Board Game Review: Scythe

7/10 A Solid game and enjoyable, though flawed.

This is an update to my previous review where I had only played a few times at 2-player. I’ve now played it several times, mostly at 2, but also at 3 and 4.

In an alternate world, warring factions use mechs to traverse the harsh landscape and hold territories in order to lay claim to valuable resources. Players will collect resources and spend them to build mechs, upgrade technology, and build a variety of structures across the landscape to complete achievements (denoted by star tokens). When one player has completed all of their achievements, the game ends and points are tallied from different categories. The player with the most points, wins.

Minor Disappointments

1. Combat is a bit dull and may never happen at all. There is no attack/defense/tactics/etc, just “bet” an amount and maybe bluff with a card, or go all in. And often, you can calculate the right amount you should “bet.” And other than completing stars, there’s no reward unless you’re stealing resources from someone. The designer, Jamey Stegmaier, insists that this makes a softer 4x game where combat still exists but isn’t too punishing since nothing gets destroyed. Though, a well-timed invasion can still send the loser a long way home, out on several resources that now belong to the winner. It’s not very soft, even if the pieces involved don’t get destroyed. The mechanism itself is okay, but not very engaging. Ultimately, unless you have a crowded board, the risk and time-investment to hunt down the opponent are too much to make combat worthwhile. There’s almost always something more efficient to do unless you just need that star.

2. It’s a touch fiddly, moving bits here, sliding that token there, adding bits here, only to remove those bits next turn. Fiddly. Many Euros can feel that way, such as other resource management games, but besides your 4 main resources, you have money in constant fluctuation, 2 different tracks to move on, and no less than 3 different types of tokens that may get moved around on your action board. Enlist seems the most redundant since its a minor way to get yet more stuff and passively relies on your opponent, creating the illusion of interaction.

3. Graphic design. This is exceptionally minor but worth mentioning. Example: where it shows your starting setup, money is shown with a coin and a number underneath, slightly overlapping. On your action board, money is shown with individual coins, you total them to determine your income. On your recruit area, the coin bonus is shown with a number inside the coin. And finally, on encounter cards, money is shown as a $. You can still follow what means what, but it is a pet peeve, having several ways to provide the same information. Most games do just fine with two: indicate income and indicate cost. Done. But more tedious is trying to remember how the movement icons work. Move two mechs one space? Move one mech two spaces? You will figure it out, but it adds an unnecessary learning curve.

4. Movement rules are a bit convoluted. Workers don’t get the movement abilities and can’t use Riverwalk. But mechs do and can carry workers. They can even drop workers off mid movement. Your hero can’t carry workers, but gets the movement bonuses. And anyone can carry resources. And Riverwalk doesn’t let you cross rivers, just enter specific spaces on the other side of a river (my mech can cross a river so long as there’s a forest on the other side?). Then there are tunnels and mines, and lakes, and other special movement abilities. It’s a mess figuring it out, but at least the player aid spells it all out clearly (except the details of using a mech to pick up workers). But why so many movement rules? And Riverwalk can be useless because of terrain restrictions. Again, the movement rules and especially Riverwalk feel like they were tweaked to death to balance the game, but it just feels like a mess of band-aids to fix what should have been a straightforward system.

5. The most important part of your experience is the action board, which itself isn’t bad in concept. But your action board and starting location might force you down certain paths due to scarcity of certain recourse that you need large quantities of. In one game, I never upgraded; my upgrade cost 3 oil, provided no gold, and I didn’t have access to oil in my starting area. In another game, I only built mechs at the very end for the same reason. And if building mechs is too inefficient, well, there goes most of your faction’s abilities. You can pursue goals however you wish, but there will be inefficient options you’re better off ignoring. This is par for the course for Euros, but where most games generate efficient or inefficient moves through organic gameplay and shifting game states, Scythe scripts it in based almost entirely on which boards you get at the start of the game. Once you’ve analyzed what options are in front of you, your action board will tell you how to play; you don’t tell it what you want.

Some Pluses

1. I like the sandbox nature of choosing which objectives to meet for your 6 stars. And in our second game, I learned that those stars aren’t the end all of scoring. The map and controlling territories is a big deal and not something to ignore. And it’s not just a matter of scoring, there are different ways to gain resources, different means of gaining money, and opportunities for more power, popularity, or combat cards. It’s a generous game of opportunities, as any good Euro of this size should be. But as mentioned above, there will still be efficient and inefficient ways to use said opportunities; why take 2 food when you need 3 but only need 1 oil to do something else?

