DESIGNERS: Jamey Stegmaier
ARTWORK: Jakub Rozalski
PUBLISHER: Stonemaier Games
TIME: 115 MINUTES
I’ve always had a fascination with propaganda art. Not so much “I really like what those posters are telling me,” but more “I appreciate that design aesthetic.” The artists putting Soviet propaganda together really knew how to capture a person’s attention–they probably wouldn’t have lasted long in the profession if they hadn’t. Art doesn’t get much more high-stakes than that. This affinity for propagandistic design has led me down innumerable rabbit holes over the years. For instance, a striking poster on the cover of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry is what first got me reading Russian literature.
And to make a long story short, Russian literature is what brought me to Scythe. Artist Jakub Rozalski has created an incredibly vivid world that feels ripped straight from the pages of Tolstoy, Babel, or Sholokhov. Admittedly, none of those authors included giant mechanized walking war machines in their stories. Just think how great Dr. Zhivago would have been if it had more mech battles. As it stands, Strelnikov only had his pitiful armored train–he clearly lacked war-making imagination. In any event, the beautiful illustrations of Scythe sucked me (and many other people on the internet) into a vortex of hype, which is one of those things I try to avoid like the plague.
You see, I wrote my thesis on hype cycles in indie rock, and if I learned anything, it’s that hype is a commodity created and nurtured by cloistered fan communities. It’s a resource that fans thrive on or react against until the vein is sucked dry and the backlash begins. What’s most tragic in all of this, is that hype is largely out of the hands of of the artist. Things are all gumdrops and lollipops until the angry mob decides to slip a razor blade into your bag of sweets. Ow. Or replace your bag of sweets with a bag of bile. Ew. What I’m trying to say is that hype is not a useful measuring stick for anything. It doesn’t matter. If you allowed yourself to get carried away and expect something you shouldn’t have, that’s on you, not the artist.
Now that we know hype is stupid, but Soviet propaganda art is cool, we can proceed with the review. In Scythe, players take on the role of faction leaders in an alternate timeline 1920s. Instead of the standard euro point-track, the faction with the most money at the end of the game wins. “Money?!” you say? Clearly, they haven’t heard of Five-Year Plans in this universe. That’s good, because a game simulating the real-world transition to collective farming would probably just be really depressing. And no fun.
Instead, Scythe-land imagines a world where the Scandinavians, Polish, Germans, Crimeans, and Russians (the Japanese and Scottish are thrown-in for good measure in the expansion) are all jockeying for control of the Eastern European steppe. Why are they all there? It turns out that the world’s only mech factory has been mothballed and is ripe for the taking. After all, each faction has only four mechs–surely the factory has some spare parts lying around in a crate or something.
At its heart, Scythe is a game about area control. But to effectively control some area, you need to get your economy in order. So maybe it’s really a game about building the engine that drives your economy. Okay then, maybe it’s a game about two things. To build that engine, you move your two initial workers around the board to harvest resources: wood, food, metal, oil, and more workers. Harvesting more workers sounds a bit strange, I know, but the miracles of parthenogenesis make it all possible. “What are all of these resources used for,” you ask? Well, you cash them in at various points to: deploy mechs, build structures, upgrade your technology, or enlist recruits who give you both a one-time and ongoing bonus.
You’re probably wondering how on earth you’re supposed to keep all of these options straight. Scythe helps by keeping your turn-to-turn activity fairly streamlined. You have four choices of actions each round and your only restriction is that you cannot do the same thing two times in a row (unless you are playing as the Rusivet faction who have evolved to the point where doing the same thing twice in a row no longer creates paralyzing cognitive dissonance). “Hold on,” you say, “you just slipped-in another game mechanism on the sly. Did you think I wouldn’t notice?” Guilty as charged. So then, Scythe is a game about area control, engine building, and action selection. That’s all, I promise.
Each player has their own randomly assigned action-selection board which features pairs of actions in columns. You do the top action, which generally allows you to move or gain some sort of resource. Then, you do the bottom action which lets you exchange resources to upgrade your player-board in some way. Each turn, you get incrementally better until you are able to achieve more and more. Admittedly, the game takes a while to develop. For the first hour, it feels like no one at the table is achieving much of anything, then all of a sudden–whamo. Some reviewers have complained about the lumbering, grinding nature of the game, particularly in its early stages. I’m not sure I agree it’s a design-flaw. A lot of engine-building economy games are incrementalist experiences. Perhaps these critics were expecting some mechanistic revelation due to … ahem… hype.
Like Stonemaier’s previous game, Euphoria, players have control over triggering game-end. They are working toward mini-goals throughout the game that allow them to earn achievement stars (just like we’re in elementary school again). Once someone deploys all six of their stars, the game is over. But again, it’s not the star-pusher who’s the winner, it’s the person with the most money. So timing is important.
As with all of my board game reviews, I’ll leave in-depth rules explanation to others. The rules themselves are well-written and give good guidance on teaching the game, so dive right in. This pool, unlike most you’ll encounter doesn’t have those draconian “no diving allowed” signs surrounding it. I like this “laissez-faire” attitude.
Mechanics I haven’t mentioned up to now include: the minimalist combat system–though it’s by no means a conflict-oriented game; encounter cards that can be activated at various spaces of the board; and the mysteries of the central factory. These are all just embellishments to the central system. They don’t do much beyond incentivizing territorial expansion and some limited player interaction.
I’ve had the chance to play Scythe with a wide variety of gaming groups–both hardcore gamers and non. When we called our first game (before the end had officially come), my mother-in-law said: “Whoa. I wonder what was going on in the head of the guy who designed this?” After our second playthrough, my father-in-law said: “Wow! It all fits together so neatly.” My mother-in-law (who won) said: “I really liked that!” That they were able to appreciate the nuances of the game after just two playthroughs is a testament to the sophistication of the design. Some reviewers have complained that the game doesn’t quite live up to expectations (there’s that darn hype again). Call me a Scythe apologist, but I’ll play any strategy game that can bring my parents together around the table for three hours and keep them engaged.
Any gaming experience this complex can end up feeling a bit deterministic. With all of the strategies in play, it can sometimes feel like the game is playing you rather than the other way around. It’s kind of like playing Go–I know there is supposed to be a lot of strategy in the game, but it always feels more like an emergent experience than active participation. This is not to say that there is no straight-line cause-and-effect in Scythe, or that it doesn’t reward careful planning. There is and it most certainly does. But I’ve stood up from every session and thought “Wow, that was an experience.” Not just an activity or a pastime, but something altogether more intangible. For me, Scythe hits all the right notes in that regard. It may not be for everyone, but my plays so far have taught me that it can be enjoyed by anyone.