Scythe (pronounced “scy” the “the” is silent) is a farming tool that was never really popular in South Africa. We always had the Panga. It’s also a weapon, we have no shortage of those (see Panga). In this instance it’s a board game about farming and fighting, only your scythes are actually giant steam punk styled mecha from the 1920’s.
Scythe is arguably one of the most hyped games of the past year. It started life as a Kickstarter from Stonemaier Games. Incidentally it’s the first KS that I’ve backed. Actually, I withdrew my KS pledge and went through a local distributor that was planning on bringing in multiple copies. Technically I backed it but not through KS itself.
For the TL;DR version click here.
Opening the box
- Specs on the box:
- 1 – 5 players
- Ages 12+ (I think it’s 14+ but the rules are very easy to understand)
- 115 minutes
Ok, let’s start with the box itself. It’s gorgeous. The art by Jakub Rozalski is simply fantastic, I purchased the Art Connoisseur Collector’s Edition. It’s numbered and has various upgraded components including an art book that is simply marvellous. I think I’m actually going to purchase some framed prints from Jakub, after some saving, to hang in my study.
Once we get inside the box we are greeted with a heck of a lot of components. Faction mats, player mats, 5 decks of cards and 5 combat dials. There are 5 sets of wooden components, in each of the faction colours as well 5 sets of plastic models that are unique to each faction. It’s not CMON quality plastic but it’s very pretty.
Then there are the resources. I’ve got the awesome upgraded resources, in the regular version you will have wooden versions of these. I’ve also got metal coins; standard version will have cardboard counters. The regular version won’t detract from the game but the upgrades do add a little something extra. I always find that a good looking table just elevates the game a little, and the upgraded tactile feel is great too.
Next up is the board, again it’s stunning and it’s big. It’s double sided but the reverse side is meant to be used with yet another upgrade. This makes the board even bigger. The bigger board zooms in on the stunning art so you can view it in all of its glory. Again, not having it isn’t the end of the world. All of these upgrades are available for purchase at a price.
Lastly we have the rule books. Well laid out, written in easy to understand English. Plenty of pictures with some really good examples and designer notes make them easy to read.
There are 3 different sizes of cards in the box so I’ve had to buy 3 different sizes of sleeves.
Scythe takes place in an alternate 1920’s. After the great war has ended, it was a war fuelled by a mysterious factory which supplied all sides with powerful Mecha and fantastic weaponry.
The Factory has fallen silent and closed its doors. All of the countries bordering its land are curious about what happened and want to annex the land for their empire. To do this they send in their heroes to build up forces, to acquire wealth and to protect that wealth.
With the volume of components can make setup seem quite daunting but it’s actually not. Randomly give each player a faction board and player mat. They then grab all of the wooden and plastic pieces for their faction and set them up on their player mat. Each player will place their hero and 2 of their workers on the board in their starting positions.
Then you setup the Encounter, Combat, Secret Objective and Factory decks as well as the bonus point card on the board. You will also place encounter tokens on the marked spaces on the board. Based on their faction and mat combination players will start the game with a different number of combat cards and coins as well as Power and Popularity which are measured on tracks on the board. Each player will also draw Secret Objectives and then you are good to go.
Each of the player mats is unique and numbered. The player with the lowest numbered mat will go first and then play will continue in a clockwise direction. The mats are also divided into 4 different sections. Each of these sections has a top and bottom row on them and counts as a set of actions you can perform in your turn.
During your turn you will select a section on your matt and perform either, neither or both of the actions on the top and bottom row of that section. It’s important to note that you cannot select the same section in consecutive turns, unless you are playing with the Rusviet Union, a faction which has a special ability that allows them to do so.
All of the actions usually follow the formula of Pay and cost and get a benefit. The Move action is the only action that does not have a cost. If you see a red square then you pay whatever is depicted in the square. It could be coins, resources, popularity or power. Then you look at all of the green squares and you gain whatever is in those squares. It’s quite simple really.
The top row actions generally focus around using your forces to do stuff. You can move around the board or harvest resources from the different territories that you occupy. You can also trade coins for resources or bolster your power and popularity.
A note on movement
You have 2 different types of units on the board. Wooden workers, plastic Mecha and your plastic Hero. Workers will move around the board carrying and harvesting resources. You Mecha can carry your workers and resources around the board. Only the Plastic models can move around the board and initiate combat with other plastic models.
