Scythe is a pretty multifaceted game. It features several common game elements, such as engine building, territory control, and resource management. But it presents them in such a unique manner that simply calling out individual mechanisms hardly does it justice.
You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube Channel.
Despite Scythe, sitting on the 16th ranking spot on Board Game Geek, I’ve always found discourse around the game to be divisive. After playing it myself, I think this is largely a combination of misinterpreting what the game is about or even outright rejecting it.
Here’s the thing, Scythe features a variety of super cool battle mech miniatures, but Scythe isn’t a war game. If you go in with that expectation, you’re going to be disappointed.
At the same time, war is a very important aspect of the game. If you attempt to ignore it because you aren’t a fan of player conflict, the game will falter to a degree. Not because the game itself is poorly designed, but because you’re intentionally ignoring how it’s designed.
Scythe is the type of game that really makes me work to review it. It’s one whose strengths and flaws aren’t apparent in the first couple of playthroughs and requires me to really analyze its intricacies.
It’s my favorite type of game to review because not only do I get to point out why you may like or dislike it. But I may be able to share some extra perspective on the game for those who have already played it. Given that Scythe was released in 2016, that type of evaluation can be useful.
|Gideon’s Bias||Scythe Information|
|Review Copy Used: Yes||Publisher: Stonemaier Games|
|Number of plays: 10+||Designers: Jamey Stegmaier|
|Player Counts Played: 1, 2, 3 and 4||Player Count: 1-5|
|Fan of Genre: Yes||Genre: Engine Building and Territory Control|
|Fan of Weight: Yes||Weight: Heavy|
|Gaming Groups Thoughts: Enjoyed It||Price: $99|
Scythe is a stellar-looking game with a ton of high-quality components that are full of little details that really show how much heart went into making the game look great. The board itself is full of clear game iconography, but the artwork on the board also details it. The rivers, mountains, and villages have an illustrated presence on the board and can be used in combination with iconography to visualize the different territories of the world.
The artwork, be it on the encounter cards, player mats, or the box itself is fantastic and consistent with the game’s theme. The player mats are inset, so you can slot in many of the game’s components, that’s always a nice touch for a klutz like me.
The mech miniatures are, of course, the physical highlight of the game. They are full of detail, and each of the five factions has its own unique mech miniatures. I will say that black should have been replaced with another color as it’s exceptionally hard to make out the detail on them unless you look really closely. I generally criticize games that go heavy on the miniatures, but Scythe doesn’t feel excessive. It has miniatures, but it also has other less expensive components. I also don’t feel like the game suffered in order to include them which usually plays a part in why I’m so critical of miniatures.
Scythe comes with a stack of cards split between combat, objectives, factory, automa, and encounter cards. They are high enough quality that I haven’t felt the need to sleeve them, and they are only really shuffled at the start of a game, so they aren’t exposed to much wear and tear anyway.
There are numerous small wooden components from generic resource cubes to neat little buildings such as the Mill and Monument. One small detail that I enjoy is that the little worker meeples are uniquely shaped for each faction. It’s a small thing that adds a bit more individuality to each faction’s meeples beyond color.
Every faction also has a unique character mini featuring a character and animal, and they are as equally aesthetically pleasing as the mechs. You also get a set of automa cards and a separate rule book for solo play.
There are a couple of things that I do take issue with. The first is that the game board features seven starting areas, one for each faction. However, only five factions are in the base game. Those spaces are reserved for factions that come in an expansion. By the same token, the backside of the board has enlarged territory spaces, but you need to purchase a board extension to complete it.
I have a disdain for any design that makes a game feel incomplete. While Scythe offers plenty of cool components for the price. For someone like me, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’re missing out on something, and when a game is priced at $99, that is not a feeling I want to have.
Scythe is most certainly a heavy game, but don’t let that intimidate you. Most of its complexity comes from its breadth of options and plenty of small interactions. The core is actually quite simple.
