Review: Scythe

BGG Rank #6 – 1/27/2017

This past weekend, I finally got to try out Scythe, one of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2016. The game’s Kickstarter campaign demolished its lofty goals, amassing over 17,000 backers and $1.8 million dollars. By the time the game finally reached the table, it did so facing a tidal wave of expectations. Having finally played it myself, I can tell you firsthand — it lived up to the hype.

My friend Jordan found a copy of Scythe over the holidays in his hometown’s Friendly Local Game Store. I had worried that this game might be a tough one to find at retail price, so I was super excited when I heard that he was able to get a hold of a copy. Along with our friends Matthew and Erik (who I also played Pandemic Legacy with), we scheduled a time to get together and try it out.

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Scythe is set in an alternate world that is equal parts agrarian and industrial. It’s a world where cows graze in verdant pastures alongside gigantic smoke-billowing war machines. Where steampunk hipsters in jetpacks hover above eighteenth century villagers walking to market with a basket full of fresh produce. This world that is somehow both futuristic and nostalgic seems totally plausible though, and it’s thanks to the beautiful artwork contributed by Jakub Rozalski.

Much like the world that Scythe is set in, the game itself is equal parts beauty and power. Imagine climbing into one of the mechs depicted in Rozalski’s artwork. It’s an intimidating machine with a lot of moving parts. Inside, you’re probably expecting to find an uncomfortable metal seat and a control panel filled with an unintelligible collection of buttons and switches. But instead, it’s like you’ve entered the cabin of a luxury automobile, where every detail was carefully planned with the user experience in mind.

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That’s the magic that designer Jamey Stegmaier has captured in Scythe. You can tell that this is a game that was meticulously planned and thoroughly playtested. For such a big game (literally, the box is massive) with so many moving parts, nothing felt superfluous or clunky. From the wooden components that fit into indentations on the player board to the different shapes of the coins that make them easily intelligible from a distance, the game is filled with clever little details that showcase the care that was put into its design.

I’ve talked about analysis paralysis being a problem with other games, and I love the way that Scythe confronts this issue. Each turn, a player selects from a number of two-part actions. While the second portion of the action is being performed, the next player can begin her turn. Essentially what Jamey has done here is distill out the parts of a turn that do not affect other players significantly and put these parts at the end of a player’s turn, so that play can move along more efficiently. That is genius, and I’d love to see other designers of medium-to-heavy games incorporate a similar idea.

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Furthermore, I really enjoyed this game’s take on the area control mechanic. Unlike many other area control games, there really is very little direct conflict. In terms of the style of conflict, it’s much more Cold War than World War. Amassing military power and thoughtfully positioning your troops is important, but it is mainly to dissuade opponents from ruining your plans, and scaring them into altering their own plans. One or two well-timed strikes can aid you in your path to victory, but any more than that will leave you in a vulnerable position.

My favorite part of all was the encounter deck. When your character lands on certain spaces, you get to draw an encounter card and choose from one of three options. Mechanically, the options generally offer a small benefit of resources or a stat boost, or larger benefits for a certain price. What’s really great about these cards though is the thematic element. Each card features a scene depicted by Rozalski’s art, and three snippets of flavor text, followed by a description of the related costs and benefits of each choice. The artwork is evocative, and the text which links each scene to its action choices is inventive and often a bit cheeky. Like the rest of the game, the cards are neither cumbersome nor drab.

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One of Scythe’s encounter cards. (Image credit: Stonemaier Games)

After we finished playing, all four of us agreed we’d definitely like to get together for a rematch sometime. I’d highly recommend Scythe, and I can definitely see why it rocketed up the charts to its current position among the top ten.

If you’d like to purchase Scythe and you use my Amazon link, a portion of the proceeds will help support this blog. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “Review: Scythe

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