2. Bling. Scythe undeniably raised the bar on production in board games, not just the Kickstarter side of the industry, like with the recessed action boards. You have tons of different tokens, it’s not just cubes and disks; you have a heart token, 6 stars, disks for recruits, 4 unique wooden building pieces, and a little spider fellow for combat power (I know it’s not, but it looks like it). I might argue that Stonemaier has overdone it a bit recently (Tapestry), but Scythe has great production.

3. Objective cards. I love having personal objectives that only I can complete, but that require some investment of time and resources to do so. This would be a major factor for me if not for a problem with their actual impact on gameplay, and lack of balancing for difficulty (see point #2 in below).

4. Bonus scoring. Each game, there is a bonus tile that has a special way to score based on structures. It’s a little something that helps make each game different, adding another way to grab some points. There’s a limit to how much you can earn, but it shouldn’t be ignored if you can help it.

Bigger Problems

1. The first few turns feel very scripted, and it has a slow build up. Maybe it’s because the game feels like it’s designed and balanced within an inch of its life (but isn’t, see point 3 below). Most Euros, even Stonemaier’s own Viticulture with the help of its Tuscany expansion, add asymmetrical starting resources to get players going on turn one. But in Scythe, you scrape by with just some cash and maybe a combat card; no resources. And so, everyone is doing the same 2-3 actions for the first few rounds, grinding starting resources and moving around the board. The fun has to wait.

2. Objective cards are interesting, but some are more difficult than others, and you are not rewarded for the extra challenge. I don’t mind that some can become impossible, but the overall difficulty in completing them is swingy. And yet they’re all of equal value for the achievements, which makes little sense. No matter how much work you went through, you get 1 star. And completing objective cards has no impact on the actual game state short of triggering the end of the game. Why not have a small gold reward? Then at least there’s a reason to try for the harder ones that might reward extra cash. If all objectives are equal in value, why make them wildly different in difficulty?

3. Balance. This has sadly become Stonemaier Games’ calling card. They love asymmetrical powers but would rather not spend the time playtesting and balancing them. The solution? Ban the combos determined to be too powerful. In Scythe, that means a few combinations of faction and action board are considered “broken.” For Tapestry, it has meant a “patch” for the game to fix multiple problematic civilizations. At least in Pendulum, they gave in and included player boards that featured a symmetrical side.

The Main Attractions

1. The art.

2. Encounter Cards. I love the immersion and story telling these provide. But, if not for these cards, the game would start to feel a bit samey for me, I think. Despite the variety in the game, it’s a lot of the same motions over and over, with just slight changes in costs or rewards. But these cards not only provide the narrative variety I want, but provide some exciting and unexpected opportunities to score some extra resources, or even grab a major discount on something big like a mech or upgrade. It’s these chances to score big and make lucrative deals that make each game feel just that extra bit different.

3. Strong core mechanic. Though I complained about the action board dictating much of your experience, I do like the action board’s design. 4 actions, you can’t repeat an action but you might pay for bonus actions. It’s very similar to Vital Lacerda’s core design of “you do one thing and maybe an executive action.” And solving that timing puzzle—do this to move these guys, then this for resources, then move here, grab that, then bam, upgrade this, next turn, build that, then do this and get a bonus! It often feels abstract, but it’s a satisfying puzzle, regardless. Let’s face it, Scythe is a Euro game pretending to be a 4x game, but we only play it because it’s a successful Euro, not a successful 4x.

Conclusion

It’s a fun engine building, resource management game with a lot of nice bling, but seems overwrought in some areas, and under cooked in others. It’s a bit of a bait and switch. Looks and sounds like a cool 4x wargame but they seem to have included combat begrudgingly and just wanted to make a resource management, engine building game with cool artwork. Why not just do that? If the game works fine when players never fight, why is fighting even an option? To justify the artwork? It’s a good game and I have fun with it, but I still find it a little overrated. Though, since Gloomhaven, it seems everyone has accepted that Scythe is not the greatest game ever made, it’s just an excellent one. I still look forward to trying some expansions and see what they add to the gameplay (or maybe improve).

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