There have been a lot of games based on the First World War. Since the days when FPS games were obsessed with the historical setting to many tabletop RPGs and board games, the Great War has been used to tell thousands of stories over the decades. Perhaps the most interesting forms that these sort of games take is the alternate history scenario which poses this question: What would life have been like if things had gone differently in the war? Enter: Scythe.
Scythe is a 4X strategy game set in an alternate history of the 1920s where the Great War was fought using giant mechs created by a huge city-state known only as ‘The Factory’. The Factory has since closed its doors, and several of the neighbouring territories that surround The Factory have sent their envoys and soldiers out to try and establish themselves as rulers of the continent of Europa. In Scythe, you take control of 1 of 5 different factions: The Polania Repulic, The Saxony Empire, The Crimean Khanate, The Nordic Kingdom and The Rusviet Empire. Each faction is fronted by a different main character and their companion, each with their own special abilities that embody their faction’s philosophy and personality. The game is set up in a similar way to many 4X video games, like Civilization. Each territory is represented on the board by hexagonal spaces, and there are several different territory types that produce different resources and can be interacted with in different ways by the different factions. Each turn you must choose one of four sets of actions to perform to advance your faction’s agenda and try to be the faction with the most points by the end of the game.
The actions you can take on each turn are represented on your player mat, which has a different configuring depending on what your faction happens to be focused on in each playthrough of the game. These player mats are handed out at random at the beginning of the game, as are the faction mats which represent your faction and their special character and abilities. Because of this random assignment, not only does each game play differently, but because there are two different mats, each time you play a faction will play out differently. On each of the player mats there are 4 different segments, each with two different actions paired together. When you start a turn, you place a marker on the action you wish to perform, and then you can choose to pay the costs of either one, or even both, of the actions and gain the different benefits you have paid for. The top-row actions you can choose from are trading, moving, bolstering, and producing. The bottom-row actions you can chose from are upgrading, deploying, building and enlisting.
Trading means that you can pay money to either produce resources of your choice or increase your popularity. Moving means that you can choose several units to move around or gain some money (makes sense). Bolstering can be used to either increase your military might or take combat cards, and producing means that you can produce resources based on the number of workers you control and the territories that they inhabit. Upgrading means increasing the utility of one of your top row actions, deploying means putting one of your mechs on the field, building means to construct one of your four structures, and finally enlisting means to recruit new units to your army, which gives you one of several bonuses whenever any player performs a certain action. These 8 actions make up the bulk of what you do during the course of a game, and each can be used in conjunction with your special skills to employ several tactics that can take your faction to victory. As you progress in a game, there are several different metrics, each of which leads to different milestones. As you reach each milestone, you place a star on a tracker, and once someone has placed all 6 of their stars, the game is over and the final score is tallied. These milestones can consist of such things like placing all of your workers/mechs, maxing our your popularity or might, and winning in combat.
These different milestones are central to figuring out your strategy, as there are more than 6 milestones to complete but only 6 stars to place. Because of this, you have to look at the faction and player mats that you have received and figure out based on your faction abilities and starting locations which of the 6 tasks you should focus on to win. Sometimes it makes more sense to try and out-produce your opponent, sometimes it makes sense to try and combat your opponent to death, but there is very little luck to how the game works, especially considering that there are literally no dice involved. There are possibly hundreds of different ways to play the game, and it’s likely that you’re going to settle into a tactic that works best for your playstyle. It can be fun to mix things up too, of course, which is almost certainly helped by the fact that each faction is much better at performing certain actions. For instance, The Rusviet Empire have the ability to perform the same action over and over again, meaning that you can aggressively pursue a certain goal until you manage to get it, getting there probably more quickly than anyone else is going to manage.
Other than the actions you can take and the milestones you have to track, there are a couple of other things that can affect how the game plays out. Each player has two secret missions that they can choose to complete, which also go towards the star total. These secret missions can be game changers because you choose when and if to complete them (assuming that you meet the requirements), and they are kept a secret from the other players, preventing them from interfering with your attempts to complete them. You also have the ability to gain an extra action to choose from by reaching the factory space in the middle of the board. These actions can also be real game changers if you get lucky enough, and they also make it much easier to move your units around the board as each factory card has a double-move space as the bottom-row action. Finally, there are also encounters that you can come across by moving your main character across the board, which usually give you some sort of small bonuses or an option to spend precious resources to gain some sort of advantage over the other players. Combat in the game is pretty unique as it doesn’t employ dice or luck at all. When you move combat units onto a space occupied by enemy combat units, you and the enemy player each take one of the two combat wheels. You then can choose to pay up to 7 of your combat might and attack cards to the wheel in secret. Once you’ve both selected your power and cards, you reveal at the same time and the higher number wins. You can also secretly choose to set your number to 0, which means that you lose combat but you do get to draw a new combat card, which can be useful for a combat later on in the game. This more tactical approach to board game combat is pretty stunning and really involves some careful thinking about how much you’re willing to spend on combat and how much of a chance you think you have of winning.
On the whole, the game feels different from many big, complex board games, firstly because it’s actually pretty easy to grasp and is surprisingly easy to set up and put away. Although there are lots of pieces involved, there are several important design decisions that have prevented a lot of the hassle involved. For one thing, there are several extra baggies included in the box, something which few board game producers actually think of doing, and they also included small plastic boxes which are used both to store wooden resource tokens but also to hold them during gameplay. These small touches really make the game feel like a game that was designed with a lot of care to the experience of the player, as well as the function of the mechanics. This attention to detail is noticeable in the board design and the construction of the pieces. The game comes with 5 miniatures for each of the 5 factions, each of which has been really well produced and sculpted. Unlike with cheaper minis, there is very little plastic run-off on the models, and the sculpting is very detailed. Each of the main characters oozes personality, and the different mech models are easily distinguishable from one another, even when they haven’t been painted. The board is also well designed, with all of the relevant trackers and card spaces clearly marked. There is also a unique feature with the board as well, as the back side features a larger version of the board that you can use if you plan on playing with a lot of people. This feature is very cool, even if it does require an extra purchase.
The only slight flaw with the pieces is that some of the wooden tokens appear to have some damage to them. This appears to have happened in the manufacturing process as there are no chipped off pieces rolling around in the box. Although this sort of damage is usually a mark against a game, it is to be expected with a game this big that includes so many small pieces, and bear in mind that it is probably not going to be found in every single copy of the game.
If there is one genuine complaint that can be made against this game, it is the lack of flavour included during the course of the actual game. There is obviously a decent amount of backstory in the game’s manual, but there is pretty much nothing once the game has actually begun. It is probable that this was done so that the players can project their own story onto the game, but some additions could have been made that wouldn’t have gotten in the way of this. The encounter cards you pick up during a game simply give you an image and a few different options to select from; it might have been nicer if there was a little description of each scenario that your character finds themselves in. Obviously, this is just a tiny little niggle, and adding the flavour text might have covered the beautiful artwork, but it still would have been nice to find out more about the world as the game goes on.
Designer: Jamey Stegmaier
Artist: Jakub Rozalski
Publisher: Stonemaier Games