Build Mechs and Fight for Control of Eastern Europa in ‘Scythe’
The Great War is over and the great powers battle over the ashes
by MATTHEW GAULT
Gunter von Duisburg spent the Great War breeding dire wolves and leading mechs in battle in the forests of Saxony. He was not accustomed to governing or building, but took to the tasks like a duck to water.
The Great War is over and Gunter has spent the year since settling, on behalf of the Saxon Empire, the fertile yet desolate lands surrounding The Factory. Soon, his workers will finish work on an armory in the heart of The Factory itself — and his rivals will never again scavenge the ruins.
To the north, the foolish Nords churn out worker after worker, unaware that human labor pales in comparison to the might of mechanized infrastructure. To the west, the Bears of the Polania Republic mine the tundra for oil and keep to themselves. Gunter bested them their general a year earlier in the first and only battle since the close of the Great War.
Saxony’s influence in the east grows and Gunter knows he’ll soon claim the entire region for the glory of his emperor. His twin dire wolves, Nacht and Tag, stalk the snow around the factory, waiting for advance scouts from Polania or Nord to come and challenge Saxony’s dominance of the region.
This is Scythe.
Scythe is the new board game from Stonemaier Games. It’s based on the incredible art of Jakub Rozalski, which depicts an alternate 1920s Europe where mechs fought World War I.
In his world, ambulatory war-machines stalk farms worked by mid-20th-century Eastern European peasants, and Teutonic soldiers in glowing gas masks tromp through forests on hyper stilts.
It’s a great setting.
In Scythe, players take control of one of five factions and fight for control of Eastern Europe. In the game’s history, a capitalist city-state called The Factory ruled Ukraine and fueled the war by selling giant war machines to all sides. The Factory is now defunct, its doors closed and its people without leadership.
The five factions represent the regional powers left after the Great War. They vie for control of The Factory and the rich farmlands it overlooks. The spoils go not to the best combatant, but to the player who excels at strategy and management.
Scythe is a 4X game, so players explore the area, expand their territory, exploit resources and exterminate the enemy. New players may think the best thing to do is deploy all their mechs, run their rivals off the map and declare victory. But Scythe isn’t that violent. It’s more Settlers of Catan than Paths of Glory.
Like most modern board games, Scythe seems daunting at first. At the beginning of the game, players draw a random faction and player mat that determines which characters they’ll play and how their empire will function. The campaign map is straightforward, but the mats are complicated.
Four squares divide up the player map. Each square contains two actions. Players perform the top action first and the bottom action second. In general, the top actions move pieces around the map and generate resources, while the bottom actions are about spending resources to reinforce infrastructure.
To complicate matters, players can’t perform the same set of actions twice in a row. So if a player recruited a worker one turn, they can’t do it again on the next. If I moved around the map on one turn, I can’t do that the next and so on.
Players use the mats to move around Europa and build mechs and workers to exploit the territory they’ve claimed. Players spend the resources to unlock new abilities on the player mat which makes it easier to gather resources and build mechs.
Finishing upgrades on the player mats, which feels like finishing a technology tree in a video game, earns stars and when a player earns six stars the game ends. The winner is the player with the most gold when the game ends and players earn gold by earning stars, claiming territory and gathering resources.
In Scythe, every system feeds into every other system.
It’s not as complicated as it sounds and it’s a lot of fun to play. New players will take a few turns to understand all the systems, but after few rounds they should be breezing through their turns in under a minute.
All Scythe’s systems feed into each other and create satisfying gameplay loops. During my favorite game — the one I won — I played an industrial variant of the Saxony faction. I had a decent amount of coin and used that coin to buy oil, which I used to upgrade my player mat, which in turn made it easier to get oil and coins … and on and on and on.
It’s all intuitive and, frankly, impressive. Designer Jamey Stegmaier took complex video games such as Civilization or Masters of Orion and condensed them into an enjoyable board game.
Even better, Scythe streamlines and lightens the 4X board game experience. The Scythe games I played all ran under two hours and after a few sessions with the same group, we had games running a tight 70 minutes. Compare that to something like Twilight Imperium, which can eat up an entire day.
Combat is one of my favorite aspects of Scythe. Players field giant mechs that shuffle workers around the board and fend off the opposing faction. But combat feels different than in other board games — for two reasons. First, there’s no random number-generation. No one roles dice.
Instead, players spend power to attack. Power is a limited resource farmed through the player mats. When combat starts, each player commits points from their power pool in secret, and whoever spends the most points, wins. There are some cards and faction abilities that alter power scores, but winning is mostly about generating a resource and committing it wisely.
The second thing that sets combat apart is its cost. In most instances, it’s just not worth engaging an opponent on the battlefield. The losing player retreats from the hex they lost, abandoning any unspent resources lingering in that territory.
But the workers and mechs that fought aren’t destroyed. They merely return to their faction’s home base. In a turn or two, it’s possible that all the mechs and workers the attacker chased off will be back farming the land.
Worse, workers who flee in the attack spread news of the fight across Europa and the aggressor loses popularity, which is one of the most important resources in the game. Players don’t spend much popularity during play, but the number acts as a score multiplier when the game finishes. A player with a low score but high popularity can easily win.
The short term benefits of attacking players to gain resources often isn’t worth the damage to your faction’s popularity. This leads to a lot of posturing on the board as players pile their mechs along their borders but don’t engage. It doesn’t pay to attack your enemies full-bore. It’s better to pay attention to how they’re upgrading their infrastructure — and work to stop them.
Players will succeed if they use their mechs to block an opponents expansion. In the game I won, the Nords generated workers to drill the land for oil, but I spread my mechs across the oil-producing hexes in order to block his progression.
If he wanted the oil cheap and fast, he had to drive me off the land and risk taking a hit to his popularity. Instead, he avoided combat and spent coin to generate the oil, which took longer, slowed his progression and lowered his score at the end of the game.
Scythe is about smart, strategic deployment of the military to avoid conflict. It’s a game of posturing, detente and economic deals. It’s also an absolute blast.
Scythe’s initial appeal comes from the amazing world-building of Rozalski’s art. The box art is striking and every of the game’s hundreds of cards bears one of his fantastical illustrations. Rozalski’s world feel immediate and tangible in a way that board game art really doesn’t. This surely won’t be the last game his work inspires.
Cool paintings of glowering pseudo-Soviets piloting mechs that billow black smog will get a lot of players to try the game, but Stegmaier’s design will keep them playing Scythe long after the novelty of its setting wears off. Everything just works, and every game reveals more of the game’s long-term strategy and appeal.
Stonemaier Games has crafted a quality product. The card stock, wooden tokens and models all feel solid, and the company added a ton of small quality-of-life upgrades. Scythe ships with a diagram on the side of the box that explains how everything fits back into the box, a must for a game with so many pieces.
The box also contains a dozen extra baggies to hold the different tokens, as well as two hard plastic containers players can use to keep track of the coins and resources during the actual game. These are small design choices, but they’re the kind of thing I wish I saw on more high-end board games.
Scythe’s retail run starts in August with an expansion to follow in the winter.