I’m a big fan of Jamey Stegmaier’s previous games (Viticulture and Euphoria) and heard a lot of pre-release hype about his newest offering in Scythe, so had been eagerly looking forward to trying it out. It balances a lot of moving parts in a way that requires some getting used to, but provides a wonderful experience once things click in the players’ minds.
I debated leaving this section out, as I feel I’d have to get into much more depth than I want to for it to be truly explanatory, but I do want to give an idea of Scythe mechanics so I’ll do my best to highlight the most important aspects of playing Scythe in a somewhat accessible way.
Each player controls one of five factions (seven after the upcoming expansion) that starts in a specific area of the game board, and has a faction specific board that shows a unique faction power, some starting conditions, and slight variations on four additional abilities that will become available during the game if/when the player builds their four mechs.
In addition to a faction board, each player will use a separate, unique player board which with determine which actions can be taken during turns. Each board has a top and bottom row with four actions each, and on a turn you choose one “vertical” and do either or both the top and bottom action on that vertical. The top actions are identical across all player boards, including costs and benefits, but are in a different order from board to board. The bottom actions themselves are the same and they are in the same order on every board, but the costs and bonuses vary.
The top row actions all involve things on the main game board and/or one of the game’s four “currencies” (explained below). They are:
1) Move: move units on the game board or gain money.
2) Bolster: gain power or draw a combat card.
3) Trade: collect a set number of resources from the bank or gain popularity.
4) Produce: generate resources on certain hexes where you have workers (new workers are also gained using this action).
The bottom row actions directly affect your player and faction board (as well as sometimes adding things to the main game board) and generally enhance your powers or make actions more efficient/beneficial. They are:
1) Upgrade (costs oil): move a small block from somewhere on the top of your player board to somewhere on the bottom. This makes the top action you are moving the block from more beneficial and reduces the cost of the bottom action you are moving it to.
2) Deploy (costs steel): move one of your mechs from your faction board to a spot on the main game board where you have a worker.
3) Build (costs wood): move one of your four buildings from your player board to a spot on the main game board where you have a worker (and no other buildings). Two of the buildings provide additional abilities on the game board, and two of them make player board actions more beneficial.
4) Enlist (costs food): Move one of your “recruits” (cylindrical markers) from the player board to your faction board. This gives you a bonus when you (or any other player) does the bottom row action you moved the recruit from, and gives a one time bonus determined by which spot on the faction board the recruit was moved to.
Each bottom action will additionally give the player 0-3 money. The specific amount given for each action is what varies on the bottom row among the different player boards.
So the top actions generally increase things you can spend (besides move) and the bottom actions make taking individual actions better. The fact that each player’s board has different sets of these actions in each vertical along with different combinations of faction and player boards will force different tactics from game to game.
(For a small example, resources generated using the Produce top action can be used for that vertical’s bottom action the same turn. So if production is above Upgrade for me, I may be more likely to have my workers congregated on oil so I can produce it and upgrade in the same turn. If production is above Deploy for someone else, they may be slightly more interested in steel hexes early on.)
The four “currencies” of the game are:
1) Popularity: measures how much your faction is beloved by the population. Can be spent or lost in certain situations, and determines how much stars, territory, and resources are worth in end game scoring.
2) Power: measures military might, and is used in combat and spent in certain situations.
3) Money: measures your wealth ;), and in addition to being spent for certain actions, acts directly as victory points at the end of the game. The person with the most money wins.
4) Resources: there are four types of resources that can be produced (oil, steel, wood, and food) using different hexes on the game board. Each one is used for a different bottom row action as marked above.
Throughout the game, players can earn stars (place their star tokens on a achievement track on the game board) for a variety of things, mostly related to placing all of a particular type of piece or maxing out certain currencies.
Stars can be earned by achieving maximum popularity or power (one star each), building all of your upgrades, mechs, buildings, or recruits (one star each), winning a combat (up to two stars), completing a mission card (one star). Whenever any player places their sixth star, the game immediately ends. All players earn end game money bonuses based on their popularity and the number of stars they’ve placed, territories they control, and resources they control. Most money (after bonuses) wins.
There are a lot of details I left out (like the importance and function of the “factory” space in the center of the game board, the encounter cards featuring interesting choices and Jakub Różalski’s incredible art, etc) that both tie the above together and provide additional depth, but hopefully I’ve given the flavor of the main moving parts. The key to the game is that while there are all of these elements working together and a lot of rules to explain and keep track of, each players’ turn is kept manageable by it always boiling back down to “choose a vertical, do one or both actions on it.” I found everything fit well once the game got going and I understood how it all worked in conjunction.
It did take me a full game to start to get an inkling of how to play strategically and our group was a bit split, with everyone enjoying it to some degree but some loving it right away and others finding it “one level of complexity too many.” I’d say there is a steeper learning curve than Viticulture and Euphoria. But my personal impression is there’s more depth too, so I think it’s well worth the slightly higher “start up cost” and I feel it becomes more accessible on subsequent plays.
One things that helps immeasurably is the incredible graphic design. Everything you can do in the game and all effects are represented in symbols on the various boards, so once a player gets the gist of the symbols there are constant, unobtrusive gameplay reminders at hand at all times. The theme is also beneficial in that respect, with the interactions of desperate elements making sense within what they represent thematically. I also find the theme/game world fun and immersive.
Having faction specific character and mech abilities that are separate from the slight variation in action costs and rewards on the player boards is a fantastic way to increase replayability and depth. The flip side of this is players must be willing to be open to letting player board (not just the faction board and special powers) guide strategy to some extent, which can take a little getting used to.
There are a lot of interesting choices to be made, and I love the mechanic of choosing one “vertical” on your player board per turn and concentrating on one to two key actions to keep things manageable yet complex. I found an unusual combination of planning and flexibility is needed to do well, and am enjoying that aspect immensely.
The game plays differently with more players, but retains the same general feel and atmosphere as it scales and the set board worked well at the 2 and 4 player level games I’ve played.
I participated in the Kickstarter for Scythe and got the Collector’s Edition, so even beyond Stonemaier’s general excellent production quality, my version of Scythe shines even more with realistic resources, wooden stars, etc. None of it’s necessary, but I adore the extra layer of visual impact and the weight and feel of the tokens.
Scythe definitely has a learning curve and is Stonemaier’s heaviest game yet, but I was pretty well acclimated after a single game and I adore the way it comes together. This is a unique game that won’t necessarily appeal to all fans of Jamey’s other offerings, but players who can take it for what it is and enjoy adapting to (somewhat) constantly changing situations and balancing needed actions with required currencies will find a thoroughly enjoyable (and quite possibly addictive) experience here.