Scythe

I can safely say this has to be the best game of 2016.

A few months ago, my friend Brian, brings out a game called Scythe. He had told me it was one of the most talked about games on Kickstarter. He had purchased the collector’s edition, which contained an extremely large board, larger than the dining table that we had available at the time. It had detailed resource tokens, engraved metal coins, beautiful artwork found both on the cards and the board, and so many wooden shapes used as player tokens that if you added a spring loaded plastic tray, you would’ve had the Hasbro game Perfection.

When we played it the one time, I’ll admit, I was overwhelmed by the amount of stuff that we needed to know. Plus, we only got half way through because it was late at night when we started.

Fast forward now to December 2016. The hype for this game continued to grow, especially from many reviewers and bloggers, but because of my first experience, I was a little anxious to try this game again. I was wondering why this game wasn’t signaling my own personal radar consider the gorgeous components to a game and the amount of effort put into the production. I started to figure that there was probably something I was missing from the first playthrough that night.

I decided then to read the rules and watch the videos posted on YouTube showing how to play Scythe. I can see why there was so much hype for this game. I felt that it was like my favourite board games all smashed up into one ginormous board game. I had to ask my other friend Mike to bust out his copy and try it out again, keeping an open mind, and more importantly an open schedule, to  play something as comprehensive as Scythe.

After playing that afternoon, I’m absolutely glad that I had the opportunity to play this game before the year ended. This has to be, by far, one of the best games I have ever played within the last year. What a way to end off 2016.

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Scythe is a resource management, territorial expansion game designed by Jamey Stigmaier and was published by Stonemeier Games. Scythe takes place in an alternate-history 1920s period in what is known as Europa. Below is the thematic text found in the rulebook:

“The ashes from the first Great War still darken the snow in 1920s Europa. The capitalistic city-state known simply as “The Factory,”which fueled the war with heavily armored mechs, has closed its doors, drawing the attention of several nearby countries.”

Players take on the roles of one of five factions looking to become the most powerful one in Europa. They will try to explore and conquer new territories, produce resources, build structures and powerful mechs and enlist the help of new recruits. The game typically involves players building their infrastructure, exploring the vast landscape, and fighting other factions in combat. If a player can obtain six achievements outlined in the game, then a final scoring is triggered. In this final scoring, you earn money for the number of achievements you obtained during the game, the number of territories you control, and the number of resources that you own. There is also a better multiplier factor for how popular you are, so you get even more coins depending on where you are on the popularity track. The player who has the most coins wins.

I don’t want to go too much into setup because there are a fair bit of rules in the game. To generalize, place all the cards and the players tokens in their appropriate spaces found on the board. Each player also randomly receives one of the five factions and a player mat and places the rest of their tokens and mechs in the designated slots found on the mat. Finally players will also put two workers on the board next to their home base, and their faction’s main character directly onto the home base.

To play Scythe, players can choose one of four actions found on the player board that feature both a top row and a bottom row action. The top row actions include:

  • Move/Gain – This allows players to move their pieces around the board or choose to take income.
  • Bolster – This allows players to pay money to increase their power on the power track, which is useful when participating in combat. They can also use this action to draw combat cards.
  • Trade – This allows players to pay money to either get more resources, or increase their popularity on the popularity track.
  • Produce – This allows players to pay the required materials to get more resources or workers on the board.

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The bottom row actions include:

  • Upgrading – This allows players to pay oil to improve the one of the benefits gained from taking a top row action and reduce the costs of taking a bottom row action.
  • Deploying – This allows players to pay metal to build and send out a mech onto the board. Each mech and the main character also gain additional abilities depending on which mech is selected on the player mat.
  • Building – This allows players to pay wood to build a structure onto the board, which gives the player benefits throughout the game.
  • Enlisting – This allows players to pay food to enlist a recruit, which gives the player an immediate bonus and also gives additional benefit when they, or a neighbouring player chooses certain bottom row actions.

During the game, you can choose to move your main character onto a region with an encounter token. This is when the main character interacts with the people and environment of Europa. When a main character reaches a territory with an encounter token, a player picks up an encounter card. The card features beautiful artwork and the main character will engage with what is happening on the card in one of three ways: a positive way where you get the least amount of resources, but your popularity goes up, a neutral way in which you pay usually money or resources to gain a benefit of some kind, and a negative way where you will terrorize the characters found on the card and gain even more benefits at the cost of your popularity. This aspect brings fascinating moral dilemmas that are highly entertaining to discuss around the table.

One more thing to talk about is the combat in this game. When mechs or the main character share the same territory as another player’s mech or main character, a combat ensues. In this case, each player will take their combat dial and choose a number from 0 to 7, depending on the value they currently have on the power track. If they have combat cards, they can choose to add those cards to the number found on the dial. Both players would determine these values secretly, but would have public knowledge of both the values on the power track and the number of combat cards each player has. Once they have selected which values and cards to use, both players will show their total value and whoever has the highest value wins. The winner of the combat takes control of the entire territory and any resources found on it, while the loser sends all their characters involved in the battle back to their home base. If any workers were found on the territory as well, the attacking faction would also lose popularity equal to the number of workers displaced.

