4 Chits, 2 Giggles
It's the 1920's and time has not followed the correct path. Instead of cavalry, airplanes and tanks, war is fought with giant mechs (large mobile war machines). You play a fallen leader, trying to reestablish themselves and become a great force once more, and in order to do this you must generate resources, improve the efficiency of your actions and conquer the land of Europa once and for all.
Scythe has been a much talked about game for the past year. I remember seeing a lone test copy of it being fawned over at the Spiel event in October, so it's nice to see that it's finally arriving in the hands of the people who backed it. However, does it deliver a fresh experience?
Quite simply, yes. It's hard to knock a game when after playing it once for approximately two hours, I immediately wanted to play it again. This at its core is an action selection game, in which you play a fallen leader from a once great nation, seeking to reclaim lost glories by building up a force the likes of which have not been seen before. A map in front of you is split up into hexagonal tiles, with each generating a resource or some other useful event, and you'll send little wooden and plastic figures around to claim them and eventually fight one another.
Without going into too much detail, each player has a similar set of actions available to them on a player mat, with subtle differences on each one like how much money you receive or the resource cost per action. Additionally, everyone gets a separate faction board, which has distinct bonus effects and gameplay tweaks. From this alone, even with five factions included in the base game, playing the same one twice will still require adopting a different strategy depending on which player mat you get.
The bulk of the gameplay involves choosing one of the four actions which include moving, producing resources, gaining power or trading money, before then choosing whether to use its linked secondary action. These include deploying giant mechs, upgrading an action to make it more efficient, constructing buildings and enlisting units to give you passive bonuses. It all sounds a little complex, but in practice, thankfully, it is very simple.
One of the most clever mechanics I've seen which I've not yet encountered in other games, is the way resources are used. Instead of hoarding metal, wood etc, that you've generated, the pieces are spawned onto the tiles themselves, meaning that if you don't use them, or at least control the tile they're on, you can't utilise them and you might even find them stolen from you by a rival faction. This latter part is done through combat, which has a mostly luck-less form.
When plastic units meet in the same hex, it's time for a battle. The power you've generated can now be spent, in addition to some combat cards (which range from values 2-5 and are gained through actions and game setup) to total a combat value. Highest number wins, with draws interestingly going to the attacker, a change from the tabletop norm. Despite the ease of combat though, the strange thing is that it doesn't actually occur that much. Not only because most of your points will come from other means, but because generally there is little reward in more than two victories.
You see, the game ends when any player achieves six out of ten victory conditions, but only two of these can be claimed by winning a battle. The others are gained from economical means like upgrading all your actions or enlisting all your units and mechs, while others occur when reaching the maximum values of power or popularity (a measure of friendliness in the game, which affects point scoring at the game's end) so after two successful fights, the only reason to do so again would be tactical, but that just never comes up. This was seemingly built into the game from the start, as the manual itself mentions how upon close inspection, the artwork in the game shows very little mech warfare, and with battle costing precious power it is more the threat of being attacked than the real thing that steers the strategy.
What strikes you most about the game Scythe is its mix of artistic themes. Steampunk used to be all the rage, now I guess it'll be 'mechriculture'. Something about seeing enormous foreboding machines mixing with quaint, non threatening farm life just drips with theme, and even where the game doesn't work quite as well, this helps you get past that.
For example, the encounter cards. While they do give players options, and aid the storytelling element of the game a notch, each card simply feels tangential to the game. By that, I mean they're often just a bit silly, and in a game that seems to be so tightly built around its atmosphere, it jars. My friend insisted we create a story for each encounter, but even so they still felt loose and the options were rarely game changers, which is both a good and a bad thing I suppose. During my most recent game, I skipped right past most of them, as I felt my path to winning lay elsewhere, while my opponent picked up several. I won quite decisively in the end, which just goes to show what I mean.
As always, the quality of components in a Stonemaier game here is on par with their other efforts, that is to say impressive, and a brilliant feature of the player boards are the cut out slots which snugly fit each of the different shaped pieces. No accidentally sliding bits out of place with your clumsy hands. Moving little wooden cubes around as the result of upgrading actions uncovers extra rewards while covering up costs, which is satisfying in a pure gaming way, something like the way Terra Mystica reveals new benefits when upgrading buildings. Maybe that's just me though.
I think what most impresses me about this game is the level of detail. The slightly overlapping turn taking which minimises downtime, the well laid out and subtly strategic board, the balancing of different resources and thus the many routes to victory, all of this adds up to one entertaining game. I certainly hope this isn't the end of the Scythe universe, I am keen to see what else they have in store, and which surprises lie round the corner. I don't know about you, but I'm not ready for this war to end just yet.
Review by Russell Chapman