You have four actions listed on your character board. You move your action meeple to the one you want to perform. The meeple has to move, so you can’t choose the same action two turns in a row. Each action has a top and bottom. You perform the top if able then the bottom if able, paying any required costs for either.
Each action is pretty simple. You move units with the move action, produce resources with produce, deploy a mech, build a building, etc. The game’s complexity largely comes from exceptions within its core rules, rather than convoluting the core rules themselves. It makes Scythe accessible despite its weight.
The number of exceptions can be overwhelming at first, but if you follow the game’s recommended path to learning it, it’s much easier to process. You see, Scythe doesn’t recommend learning the whole game before you play. It instead hands you a card with some open-ended turn recommendations. It encourages you to push buttons to see what they do, rather than decipher the inner workings of its tactics and strategy from the get-go.
The moment you start pushing buttons, the pieces begin to fall into place, and everything makes sense. Of all the heavy games I’ve taught to my group, Scythe was the easiest for them to grasp.
Its simple and straightforward action selection system really carries the weight of the game, so you don’t have to shoulder it yourself. An additional benefit of the system is that there are no phases or rounds. You take your actions, and play passes to the next player.
Turns are over quickly, so no one has to wait long, yet those decisions carry enough weight in both the short and the long term that they provide the strategic satisfaction most players will be looking for.
The player with the most money at the end of the game wins, you earn and spend some during the game, but the vast majority of your wealth will be accumulated via end-game bonuses. Essentially you are awarded money for each territory you control, every two resources you have, and, every star you have earned. Popularity acts as a modifier, the more popular you are, the more valuable each end-game bonus is. There’s also a special building bonus that’s randomized every game.
I think most players’ first mistake with Scythe is going to be to assume that there is an optimal way to win. Most concepts in Scythe are used to pay for costs, including popularity. I know in my first game I was hesitant to do anything to ever lower my popularity. But the true brilliance of Scythe is just how nuanced it is.
There are actually many paths to victory despite the fact that the majority of points come from just three sources. Let’s talk about stars first. The game immediately ends when any one player has 6 stars. The faster you play and earn your stars, the fewer points other players will be able to earn from them.
Stars are earned 9 ways. Each star can only be earned once, except in the case of winning combat which can be earned twice. Every star marks an achievement of your empire. Deploying all of your mechs, building all of your buildings, completing an objective, and so forth. I won my first game with only three stars.
My engine building was more spread out than the other players, so I couldn’t get most of the stars that depended on my engine. Instead, I earned some extra money during the game that translated to points, and I booted another player off the factory right before they ended the game while also controlling a lot of other territories. The factory counts as three territories, and that pushed me just above the rest of the table. Was I lucky? No. I planned it all out intentionally.
While there is a handful of random elements, very little of Scythe’s gameplay can be contributed to luck. Your success comes from three important aspects. Planning, efficiency, and adaptation. Where Scythe falls for a lot of players is with adaptation, and that has everything to do with war and attrition.
War, what is it good for?
Scythe isn’t a war game. It’s a sentiment you will commonly see in online conversations about Scythe. And it’s true, even the rule book calls out how uncommon combat is. But it isn’t the whole truth.
Aggression in Scythe, or the threat of it, is an important tool in your arsenal. Like anything else, it has a cost. In Combat, you have to secretly bet power, as well as play combat cards to boost that number. You have to spend both, the power you bet and the combat cards you play, win or lose.
A lack of power and combat cards leaves you open to further aggression, plus gaining 16 power is one of the ways to earn a star. If you have a large workforce, it also has to be spent in order to produce. To top it off, if you win and any enemy workers are present, you lose popularity for driving them off their land.
Since the engine building in Scythe is so elaborate, and the costs of combat is so high, this puts players in a cold war situation. The pros of engaging a player have to be weighed carefully, and just the presence of an army can be intimidating enough to influence another player’s actions. This is by design, and it’s brilliant.
I’ve never seen a game manage to capture the sheer unspoken threat of aggressive action so well and balance it in a way that makes actually taking that action a hefty commitment.
