|Meeple Like Us
I’ll say this about Scythe – it doesn’t shy away from making a flamboyant entrance into your life. While there is nothing ostentatious or brash about the box, it has what is perhaps the most enticing cover art I’ve seen in any game. Anachronistic and yet coherent. Ambitious yet grounded. Agricultural and yet aggressive. It’s a bold creative direction that is beautifully carried through to the moment you open that box and experience the lavish production within.
Delving into Scythe’s interior feels like the first time you take possession of an iPhone. It’s a sensory experience that we rarely see even in high-end luxury board games. There’s an attention to detail here that makes you feel appreciated as a customer. Everything from the cardboard stock to the individualised minis for each faction is a seductive promise of what’s to come. There’s everything you want in here, but along with that comes a few things that maybe you don’t. For all its glitz and glamour, there’s also an undertone of over-compensation packed into the box. There’s a sense that perhaps someone is a little uneasy about letting the game speak for itself. Scythe is a magnificent product, and I’ll be the first to argue that to anyone that looks like they won’t be able to escape a monologue. What I’m looking for though are magnificent games and they don’t necessarily arrive with such fanfare.
Scythe is a game of engine-building and area control where multiple factions are battling for ownership and domination over the raw resources that dot the landscape. Those resources are vital because they’re what allow you to build structures, enlist recruits, upgrade your capabilities and build the marvelous mechs that are so prominently displayed on the artwork of the game. To gather resources you need workers, and workers can be moved around the map, either individually or riding pillion on the leg of any mech you have in the area. Scythe is primarily a game of optimising the way you can extract the maximum number of resources from the landscape arrayed in front of you. What with all the mech tech you have at your disposal that should be easy. And it would be… were it not for all the other players looking for riches of their own.
Every player in Scythe takes ownership of a faction mat and a player mat, and each of these has a unique combination of powers, benefits and weaknesses. The player mat spells out the costs of each of the actions that can be taken in the game, and these will have a differing cost for each player. Some player mats permit the construction of cheap mechs, others allow their owner an easier time in enlisting recruits. However, these advantages are interesting especially for their temporary lifespan. As time goes by players can upgrade their board to increase benefits and reduce costs of almost everything. Essentially what a player mat does is give you a momentum profile, showing you where you have advantage now and where you have weakness to overcome in the future. As time goes by, everyone will embark on an aggressive campaign of self-improvement where resources will be converted into upgrades and upgrades will be converted into efficiency. Your player mat defines your present, but it only dimly outlines your future.
That’s important, because resources are slow to generate and the logistics of gathering are onerous. Every action you take in the game, save for moving thing around, has a cost in coins, power or popularity. That’s part of the puzzle you need to solve in accomplishing your goals. The other part is that you can’t take the same action twice in a row, and that’s going to create some intense scenarios of angst as time goes by. Actions have a top row which is generally ‘fundamental activity’ and a bottom row which allows you to create mechs, upgrade capabilities, lay down structures or enlist recruits. These have a cost in resources but the impact that comes with taking them is significant. To build a mech you need iron, the amount of which is determined by your starting board and the upgrades you have managed to build. To get iron you need workers, and these workers are produced from hexes that contain villagers. You get a resource of the appropriate type for each worker on an appropriate hex, and in order for that to happen you need to move workers there. The move action only moves a subset of your workers at a time, and mechs may not be available – simply getting the right workers to the right squares at the right time is a complex supply chain all of its own and it’ll take longer to do than you might imagine. Get everything lined up and your actions are a graceful waltz, each movement leading inevitably into the next. If anything falls out of step your actions are more akin to falling down a set of creaky stairs – you’ll reach your destination but it’ll take longer and require more swearing than was strictly necessary.
But there’s more to Scythe than just this – to begin with all your forces are kept within a small geographical region, penned in by the wild and dangerous rivers on all sides. As you build mechs you will reveal new special powers that are unique to your faction, including the ability to move across water. This opens up more of the map, including the central factory that will grant players a fifth action they can bolt on to their board. The larger map will also offer more scenarios for consideration, if a player can move their leader to that location before anyone else. Those present you with a ‘moral dilemma’ style of question where you can choose between a modest, ethical reward or paying a popularity hit for a larger unethical one. These can be significant and as such even if you don’t fancy playing the part of a villain you’ll probably want to stop others from getting the choice.
But there’s more still! The recruits you enlist during play give you one off bonuses, but they also give you bonuses whenever an opponent sitting adjacent to you takes the action to which you assign them. These can add up to a lot over time since those bonuses are things like extra power, extra popularity, extra money, and extra combat cards.
