ready pool of power. Then each player might be able to play additional combat cards to pump up their overall combat value. In a twist, in case of a tie, the aggressor wins. Defeated units are chased back to their home base and the winning aggressor gets to place one of his combat stars. Because fleeing workers will reduce your popularity, you will want to evaluate the hit in your popularity against the benefit that military victory represents.
So far, I have found Scythe to be much more Euro, and not all that combative. We spend a lot of actions building for war. This is helpful as you are recruiting workers, deploying mechs, and so forth – which allow you to work towards deploying your stars. So there is a lot of posturing for war, but not all that much battle. This lack of combat will possibly disappoint the intrepid 4X gamer.
At the end of the game, the richest player wins. Money comes from a few sources. First of all, you get a little cash to start. Money also comes from the value of your stars, the number of territories you hold, and how many resources you have. Finally, structures will score some bonus points depending on which objective card is in effect for that game.
The victory conditions drive home the fact that Scythe is tilted towards being a Euro-economic game. One faction has a special rule that allows it to avoid popularity penalties for combat, and also allows it to place more than 2 stars for battle activities. So long as this faction is in the game, you have the situation where one player will be very aggressive while the other players can play more of a euro-style game.
Scythe is layered and somewhat complex. This review has not explained all of the features of the game; there are several more details to the game than comfortably fit into a review. Teaching Scythe may take awhile. Fortunately, once you begin, turns often spin around the table quite quickly. Players must initially figure out how to break out of their starting areas, set up some sort of in-game economy that will feed their empire as they expand it, and prepare to grab territory before the nearby neighbor gets there. Should a faction enter the central factory with their leader, they will be able to enhance their game options. But it is not clear to this reviewer that this is a mandatory move.
So far, the groups I have played with are enthusiastic and eager for more plays of Scythe. It is a luxurious game to play upon and I recommend playing on a copy with the large board, enhanced resources and metal coins if you can. I expect to enjoy my next few plays of Scythe.
But I will say that I do wonder how this game will hold up over the long haul. The random assignment of player boards sets up what combos a player can do on any given turn. Given enough experience with the game, I expect the assignment of any given player board may ultimately drive what strategy to use. Each faction has a different special power and it might emerge that some combination of Faction/Player board is optimal.
Scythe has rocketed up the charts over on BGG. Clearly a lot of people love it. This reviewer likes it and is keen to play some more. So long as your group does not expect Scythe to be a total-war game, I think most groups will enjoy the ride. – – – – Kevin Whitmore
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