The problem is, I think some players take this the wrong way and refuse to pour some heat on the cold war when they desperately need to. This has some consequences.
First of all, it leaves you at a disadvantage to players who are aggressive. If you feel that Scythe is a passive game with no player interaction, then your neighbor sends your workers screaming home and steals your land, that is going to feel like the game wronged you somehow.
Secondly. If the whole table is pacifistic. The game is going to run into some issues. There are a few random elements. Your faction and player board combo is always random. The layout of the player boards differs, and the factions are extremely asymmetric. Encounter, objective, and factory cards are random, as is the building bonus for scoring points.
However, players left to their own devices can and will find a sequence of moves that is very efficient. Each faction always starts on the same part of the board with access to the same starting resources that they always do. You can “solve” a sequence of events that can put the game on rails where the only determining factor is whose train is fastest, which has almost nothing to do with you as a player.
That may seem like a design issue, but it’s only an issue if you play the game wrong. Player interaction is a big part of the game, and it cleanly derails that train. You can’t ignore it, stand on the tracks and then complain when the train hits you.
Here’s the thing. Engine building is great in Scythe. You can produce resources in territories you control that you have workers in. You can spend those resources on buildings, mechs, upgrades, and enlistments, all of which further your empire in some way.
Engine building is solitary however, without player interaction the game would boil down to who can build their engine the fastest. That works in some games. In Scythe it wouldn’t because, in a bubble, each faction and player board combo has an ideal set of moves to make. Gather this resource to make this cheaper to make this thing, repeat.
Player interaction is what stops the entire table from performing those “ideal” strings of commands, by changing what is ideal. This can be through a variety of actions. The more territory you control, the more points you earn. Taking away territory from an opponent is more points for you and less for them.
Resources are placed physically on the board, workers can carry them to other spaces, and mechs can carry workers. Drive off the enemy, and those resources are yours to spend or keep for extra points.
The factory grants special cards to players that count as a fifth action space for their board. It also counts as three territories to those who control it. If a player gets there first, and no one wants to fight them, they prevent any player from getting that valuable card and they earn extra points.
However, player interaction in Scythe doesn’t always have to be through direct conflict. What if you move in near their workers? If they think you may attack, they may move a mech into that space, or carry resources out of it.
Maybe they will take actions gathering combat cards or power in case you do attack. The very act of taking those actions in response to your postering means you have disrupted their “ideal” string of actions.
The concept applies to how you deal with individual factions as well. Factions are asymmetrical. They have different abilities that have a huge impact on the game. You don’t want to let them run amok.
Most factions are stranded on their homelands until they deploy a mech and uncover their riverwalk ability. The Nordic factions workers can swim. A Nordic player can spread out early and claim a ton of land. Easy points if other players don’t chase off their workers later.
The map has a finite number of encounter tokens. When a character moves to one they discard it and read an encounter card. Every encounter offers three choices, and while some choices have a cost, the player encountering them always gains something. The Polania faction gets to have two of the three options.
Polania is going to be gunning for those tokens, and, if left unchecked can accumulate some serious advantages. You can disrupt them by claiming those tokens for yourself or defending those spaces.
Crimea can spend combat cards as resources. Whenever you enlist a citizen, you get a one-time bonus, but you also get a bonus whenever the player to your left or right does the action you took the enlistment from.
If you see that Crimea has uncovered the combat card enlistment bonus, think twice before doing that action and giving them more cards. Alternatively, you could pressure them in combat, so they are forced to choose between spending those cards as resources or in battle.
Scythe isn’t about who can build the best engine as much as it’s about who can build the best engine among an ever-changing set of parameters set by every other player at the table. The sheer freedom that Scythe offers means that you can indeed play it as a multiplayer solitaire game, but you’re playing a lesser version of Scythe by doing so. I think that’s where much of its division comes from. Scythe shines when its mechanisms are taken as a whole, not piecemeal
If you aren’t in fear of you’re neighbors and they aren’t fearful of you, it’s not really a cold war at all.
