You can tell which ones the Scythe demo tables are from some distance away. Among hundreds of stalls, thousands of gaming tables and tens of thousands of board game fans, just a lonely pair of tables in the four aircraft hangar-like halls of the enormous Essen Spiel board game fair are devoted to a copy of the most sought after game of the year – possibly the most hyped board game ever. Scythe. You can spot the tables, often precisely because you can’t see them – of all the tables in the fair, none are so consistently surrounded by spectators, keen to get a passing glimpse of the game in action ahead of its long-awaited Kickstarter, which launches tomorrow.
Interest in Scythe has been stratospheric ever since the first artwork was released last December, when Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games revealed the game was in the works. The stunning images – the work of artist Jakub Rozalski – have been making board game jaws crunch against the floor with each new release, all featuring stunning scenes of early 20th century agriculture being loomed over by gargantuan steam-powered mechs. For long months little was revealed of the actual gameplay, save to say there would be resource gathering, area control and battles between the aforementioned metal monsters. A detailed gameplay video from Stonemaier last month, featuring a pre-production demo version of the game, set pulses racing again. After all the hype, over a bunch of pictures and a vague concept, it looked like this game might actually be pretty good.
Competition to try the game at Essen over the last four days was, as you’d expect, fairly fierce. Two tables, sessions lasting an hour at a time, and 150,000 admissions through the turnstiles – well, those maths meant spaces were hard to grab. I tried several times to sneak in on a game over the first two days – as a lone player I thought jumping in with a group of four, or two pairs, would be easy enough if I kept at it. But to no avail. Eventually I managed to book myself in on an early game on Saturday morning, but turned up to discover the group of four I was due to play with had invited another person along. Ceding my spot so they could all play together, I was guaranteed a slot in the next hour’s game by the demo overseer. That too was a close-run thing – another player had also been promised the slot by some other member of staff. The spirit of Essen saved the day, though, when one of the other players immediately offered to team up with her for the demo. It was on.
So is Scythe any good? Our group was exposed to it for just shy of an hour, and probably got about 40 minutes of play in once the rules had been zoomed through. And it filled my brain. And I wanted to keep playing. We all did. It’s a mesmerising board game – technically simple in terms of your potential actions each turn, but quickly cascading into more intricate strategising and possibilities.
Let’s set the scene quickly. Each player controls a pseudo-Eastern European faction in the wake of a mythical great war in an alternate 1920s, which saw massive mechs supplied by a city-state known as The Factory go toe-to-toe in combat. That war is over, and The Factory is shuttered. That factory sits at the centre of the board, surrounded by forests, mountains, fields and tundra, and ultimately by up to five factions looking to conquer territory, pull in resources, build mechs and slowly increase their power in the region. Once a player has completed six of a bunch of possible goals during a game – building four mechs, completing a secret objective or rousing all eight of their workers into activity, for example – the game is done. Everyone tots up all the coins and resources they’ve acquired, and how much popularity they’ve achieved from the people of the land through their actions during the game (broadly, starting fights is bad), and crunches it all together to find the winner. There’s also a randomised structure bonus each game, which could see players getting extra coins if they manage to plop down buildings next to lakes, for example.
We didn’t even get close to the end game in our demo – in fact, we barely made it to a battle (despite my best efforts to start a war I should add), which I think helps underline what this game is actually about. Warfare is a part of it of course – you don’t make a game with giant warrior mechs and then have them spend all their time pulling ploughs – but it’s a small part of a much larger resource management and, ultimately, engine-building game which sees Scythe swing more into the Eurogame camp than the Ameritrash you might expect on first look.
Fighting a battle costs you ‘power’, which you can building up during the game by taking various actions. If you’re taking those actions, though, you’re not producing resources, or moving units, so becoming an all-powerful military juggernaut is not the obvious move it might otherwise be. Getting into a scrap sees you choose to spend power, both from your power base and in the form of combat cards you might have bought or otherwise procured along the way. But spending a bunch of power obviously weakens your ability to win successive battles, so stomping all over one neighbour might immediately leave you vulnerable to a couple of others.
That subtlety continues with choosing your ‘orders’ each turn. You have the choice of one of four spaces, which come with a top and a bottom action each – and you can choose to do either of those actions or both. The top four let move, produce resources, buy resources or increase your military power level. They’re each paired (in different combos depending on your faction) with spending resources to: deploy a mech, construct a building, upgrade one of your actions (making both aspects of it either easier, cheaper or more efficient), or ‘enlist’ followers – gaining a one-off bonus, of money, or power, for example, and a recurring bonus each time you take that action – or one of the players to your left or right takes that action.
Yeah I know – it’s got a bit confusing, right? Those simple, straightforward options quickly cascade into a waterfall of potential – should you take one, or both? Should you shell out on the bottom action of that section this turn, to make it more efficient to take both the actions on the ‘move’ space next turn? What are your opponents doing? Oh yes, and once you’ve chosen an action space, you have to pick a different one on your next turn, so there’s no marching your meeples quickly across the map, or churning out mech after mech to catch a neighbour off guard. No, this game needs planning, and concentration, and also, I think, some player aids to help you out remembering stuff like what all the buildings do.
Scythe is riding a wave of hype which will undoubtedly see it smash its Kickstarter target within minutes when it goes live tomorrow. I’ve been suspicious from the off that like so many Kickstarter campaigns, underneath the glossy images and lust over the miniatures… there just wouldn’t really be a game. I’m genuinely delighted to tell you, those suspicions could not be more wrong. If you were expecting a fast-paced, luck-filled miniatures game of giant mechs slugging it out, Scythe is not what you’re looking for. This is a smart, deep strategy game which rewards managing your resources, building an economic engine and striking with your military power sparingly when an opening presents itself. And it deserves every success when the Kickstarter floodgates open tomorrow.
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Thanks! Excellent preview! Hopefully I’ll get to check it out at BGG.CON next month. Jamie does such great work on game development and quality of the published product that I never hesitate to buy his games. Besides that, he’s one of the “good guys” in the gaming industry!
Nice write up. I’ve liked Euphoria and Viticulture quite a lot, but both games suffer (I think) from card imbalances. In both games there are thoroughly mediocre cards, situationally good cards, and cards that are just always really good. That’s one of my main concerns about Scythe.
Nice write up bro 😀 Thanks for preview.