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Scythe Encounter Cards Analysis – The Price of Popularity

Scythe is an incredible game. More or less since the day it came out, it has remained in the top 10 games according to the online board game database – Board Game Geek. It is a game of area control and conflict, popularity and resource generation, mechs and myth. Scythe is a game that uses countless mechanics in a fantastical array of skill and competition. It is brilliantly constructed and amazingly put together.

Since around three months after Start Your Meeples started, Scythe has been a popular topic of conversation on this blog. We’ve looked at the game in general, as well as strategies for the core factions. We’ve unboxed the expansions and explored minor aspects of the game. Today we are going to look at something a little bit different as we delve headfirst into the world of alternate history and mechanical wonders.

If you are reading this article, I am going to assume you know the basics of Scythe, and you know how to play. You will be familiar with one of the core aspects of the game – a neat little mechanic that adds a bit of story and role play. Today we will be exploring that mechanic in more detail.

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Two Player Game

Encounter Cards are Scythe‘s way of adding a bit more choice into the game and explore the non-combative side of being a leader in the altered version of Europe. As the leader of each faction lands on an Encounter Token they pick up a card. That card will present them with a bit of a choice for a series of awards. One is normally the popular choice of the people, one is more based around paying for services, and one tends to be taking what you need no matter the cost. For all intents and purposes, and to massively over simplify the choice, these could be called Popular, Economic, and Self Serving.

So, what is an example? Well, this is card Number 13 (chosen at random):

  1. Enjoy an Afternoon Festival with the Commoners – Gain $2 and 1 Popularity
  2. Enter a Battle of Wits and Lose on Purpose – Pay $2 to gain 2 Power and 2 Popularity
  3. Drink Too Much and Raid the Store House – Pay 3 Popularity and Gain Any 5 Resources.

As you can see, as the choice becomes more ambiguous, it also becomes more lucrative in certain ways. You end up paying with money, or paying in popularity, but the payout is bigger.

This article has been on my list for a while. Today we are going to analyse the Encounter Cards to see (once and for all) what the true cost of kindness or villainy is.

Scythe Encounter Cards: Analysis Background and Rules

How to analyse the encounter cards has been a bit of a tricky point. Firstly, they vary a fair amount, and secondly, there are a lot of them. First thing is we need to establish some rules.

  1. This is only an analysis of the 28 encounter cards in the base game.
  2. The effects need to be quantified. This means we need 14 categories –
    1. Gain Food
    2. Gain Wood
    3. Gain Metal
    4. Gain Oil
    5. Gain Money
    6. Gain a Combat Card
    7. Gain Popularity
    8. Gain Power
    9. Build a Structure
    10. Build a Mech
    11. Gain a Worker
    12. Gain a Recruit
    13. Gain Any Type of Resource
    14. Gain an Upgrade
  3. When attributing a cost of something (for example, on Card 13 the third option is “pay 3 popularity to gain any 5 resources”) we count the “pay” action as a cost, and thus a negative against the resource.

Using those rules it is possible to quantify every aspect of the encounter cards. In this article we will not be constantly quoting the text, but will instead only quote text of a select few cards as examples. We will refer to the cards by numbers 1-28. We will also refer to the options as Popular (being the option that is kindness and leads to the gaining of popularity), Economic (being the option that tends to cost for resources), and Self Serving (being the meanest and least popular, whilst gaining a lot in return).

If you own a copy of Scythe you can follow along with your own deck of Encounter Cards, as they are all numbered in the top corner.

In regards to the actual analysis, this comes from three matrices and some rather nifty IF functions, calculated in Excel. What it allows for us to do is look at all the cards individually, as well as being a collective whole. Neat, eh? The things you can do with an empty Tuesday evening.

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ALL the resources!

Looking at Individual Cards in Scythe

The goal of this article is, essentially speaking, not about morality or kindness. Instead, it is to look at the data in an objective way to see what the true effects are of choosing any specific option in Scythe. To do this, we need to delve into the cards, and there are definitely two different ways of showing the data. Those are by card and as a collective.

To begin with, we are going to look at a few cards, as well as what the actual options are. To make things easier, we are not going to look at all 28 cards (sorry) but instead will look at a selection. For this, we are going to look at one and then all the multiples of 5 – 1, 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25. Choosing those 6 cards will give us an idea of what the options, and we’ll explore these in more detail to see what the text is like on some of the individual cards. We will also put the options into graphs to visualise the data.

Encounter Card 1: Geese

Encounter Card 1

  1. Whistle while you wait for the geese to cross the road: Gain $2 and 1 popularity
  2. Pay the girl for her pet geese – or, as you call them, “Dinner”: Pay $2 to gain 4 food.
  3. Feed he geese to your animal and claim the farm as your own: Pay 2 popularity to build one structure.

Encounter Card 5: Soldier Camp

Encounter Card 5

  1. Go fishing with the soldiers by posing as locals: Gain $2 and gain 1 popularity.
  2. Bribe the soldiers for their mech: Pay $4 to deploy one mech.
  3. Wait until dusk to invade the camp: Pay 2 popularity to gain 2 food and 2 metal.

Encounter Card 10: Mech in the Fog

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Encounter Card 10

  1. Steer the disorientated mech through the fog with your lantern: Gain 2 oil and 1 popularity.
  2. Pay the stranded man for his mech: Pay $4 to deploy one mech.
  3. Shout nonsense until the mech comes close enough for you to rob it: Pay 2 popularity to gain $2 and any 2 resources.