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This game continues until a player can complete six of ten objectives:

  • complete all six upgrades
  • deploying all four mechs
  • build all four structures
  • enlist all four recruits
  • have all your workers on the board
  • completing one of your objective cards that you receive at the beginning of the game
  • win a combat (and you can do this twice).
  • have eighteen popularity
  • have sixteen power.

Once a player has six of these objectives, then the final scoring occurs. Players will now take a look at where they are on the popularity track. The value of each of the end game criteria is dependent on where they are on this track. For example, if you are on the bottom tier, achievement stars are worth three coins. However, if you can push your popularity into the highest tier, then achievement stars are now worth five coins. This popularity also affects how you earn coins based on the territories you control and the number of resources you own. There is an additional end game bonus that is added depending on which territories you control, or what structures you built. Once all the money has been paid out, add this to the number of coins you earned during the game and this will give you your final score. The player who earned the most coins wins.

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I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to take a look at this game for a second time. I was not at all disappointed. There are many items to discuss about this game.

I’ll start with the production that went into it. I’ve had the luxury of playing this game four times using the collector’s edition. I now wish I had backed the Kickstarter from the beginning. The coins are all engraved with cool markings, the resource tokens actually look like the resource that you’re trading or producing, and the variety of wooden tokens help make sense of where they are to be placed (for example, I know that the heart shaped one goes to the popularity track while the shield goes to the power track). This was also the first time that I can remember where a player mat or board had inserts for the pieces so that they can be secured onto the mat when you are playing. This was a smart move by Stigmaier to include this. Then there are the plastic miniature mechs and characters. They are highly detailed and intricately made. Finally the artwork in this game is stunning. When you get one of the encounter cards, it feels like you are actually interacting with the artwork and making decisions based on what you see on the picture.

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The components and production that went into making this game support a highly in-depth gaming experience. At first glance, Scythe looks like a territorial expansion game, where you are trying to take over the most territories. But this is certainly not the case. In Scythe, there are many paths that you can take, but I feel it’s simplified because of the specialization of the different factions. You are more likely to take on actions that give you better benefits as opposed to others, and thus focus on certain achievements.  And because you can have one of twenty-five possible faction and player mat combinations, Scythe has a high replayability value.

These decisions are also tested when you start to come into conflict with other players. For a game that involves territorial expansion, there isn’t much emphasis on the actual combat, rather more so on the psychological warfare that happens between players. For example, there was one battle for the factory that I had to defend against. I noticed that my opponent had a significantly higher power value and more combat cards than me. In my mind, if I wanted to keep control of the factory, I would need to play some of my high cards and use most of what I saved up on the power track. So when we revealed our cards, I was shocked that he put zero as his final value, and I used up more than half of my arsenal. This set up other players to take over the factory. Then there’s the situation where a player puts seven workers on one territory. You can easily take this over with one mech, but you will lose seven popularity in one go, something that comes very hard to come by in this game.

With the variety of decisions that players have to make, this also means that players can win the game in a plethora of ways. I love how the game focuses not on the number of achievements you complete, but rather the number of coins you earn at the end of the game. The coins are also earned in a two-dimensional way. What I mean is that there are two variables to consider when  earning coins. You need to balance the level of your popularity, while fighting for the requirements that are needed to get the coins. This means that players can consider a variety of strategies and still win in significant ways. In one game I played, there was a focus on attaining achievements before your opponents could do anything. In another game, another player got a close second place, and all they did was be in their own section of Europa, producing as many resources as they could. You could finish all the necessary achievements, but if you neglect any aspect of the game, you could still be behind compared to somebody else who had been producing and gaining territory. It is this very subtle element that makes Scythe highly appealing.

Before I started to write this blog entry, I was listening to one of the Dice Tower Podcasts and a good number of them had said that Scythe was the game of the year for 2016. I have to agree with these reviewers. Scythe has to be one of the most intricate and well-developed games I’ve had the honour of playing. It has this cool interaction with the theme, particularly when playing encounter cards. The gameplay isn’t slow at all, especially when the game suggests that when a player is doing the bottom row action, the next player can start considering the top row action. And the player interactions are interesting, psychological, and builds adrenaline. The only con I consider with this game is that as a collector, I didn’t get this game sooner. I guess people are coming over more often if I want to have an opportunity to play this. If you have not picked Scythe up, go and get it. It is definitely worth your time and money.

Pros: 

  • Beautiful artwork and a rich theme/story.
  • Gameplay is seamless and quick.
  • The components are well done.
  • Numerous ways to win and you don’t have to focus on one strategy.
  • Player interactions make the game fun

Cons: 

  • Potential AP for those who want to consider EVERY possible decision and outcome.

 

 

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