Designer: Jamey Stegmaier
Artist: Jakub Rozalski
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Number of Players: 1-5
The ashes from the first Great War still darken the snow in 1920s Europa. 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. With characters from five factions converging onto a small but highly desired swath of land, who will gain fame and fortune by establishing their empire as the leader of Eastern Europa?
Scythe is a board game that combines the amazing artwork of an alternate-history Europe with strategic resource gathering and engine building gameplay. It is a hybrid of Euro-style and American-style games: think Catan with direct player conflict and mechs. I would be remiss not to mention the game's crowdfunding and hype: the game was successfully Kickstarted to the tune of $1.8 million dollars, making it one of the most financially successful board game Kickstarters of all time. The game itself has skyrocketed to almost universal acclaim, reaching the 19th ranked spot for Overall Best Game on BoardGameGeek, and the 10th spot for Best Strategy Game (as of the publishing of this review).
I personally backed the Art Connoisseur's edition of the Kickstarter, meaning that I received some nice perks like updated resource components, metal coins, and an extended board that increases the size by half. But the best add-on I received with this edition was the coffee table art book, featuring full-page spreads and concepts of the designs by artist Jakub Rozalski (check out more of his amazing artwork here). I'm a little bit obsessed with this game. OK, a lot obsessed. I'm the one who started the TVTropes page on it. If that's not fandom, I don't know what is.
In Scythe, each player represents one of five distinct factions fighting for control of land around "The Factory," a mysterious workshop operated by real-life historical figure and mad scientist Nikola Tesla. Players take on the role of a faction hero and their animal companion. You start the game with your character and two workers, but as the game progresses you will add more workers, buildings, and of course mechs. Each mech upgrade increases your abilities, including improved movement and combat tricks unique to your character.
The character acts as an actual character. Besides engaging in combat (which the mechs can do as well), character pieces are needed to access the Encounters scattered throughout the board. An Encounter gives you a gorgeous picture and three choices which range from simply beneficial to absurdly powerful, provided you can pay for them. The pictures and text description allow for a tiny bit of roleplaying for those who like to add story to their games, but other than that they're just extra flavor. Character pieces are also the only ones that gain a special Factory card if they make it to the center hex. This card gives them a whole new set of abilities other characters won't have, and whoever owns that space at the end of the games gets a bonus.
The goal of the game, just like life itself, is to end with the most money. The game ends when any player has placed 6 stars on the victory track. Think of these as a series of objectives that are attempted during the game. There are 10 total and you can only do 6, so choosing which to work for is part of the strategy. These objectives include engaging in combat, becoming the most powerful, becoming the most popular, upgrading all of your abilities, deploying all of your mechs and/or workers, building all of your structures, enlisting all of your recruits... almost anything the game asks you to do leads to a star. At the end of the game, you get extra money depending on how many stars you placed, how many resources you have left over, how many land hexes you control, and if you placed your buildings in specific locations.
Each player chooses a character board, depicting which faction they'll play, and a player mat that shows them which actions they can take each turn. Every faction has different abilities: the Rusviet Union can take the same actions turn after turn, the Nordic Kingdom's workers can cross rivers, etc. Additionally, each player mat has different costs for their actions. All players have the same actions, but the costs will change. One player might need three metal to make a mech, but another might need four.
Each turn, a player has a choice of one of four sections of the player mat, and each of those sections has a top and bottom action. A player can only pick from the section they did not choose last turn, and they can do the top and/or bottom action.
The game can be complicated to explain but is actually quite simple to play once the basic rules are understood. Once you see how each action works and how one can seamlessly support another, the game becomes incredibly simple and the strategy begins to unfold. The games gives as much help as it possibly can, supplying reference cards, a suggested order of what to do on your first couple of turns, and an incredibly detailed and easy to read rulebook. The creator is also very active on the BoardGameGeek forums, and often personally answers rule inquiries. If you're interested in how to play the game, I recommend viewing the excellent "Scythe - How to Play" from Rodney Smith's Watch It Played series, which does a terrific job of explaining the rules.
The two stand out mechanics/rules that struck me when playing this game involve 1) how resources work, and 2) the upgrade system.
1) Players need to produce four types of resources to help pay for certain actions. But unlike most games where you would take the resource and keep it in front of you and away from other players, here the resources always stay on the board until you spend them or move them to another spot. They can be carried around by any character, and a player that kicks you out of a hex with resources then gets access to those resources.
2) The bottom actions (enlist, deploy, upgrade, and build) all cost resources, and depending on your player board they can cost anywhere from 1 to 4 just to take those actions. When you choose to upgrade an action, you move a cube from the top action and cover a bottom action. The result is then two-fold: your top actions give you more since you uncovered an ability (you can move an extra unit or produce resources on one extra hex for example), and the bottom action becomes cheaper (now instead of three metal to make a mech, you only need two for example).
The components themselves are excellent. My copy has the special resource tokens which look and feel amazing, as well as metal coins that really add a nice touch. The characters models are fantastic, and the mechs are fun to move around and create a threatening presence for your opponents. I still get a giddy feeling every time I get to deploy a mech. The game is gorgeous to look at, and the board is filled with little details and easter eggs.
All types of players
One of the things I enjoy the most about Scythe is how it caters to different play styles. It's not really a war game: combat is infrequent and very balanced so that being too aggressive can make you weaker later on. That being said, if a player wants to be aggressive, they certainly can be. If a player just wants to be left alone and build their little corner of the board, they can do that as well. But in the end, players have to be aware of what others are doing, because once those stars start hitting the victory track, the game starts taking off. I've completed 2, 3, and 4 player games, and each player count offers its own unique challenges. There is a solo mode that I have yet to play, but looks fun and challenging, and I've yet to play with 5 players but I imagine it is quite chaotic. The game changes a lot based on the personalities of the people you're playing with, which means introducing it to new players will always offer a novel experience.
Because there are five factions with five player boards, it creates 25 possible combinations each game. And even then, you're up against different types of players who focus on different goals: is playing as a Nordic with an Engineering mat going to work well against the Rusviets and their Agricultural map? And how many players are we taking into account? What special Objective card did you start the game with? What Encounters will you find? Do you make it to the Factory or no? The game has a lot of options and choices, and I've yet to play the same game twice. This is one of those rare experiences that can take one to two hours, but I'd want to play again the minute it's over.
I highly recommend this game. If you can't get a copy, find someone who does. It's a bit hard to find at the moment, and it will be a bit pricey when it becomes available, currently retailing at $80 MSRP without any of the promotional extras, but it's not far off from a lot similar games and there are plenty of retailers selling it at a discount. In the meantime, this gets a 5/5 from me.