Why it Works
Every mechanism in Scythe is solid but soulless when taken alone. It’s got nice engine building and resource management. An excellent action selection mechanism, a risk vs reward combat system, and cohesive scoring. But none of it is particularly thrilling by itself.
What makes Scythe’s design stand out isn’t any one of those things. It’s how they complement each other in a way that produces an experience that’s different from similar games I’ve played.
Scythe isn’t a war game in which you can just attack people and ignore your engine. Nor can you just build an engine in an isolated bubble from the other players. Attempting either one isn’t going to be a fun time or give you a great impression of Scythe.
Instead, Scythe excels by giving making each mechanism have a symbiotic relationship with the rest. Building an empire is easy if you have the resources, manpower, and undying loyalty of your people. It’s the other factions’ job not just to build a better empire, but actively prevent you from doing so by impacting all of the above.
Sometimes it’s by direct combat, other times it’s as simple as holding a forest that you wanted, forcing you to waste time traveling to another one if you really want that wood.
It’s drawing lines in the sand and daring you to cross them. Scythe presents you with a solvable jigsaw puzzle if you were the only one at the table. However, the other players constantly change YOUR pieces. Sometimes, just by focusing on their own puzzle, and forcing you to scatter it to the floor, so it’s not as pretty as yours.
The Rusty Bits
Any well-oiled machine is bound to have a few chips here and there, and Scythe is no exception. Let’s start with the encounter cards. They are a brilliant mechanism that adds a touch of unpredictability and gives players an additional resource to compete for.
The choices are presented in a story-like context, usually with a good, neutral, and evil choice. Help herd some sheep, or use them to trip a mech. Throw some kids a coin, or cut down their tree house. That type of thing. It’s meant to add some thematic immersion, but it really fails at it.
By design, there’s no flavor text. You’re meant to see the situation via the beautifully illustrated artwork. The problem is, there’s a whole table full of people. Passing the card around would just slow down the game and 90% of the time players just ignore the flavor to read off which choice they picked.
That’s because any moral roleplaying the game likes to hint at is going to be ignored in favor of efficacy anyway. If the evil choice is the best choice for a player’s given situation, that’s the one they are going to pick. There’s just a disconnect between the seriousness of the theme and what is realistic for players to do during gameplay.
I’ve spent a lot of time in this review telling you how important combat is, or the threat of it anyway. But the system is too basic for my liking. It’s tactical sure but very simplistic given the super cool mechs stomping around. You simply bet some power in secret, possibly adding some cards that just have numbers on them. The highest overall number wins.
I really wish there was more to it. It would help with the cognitive expectations upon seeing mechs be the front and center of the box followed by the detailed mech miniatures.
By the same token, while the factions are highly asymmetric. There is no real difference between characters except for the miniatures. As a rule of thumb, I don’t like anything in a game existing purely for show. Since Scythe went through the trouble of making unique detailed miniatures for the characters, I feel that should be reflected in the gameplay.
There is a diplomacy system if you can call it that. Essentially you can make informal agreements in the game, which you can do pretty much in any game.
The difference is, you can barter with coins. However, no one ever does that. In addition to being a resource, coins are also points. Trading points for an agreement the other player can easily ignore is too big a risk to rely on. It would be nice if the idea was more fleshed out, perhaps by taking a hit in popularity if you broke an agreement. As it stands, it’s not worth using.
I’ve played Scythe solo, as well at 2, 3, and 4 players. The game performs great at them all, albeit with a couple of important points I want to bring to light.
In solo, you face a generic automa. The automa does a great job of keeping the pressure on you and has several customizable difficulty settings. It doesn’t shy from combat, and you have to make a conscious effort to slow down its advance if you want to win.
The automa isn’t the cleanest I’ve seen. It took me a fair amount of effort to wrap my head around its movement system. It’s normal for automas to negate or simplify some rules, but having an entirely new system for determining the movement made it hard for me to grasp at first.
The automa is somewhat predictable though, in the sense that they will always try to surround the factory. That information can make it easy to abuse. Regardless, it’s still fun to play solo, but it can’t capture the magic the way multiplayer does.