Combat cards? Oh yes – all of this isn’t enough for Scythe – it also includes a combat system. This works by spending power and one-off combat cards to expel all of an opponent’s units from a territory leaving behind any resources they have gathered. As such, the presence of a mech or a leader can be an important deterrent – the more of these you have on a hex the more combat cards you can spend in defense and thus the more an opponent will likely have to commit to the assault.
Yeah, there’s a lot going on in Scythe and the remarkable thing about it is how well integrated all these systems are. Every part of the game feeds into every other part and as such everything feels meaningful. You build mechs for logistic support but they also serve as an important component of the escalating arms race around the table. You want the key bonuses offered by mech construction, so you need to mine metals, which means that you need to be recuiting ever more expensive workers to get the most out of your productions. All of that necessitates more mechs so you can conveniently get workers where they need to go and protect their riches until you can spend them.
All of this is incentivised by the scoring system that awards victory stars for completing key infrastructure goals – building all your structures, your mechs, your upgrades and so on. Each of these grants an important step towards victory as does winning in combat – but simply holding territory has an important score component too. Popularity is a currency for certain actions but it’s also a huge score multiplier at the end. Those scenarios where you sacrifice popularity for immediate gain seem less like a good deal as you get farther towards the end game, but in the early stages their advantages can seem too great to resist. There’s a remarkable sense of holistic design here. It’s a game where clearly someone has sat down and thought carefully about the reasons why everything might be done and considered how to maximise local impact across the whole game.
It’s not that every choice feels meaningful because there are plenty of times when you’re doing things you don’t really care about just because you can’t take your preferred option. However, it does feel like every time that happens it’s because of a flaw in how you’ve played, or an inefficiency that was forced on you by the result of enemy actions. You can always unravel the situations and find the point where you set up the circumstances of your current option impoverishment. Every action might not feel meaningful, but every one that didn’t feels like it was meant.
Perhaps the best metaphor for Scythe’s design is that of the spider. You sit at the centre of a web of choices and implications, and your web is gently overlaid on top of the web of another spider. When one part of their web reverberates, it causes a frisson to coruscate its way up your own. You can build parts of your web especially densely to more efficiently capture the echoes, but in the process you change the way every other interlinked web works. They build a mech so you move your leader to protect your workers. They move their worker to a scenario which grants them a recruit, which they attach to the produce action. Your production is now something that benefits them, which means that you want to maximise the benefit you get out of each produce so you can do it less often. You upgrade your production, and build a windmill that works like an extra, stationary worker. They build another mech, so you move your workers closer to your own base of operations where you can see an attack coming from far away. They build a tunnel, so you move your mechs to defend that point of ingress. They spread out. You turtle up. They overstretch themselves. You strike. The more factions you have on the board, the more sophisticated the dance will be. The more the webs will react to each other, and the more those reactions will react in turn.
It really is a lovely design, with few rough edges and absolutely no wasted parts. It’s clean, elegant and sophisticated and I understand entirely when people fall in love with Scythe. It has all the purring sophistication of a fine sportscar and the chrome and bodywork matches. Even the design of the user interface, which I will discuss more in the accessibility teardown, shows a designer working at the top of their game. There isn’t a part of Scythe that I can point to and reasonably describe it as a flaw as opposed to something that I personally don’t enjoy overmuch.
But there are a few areas where it might be a close thing.
The first is that there’s an odd dissonance with how the game is presented and how the gameplay actually functions. And yes, it’s the mechs – they are such a major, looming presence both in the art and on the board. And yes, they do play an important role in combat but if there’s any part of the game that feels underdeveloped it’s the role that mechs play. They feel more like buses than anything else – ‘battle viable’ if you drive them at high speed into another bus but not really exciting. It feels like much of the aesthetic of the game over-promises the mechs and under-delivers on their capabilities. I’d be as enthusiastic about building a tractor or a combine harvester. I’m sure both of those could be pressed into combat service too if the only enemy you were fighting was made up of other farmers. I don’t feel cheated. I just feel like I was maybe given leave to fool myself as to what I was getting into as a consequence of the phenomenally lovely artwork.
