Scythe – A Review

One of the nice things about summer that I missed last year because I was stuck in Thailand is coming back to Colorado and hanging out with my family. I get to catch up with everybody and see what they have been doing the last year. What I found out with my family is they all got into the same thing that I did, board games. It was a great way to keep our sanity while being locked away in our homes. But now that things have opened up again, and people are able to visit other people, these games are still there, but instead of playing them with the same people over and over again, we can now share them with other people. It seems like every house I visit from my family, they pull a board game off of the shelf for me to play. Some of these I have had some interaction with because I like to get the app on my tablet to try out games before I go out and buy them. One of these was Scythe published by Stonemaier games. I had heard about this area control game that blends in Eurogame rules to make a truly fun and exciting experience, so the app seemed like the right idea. This was not the way to go about understanding and appreciating the complexities of this game. Some games work better the other way around, play the physical copy first and then when you have trouble finding other people to play with you, then rush off to play a game on the app. I need the physical copy and the slower game play to wrap my head around this game, and when I did, I started to see how great of game Scythe really is.

I will look at this game in this review by looking at the overall theme, the gameplay, the artwork, the interactivity, and the expansions to this game that at the time of this review was sitting at the number 14 spot on Board Game Geek’s top 100 board games of all time.

THEME

The dust has just settled after the horrors that accompanied the Great War and the Bolshevik Revolution and Eastern Europe is left in disarray. Factions in the area are trying to rebuild their economy while carving out a part of the landscape that they can call their new country. Each faction has their own leader that has a focus on how going about rebuilding their lives and the lives of all their people, and oh, did I mention that technology had developed enough to include mechs that stand above the landscape to protect and battle other factions if necessary.

It is the weird alternative history that combines a science-fiction fantasy element behind a sense of realism that on paper does not look like it will work, but just like the game where you are forced to balance economic strategy with area control, the blending of these ideas work really well together. It creates an alternative world that is grounded enough in what you already know to keep you buying into the story you will start to play.

Rating – 9

GAMEPLAY

This is not a light game. There are a lot of rules going on as you collect resources to build building, support your mech army and explore the vast landscape of the board. Each faction has their own special ability and various player-boards are distributed to the players that means you will never have the same experience every time you play. The person you are closest to does not necessarily mean that you will encounter them first as you both race to carve out your part of the board because there are tunnels in the middle of the board that allows for easy access to almost any other location on the board, but I do recommend that you spread out as much as you can based on the number of players because if there is somebody off by themselves, they can easily control more of the board. The final point count is not based on money alone as there are points distributed for the amount of goals that have been met, the amount of places occupied at the end of the game, and the amount of resources and money that is in a person’s control. You can have a clear idea about who is in the lead as the game goes on, but there is no way to no for sure until the dust settles. It allows for some competitive game play that extends beyond the niceties of most Eurogames, and adds a little bit more of an edge to the game.

There are many different conditions for victory ranging from releasing all of your workers or mechs, maxing out on either the popularity or power tracks, winning two battles, gaining all your recruits or buildings, or completing you secret mission. The first person to complete six of these missions ends the game, causing everybody to stop what they are doing and count up their points. They can each fight to complete these objectives by placing a person on one of four spots on their board which will allow them to perform one of two combinations of actions that will push them closer to these goals. The only rule is that they can not complete the same action twice in a row.

Each one of these actions helps build an engine that grows in complexity as the game goes on. What starts off as being very simple and boring turns into a trigger that will set a lot of actions into play with the movement from any of the players. Getting to that first objective can take a long time, but once they start getting completed, it becomes a mad dash to be the first to complete six, and the game really speeds up by the end.

Overall, it is thoughtful and engaging. I made a couple of mistakes with my pieces early on, but was able to recover from these mistakes to still be competitive by the end of the game. I instantly finished the first game that I played and wanted to play again to do better based on the mistakes I had made. Not much is left to chance in this game either. Even the battle sequences are based on how many power points you have and how many you want to use to beat the other person. Of course there are a couple of places where a little bit of a gamble takes place, such as when you are first picking your play mat, picking combat cards, and encounter cards, but this is such a minimal part of the game that it will never impact the conclusion of the game. More of it is based on strategy and how you interact with other players. It combines all of the best things from area control games, Eurogames, and abstract strategy games to create a unique gameplay experience that will have you coming back again and again.

Rating – 10

ARTWORK

Most of the time the game is made first, and then an artist is hired to add flavor to the game. This is not the case with Scythe. Jamey Steigmaier came across some deiselpunk illustrations by Polish artist Jakub Rozalski in which farmers worked on fields in Eastern Europe with large mechs looming over them in the background. Steigmeaier used the bones of this story world that Rozalski had made to build upon it and develop this game. They work really well together and really help a person to immerse themselves into the landscape and the game. The paintings are combined with chunky resource tokens that depict the different resources that an individual can collect in the game that goes hand in hand with all of the meeples that really add to the landscpe.

