A user interface triumph that reminds me of Settlers
Originally published on Board Game Geek.
I first played Scythe with co-workers at a company meetup and later bought the digital version because I enjoyed it so much. Obviously the art evokes a fantastic setting and the components are top-notch. But the thing I appreciated most in my first game was how logical and orderly the mechanics are. It has, to borrow from software design, a well-planned user interface.
For instance, you can buy mechs during the game and each time you gain a new movement or combat ability of your choice. The typical way to signify this would be to give players a card or token. But Scythe prints the combat abilities on the faction board and you cover them up with undeployed mechs at the start of the game. That way you uncover your chosen ability when you place a mech on the map. Not only does is cut down on the number of extra markers, it also reminds you of your new ability each time you deploy.
During the game your focus will largely be on your own player mat. At the start of the game the mats are randomly assigned to each player and they dictate which four pairs of actions you can chose from each turn. For instance, you might get the "Industrial" mat, which allows you to move pieces on the map and build new structures in the same turn. Or you might get the "Patriotic" mat which combines moving with upgrading. Whichever mat you get, the symbols show you exactly what your options are. Even though everyone is playing on a unique mat, the consistency of symbols means complexity comes cheap.
That said, the first time I played explaining the rules took over an hour. All of the many systems make a meaningful difference in the game. This isn't the sort of game you can just dive into and explain new rules as you go either. It's a game about building an economy and the very first decision can be critical to get right. In fact, the first few turns can be mapped out as soon as you get your faction, player mat and secret objective cards. Uncertainty in the early game is limited to encounter cards that give you a choice of three random extra actions.
Despite many systems layered on top of each other, a turn goes quickly with little reason for downtime. Players must pick one of their four action pairs from the player mat and the rest of the turn flows from that choice. Typically players will have a good idea of what they need to do several turns in advance because of the need to collect resources before the second action in a turn can be completed. Plus you can start your turn immediately after the previous player finishes their first action since the bottom action won't interfere with yours. So the turns themselves flow easily enough and there's not much downtime.
As factions claim more territory, the game shifts into a more confrontational mode. The map is divided by lakes and rivers that limit movement. But soon players deploy the Riverwalk mech ability or mines that open into underground tunnels so they can travel to the unclaimed center of the board. When that happens conflict between players starts to ramp up and the second act of the game begins.
Conflict doesn't necessarily mean war. Combat in Scythe comes with a cost. While your mech can drive opponents' workers back to their home base, you lose a popularity point for each displaced worker. Battles between mechs and leaders (potentially) cost power and combat cards. And most factions only score twice for winning battles. Again, the combat interface is simple and intuitive, but the decisions about how much to commit are tense.
Still, the costs (and risks) of combat may be rewarded with resources and territory left behind. An well-timed raid can give a decisive advantage to the bold. But it's perfectly reasonable to never attack at all. There are nine ways to earn stars and only one involves combat. Seven involve maximizing a subgoal (power, popularity, workers, upgrades, mechs, structures or recruits). The final star is earned by completing a secret objective. Once anyone earns six stars the game immediately ends.
Ending the game doesn't automatically mean winning it. The final score depends on many factors and most people won't be able to track them in their heads. You can get an idea of who is in the lead by counting stars, but there's a multiplier based on popularity too. There's even a "delay of game" variant that penalizes players for holding up the game to calculate scores.
With so much going on (and I didn't really touch on the upgrade and recruit mechanics that are clever additions) it's easy to imagine being overwhelmed. But everything, including the rules, are well presented and once you've seen how things work, it's easy to play. Since each faction and each player mat encourage different strategies, it can feel like each player is playing a different game. Especially in the first few turns, Scythe plays like the typical multiplayer solitaire too many engine building games resemble. But as the game moves into Act 2, you'll be paying more attention to the people on either side. And for Act 3, you'll need to pay attention to just about everyone around the table who might bring the game to an abrupt end.
A quick note about the Digital Edition: it retains the excellent art, but loses a little when it comes to user interface. It's perfectly playable, but it takes some adapting to the layout decisions. I've mostly played against bots, which seem competent to me. There's also an online match option, which seems moderately active at the moment.
I like Scythe a lot, but it manages to be too slow to get started and ends rather abruptly. Weirdly the longer I consider the mechanics, the more it reminds me of Catan. I don't mean that as an insult. Settlers is a fine game. But it's also an engine building game with minimal player interaction. For a precious few turns in the midgame it's firing on all cylinders. And then the game is over. Scythe is the superior game in every way of course. It's just a familiar game arc is all.
Despite asymmetric factions and the clever mechanics that vary each play through, the strategy doesn't change as much as you might imagine. Mostly you want to look for ways to collect the resources you need to do bottom-row actions. Often that means alternating between two top-row actions: trading and producing. Every once in a while, you'll want to move to produce (and maybe capture) new resources. When the bottom-row actions are maximized, shift to bolstering power or popularity (whichever is most pressing). Perhaps the most impactful faction ability is the Rusviet's which allows repeated use of the same action pair.
Still, quick play and wonderful production design counts for a lot. For a game that manages simultaneous turns and economic engine building a touch better, I recommend Orléans. Nothing, however, matches Scythe's unusual theme. And I can hardly complain about a game that proceeds briskly and doesn't outstay its welcome.