2016 Is over. So, it’s about time I review one of my favourite games of the year. It’s Scythe, Jamey Stegmaier’s Kickstarter success with beautiful artwork and lovely gameplay.
Set in an alternative-universe Eastern Europe in the 1920s with mechs roaming the countryside. You farm goods, conquer regions and try to win over the people and gain popularity.
Players start with their own faction. These factions have their own faction leader, their own mechs, their own home base on the board and their own characteristics, or powers. Combined with a randomly drawn player board, every board is slightly different, you have unique starting conditions.
The goal of the game is to have the most money in the end. The game ends when a player has achieved six goals, when he or she placed six star tokens on the achievement board. There are many goals to achieve. Like, place all mechs on the board, win a battle, place all your workers on the board or fulfill one goal card. Things like that.
You achieve these goals throughout the game by doing actions and you do that by moving your action token to one of four action areas on your player board and execute one, or two actions. Every action area has a top action and a bottom action. You have to execute one of them, but, if you can and want to, you can execute both.
You can move you leader, mechs or workers with the move action. Moving triggers battles, encounters and allows you to produce more or other resources in later turns. Another top action is produce and you can only produce goods in areas where you have a worker. These goods don’t go into your supply, no, they stay on the main board. The player who controls an area with goods on it, can use those goods. The third top action is bolster. In this way you can make your faction stronger by adding strength via the strength track or by taking a battle card. When you encounter another faction when you move your mechs or leader you have to battle. You then spend strength, secretly on a dial, and assign battle cards. How many points you can spend depends on the value on the strength track and the size of your army in that area. The player with the highest total strength value, cards plus dial, wins. The last top action you can choose in trade. Here you basically spend money to get goods.
You need these goods to execute the bottom actions. Which bottom action belongs to which top action and how much goods they cost depends on your personal player board.
One of these bottom actions is the upgrade action. With this action you can make a top action better by removing a cube from a top action area, and make another bottom row action cheaper by placing the same cube there. So, you open up a space on the top and covering up a space on the bottom row. The second bottom action you can do is deploy one of your four mechs. That’s useful in battle and by deploying a mech you open up a new faction ability that involves the way you can move or how you handle battles, for instance. Thirdly, as an action you might want to build structures. These structure also improve the top actions. Lastly, you can enlist. You then take one of your four recruit tokens from your player board and place it on your faction board. This gives you a one-time bonus, but also, and maybe more importantly, it gives you a bonus whenever you or one of your neighbours executes the bottom action to which that recruit belonged to.
One by one players will take actions. They move from one area to anther, they produce, they fight, they build, they improve and they try to control these areas until the game ends. Then you will get coins in three categories. How much coins depends on how well you score in these categories and how popular you are. You get coins for every star you placed, goal you achieved. You get coins for every territory you control. And coins for every two resource tokens you control. Lastly, at the beginning of the game a card is drawn that depicts structure placement conditions, you also get coins if, and for how many structures, you met this condition.
The player with the most coins may consider him or herself the winner of Scythe.
What was true for others, was also true for me, it was the art of this game that initially grabbed my attention. Then I saw that the game had leader miniatures, mech miniatures and was about fighting. I was hesitant, because normalcy I’m not drawn to ‘these kind of games’. There are exceptions, but I my thoughts were ‘lets wait and see’. Luckily a friend of mine was quickly convinced by the game’s promise and backed the game in all its glory. Along the way, as I saw and heard more about the game, I got more and more interested in Scythe and once the game was in my friend’s possession I could not wait to play it.
We first played a two player game, which was loads of fun, but the game is at its best when more people are involved. Scythe is basically a Euro game in disguise and I won’t be surprised if many ‘ameritrash’ gamers were a bit disappointed when they played the game for the first time. If they expected that American style game of course.
Scythe is just very clever. It is not very innovative, but it shows that you don’t have to be to make a really great game. The game has some very familiar (Euro) mechanisms. The battle system reminds me a bit of another game I enjoy: Kemet. You can travel quickly over the board, because of the tunnels, and the way you resolve your battles, by secretly assigning strength points via your dial and cards to your units, is pretty cool as well. I say secretly, but I think you can calculate a lot. You can see the amount of strength other player are able to assign and you know the range of values that could be depicted on the battle cards they have in their hands. So, it’s a matter of calculation and a bit of chance. For me this is far more interesting than a roll of a die.
The player boards remind me a bit of games like Terra Mystica and, more recently, Great Western Trail. Throughout the game you open up spaces, and make actions better, by removing cubes or build structures. This is a cool idea. In this way you can tweak your own faction. Especially in Scythe, because you not only remove a cube from your board, that’s the first decision you have to take, the first opportunity where you can divert from the other players, but, you also have to place that cube on one of the available spots in the bottom action areas.
This, in combination with the fact that all factions are different anyway with their special abilities, allows you to focus on different areas of the game, depending on which faction you play with and how you upgraded your faction.
I do have to say that near the end of the game this differentiation in upgrades fades away a bit, because most of the possible cubes and tokens that could be removed from one place and are relocated to other are gone. Not all, but many.
I do have to say that I haven’t played the game nearly enough to tell you if the different factions are balance or if some factions are better than the other. I can only tell that in every game I played I played with a different faction and with every faction I was able to compete (read: win).
On to the storytelling. This game has been praised, deservedly, for its look; for its components and mostly for its artwork. Art tells a story and you cannot help yourself wandering around in this new and unknown world when you look at the artwork on the cards. The game itself also has some story moments, which I did not discuss in detail above. When your leader comes across an encounter token you must draw an encounter card. That card tells you about an encounter you are having at that moment and it gives you three options how to react and what you get if you choose to react in certain way. The better the reward the higher the penalty, mostly. If you meet someone and take everything he owns, you wont be surprised that you lose some popularity. You must know that these encounter won’t happen often. There are only eleven encounter locations on the board and in the games I’ve played they were never all triggered.
I do like these story elements, but they’re just a minor aspect of the game. Managing your resources is the most important one. Therefore it’s important to control the area where these resources are located. Because you need to be able to produce and eventuality use these goods. You need to manage your resources well, because you want to get the most benefits from the action in your turn. You need to work your way to a situation where you can execute both the bottom and top actions in most of your turns. In this way you will be the most efficient.
I love to think about this stuff. You have to make sure that you have enough goods and then you think ‘oh, then I just put out all the workers I own’. Well that’s another funny thing. The more workers you have on the board, the more expensive it gets to place new workers. You need to pay with strength, or even popularity when you want a larger workforce.
So yes, you have to manage everything, from your workers to the goods to the cubes on your player board, and all the time knowing that the areas you control suddenly can be invaded by other factions. Destroying the plan you have. It sounds bad, but it’s all part of the charm of this game. It adds flavour, it adds excitement.
Now I come to the last point I want to make. When you first see this game you might be deceived, like I said above, by all the miniatures and all the moving parts. It’s looks heavy. However, Scythe is actually not a very heavy game. It’s a pretty streamlined Euro game. Although there are quite a few rules, it all plays very smoothly. Everything makes sense somehow.
All combined; the illustrations, the mini’s, the minor story elements and the solid game underneath, makes Scythe one of the highlights of 2016 for me. I would recommend to everyone who likes a good Euro game to, at least, play it once.