The Most Hyped Board Game of 2016 Earned It
'Scythe' is great. Really great.
If you are a board game geek, you probably know about Scythe. The game generated huge levels of excitement even before its box thudded down on kitchen tables across America. Scythe’s Kickstarter crested the million-dollar mark in fall 2015, which was no small feat in the fertile world of board game crowdfunding. Now, it’s here and — thank goodness — it’s great.
Scythe, for the non-game-playing geek, is a new tabletop game set in the aftermath of a dieselpunk World War I. As a player, you take on the role of a pseudo-European faction and set off across a map of hexagons to plunder resources. Scythe plays out sort of like the classic computer games Age of Empires or Civilization in the sense that you deal in upgrade trees, warriors, and workers. The board game isn’t about achieving victory through diplomacy, conquest, or any single route, though. You have to complete six different achievements. At its oily heart, Scythe is about efficiency, and that means staying popular with the locals — not being too bloodthirsty, in other words — as you traipse through Eastern Europa.
As I learned to played Scythe, I felt as though the game was churning my brain into a set of supersized gears. It was a lovely feeling. By the end of my first match, Scythe had fit those gears together in a series of satisfying clunks and set my new greasy mind-engine whirring. A dozen plays later, and I was dying to get it to the table again.
The game had a solid pedigree, an intriguing art style — giant mechs! pet bears! — and it had me almost immediately drawing comparisons with board games like Agricola, Kemet, and Dune (all highly regarded games on their own). In this post-No Man’s Sky world, the cries of “hype train” thundered through the forums before the game’s release.
So where does that leave us? In short: Choo choo, nerds. Scythe is tabletop gaming par excellence.
In long: Scythe, I’ll admit, is not the greatest alt-history war game featuring giant mechs. There will be combat, but Scythe is more about the threat of violence than violence itself. There will not be blood. Nothing really dies in the game — after conflict, losers are just sent home. Plus, every time your mech chases a worker home, you’re docked popularity points. And in Scythe, as in the sixth grade, the most popular person at the table almost always wins.
This meant in practice that I used my hulking war machines only infrequently as weapons. I just as soon had the mechs play public transit, dropping workers around the board to chop wood, harvest food, or collect other resources.
But it turns out that riding the Mech-tro Bus is really, really fun. This is a game that plays very well with its food and wood. Scythe’s engine of collecting and spending hits you with little jolts of dopamine every time you pull off a perfectly fiddly upgrade or strategic deployment. (Which, if you want to win at Scythe, should be more or less every turn.)
That first fat gear, however, clicked into place even before I’d taken a turn. There are some 25 different starting combinations of factions (named after areas like Saxony or Crimea) and player mats that classify you with traits such as Mechanical or Patriotic. Each faction has unique abilities, and each player mat has unique sets of actions to take.
At the beginning, you’re assigned a random pair of mats, and as you set up, it’s immediately apparent not everyone comes into Eastern Europa equal. It’s not as asymmetric as, say, this year’s also excellent Star Wars: Rebellion, but it’s a neat twist on more traditionally level Euro-style games.
What’s even more clever (and sneakily stolen from the board game Terra Mystica) is Scythe’s system of upgrades. See, every time you create a new recruit, build a structure, deploy one of your mechs, or use the upgrade action, you lift a piece off of one mat and plunk it down somewhere else. And, oh, hey, there’s typically something tucked beneath that upgrade cube or windmill piece. That something is almost always fun and useful, improving subsequent actions you take.
Scythe can feel slow at first — both in early rounds and early on, as you’re learning — but it is not a plodding game. (My four-player games clocked in at around two hours, which is the perfect amount of time for this type of game to leave you wanting to play again.) Your self-improvements build and build until the game comes to a crashing finale.
The juice that powers Scythe is its action system. There are eight different actions to chose from, and they are paired in a way so that you can take two a turn. (I won’t go over every action, but if you want to learn to play the game, there is a charming and earnest YouTube tutorial.) If you plot out your action pairs smartly, you can set yourself up for devastating, hyper-efficient moves down the line. There’s an urgent energy to stringing these actions together as the game progresses, because everyone else is trying to do that, too.
But, not all turns have to be about building your crisp, economic engine. Actions like movement are important, because movement lets you control vital resource hexes. Even not-so-vital hexes have their benefits. Very early on, my character — a rifle-toting falconer (each nation gets a character, and they all tote guns and have cute animal familiars) — strolled into an encounter space. It turns out encounters are great, offering a scenario and a series of choices. I chose to convince a wayward farmer that his cows’ spots held a secret message, and loaded myself up with the naif’s combat cards. I think I had the option to eat the cow, too. Another gear that thwunks together early on: Scythe can be funny, in a way.
To the antagonistic among you, it can be especially funny once you start stabbing people in the back and/or face.
You may have been concerned by the above note that combat plays a minimal role. One of the biggest criticisms of resource-engine games is that they devolve into a festival of solitaires, waiting with twiddled thumbs as you watch other players rush to collect the most wood first.
Scythe is not that game, either. For instance, it all but encourages stealing. If you produce a resource in Scythe, that resource stays on the board, and unless you immediately turn that metal into a mech, wood into a building, or food into a recruit, it will sit on the table beckoning everyone else with sweet promises of meeple booty.
During my first game, I, like an idiot, had a massive pile of metal heaped on the entrance to a tunnel hex. My opponent swept across the board with her mech, scooted through the tunnel — her worker clinging to its side — and sent my pieces scurrying home, sans metal. She then turned that loot into another mech. And suddenly there two war machines at my doorstep. (Those efficient turns, man.) The third gear snapped in place: You’re not exactly at war in Scythe, but you’re certainly not safe.
If there is a weakness to Scythe, it may be in the game’s final moments. Players can spring the endgame on the table like a guillotine, as they rack up several objectives in one terminal turn. Scythe ends immediately after a player has completed six such achievements, which include placing all of your buildings on the map or winning a battle.
This is to say that it can feel as though you were so close to perfecting that economic engine — next turn is going to be fantastic, you keep telling yourself — until some asshole goes and completes his last three achievements all at once. Then it’s Game Over, and you have to count up how many coins (functionally, victory points) you have to see who wins. With more plays you get a better feel for the rapidly approaching end, but at the end of the first playthroughs there’s a twinge of deflation when its all over.
The best cure for that deflation is to play Scythe again.
Because no single player can complete every objective a game (there are more than six achievements possible), Scythe encourages innovation. There are still many other, dumber things I want to do in the game, because Scythe will let me do that, too. I want to try an aggressive farming strategy, in which I place all my little wooden dudes in my opponent’s path so she can’t make it across the board without becoming highly unpopular. Even though Scythe isn’t really always about combat, I want try to make it more violent, relying on Saxony’s unique faction ability to complete all six achievements through battle.
I want to play Scythe until I’ve worn out all its moving parts, but it might just be too fine a game to stop even then.