The second is that while the variable setup permits for a lot of variety, it also creates some structural systemic problems with how the factions and their territories work. Easy access to metal along with a cheap mech production cost can be an exceptionally powerful early-game combination. The first mech you buy will also unlock the ability to cross the game’s rivers. This can result in one player essentially having close to free reign over the board while everyone else is still painstakingly trying to mine their own awkwardly located metal resources. Everyone gets access to three resources and a scenario in their starting hexes, but those three resources aren’t necessarily fairly distributed when it comes to faction and player combinations. I can’t say I’ve played the hundreds of games of Scythe needed to go so far as to allege any fundamental mathematical imbalance, but the dozens of sessions I’ve had certainly gives me cause to be suspicious of a few combinations. Similarly, it’s possible for random events to hugely accelerate your progress and if that intersects with a faction or player board advantage you might well see yourself racing ahead of where anyone else can reasonably expect to be.
There is an extent too to which Scythe seems to want to play your round for you. The board design is such that there are definitely optimal paths you want to take for your player board. The Nordic board for example does not have a village within its three hex starting neighbourhood, but its faction power is that workers can ford rivers from turn one. It’s the board game equivalent of a glowing particle effect directing you towards a quest marker in a video game. Sure, you don’t have to do what the game is so heavily hinting you should… but Scythe is about building an efficient engine and a bad early turn is massively harder to recover from than a bad late game turn. Once the wheels start turning you get a lot of freedom to change where they go but until that happens – good luck if you fancy pushing yours up-hill when everyone else is accelerating in the opposite direction.
Finally, I’d say that there’s a point where these lovely mechanisms just become too smooth. The game is at its most challenging early on where everyone has an only grudgingly functioning setup and everything is unbearably costly and thus every action must be carefully selected. It’s at its most satisfying when you’ve managed to get a few upgrades and everything slips into ‘enjoyably challenging’. At a certain point though you’ve got so many resources of so many types that cost simply isn’t an issue. When a mech costs one metal and you’re producing four per action – well. It’s hard to take much pride in being able to discount the expense entirely. Once you’ve built everything a resource can produce, its only value in the game is as points in potential for the final reckoning.
There’s a massive difference in fun between ‘If I build this mech I’ll be able to get those workers to that hex to produce wood so I can build my first structure’ and ‘If I build this mech I can leave it on a random hex and never worry about it because three mechs are already one more than I need to do everything I want’. Producing metal to build a mech in the early game feels important. Producing metal for the points it produces at the end is… well, it’s still meaningful but it’s not interesting. A lot of the end game feels like a case of squeezing out fractional point advantages with actions you don’t otherwise care about taking. Scythe is designed around delivering a decisive death-blow with the action that earns the sixth victory point that ends play, but the alternating action system means that you don’t always get to be in a position to make progress towards it. Sometimes you’re just going through the motions and that feels especially strange given how impactful those same decisions feel in the early game. You could take a produce action, producing on as many as four hexes, and you might only care about the results of one if any.
Similarly, conquering territories because you need their resources feels important and exciting, especially with the risks it brings of piracy and banditry from other players. Conquering territories because each gives you a point at the end is a lot less entertaining. B attling with an opponent over the rich metal reserves you both desperately need means every combat card counts because the stakes are high. In the end game mechs feel more like vacuum clears, cleaning hexes of their scattered workers because of the points they can suck up in the process. It feels like tidying a house, not building one.
The extent to which these things are a problem depend very heavily on how focused everyone is on the end-goal. Often games of Scythe will end before any of this becomes an issue, and likely long before it even appears on the radar. In games where players are effectively acting as counters to each other and each victory star is hard to come by, it becomes more significant with every passing turn. The more skilled players you have, the more likely the game will eventually end in this way – with frictionless gears effortlessly moving perfectly balanced weights for no genuinely satisfying reason until someone finally ends it.
It’s not going to be an issue in most sessions – I’d say fewer than one in five games I’ve played have exhibited early on-set symptoms of this and fewer than one in eight have actually gone the distance to the point where it’s become unenjoyable. But in that it’s because I have sometimes been playing against my own preferences – aiming for the win rather than aiming for the game. I find a lot of what I do in Scythe inherently enjoyable – building, advancing, upgrading, expanding. That’s the soul of a 4X game at play and Scythe does present itself like that in the beginning. It’s sometimes an uncomfortable shock to remember that at its core it’s actually a game of economics and optimisation.
That’s Scythe, then. It’s good. It’s very good. I might even describe it as flawless if you’re willing to overlook some of its minor blemishes. I rarely bubble over with excitement at the thought of playing though, because in the end games are as much about their interesting problems as they are about their unquestionable competence. I don’t begrudge anyone that would rate it as a perfect game – I probably would too if it was just a little more interested in really taking advantage of its own spectacular framing.