So your workers can’t fight, only your hero and your mecha. If a fighting unit moves into a space that only has non-combat units they run away screaming about the big bully that chased them away. When they do this they drop any resources that they have been carrying and the attacker will lose popularity as news of his bullying is carried through the countryside.
Combat is a relatively simple affair and only happens when plastic models meet. Each player has an amount of power that’s common knowledge. They also have numbered combat cards. Each player will secretly decide how much combat to spend on their combat dials and if they will be playing any combat cards. Then they reveal their decision simultaneously the player with the higher total (power spent + number on the cards) wins.
In addition to combat and expanding territory your hero can explore. If you get your hero to the factory you will be able to salvage a piece of technology that will grant you a bonus action. This comes from the Factory deck so you want to get there first to get the best pick.
If your hero ends the turn on a space with an encounter token you discard that token and draw a card from the encounter deck. This card will depict a scene that you have sound and then you will have a choice of 3 actions depending on what is happening in the scene. You might give a farmer some advice on how to power up a mech that he has salvaged, which will gain you popularity or you could take the mech from him by force, that might cost you popularity but you would get a mech for free.
Back to the actions…
The bottom row actions are all about growing your forces and stamping your dominance on the board. You have to pay resources (which you gain from the top row actions) to deploy Mechs which grant you special abilities. With your actions you can build structures which give you passive bonuses on some actions. You can also enlist recruits to help you in your war effort or you can upgrade your actions to improve the effectiveness of your top row actions while at the same time reducing the costs of your bottom row actions.
Whenever you max out one of your actions, eg deploy your last mech, build your last structure or get all of your workers on the board or get to the top of your power or popularity tracks you get an achievement star. The moment someone places their 6th star on the board the game will end and final scoring will begin.
Scoring is done by adding up all of your coins and then getting bonus coins based on how popular you are and any bonus coin you might have scored from the bonus card. The wealthiest player is the winner.
So I’ve used a lot of words just now to describe how the game plays. I’m doing the game an injustice. It’s not full of words, it’s actually very lean. Some would call it streamlined but I think lean is the correct term. Everything has been boiled down to its absolute minimum. There’s no mess, no fuss. Everything has a purpose, it’s super easy to understand and get playing.
It also plays VERY well. On a turn you will usually only have 3 sets of actions to choose from but the strategy is derived from how you order your actions and how you use your 3 starting territories. Each faction starts in a different area of the board and they have different abilities which allow them to break a rule somehow.
They are also hemmed into their starting locations by rivers and lakes, until they build tunnels to allow passage underneath the rivers or a mech which will give them the ability to walk across them.
From there you’ve got a game of resource and action management. You want to stay ahead of the curve spreading your influence fast but also defending your gains. At times you will want to attack other players but this isn’t really a game of combat, it’s more of the threat of combat that will influence a players actions. Winning combat can grant you up to 2 stars, which is a 3rd of the way to ending the game and having the most stars will give you extra coins. Don’t forget the amount of bonus coins will be dependent on your popularity. You won’t be popular if you fight a lot.
Every single card in the game has unique, painted art on it, bar the combat deck. The components are of a very high quality. The rules are dead simple and the game is exceptionally well balanced. There are very few games, about which, you can say “If you only buy 1 game a year then this is the one to get”. Scythe is one of those games.
It’s not for everyone, if you like games with lots of combat and lots of theme then this might not be for you. It does not tell an epic story of close, memorable encounters as you play. What it does do is deliver an epic game.
How does it play solo?
Scythe makes use of an Automa system. Think AI and you won’t be far off. The Automa uses a deck of cards to determine its actions for the round. It has no player mat so the deck abstracts some of the ideas of the game and takes actions as if the Automa was steadily advancing in technology and abilities.
I know it sounds odd but it’s wonderful. It actually feels like you’re playing against a human. For me most of these ‘Euro style wargames’ don’t really have much in the way of direct player interaction. You are essentially playing a multiplayer puzzle with other players blocking or using the pieces that you wanted to make your picture. The Automa does a fantastic job of replicating that.
There are rules for playing with multiple human players against 1 or more Automa players, or for playing solo against multiple Automa players. They were never published in the rule book as they were not fully tested and balanced but they work great. If you’re interested, you can find them here.
Can I play this at a braai?
Scythe is not a difficulty game to play; it’s not a heavy game either. I’m sure in some groups the game can take a while but for most it’ll be a good afternoon’s fun and you will have plenty of time to tend to the food while the game is going on.