Type: Euro / Area Control
Time to play: 90-120 minutes (Teaching: 25 minutes)
Best played with: 5 Player (2 – 5 Players)
There is an age old view that euro games (games with lots of engine building / points creation mechanics) and war games (games with minis on a map fighting for land) are distinctly different and for different types of players. The idea that a game could thread the needle between these two types of games can seem almost heresy to some, but in my view that is exactly the ambition and success of Scythe.
Scythe, the base game and not including the expansions, is a complex and lengthy game which combines the development of a very agricultural economy and a combative military regime. As you start the game, war is a long way away from you – barely able to build a single military vehicle, or have enough power to survive one fight, you scratch about the fields building up resources and starting the momentum behind your economy. You snowball this economy up to the point of your first military weapons and then use that to branch out across the map. Slowly at first, but then with quick expansion and eventual war – for resources, for land or simply for war’s own sake.
This escalation of the economy, of power and of boldness amongst all the players is pushed by the race to gain stars. Almost lacking in theme, these stars are the legacy that your economy will leave on the world – what will the history books remember you for? The fact that as soon as one player hits the sixth star the game ends, means that players become incredibly focused on racing to achieve their goals.
Most goals are public, and over time you can work out which of the public goals people are going for and that you should be going for. One public goal, is the achievement of one of two private goals you had at the start of the game. They are normally quite easy but will also lead you down the path to other goals. Will you choose a peaceful, economic push to your goal or will you take both of the military opportunities to strike quickly and end the game?
The fact that there are more goals that you need is telling – you really can play this game very differently every time. There are different ways to open, and different ways to play the mid game and a vast variety of ways to play the end game. Sure, you want to stay opportunistic and take advantage of what others leave for you, but there is a lot of branches that reward the player and offer clear paths to victory. Most of these paths leave you one or two turns apart from other players reaching their end games, and so this game becomes incredibly rewarding through a complex branching network that seems to always end up close to other players’ choices despite a vast gap between the play styles.
All this might sound complex, but at the core of the game is a brilliantly simple player board – a board with four action choices and each with two parts. The rules are so simple in this respect – pick a tile (of the four), and play either or both the top and bottom section. Each section of the tile will see you pay something and gain something (sometimes the payment is zero but the mechanics are the same). The simplicity of the choices makes a complex games suddenly accessible. New players can simply attempt one of four options at the start and that’s it.
Okay, you can get a fifth by visiting the factory and there is asymmetry between the player boards, but the options are very understandable. It’s a clear and simple structure. There also aren’t main currencies in this game – coins are key and resources are varied, but the small number of these helps again to make the game manageable.
The game adds richness to this simplicity though by allowing you to benefit from the building and action choices of your neighbour. Small upgrades allow you to gain more upgrades from the adjacent players. A slight weakness if the new player in the group is next to you, but amongst experienced players this is a fascinating game mechanic.
One other rich part of the game is that most players cannot take the same action two turns in a row. You would have to move to a new action in a sort of “worker placement” mechanic and not take the same action again. This makes it much harder to rush towards a simple goal (and makes you build multiple paths at all times).
Mastery of this game therefore takes times, but it is highly rewarding. Don’t expect to win on your first attempt, and certainly expect the experienced euro players to be able to build an operating engine much bigger and stronger than yours. However, if one player is regularly the winner or pulling out ahead the other players can combine to make life harder for them. Pushing back on territory or perhaps even attacking makes the most of this tight and cut-throat map. Where players start behind restrictive rivers, once the economy grows there is plenty of risk from players stampeding each other.
It’s a shock to me therefore when someone doesn’t like this game. In fact, it’s a shock when it’s not in the top ten. However, it’s true that some people won’t like this game. The game won’t appeal to players who dislike a small and highly impactful combat game – this is not a death by a thousand cuts, but a winner takes all knife fight. The loser in a war may become victim to other players as the loss of cards / power makes them a vulnerable target. An experience like this in your first game will put you off, but you can mitigate it in the future with practice.
Also, players can find the abrupt finish frustrating. It’s a core tenant for some euro players that all players should have equal turns and that is not true here. Whilst some like the ability to determine game ends, I have heard many play with a variant to even the turns.
If these don’t stop you though, you will really enjoy Scythe and I hope you check it out.
- If you like games with engine building and war then this combination is incredibly clever
- If you don’t like that moment where you feel the game slip away and a player rush off into the distance, be mindful of the war!
- If you win, swap roles and try again