Scythe Review – Simply Superb
Scythe is a very well known game. Released in 2016 by Stonemaier Games (and designer Jamey Stegmaier), Scythe has more-or-less remained in the top 10 board games on BGG since its release. This is for good reason. It is a very good game.
Set in an alternative 1920s Europe, Scythe sees players set out to gain control of Eastern Europe, and gain control of a central facility called “The Factory”.
Scythe is a phenomenal game, and although it has been a favourite of ours for three years, and we have written about it a lot, we’ve never actually reviewed it. With that in mind, we’re going to do just that – write a Scythe review.
Scythe Review: What is Scythe?
Scythe is a 1-5 player area control board game designed by Jamey Stegmaier and with absolutely superb art by Jakub Rozalski. In Scythe, as mentioned above, players take control of one of 5 factions in the base game, or 7 factions with the Invaders from Afar expansions added on.
The factions in the game are all asymmetrical, meaning there are variable player powers, making them all different to play, and it is in those factions that the game is really brought to life.
The factions in the game are:
Each one of those factions has its own strategy, linked to above.
Scythe takes part on a giant board, and it is representative of a larger Eastern Europe. That board covers all kinds of scenery, but it is known for five resources in particular – food, oil, metal, wood, and people.
As players play Scythe, they will populate the board, spreading out from their home bases, which are scattered around the outside of the board, and take control of the land. They will complete their own objectives, and battle it out with giant mechs the likes of which shake the world.
At the end, whoever has the most money is the winner; however, it isn’t quite that simple. There are a lot of routes to getting coins – from objectives and popularity to controlling the most territory.
How do you play Scythe?
There are so many nuances in Scythe that it is difficult to know where to start. With that in mind, in this section, we are going to look at some of the core concepts of the game. Scythe is a very large game, and we’re going to take a closer look at some of these rules in articles later on down the line. For now though, these are some of the core ideas.
Before we begin however, and before we describe certain aspects of the game, you can watch the official how to play Scythe video here.
Choosing a Faction
At the start of a game of Scythe each player chooses a faction. These, as mentioned above, are Nordic (Blue), Saxony (Black), Polania (White), Crimea (Yellow), and Rusviet (Red). Once they have chosen their faction, they choose the faction mat of that faction, the four mechs, and their character (as well as their general pieces). The faction mats determine the abilities, some of which are unlocked by unlocking mechs, and a faction ability that is always in play. Each player then takes a player mat, and covers certain areas with cubes and buildings.
The player mats are made out of four top actions and four bottom actions. Depending on the mat, those actions are joined in various different ways. If the top actions are A/B/C/D, and the bottom actions are 1/2/3/4, then there will be one mat that has A1 as a joining, and another mat may have A2. You get the idea.
Taking a Turn in Scythe
On your turn in Scythe, you take a player pawn and move it onto one of the actions before taking that action. You can take the top action, you can then take the bottom action. On your turn you have to move the pawn, meaning that you can’t do the special action twice in a row. That is, unless you are playing the Rusviet Union, in which case that is their special ability.
Now, this is a brilliant mechanic, and one that (later on) Villainous uses as well. If you ask me, Scythe does it better, but it is good to see this awesome mechanic making it into other games.
Top Row Actions and Bottom Row Actions
So, what can you do? Well, in no particular order you can bolster your forces. Two of the metrics within the game are power and popularity. Power comes in handy with fighting, and popularity helps determine the scoring of the game. Bolstering allows you to increase your power, or take combat cards to add to your collection. We’ll come onto how these are used later.
You can produce. Production means you can produce in a set number of hexes, gaining either oil, food, metal, wood, or gaining additional workers. The cost of production is determined by the number of workers you have.
You can move pieces – these can be mechs, workers, or your character. Alternatively, you can get money – and money means points.
The last top row action is trading. You can pay for resources or popularity. Popularity is a scale, and depending on where you are on that scale determines the number of points you get for certain aspects at the end of the game.
The bottom actions are slightly more complex. Again, in no particular order –
You can upgrade. To upgrade you spend oil to remove a cube from the top, covering an action extension, and move it to a bottom action covering a cost. What this means is a top action gets better, and a bottom action gets cheaper.
Deploy is what the game is about. When you deploy, you spend metal to put a mech into action. Mechs, when on the faction mat, cover up additional abilities, but when put into the field (or onto the actual board), they uncover an additional ability. It is up to the player to choose which mech they want to put out, and those abilities are different per faction. The Saxony Empire, for instance, revolve mainly around combat. The Crimean Khanate revolve mainly around movement.
