4X games excite me because of their potential; what they promise to be. When I first receive one of these games, I hold the box and wonder what stories lie within. What civilizations will rise? What empires will fall? What battles will come? What will be found as we explore the depths of the galaxy or expanses of lands? I guess my love of these games stems from my love of big, sweeping, epic stories. You can thank my Star Wars childhood for this.
So when I heard Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games start talking about Scythe I was immediately on the hook for it. Set in an alternate history that combines a post-World War I society with giant mechs, the story already spoke to me. Then he described it as a 4x worker placement style game. Behind 4x games, worker placement is my second favorite type of game to play. Ok, Jamey, you can have my money now. As videos came out about the game I also saw a Terra Mystica-style player board and a Kemet-style combat system. Scythe was effectively mashing together some of my favorite board game mechanisms.
But can one game really combine all these things into one box and pull it off? That’s the question I hope to answer so stay tuned.
If you prefer to watch rather than read, check out our video below. If not, keep reading.
Let me speak briefly to the theme. The post World War I alternate history with mechs theme is one I have not seen before. I really appreciate new themes when they add something to the experience. In this case, the war is over and the major power has fallen so now smaller factions are setting out to stake their claims on the land and its many resources. This is a fresh and interesting theme that I want to dive into.
COMPONENTS AND ART
I cannot speak to the final physical components of the game yet as I have only played this via Tabletopia, but if they are anything like the pictures I have seen or Stonemaier’s previous productions these will be great. I will update the review once I have the physical game in hand.
The art in Scythe is phenomenal. Jamey has stated that the art by Jakub Rozalski is what inspired Scythe to begin with and I believe it. It is inspirational. I am greatly looking forward to seeing it on the final printed game. I feel like I should say so much more about the art but I will just let it speak for itself. Check out the link above to see more of Jakub’s art or look through the Tabletopia screenshots here.
We now offer plans so that you can build a box insert to store the base game and first expansion.
Scythe is mechanically plentiful which is typical of a 4X game. This is why these games can be so daunting, usually having massive rule sets. Scythe’s rule set is not small, but the mechanisms are woven together in a way that makes the game feel less heavy than its 4X siblings. Because of this, I found that teaching the game was pretty simple. Let’s dive into some of the mechanisms that make Scythe tick.
One of the things that make Scythe approachable is its simple method of selecting actions. You have 4 actions spaces on your player board and will select one per turn by placing a token on it. You cannot take the action you took on the previous turn. This one action per turn combined with the fact that you really only have 3 choices each turn (since 1 is off limits) make for quick turns and little downtime.
Additionally, there are two actions per space. You can take one or the other or both (if you can afford it). Each action board combines these top and bottom actions in different ways which will change your strategy depending on which board you have.
Engine Building and Upgrades
Your player board is made up of two parts: your faction board and action board. Your mechs sit on your faction board and some buildings sit on the action board at the beginning of the game. As you build your mechs and buildings onto the main board you will uncover new abilities to use throughout the game or enhance your actions in some way. This has a very Terra Mystica-like feel to it which I love.
Scythe is mechanically plentiful, but each one fits the design so well. There are no Frankenstein mechanisms.
Upgrades work similarly and ingeniously. Seriously, this is one of the simplest upgrade systems I have seen, but it manages to have a deep impact on the game. When you take an upgrade action you will simply move a cube from a top action (uncovering a benefit) to a bottom action (covering a cost). So you are increasing your benefit of one action while decreasing the cost of another. And an upgrade cube can be moved from any action space to any action space making them very flexible. Brilliantly simple and another reason this game easy to teach and learn.
When you take a produce action you get to choose a certain number of hexes on the main board that you have workers on to produce resources. Each hex has a type of resource it produces. You produce one resource per worker you have on that space. Again, simple and intuitive
I both love and dislike that those resources stay on the board. It is really neat that you keep your resources on the board as it makes them vulnerable to attacks, but found it harder to keep track of exactly what resources I had to spend since they were spread out on the board.
Combat in Scythe is rarer than in most 4X games I have played due to the price that comes with it. The people of the land respond negatively to you if you are aggressive towards them. Makes sense, right? The threat of combat is pretty constant so you have to be aware of it and prepared for it. This creates tension in the game for both the potential aggressor and defender. As an aggressor, you have to weigh whether the positives out weight the negatives. If there are workers present in an area you want to attack you will lose some popularity which is really important. This means that bringing your workers along can be a good thing to do as it acts as a deterrent to attacks against you.
The meta game surrounding combat is as interesting as combat itself.
If you will notice, I haven’t even talked about the nuts and bolts of combat yet since the metagame surrounding combat is at least as interesting as combat itself.