If this wasn’t enough, it also comes with plastic minis that are specific for each faction. They are not only given four plastic mechs that will eventually emerge onto the game board. Each collection of mechs is different to highlight the different characteristics of each of the asymmetric player. Each faction is also given a leader which has some of the same qualities as the mechs during gameplay, plus a couple of other abilities that makes them the most important figure in play during the game. Each one of these characters is also unique and they are accompanied by a different animal that also adds to the overall aesthetic of the game.

The player game mats are also of high quality. There are a couple of levels to them which offer the perfect tactile places to put all of your playing pieces. Also as soon as you move them from one place on your player board to another place, it opens up parts of the player board that adds to the complexity of your game play. They are just a wonderfully fun feature to this already amazing game.

If there is any complaint about the artwork, it would have to be with the board. It is a little boring with symbols being used to highlight the different terrains that are available, but I couldn’t see any other way to get around this without making the game even more complicated. This is quickly dismissed as soon as the other pieces are placed on the board to make an exciting explosion of pieces and landscape by the time that last star is placed on the game track.

Rating – 10

INTERACTIVITY

This is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to economic games or Eurogames. These games are designed to be nice, and not cause animosity to happen between players so everybody can walk away feeling nice about the experience, even if they lost. The problem with this kind of game is that you spend so much time playing with your own board that you rarely look over to what you opponent is doing and also spend very little time interacting with them. I think this is a very important part of the reason to play board games, to come together with other individuals and play out a story that everybody can remember fondly.

Scythe has a nice twist to the worker placement Eurogame problem with interactivity. It mixes in this area control element, similar to Risk, but it does not create the animosity or backstabbing that the Parker Brothers classic does. It can be used for victory points and there are ways that you can steal other players’ resources to use to your own advantage, but it is not such a central part of the game that all you are thinking about is how to ruin other players’ chances of winning the game. The battles are not dictated by the chance role of the dice either. You can decide to duck out of a battle or put in everything you got, depending on how important the position of that location is to your overall path to victory. It makes battle cordial, and even if you lose, you do not feel like the whole game is over because you lost this one battle.

If you are also looking for interactivity in your board games, this is one that benefits from more people on the game board. I played with only three players, and the way we were situated around the board, I had a distinct advantage over the other players because neither of them were close enough to me to cause me any alarm; whereas, they were interacting with each other more often throughout the course of the game. I barely won the game, probably due to their proximity to each other, and me being left alone to my own devices. I felt that it would have played a little better with four or more people, and with the expansions, you can have a game up to seven people at one time. At that level, I can see it causing confusion about what is going on around the table at all times, but for a group who is really into the game, it could be a lot of fun.

For the most part, the game has that interactivity that I am looking for, but still holds onto the benefits of its Eurogame roots. It also requires a number of players to find that sweet spot that makes the game the perfect play for everybody involved.

Rating – 8

EXPANSIONS

I will lead off with the caveat that I have not played any of the expansions of this game yet, but I do like to look for those games that allow for complexity to happen to a game in order to keep it fresh and exciting as I continue to play it. There are three expansions available for this game at the writing of this review: Invaders from Afar, The Wind Gambit, and The Rise of Fenris.

Invaders from Afar adds two new factions with their own abilities to play with that would add a new twist to the game, but would not really expand on the gameplay much beyond just giving you new ways to explore for victory.

The Wind Gambit adds airships to the game with their own set of rules. It adds a little more depth to the game that allows for its complexity to add a refreshing renewal of the game for those that are looking for that moment to refresh their love of the game. It also adds resolution models giving another new way to gain that final victory that you are looking for.

The Rise of Fenris adds a campaign mode to the game that would give it more of a story flavor that is completely replay-able. It goes through eight scenarios that can add customization to the game to allow you to play the rules that you enjoy the most.

All three of these add new twists to the game that will have you pulling it out onto your game table again and again at a price that will not break your wallet. It is the kind of expansions that I look for when looking for the initial purchase of the game.

Rating – 9

OVERALL

I can see why this game has been around for as long as it has and maintained its spot among the list of best board games out there. It is thematic enough to get you engrossed in the story with exciting game play that is both strategic and thoughtful. Special intent went into the design of the game to bring people together when they are playing, even though this is what I find to be the weakest element to an all around great game. This is turning into a classic and I can see myself playing this game for many years to come.

RATING – 4.6 stars out of 5

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