The build action allows you to put one of four buildings into an area you control. Each building improves a top action, whilst also providing a few additional bonuses. The Mine, for instance, allows for additional transport around the board. The Mill acts as a permanent worker on a tile, so will produce when the production action is used. The Monument and the Armoury have no specific abilities, but they do make top actions better – one adding the production of power and one the production of population.
Finally, there is enlisting recruits. Enlisting recruits gives you abilities based on what other players do. Whenever you, as the player, uses a bottom action where the recruit has been enlisted, or the players on your immediate left and right do it, you get the benefit.
Fighting Other Factions
Throughout the game there is the option to fight other players. To do this, players take a combat dial, and they turn it (without revealing it) to the number of power they want to spend whilst fighting the other player. Combat cards can then be added, based on the number of mechs or characters you have in the combat.
Dials are then revealed and the person with the highest number wins. The loser leaves any resource where they are, and their pieces get returned to their faction base. The winner claims the space.
Of course, a mech can attack a space with a worker, in which case no fight occurs. They just defeat the worker, sending them back. A faction loses a popularity for every worker they defeat.
Board Interactions: The Factory and Encounters
There is a space slap-bang in the centre of the board representing the Factory. If a player manages to get their character to the factory then they will choose a factory card. Factory cards add an extra space onto the player board. This gives additional abilities and options to choose from.
Encounters happen on specific spaces on the map, and they happen whenever a character lands on the space. These encounters offer three options – depending on the kind of player you want to be you can choose what action to take based on what rewards you get. The cards are themed, and they offer flavour to the game. Do you want to be benevolent, or do you want to rule with an iron fist.
One of the final aspects of the game are objective cards. All players are dealt two at the start of the game, but they only need to complete one.
Ending the Game
Okay, so those are the core aspects of the game. How do they call come together?
Well, they come together in a few ways. Firstly are the objectives. Throughout the game you have six stars. You get to place one star on the board for:
- Getting all 6 Upgrades
- Building all 4 Mechs
- Building all 4 Buildings
- Enlisting all 4 Recruits
- Getting all 8 additional Workers on the board
- Completing one Objective Card
- Winning Combat for the First Time
- Winning Combat for the Second Time
- Reaching maximum Popularity (18 Popularity)
- Reaching maximum Power (16 Power)
Once a player has completed all 6 they trigger the end of the game, and then the points/coins are added up.
As mentioned before, players get coins based on their popularity – and then based on the number of territories they control, the number of stars they managed to place, and coins for every two resources they control. The person with the most coins wins.
Scythe Review: Automa
So, that is the multiplayer, 2-5 player, game – but what about the solo game?
Well, let’s just cover this very quickly. The solo game is set up like a two player game. The other player, however, is controlled by a deck of cards. This will need to be reviewed at a later date, but it is an interesting take on the game. Everything is literally controlled by those cards.
It differs to a multiplayer game because the other player does not collect resources, their movement is less restricted, and they don’t have a player mat. They just take actions based on cards.
As I said, we’ll cover this is more detail another time.
What is it like playing Scythe?
Wow. That’s over 1000 words of how to play and we’ve barely even begun. This wouldn’t be a Scythe review if we didn’t look at precisely what it is like to play the game? The question is, Scythe is currently rated the 9th best board game of all time. Does it deserve it?
General Praise for Scythe
Oh yes. Yes, Scythe deserves it. Scythe is a phenomenal game, and a game that easily makes it as one of our all time favourite games. The question is, why?
Well, you see, Scythe does a lot of things. Although a relatively simple concept, it is a game that keeps on giving. What is more, everything works like an absolute charm. It is smooth, and slick, and it just works.
Take the player board as an example. I’ve already sung the praises of the player board in this article, and mentioned how now Villainous have done something similar, but it is such a simple mechanic that works so well. You always know what your options are, and this keeps the play really simple. It is easy for play to continue and maintain momentum as on each turn there are only a set number of actions you can do.
There are so many aspects to Scythe that are, simply put, impressive. The upgrade and mech actions mean that the game has an epic feel, where what you can do continuously improves and evolves. It is rare a game can get that epic feel and still only take 90 minutes to two hours to play.
The mechs are one of the greatest things about Scythe. They not only help bring the board to life, but their abilities make each faction unique. We have never played a game where players haven’t wanted to get as many mechs onto the board as possible. What is even nicer is that each faction has their own unique build so their personality really shines through.
