The wheat falls and tumbles towards the earth like a family displaced by violence. Thunder. With a grunt, he pauses and looks towards the sky. Thunder. The towering mechanical beast breaks through the tree-line, its cannons bristling at attention like a firing squad about to serve. It trundles awkwardly through a neighboring farm, tearing apart the weathered barn like a boot displacing an ant-hill. A collection of voices chirp agony but are drowned out by the crescendo of rusted industrial whirring.
This is the world now. This is Scythe.
This juxtaposition of warfare and agronomics forms the allegory of Scythe’s duality. It’s a game of choices and opposition. Alternate history post-World War I Europa serves as your ocean and Moby is out there waiting.
Once you dive beyond the absolutely stunning Jakub Rozalski illustrations, you’ll get lost in Jamey Stegmaier’s intricately crafted design. At first blush, this is an area control game of dog-eat-dog paired with a modern Euro doctrine of resource collection and efficiency. Individually, I’m not sure either sphere stands alone as an accomplishment. The magic happens when you find the space in between and get a sensation for where the nodes connect.
One of those primary elements is Scythe’s notion of asymmetry. Players take on the role of separate fictionalized European nations competing for power by amassing the most currency at the end of the game. Your faction is distinct with a suite of abilities, and is paired with a random player mat that determines your unique combination of actions and how you will interface with the large map at the center of the table. This idea of faction individuality paired with randomized action groupings provides for a huge amount of depth to plumb.
The player mat is the heart of this game and its identity. Players all possess the same collection of actions, albeit at different costs. You have four separate options along the top section of your mat which gain you resources and workers. You can trigger production which places resource tokens on the board, gain currency, and even amass vital popularity.
After performing the top action in the section you choose, you may then trigger the bottom action at the listed cost. This will allow you to buy into the heavy acquisitions such as building mechs, achieving upgrades, and acquiring buildings. What’s particularly interesting is that each player is working with a mat that has their top and bottom actions paired in unique ways. So my produce may be paired with the purchase of mechs (cha-ching), while your produce is paired with the upgrade action.
One of the most fantastic elements resides in that upgrade action. This allows you to remove a cube from the top of your mat and place it in an open space on the bottom. The result is a top action being more productive while a bottom cost is less prohibitive. It’s immediately gratifying and offers an extremely comforting feedback loop to the player as well-timed actions beget additional momentum.
That mastering of momentum and synergy is the overriding strategic considerations in the design. It’s how you influence the board and affect change. Interaction comes primarily through the map where you will spread out workers and push into new territory with your mechanized giants. There’s large incentive to push towards the center space which drives conflict. It’s worth a great deal of points at the end of the game and it also provides for a permanent ability gained the first time you visit it.
This drive to the center coupled with efficiently managing an economy of actions is strongly reminiscent of the space epic Eclipse. Both feature a strategy arena that begins wide open, allowing you to explore and play in a field ripe for the picking. You can ignore the violent aspect of the game and focus on economy, or you can go all in on grabbing board position and projecting your dominance.
Each vector boasts incentive by rewarding you with the placement of a star to signify your achievement. These stars come off your personal mat and onto a track on the board to give a visual representation of accomplishment. By meeting explicit conditions such as building all four of your mechs or achieving all six of your upgrades, you can place a star which is worth a solid amount of money at game’s end. As soon as a player gets all six of their stars placed the game immediately concludes and final scoring begins.
A primary metric for your end game payout is your popularity. Popularity is primarily gained through actions and typically lost by displacing enemy civilians in combat. Here that duality of theme is enforced as players bid precious power in battle to conquer one another, but do so at the expense of reputation. The farther up the popularity track you go the more money you will earn at the end of the game for hexes controlled and stars placed.
That balance of popularity loss with conquest is a large element of Scythe’s personality. It’s a byproduct of the strong Euro bloodlines and keeps this game firmly distinct from more free-wheeling violence found in games like Blood Rage and Kemet. With that being said, depending on how the atmosphere shakes out, Scythe can still hold a great deal of conflict particularly at higher player counts when the map is congested.
The one main criticism you can level at Scythe is that the theme is sometimes stretched to the brink in service of gameplay. While the world is harsh, no one perishes in the game as combat losses return to your home base ready to be re-deployed. Mines, which litter the map and help keep everyone within close proximity, can give a disjointed visual of teleportation. These seams can be quickly forgotten when you hit the excellent choose-your-own-adventure style story encounters around the map. Narrative pops up like a giddy ground-hog and Jakub’s art grabs you by the throat, shaking any ill thoughts from your mind.
As an entire package, Scythe is something to marvel at. It’s well-oiled and brimming with confidence like a lumbering giant strutting across a wild field. It draws you in through sophisticated mechanisms and will not let you go until nations are tamed or countryside is scorched.
Are you excited to try Scythe? Did you back it on Kickstarter or just recently hear about it? Let us know in the comments below!
Images courtesy of Stonemaier games, and Calvin Wong/Ding & Dent