In a two-player game, much of the map is open, so players have to very consciously apply pressure on each other. Combat is less of a risk because there’s no third party to capitalize on your low power after combat. It works well and makes for a more aggressive game than higher player counts. But you can easily fall into the habit of staying in your bubble since you don’t have to battle over territory as much.
Higher player counts capture the game’s vision best. At 3 and 4 there is much less free real estate when it comes to territory. Your borders constantly press up against your neighbors. The cold war feel is more present here because you have to consider combat even more carefully. If you weaken yourself, you leave yourself open to an invasion on multiple fronts.
Scythe is solid at all player counts, though it has a slightly different feel between them. Personally, I prefer it at 3 and 4. I’m eager to play at 5 but I did not have the opportunity prior to writing this review.
Scythe is an incredibly well-designed game that will give you a great experience if you meet it where it stands. Expect something different than what it tries to be, and you’re going to walk away disappointed. I think on the outside Scythe does a poor job of managing expectations. You see the mechs on the box and think it’s a war game. Alternatively, you see the cost of war and think it’s a multiplayer solitaire game about engine building.
The thing is, Scythe can’t be described in a handful of gaming terms. Not accurately anyway. It’s a game with heavy player interaction that completely relies on the players to use it rather than forcing their hand. The thing is, players can get confused when their hand isn’t forced because they aren’t used to being that unchained.
They are used to being shown a thing and told to do that thing. In Scythe, you are shown a handful of concepts. The player with the most points wins. When the player asks how they earn the most points, the game shrugs and says “That’s up to you”.
The thing about Scythe is, that’s the wrong question. The question you should be asking is. “What are the other players doing?” and then go from there.
I’m a much more aggression-oriented player, and I prefer games with plenty of direct player interaction. The thing that draws me to Scythe, is when everyone at the table meets Scythe where it stands. It’s not predictable at all. When you treat every other player as opposing nations in a land grab for power under a tenuous paper-thin peace. Every move every player makes matters.
Lords of Hellas is my favorite war-themed and area-control game. It too has many paths to victory, but something is always certain every time I play it. I’m going to have to fight a lot of battles. In Scythe, it really depends on who is doing what at the table and which faction.
I can play a whole game of Scythe without ever fighting. But you bet your ass I’m going have to puff out my chest as an intimidation tactic and maneuver around, so someone else doesn’t bully me. I’m also going to have to find nonviolent ways to slow down their own engine building.
In most games with combat. Combat has very little consequence. Scythe manages to capture the threat of combat as a gameplay mechanism, and you rarely see that outside of convoluted historical wargames. It’s clever.
Leaving the power of a player’s experience in their own hands is a dangerous gamble for a game to take. However, not allowing players the freedom to spoil their own fun by playing “wrong” so to speak, can lead to a very stilted gaming experience that feels spoon-fed.
I admire Scythe for unrepentantly existing the way it does, and I’d love to see more games follow suit. It’s earned my Golden Shield Award.
Interested in the card holders I use in my photos? They are from InfinitionsTabletop on Etsy
More Reviews of Stonemaier Published Games
- Highly asymmetric factions
- A great blend of engine building, territory control, and war
- Awesome components including detailed mech miniatures
- Interesting mechanisms that make the threat of war as important as war
- Tons of freedom with many paths to victory
- High player interaction when you pursue it
- Excellent action selection system that makes Scythe fast to play and easy to learn despite its weight
- Inset player mats are neat
- Plays well at multiple-player counts
- The board features space for 7 factions, but only 5 are present in the base game
- The lack of flavor text on encounter cards makes them feel dry
- The Automa for solo play is difficult to learn
- The tacked-on diplomacy mechanism is terrible
- The combat system is simplistic, that’s a bummer considering the coolness of the mechs and setting
- The unique character miniatures are essentially for show, as there is no gameplay difference between them.
- You can play Scythe “wrong” which will impact your enjoyment if you don’t meet it where it stands.