Scythe and the Strategic Focus
Okay, so those are a few aspects of the game that really pop – but what is Scythe like to play? Well, the best way I can describe it is as a territory control game meets a strategy game meets a war game meets something entirely different. Scythe is a bit of a unique experience so far as that is concerned, yet it is definitely a highly strategic game that deserves to be played.
One of the best things about combat, in my opinion, is that it is not a game that relies on the combat systems of games like Twilight Imperium, or other dice based games. Instead, it is possible to look at an opponent and work out if they can beat you based on the cards in your hand and the power on the board. This means that there is very little luck or randomness within the player interaction. Yes, of course, any game with decks has some aspect of randomness, but Scythe really cuts down on the kind of randomness that can cause frustration.
Instead, Scythe is about being able to optimise your turns and plan them out with exact precision. Rather than being a game where you can just do random actions and hope for the best, it is possible where you can plan turns a way in advance.
This is especially the case when in a game with fewer players rather than large numbers of players. There is more room to play in a smaller player game, but the game can become quite militaristic with larger counts.
The Factory, the upgrades, the recruits, and the mechs. All of those work together to create this amazing holistic approach. What all these upgrades mean is that there is a constant sense of progression within Scythe, no matter what faction you are playing as. Each one gets their own abilities that make them unique and fun to play. Each faction is good at specific things, and that too helps build towards this well rounded game.
The Factory provides an interesting focus to the game. It allows for players to look towards the middle of the board and move towards it, forcing player interaction and creating tension on the board. What is more, the cards it adds are really interesting. They create a whole new dynamic and make it feel like your faction is really growing.
The Factory also adds an additional victory goal. As a territory it is worth more.
The Success of Scythe
Scythe was initially Kickstarted back in 2016, raising a whopping $1,810,294. Not only is it a beautiful game, deserving of that success, but mixes all kinds of fantastic concepts together creating a hybrid game that works beautifully.
Scythe has aspects of Eurogames, whilst also having similar concepts to American Style games. It uses meeples and miniatures. It places the players in complete control, offering strategy that can be as complex as you want to make it. Generally speaking, a superb game.
TL;DR: Scythe Review – The Good, The Bad, and The Mechs
Like all games we can now break Scythe down into its constituent points.
- Scythe is a highly strategic game. It is as complex as you want to make it, but it is still easy to learn.
- The pieces and components are simply excellent. They look superb and each faction has its own look/feel.
- The way actions are taken is incredibly well thought through. The action taking mechanic, with the player mats is a mechanic that needs to be used elsewhere.
- The use of mechs, the Factory, and the upgrades give a real feel of progression throughout the game. This gives the feel that each persons faction is growing more and more unique. It is evolving as the game goes on.
- The resource management aspect of Scythe is superb. Resource management is exhilarating, as it gives the possibility of other players robbing you of your resources.
- The Encounter cards add flavour to the game, and although each faction has a backstory (which may be explored in another article in the future) the Encounter cards give you the chance to flesh out your character and what they are like in their own right.
- There is a common criticism that does need to be recognised – and that is that it can sometimes feel like you are playing your own game with limited player interaction. This can be the case within a two player game; however, the busier the board gets the harder it is to avoid other players. Personally, I have never found it an issue, but it does need mentioning.
- I feel like, for objectivity purposes, we need to find a fault. The box could be slightly more forgiving when packing up and putting away. It is somewhat a squeeze to get everything in…oh who am I kidding? Even the box is the right size!
Conclusion: Scythe Review
There is no other way to put it – Scythe is an excellent game. It is absolutely stunning, and there is no doubt that I (for one) would list it in my favourite games of all time. It excels in so many areas that it is hard to pick faults with it. Now there is that criticism, that sometimes it can feel like you are playing your own game, but I don’t think that is a major problem. Scythe is unique and brilliant, and will take you on a ride every time you play.
There are also two expansions, which we have unboxed in the past, but which we haven’t ever talked about beyond that. Those two expansions are The Wind’s Gambit and Invaders from Afar. The former of those adds airships with which to populate your alternative 1920s Eastern Europe. The latter adds two additional factions – Clan Albion and the Togawa Shogunate.
So, yes, I wholeheartedly recommend Scythe. My partner recommends Scythe. Everyone else I know who has played Scythe will recommend Scythe. YES. Scythe is good.
So, there we have it – one review of Scythe. You can probably see why I’ve held off writing it for so long. It’s simply superb, but this review has now been over 3000 words!
Now over to you – what are your thoughts? Do you like Scythe? Do you think it lived up to the hype? Let me know in the comments below.