Scythe is hype.
Every now and then in the board game world a game will burst onto the scene and cause an incredible uproar based on some tidbit, some tease, or some initial glimpse of an exciting aspect of the game. In Scythe's case, it was the art. As soon as Jakub Rozalski's illustrations started to appear, people sat up and took notice. Once people found out that the extremely well-respected Jamey Stegmaier was going to be designing a game based on that art, the hype-train reached full steam. Scythe was funded via Kickstarter, raising $1.8 million dollars during its campaign, which slapped wings on the hype-train, sending it into the atmosphere. I fully bought into the hype, and I pledged at the $119 Art Connoisseur level, and, once the game showed up, I ripped into it with a gusto and played it as soon as I could gather up a few other players. That first game left me feeling extremely conflicted though, and I was worried that Scythe might be one of those games that falls victim to the hype.
Scythe leaves an incredible first impression. The art is second to none, and the component quality and production value of the product itself stand toe to toe with the best of the best. Scythe's second impression, the impression left via the gameplay, was shaky, though. Even though the game comes with some excellent player aids that actually have recommendations for what players should do in each of their first few turns, it is incredibly difficult to tell which of the actions, and which choices, are actually going to have a net positive effect once the game ends and it's time to tally scores. None of Scythe's actions nor mechanics are difficult to grasp on their own, but the volume of options left open to players makes it difficult to see whether each action is having a real effect on the outcome of the game. In essence, the first game of Scythe feels like players are "doing stuff" without really knowing what the final consequence and outcome of that "stuff" is going to be, and it isn't immediately obvious that the lack of clarity is actually a deliberate design choice.
As part of setup for each game, players draw a Faction and a player mat at random. The Factions determine where on the board each player will start and also have a few small differences that help differentiate them from one another, including a special ability, mech and worker sculpts that are unique to that Faction, and two upgrades that can be gained via deployment of mechs that help their Faction in combat and movement in different ways. Each Faction also has a different Character that directly represents the player on the game board. The Character shares upgrades with the mechs and can fight in Combat like the mechs. There are two things unique to the Characters. First, they can visit the Factory in the middle of the board and acquire a new action for their Faction to take. Secondly, if they end their turn on a space with an Encounter token, the player draws a card depicting various scenes from life in Scythe's world. Each Encounter presents the player with three options related to the scene, with each option offering some reward to the player. They don't have a huge impact on the game overall, but the Encounters breath a little bit of extra life and theme into the game, and make the world and game, feel more alive than it would otherwise.
A game of Scythe lasts until one player has managed to place all six of their Stars on the board. Stars can be placed for a number of different accomplishments, and, aside from combat, each accomplishment can only be completed once. Therefore, the most immediately apparent goal in the game is to race to place Stars and end the game. The winner isn't necessarily going to be the player who placed all of their Stars, though, as the player who ends the game with the most coins will win. This is where things get a bit more complex, and it begins to become apparent as to why there isn't an overt way to tell who is winning, nor whether each individual action taken is having a major, immediate impact.
Coins can be gained and spent directly during play, but they are also earned at the end of the game based on a number of factors. End-game coins are scored by each player based on the number of Stars they have placed, the number of territories on the board that they control, the number of goods that they control, and where they have built their Structures during the game. More is always better, but there is an additional factor, that being Popularity, to consider. Not only do each of those things earn players coins, but the number of coins for each is determined by the Popularity of that player's faction. The importance of Popularity would make it seem like players should make it their primary focus, and players can actually earn a Star by getting to the top of the Popularity track, but, as with just about every other aspect of Scythe, a focus on one goal is going to leave players seriously lagging behind in other areas.
There are ten possible ways for players to place Stars on the board, yet players only have six Stars each to place. Players can place a Star when they complete all six Upgrades, Deploy all four mechs, Build all four of buildings, Enlisting all four Recruits, placing all eight Workers, complete an Objective, reach the top of the Popularity track, reach the end of the Power track, and two Stars can be earned for winning Combat. How do players decide which six goals to shoot for and which four to ignore? That question forms the crux of Scythe, and that question is what makes the first play of the game feel so disjointed, but also what ultimately makes Scythe such a successful, fun experience.
If all things were equal, players would quickly find the most efficient path to victory, and effectively "solve" Scythe. Brilliantly, not only are Scythe's five Factions unique, but each of the game's five player mats are different from one another. While each Faction has a unique ability, and each Faction's mech upgrades are somewhat different from the others, it's the difference in the player mats that really ramp up the game's replayability and make each play of the game feel different and fresh.
In addition to determining the starting Popularity and number of Coins for each player, each player mat has the same set of top-row and bottom-row actions, but, the order of the top-row actions is different, as are the rewards for the bottom-row actions. Each player mat is separated into four sections, with each section containing one top-row and one bottom-row action. Because of the different layouts, as well as the different costs and rewards of the bottom-row actions, some player mats are more suitable for different strategies than others are, especially when paired with certain Factions. That doesn't mean players can't just do what they want, but certain actions will be more lucrative, or easier to take, if players play to the strengths of their particular player mat layout. This means that, in order to "solve" Scythe, or to even experience the game in every way, players would need to know the best course of action to take across all 25 different faction/player mat combos, which adds a significant amount of life and replayability to the game.
