Modern board games can cost a lot, and Scythe is no exception. It cost me $170 a few weeks back to take the crowdfunded strategy game home, and since then it’s been worth every single dollar.
In a nutshell, Scythe is about making money. That’s appropriate for a game that costs more than most collector’s editions, and it’s apt given that Scythe is basically a 4X-lite.
You can play by yourself with the provided Automa cards and rules, but it’s really a game designed for two to five. The general idea is to branch out from your home base, recruiting workers, manufacturing resources, building mechanised units for combat, constructing buildings, enlisting recruits, and so forth.
If you’ve played Civilization before, it all sounds fairly straightforward. But before I get more into the gameplay, let’s talk about what makes it worth $170.
One of the annoying things about modern board games of this calibre — so, anything over $100 basically — is that they’re a massive time investment. That’s fine; I’ve got nothing against a day of board gaming.
But that’s the sort of thing you have to plan your life around. It’s the reason why Star Wars: Rebellion usually stays in its box. Four hours is a lot of time to invest.
Scythe only demands between 90 minutes and 150 minutes (factoring in setup time). Your first game will probably take an hour or two longer to get accustomed to all the rules and icons, and about halfway through you’ll have most of the symbols, syntax and strategies down pat.
Your second game will be infinitely faster; a round with my partner, for instance, was done and dusted in just over an hour. And that’s where some real clever design kicks in.
Each player gets a player and faction mat at the start of every game, but it’s the player mat that’s the cool part here. It’s broken up into four sections, one for each of the moves you can make during your turn.
Every turn, players can take the top action, bottom action, or both from one of the panels in their player mat. You can’t take the same action twice, for balance. And since most of the bottom actions are related to mechanics that don’t interfere or interrupt other players, the next player can get on with their turn while you sort your stuff out.
Because there’s no rounds or phases, turns are quick. And having your options laid out in front of you makes the learning process infinitely easier.
But that alone doesn’t make Scythe worth $170. And often it’s not the design where games fall down — it’s the quality of the materials itself.
So let’s start with the pieces. The mechs are made of moulded plastic, as are the four characters that represent each of the factions. The characters are ripe for painting too: the Polania Republic is a female marksman and her bear companion, while the Crimeans are represented by an almost angelic Khan and her eagle.
The pieces aren’t just visually distinct, but physically too. Anything that’s a resource or used for production, like the workers and buildings, are made of wood, while anything that engages in combat is made of plastic.
The boards and mats are high quality too; I was far more impressed with their thickness and solidity than, say, what I found in Star Wars Rebellion. Here’s a close-up of the player mat:
You’ll notice there’s holes for various bits and pieces, which is where your buildings and upgrades go. When you’re ready to pay the requisite cost for a building, you move the piece off your mat and plop it somewhere on the game board. Upgrades, on the other hand, basically reduce the cost of your bottom row actions. (And once you’ve paid for an upgrade, you can lower the cost of any bottom row action you like.)
Until then, everything fits nice and snug in the holes provided. It’s well designed, and the mats and pieces feel that way too.
Something that’s also well designed, something often overlooked, is the box itself.
Walk into a game store, and this is what you’ll see. Scythe is a big box, rightly so for something that’s pitched as a 4X in a board game.
But it’s not just big because everything’s squeezed together. There’s actually a good amount of room inside the box, which is a lifesaver at the end of an evening when you’re popping all the pieces back together.
On top of that, there’s a little guide on the inner box showing you where everything goes. Why every board game over $80 doesn’t have this is beyond me. The extra room in the box means you’ll probably be fine without it, but the added thought is more than appreciated (particularly if your board game night is paired with a few drinks).
By the way, did I mention the board is double-sided?
There’s already plenty of variety in the standard game, with the randomisation of the player, faction mats, end-game structure bonuses, and the board encounters. On top of that, the standard board has placeholder bases built in for expansions down the road, and there’s a second map on the underside of the board with 70% bigger hexes. (Note: the content of the maps are identical, but it’s handy if you’re playing with a larger group.)
Right now, the option seems excessive if you’re only playing with two or three people. But once the extra factions are added in, the added room will become real handy. The board extension was given out to some Kickstarter backers, but you can purchase it separately through Stonemaier Games (although you’ll have to wait until November).
What I’ve enjoyed so much about the game, though, and what’s ultimately put a smile on my face after handing over $170 is the way each game comes to its final conclusion.
The winner is always determined on their cumulative wealth, and you’ll accumulate money as you undertake certain actions. But each player’s popularity also acts as a multiplier at the end of the game, maximising their seemingly-minimal amount of territories, resources and buildings into a scarily formidable total.
Each player mat is different too in terms of what they’ll reward. Some will hand out the most amount of money for deploying mechs, while others favour upgrades. And the player mats also mix up the actions in each of the panels, preventing players from falling back on the same strategy.
And there’s still so much I haven’t touched on. The art, for one, is downright gorgeous. The solo mode is also a really neat touch, although as Luke noted when he got the game in July it’s a little pared down from the full game.
But as an overall product, I couldn’t be happier. I’m infinitely more pleased with my purchase than I have been with Star Wars: Rebellion, not just from the general quality of materials but also the thoughtful design, variety and the streamlined nature of play.
It’s not the kind of game that should have an automatic pride of place in every gamer’s shelf. $170, after all, is a bloody lot to spend on a board, plastic and bits of wood. But I’m thoroughly satisfied with the money I’ve spent, and ultimately that’s the only test that any game needs to pass.