Encounter Card 15: Caravan

Encounter Card 15

  1. Take a ride on a ferry as the wind tussles your long, flowing hair: Gain 2 popularity.
  2. Trade with the caravan for a variety of goods: Pay $2 to gain any 3 resources.
  3. Pillage the travellers’ wares at gunpoint: Pay 3 popularity to gain any 5 resources

Encounter Card 20: Treehouse

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Encounter Card 20

  1. Observe a childhood game of war: Gain 1 combat card and 1 popularity
  2. Toss some coins to the kids on behalf of your faction: Pay $2 to gain 3 popularity.
  3. Cut down the tree to signal an end to the age of innocence: Pay 2 popularity to gain 4 wood.

Encounter Card 25: Secret Facility

Encounter Card 25

  1. Salvage ammo from a secret underground facility: Gain 2 power and 1 popularity.
  2. Bribe the researches to give you an advanced weapon: Pay $2 to gain 4 power.
  3. Spy on the researchers’ secrets after pretending to befriend them: Pay 2 popularity to gain 1 upgrade and any 2 resources.

Analysing Individual Encounter Cards

When looking at the above, calling the options Popular, Economic, and Self Serving may be a bit of a sweeping statement, but you can see what we mean. There are a few really interesting comparisons that can be made.

The first is that it is accurate to call the first option the popular one. By this, we of course don’t mean that it is the popular choice to be chosen, but instead it is the choice that leads to the most popularity. Every single one of the 28 encounter cards results in popularity being gained for the top option. The payoff? Well, it is slightly less.

Looking at Encounter Card 1, for instance, we see popularity gained along with $2. This isn’t a bad trade, as popularity is an awesome resource in the game; however, for the economic option we see a price of $2 for 4 food. This can seem like a better option. Yes, there is a cost, but it gets 4 resources rather than the $2.

Of course, all this depends on the kind of value you place on each resource in the actual game you are playing.

Analysing Scythe Encounter Cards Together

Like with a lot of data, we get a much larger picture if we analyse the results together, and here there are a few really surprising things that come out of the woodwork.

Firstly, we can look at the number of cards that affect each kind of resource. What this means is that, as an example, we can see that 8 cards have a positive food generation effect.

Encounter Cards by Resource Effect

Now there are a couple of points about the above. Firstly, it doesn’t take into account negative effects. For instance – all Popular options gain popularity, whereas all Self Serving options lose it. This shows as both having 28 cards with a popularity effect.

Next, we can see that upgrades are the rarest option to come across. There are no Popular ways of gaining structures, mechs, workers, recruits, having the choice of any resource, or by getting upgrades.

Finally, and this was what I found most surprising, there are no Popular options that allow for gaining wood. In fact, there are only 4 cards effects in total that allow for wood to be generated.

Next, what we can do is look at the odds of any of the positive effects coming up. What this does is negate any cost – so we don’t need to worry about the cost for the Economic option or the cost for the Self Serving option.

Encounter Card Options Percent.png

As we can see, you will always have the option for choosing an effect that will gain popularity. The popular option always gives that choice, whilst also giving the choice of a basic resource (and on occasion Combat Cards or Power…and not including wood). For the other two options, the choice of effect is likely to be more sporadic.

There is another form of analysis we can do and that is to calculate the net gain or loss of resources over the 28 different cards depending on the option you choose, and that graph looks a little bit like this –

Overall

That last graph really puts it into context. You can see the difference in the different resources. Choosing the Self Serving option will really eat at your popularity; however, it is the most likely to allow you to build a structure or mech. These are important as they can be vital to winning the game.

TL;DR – So What Does All This Mean?

Okay, let’s cut through the graphs and the data. What does all this mean? Well, to be frank, it all depends on the kind of game you want to play. If you want to play a balanced game focusing on building popularity, then you may want to choose the Popular option each time. It is the most versatile way of moving forward, and will never take resources away from you. It won’t gain you as many resources in return, but that is the price you have to pay for gaining popularity.

That may not be your strategy however. Instead, you may want to focus on faster resource generation through acquisition. None of the upgrades, mechs, structures, or recruits in the game cost coin, but they do all cost resources. This means you can purchase resources for the sake of gaining resources at a faster rate. Coin allows you to trade, but if you can get as much resource or more from a card, then why not do that instead?

The one option that does require more thought is the Self Serving option on the Encounter Card. Now, I mentioned earlier these aren’t necessarily the best names for the options, but for all intents and purposes, the third option is the most vicious, sneaky, or deceptive. Those third options force you to give up popularity, and pay with the love of the people. Is this worth it? Well, again, that depends how you want to see it.

If you are playing a conquest game, then it can be worth it. If, however, you are trying to keep your options open it may not be. My personal opinion is that popularity is too high a price to pay.

Why is this the case? Well, Scythe is, at its core, a territory control game, with points for end game conditions. Those points at the end are based on popularity.

Points By Popularity

What this means is that, by losing two popularity it could mean dropping from 5 points per star to 4, or 4 points per territory to 3, or 3 points per 2x resource to 2 points. This may not sound a lot, but if you end the game with 6 stars, 7 territories, and four resources, this is a swing of 15 points for the sake of two (or even one) popularity. When you look at it like that, then it really isn’t worth it.

This means that you really need to make sure you are in a secure position on the popularity track before taking that third option on the Encounter Cards, especially if it looks like the game will end soon.

Of course, you may not want to consider that at all. The other way to play the Encounter Cards is to add flavour and role play to the game. If you want to be a beloved leader then be a beloved leader. If you want to play the character who thrives for power, no matter the cost, then do that instead. The beauty of Scythe is that the choice is up to you.

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Starting off…

So, there we have it – an exploration of the Encounter Cards in Scythe. What is your opinion? Do you make your choices based on theme or what you need? Do you like to use the cards as roleplay or just resource generation? Let me know in the comments below.

You can read the other articles here:
The Nordic Kingdoms
The Polania Republic
The Crimean Khanate
The Rusviet Union
The Saxony Empire

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