The player mats also house one of the most exciting and satisfying mechanics in Scythe, that being the Upgrade action. Each Upgrade action allows the player to remove a wooden cube from a top-row action, and place it next to one of the bottom-row actions. As each cube is moved, it makes the chosen top-row action better, while reducing the cost of the chosen bottom-row action. It's a win-win mechanic that is ultra satisfying to use, and it makes all of the actions, all of which give the players a constant sense of gain and progress, more efficient and fun to use. As you take more actions, you are able to do more with the actions, and so players always feel like they are working towards something. Scythe's system is a neat combination of worker placement and action selection, and is clever enough to allow players to pull off fun combos if they plan properly and utilize the layout of their player mat properly.
Even when players get a good feel for the approach that they should take, the other players can always throw a wrench in their gears, especially since any resources produced are kept directly on the Territories on the board. Scythe looks more like a war game than it actually is, but Combat is still a factor, even if it is used less often than the game's appearance would suggest. Area control, especially on the central Factory space (which not only permanently gives the controlling player a special action if they control it with their Character at the end of their turn, but it is also worth three territories during end-game scoring) can net players a ton of points at the end of the game, and players can use force to help achieve their goals or wrest control of valuable resources from their enemies. Combat is also the only goal that can award more than one single Star, so even the most confident players have to be careful when open ground starts to become more and more scarce, and players start to bump into each other as the game progresses. Players can't be too aggressive, though, because they will take hits to their Popularity for each enemy Worker that falls victim to their aggression. Even the threat of Combat can be enough to sway other players to change their plans, though, so players have to constantly stay on alert.
Thankfully, when push does come to shove, Scythe's Combat system is quick, tense, and exciting. Players have a Power wheel on which they decide how much of their current Power, up to seven, they are willing to spend. Each player can also add Combat Cards, with numbers ranging from two to five, equal to the number of combat-ready units are participating in the combat, after which both players reveal their totals simultaneously. The player with the higher number overall wins. This can lead to players bluffing and posturing for position as often as it leads to combat. Players can see exactly how much Power their opponent has, as well as how many Combat Cards they have, but they can never quite be sure of the value of those cards. Going all-in on the Power dial also cuts into a player's chance at getting to the end of the Power track and earning a Star that way, so there is always the consideration and guesswork of how much Power you think your opponent is willing to spend to emerge victorious. Thankfully, units defeated in Combat aren't removed from the game, but rather removed back to their player's starting space. This means that, while it can be a serious setback to lose a decisive battle, it is rarely absolutely crippling.
This brings me back to the initial, shaky impression that Scythe left me with. Even after many plays, it's difficult to tell who is in the lead, but this is actually a good thing, as it lets players focus on moving forward and avoids any "gang up on the leader" mentality that other games can have when you can tell that one player is currently in the lead. Each aspect of the game has a push-pull feel to it, and to focus on one area means to neglect at least one, if not multiple other aspects of the game. The open-ended nature of the game, and the need to grasp the nuances, and the way that nearly everything is connected, means that it's hard, if not impossible, to get a proper feel for the game after the initial play. I played a second time and it started to click. I played a third time and my "ummm" became "a-ha!" I kept playing and the game just kept expanding as I found new paths, combinations, routes, and strategies. After game six I wanted to immediately set it back up and play again, because things had begun to flow so smoothly, and we were having so much fun, that I couldn't wait to try a new strategy that I had come up with near the end of the game. After that many plays, most other board games that I keep would go up on the shelf, and only hit the table from time to time. At this point, each subsequent play of Scythe is more fun than the last, and I can't wait to play it again.
A note on player count: Scythe plays well across all player counts, although the potential for conflict and battle becomes more and more prevalent as player count rises. There is even a slickly designed solo mode, where an AI controls a non-player. The AI can also be used to add a non-player faction to multiplayer games, which is a sweet option to have.
A note on play time: Scythe claims to have a 115 minute playtime, which, while an oddly specific number, is fairly accurate. A game with five experienced players could easily finish under that mark, as turns fly by rapidly once players know the game and are able to formulate and focus on a strategy.
A note on “chrome”: Scythe is an awesome production from top to bottom. Everything about the components ooze quality, from the amazing art to the linen finish on the cards. You will be hard-pressed to find a more well-produced game. Even the rulebook stands out for its production values. It fits in with the theme, lays everything out wonderfully and has beautiful, and helpful, pictures of just about everything, making learning the game a snap.
The bottom line:
Scythe is an amazing game that presents tons of options to players and leaves it to them to blaze their own trail to victory. The game combines bits and pieces of various genres and, thankfully, merges them all into a game that feels familiar, yet entirely unique at the same time. It takes a few plays to figure out exactly what all of the options mean and how they impact the game overall, and it takes time to figure out how to combine it all successfully, but once players have a grasp of what they need to do to be successful, Scythe is a blast to play. Each game of Scythe that I've played has been more fun than the last, and the variable setup, as well as the different routes that can be taken to victory, mean that this is a game with serious legs. Scythe is a game for players who really like to play the games in their collection multiple times. If you like to dig into your games and play them over and over again, you should get a copy of Scythe as soon as you can.
Get this game if:
You like engine building games.
You like to play games in your collection multiple times.
You want a game that successfully marries 4X, Euro games, engine building, resource management, worker placement, action selection, and area control.
Avoid this game if:
You want a game focused on direct combat and war.
The copy of Scythe used for this review was purchased via Kickstarter pledge at the Art Connoisseur level.