Sometimes combat will be inevitable or advantageous so here is how it works. Each player has a power level indicated on the main board. They will use a dial to secretly decide how much of that power to spend (up to 7). Then you can select a card per unit in the combat (also secretly) and tuck these behind the dial. These cards will add to your total power. Once both players have done this they will simultaneously reveal their power. The player with the most power wins, forcing the loser to retreat back to their home base.
Part of me wishes there was a bit more to combat, but this combat system feels right at home in Scythe. Simple yet providing lots of choices.
Encounters are the way that you explore the lands of Scythe. If you move your character unit into an area with an Encounter token you will draw an Encounter card. This card will provide you with several choices of how you will interact with the people of the area. Some choices will offer you a small benefit at no cost while others will offer you a large benefit at a cost.
I appreciate in Scythe that when you move into an area you know what resources it will produce, but I am glad that you still get the feeling of exploring through these cards. It strikes an interesting balance between known and unknown information. In some 4X games, you can explore and get completely random stuff that you don’t need or want which can slow your engine down. Not so in Scythe. You know what you are walking into resource-wise and you get the potential of a benefit as well. If you pay a cost associated with an Encounter you, the player, have chosen to do so.
A game of Scythe will end when a player puts their last star token on the board. Star tokens signify achievements in the game. These achievements include constructing all of your buildings, winning a combat, having your Power at the max level, building all of your mechs, and several more. Once someone puts their 6th star on the board the game ends but the player with the most stars is not automatically the winner. Players then score points for each of their stars, territories, and resources they have. The number of points they score for these things depends on their popularity. The higher their popularity, the more points they will score for each so it is vital to keep your popularity as high as possible. This popularity represents how popular your faction is with the people of the land.
One of my favorite things about Scythe is that the people matter.
This is one of my favorite things about Scythe: the people matter. You can have lots of achievements, territory, or resources, but if you have not appealed to your people you can still lose. This makes Scythe less a race to the finish by any means necessary and more a balancing act. Your actions have consequences and I love how this is represented in the final game scoring.
BRINGING IT TOGETHER
The theme, art, and mechanisms of Scythe all come together marvelously to create a game that is both beautiful and unique in the 4X genre. It presents simple yet deep choices to players. It is not bogged down by massive amounts of text or Frankenstein mechanisms as some 4X games are. Everything fits to create a tight gaming experience in an interesting world full of interesting choices. This all adds up to a fun game. It most definitely fits my taste in games and I backed it on Kickstarter. If anything I have mentioned so far sounds interesting to you I would recommend that you go buy it (if it is available).
After multiple plays, Scythe holds up really well and it ended up being our number one game of 2016. I have seen multiple different strategies lead to victory. It is also a fairly simple game to teach considering all of the moving pieces. The first expansion that came out (a second is coming at the end of 2017) simply adds more variety to a game that already had so much by introducing 2 new factions to play. Scythe is a meaty experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome and will be one of my go-to 4X games in the forseeable future.
My one quibble with the game is still its combat. It can be hit or miss. Sometimes it feels very tense and important while other times it feels flat without any interesting decisions to be made. I do appreciate the combat system’s simplicity but sometimes that simpleness means it is too easy to know exactly what to do or what the outcome will be.
We highly recommend Scythe and feel it is deserving of the praise it has garnered. This time the game lived up to the hype.
Try this game if you like:
- Action selection and resource management of Eclipse
- Combat of Kemet or Dune
- Player boards/engine building of Terra Mystica
IS SCYTHE A 4X GAME?
I have heard many people say that Scythe isn’t a true 4x game so I want to quickly address that. For me, if a game has any measure of all 4 Xes, it is a 4x game. If a game does not emphasize your favorite X or emphasizes one more than another it does not change the 4x-ness of the game. Scythe does have all 4.
Expanding and Exploiting are easy ones to check off as you are growing your territory and producing resources to grow your faction’s power. Exterminate is there in the combat. Most 4X games put actual combat as the centerpiece of the game or the thing that everyone is building towards. Scythe does it differently. It makes you use combat carefully. It makes the threat of combat as important as combat itself. I appreciate this nuance and change of focus compared with other games of the genre. So check off Exterminate.
Explore is the other X that people are seeming to discount. In Scythe, exploring happens via the Encounter cards. As you move into new areas you are faced with decisions. No, you aren’t drawing a tile to see what is there, but you are still exploring the land through these encounters. I like this balance of knowing but still being presented with something unknown. It makes sense thematically. The land is known, it is the people you are, in a way, exploring. Which ties into the end game scoring of Scythe. Your popularity with the people of the land is a very important part in determining who wins the game. As I said above, if a game has any measure of an X it counts. Therefore, Scythe is very much a 4X game.