Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 115mins
Play Time (Goof): 30-120mins
Producer/s: Stonemeir Games, & Automa Factory
Designer/s: Jamey Rozalski
Mechs. They’re awesome. Think about it. Machines built for pure power, destruction and combat across all sorts of terrains. Often with a sole operator, turning a person into something far more deadly. Something able to stand up to massive monsters (Kaiju), take on entire armies, and battle each other through epic scale fights. Goddamn they’re cool.
Pacific Rim, Evangellion, Gundam Wing, hell even the Zords from Power Rangers. I love a good storyline which includes Mechs. The problem is, there are so few games with excellent mech gameplay. I remember when I first got my playstation 2, I was super excited because Dad had also bought a mech game (which I can’t even remember the name of. So… probably tells you something). Looking at the cover I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I’d love Vanguard Bandits on my PSX. But this playstation 2 game was clunky, boring, and lacked the sort of depth mechs deserve.
I started to think I was never going to get a mech game which I so desperately wanted. Then I saw this game on Kickstarter which got my attention. It was set in this alternate European continent on the verge of war. And standing over these various nations are badass mechs.
This game, was Scythe.
More than anything else, Scythe is about resource management and creating an economic engine. It’s difficult to see it when you first look at the game. Instead you think it’s going to be about raising armies and conquering territories (I know I did). But everything from the technological upgrades, through to building the mechs themselves is actually about cost effectiveness. This may turn some people off the game, whereas others who may have thought this wasn’t for them will find themselves adoring it. An oddly accurate comparison is Lords of Waterdeep. The games are different in a lot of respects, but if you like LoW, you’ll probably like the resource management of Scythe.
When I played my first game of Scythe, I figured we’d be blasting the hell out of each other’s armies. I’d played games like Twilight Imperium, Axis and Allies and Conquest of Nerath before. I figured I knew the score. Except I was wrong. Combat exists in this game, but you can go whole matches without firing a single shot. It’s far more about posturing, having these looming death machines in displays of power. It’s about strategic positioning and only attacking if you’ve got a good reason to do so. More often than not, people at the table will bargain if they have a strong position – “I’ll give you two turns to get out of the factory before I take it from you”. Getting sent all the way back to the homeland is a huge pain, and even attacking can lose you some valuable resources (and even popularity if civilians get caught up as casualties). This is beneficial to both sides. But be prepared to back up your threats. If you need to use your power or combat cards to take your opponent down and you hesitate or hold back too much, you’ll give your opponents an opportunity to strike.
The factory is an interesting tile. It gives players a special additional action you can choose to take every other turn. It causes a point of contention (it’s worth the value of three territories at the end of the game) and you may want to consider denying those special actions for as long as possible.
Each faction in Scythe feels incredibly unique. And to diversify them even more you randomly get a player board each game too, which has unique combinations of “top row actions” (move, produce, bolster, and trade) and “bottom row actions” (deploy, upgrade, build, and recruit), as well as bonuses for different types of bottom row actions you take. Each faction moves slightly differently, has different bonuses you want to utilise wherever possible while meeting the challenges thrown at you by secret objectives, encounters and goals. There is a huge amount of replayability here.
This game really has very little luck attached to it. You get to dictate everything, with maybe the luckiest element being the combat cards you collect which act as a way to add a small yet surprising amount of power to combat. Even then you get to dictate the outcome. In all likelihood, more experienced players will win more often. Because there is a high level of skill involved. Normally I’d like to chuck dice or something for combat, because I like the idea of an individual mech holding out against impossible odds. But the combat cards you hold can perform the same function in a more controlled way (it’s still highly unlikely you’re coming out on top, my badass lone soldier).
For all the various elements of the game, at no point do you feel overwhelmed. It’s very smooth, very intuitive. I’ll take a second to be really pompous here: Scythe’s gameplay is a real masterpiece.
Something I’ll say for Scythe, which is true for a lot of games but more prevalent here: there is really an optimal number of players. I’ve tried it at a few different numbers, and I find two players just have too much room to manoeuvre without any of the interesting positioning and pressure which accompanies larger games. It’s still fun, but it loses something.
Pros: ++Unique playing factions, +Playermat combos, +Luck mitigation, +Smooth gameplay, +Posturing
Cons: -Lower player counts is less fun
This game’s theme comes across in its beautiful art work. When you look over each card, it’s easy to see the scene playing out in front of you. It’s mesmerizing. And the short sentences of the options you get to choose from allow you to fill in the rest of the information with your imagination. Which is something I originally took for granted. The first time I played it I was looking for overt flavour. But Scythe has something more subtle than that. Something far deeper. Its setting feels very much like a living, breathing world.
If you’re after more text based flavour, it’s hiding in the rulebook. There’s information on each faction and hero. What I love about this is it doesn’t impact on the game directly. Those who are interested in learning more about the lore can do so, while others can play the game without having it clog up any game space.
Each faction has distinct looking units. From the individual leader character, to the look and abilities of the mechs, even to the worker units which have a slightly different look. Along with the different abilities and gameplay options, your faction feels unique. Like you can step into the shoes of someone who holds your factions beliefs and values.
At this stage we should probably answer a question you may have been thinking. Is Scythe really a mech game? When you think of mechs based games, you’re probably not going to think of Scythe. Yes it has mechs, I’d argue they add so much flavour I simply couldn’t picture this game having the same industrial feel without them. But don’t expect to be beating each other into submission. It’s more of a steampunk game which has mechs in it, rather than a mech game itself. But I really can’t fault it for that.
Pros: ++Feeling of a unique industrial world, +Flavour for those who seek it, +Unique feeling factions
Just in case I haven’t been clear enough, the artwork is stunning. It consistently brings you into this harshly beautiful world. The models are quality and the characters are unique. This is really important to me. If I’m playing a game which has different types of soldiers, or a different theme of soliders from someone else then I expect them to look different. Feel different. Be easily distinguishable by more than just colour.
But where this game really shines? The encounter cards. I don’t know if I can say anything else about these cards I haven’t said before. The pictures and few words tell the story. I might just show a couple here so you can see what I mean:
The board is beautiful. It has a fair amount of symbology on it, but again it never becomes overwhelming. It’s surprising how much they managed to cram into this game and yet never overwhelm the players. This isn’t just from a personal viewpoint. I know I play a lot more games than most so I’m likely to click onto what’s happening a bit faster. But even casual gamers I’ve played this with have never been overwhelmed. They’ve generally been able to pick it up and run with it because of how well everything is laid out. Replacing words with symbols can often be difficult in games, and I’d often argue too much symbology makes games hard to teach and detracts from the gameplay. But here it’s done right. The symbols make sense, and they’re able to tell you more than words could, which allows for much more focus on the important decisions you have to make.
Pros: ++Stunning artwork, ++Quality and unique components, +Simple symbology
I guess what I’m really saying here is this – at first I took Scythe for granted. I underestimated its beauty and genius. It’s a fantastic game and is so much fun to play. Truth be told, I didn’t back it on Kickstarter. I actually found the campaign too late. And it’s probably my biggest crowdfunding based regret (not gaming based regret, see Heroes of Metro City for more).
I give Scythe:
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to finish pledging my allegiance to the Rusviet Union.
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