$1.8 million on Kickstarter emphasises the sheer hype and hysteria surrounding Scythe. If you haven’t played it before, you almost certainly have heard of it in one way or another. Scythe sees players enter an alternate history where they are each creating their own empire of monstrous mechs and industrious workers.
The aim of this 4x game (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) is to control areas of the board, gather resources, earn coins, and build an efficient engine. Once a player completes six achievements, the game end is triggered and final scoring is calculated.
Scythe is designed by Jamey Stegmaier, published by Stonemaier Games, and plays 1-5 players in around two hours. There is an expansion available that extends the player count to 6-7, but that will add to the playtime (you’ve been warned). I’ve played the game with 2-5 players and, from my experience, the game takes around thirty minutes per player.
Don’t let the potential length of a higher player count deter you though! Scythe immerses you into its world delightfully, through beautiful artwork from Jakub Rozalski.
At the start of the game, each player chooses a faction and player mat. Each of these mats is completely unique, and can be combined in many different ways! The faction mats provide players with a special ability, four mechs (that also add a unique special ability once built), and their starting power and combat cards.
On your player mat is where your engine-building plans take shape. Each board is separated into four sections, each with a top row action and a bottom row action. The actions are mixed and matched on each player board, making play styles varied each time you play. Players have a leader miniature at their home base to start, with a worker on each of the two adjacent spaces.
On a turn, you may select one of the four sections on your player mat and execute the top row action, followed by the bottom row action. Top row actions include:
- Move - players move any of their pieces around the board following movement rules.
- Produce - workers on particular hexes may gain a resource of that respective hex.
- Trade - pay a coin to gain two resources of the player’s choice.
- Bolster - pay a coin to gain power.
After completing a top row action, players may activate the bottom row action of the same section. This is where the real engine building begins. The upgrade action allows players to move a cube that is covering a benefit on a top row action, and place it on a red payment space on a bottom row action. Thus making the top row action more beneficial and the bottom row action cheaper next time. Lovely.
The deploy action allows players to build a mech and place it with a worker on the board. The mechs can be built in any order from their faction board and add a special ability to every mech currently out there in the world, as well as your leader.
When activating the build action, players chose a building from their player mat to place out onto the board with a worker. Once a building is removed from the player mat, it will uncover a new benefit for that action.
The enlist action allows the player to pick up a recruit token from the player mat and place it in any available one-time bonus space on your faction mat, immediately gaining that depicted bonus. When the Recruit token is moved it will show an ongoing bonus. For the rest of the game, whenever you or the players on either side of you use this bottom row action, you gain the specified bonus. The management of the player mats is key to success and enjoyment in a game of Scythe.
As players take their actions and move around the board, they will be having encounters with the locals, visiting the factory, and taking part in combat to determine control of a territory. Encounters cause players to draw a card from the encounter deck, which contains a visual scene of what can be seen in that hex. The player then decides what to do in that situation, which could influence their popularity with the locals. Some of the encounters do seem a bit unbalanced, but the excellent imagery and humour used in some of the choices just add to the theme of the game.
Visiting the factory allows players to acquire a whole new action that can only be used by them, and is unique from every other action. Each game has one more factory card than the player count to choose from. The actions can be very powerful and can reward the player who gets to the factory first. However, upgraded actions on your player mat can prove more beneficial as time goes by.
Combat occurs when two players have their pieces in the same hex. Players choose how much power they would like to use in the battle (using the power dial) as well as any combat cards that they choose to use. The player with the highest total power wins and forces the opposing player to retreat to the home base.
In my experience combat can be few and far between, particularly with lower player counts (2-3 players). It’s the intimidation factor of seeing how much power a player has, the number of combat cards, and the number of mechs nearby that can force players to simply stay out of each other's way!
Players who win their first two battles acquire an achievement star for doing so. These are two of the 10 possible ways to achieve an achievement star. They are also awarded for players who deploy all their mechs, build all of their structures, upgrade all of their actions, activate all of their enlist actions, max out the popularity or power tracks, or complete an objective card.
The game continues until one player completes six achievements. The achievement stars are worth many points at the end of the game but are not the be-all and end-all. If your engine is efficient, you’ve got decent control of the board, and high popularity, you should be in with a shout of winning even if you didn’t get six achievement stars out.
Stonemaier Games have an ever-growing reputation for producing some very beautiful games, and Scythe is no exception. In fact, it can be argued it's the pick of the bunch. The artwork is second to none and does a fantastic job of immersing players into the world.
The board is extremely detailed and well thought out, but it can be overwhelming at first glance. However, after a few rounds, players can see the necessity for each track, deck, and hex. Players are never too far away from one another either. The board implements a tunnel system that all players are free to use. This allows players to move quickly about the board to gain territory and then back to the factory hex in the centre of the board if they choose.
Scythe’s wooden tokens, card stock, and plastic miniatures are great. Each faction has its own mould for its leader, mechs, and workers, which is a nice touch that most game publishers don’t tend to do. It adds another differing factor between the factions on the board (as well as aiding colour blind players).
I was fortunate enough to back the Kickstarter and chose to go with the Collector’s Edition as it added the metal coins, Stonemaier realistic resource tokens, and a larger board. All of which are available as add-ons to the game if you’re that way inclined like I am!
Scythe is an excellent game that smashes together great euro-style mechanisms and superb thematic gameplay. I was worried when I heard the 4x game label being attached to this one. I think it does a good job, but it’s not the best 4x game out there. Labels aside, this is an outstanding engine-building game that keeps players engaged, throwing up some interesting choices and memorable moments.
It’s the management of the player mat that dragged me into the game. The choices and decisions a player needs to make are interesting and important. There are so many avenues to explore and so many combinations of faction and player mats to combine, that tactics and strategies need to adapt for different combinations.
However, I will stress the importance of the popularity track. Low popularity can prove damaging, as it acts as a multiplier for end game scoring. In my plays of Scythe, that seems to be the only consistent strategy that I use.
I’ve read in forums online that the game can suffer from players taking too long on turns, which has disengaged and distracted players. I’m lucky enough to be in an analysis paralysis-free game group so I haven’t been a victim of this, but I can see how this can be a problem. If you or a member of your game group has a tendency to overthink a game when too many choices are offered, then the playtime can take a bit longer than previously mentioned.
I have not played the solo game of Scythe so I can’t comment on how it plays, or if it’s any good. The two-player game is fine but is a lot less confrontational. In fact, there is rarely a combat situation at all! I think the sweet spot for the game is at four players. Having five or more players would result in too many combats in my opinion. If you’re looking for combat in an area control game I suggest taking a look at Kemet.
All in all, Scythe’s ability to drag me into its theme and core mechanisms has seen it become my favourite game I’ve ever played. I enjoy the engine building, intimidation before the war, and the sheer amount of choices available to players. The production value is through the roof and it’s a game that will be in my collection for a very long time.
Editors note: This blog was originally published on November 12th, 2018. Updated on November 23rd, 2021 to improve the information available.