Sickle of the Hype
If there are two things I’m wary of, it’s hype and Eurogames. Scratch that, three things: also moths. I hate those dusty-winged buggers.
Those first two reasons are why, in spite of my love for Jamey Stegmaier’s earlier Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia, I was so wary of his newest title, Scythe. The early previews received it with such breathless ecstasy, as though this game of mechs-and-agriculture were some rapturous merger of religion and boardgamery. Not only would Scythe cure world hunger through mechanization and make cube-pushing fun again, it would also look good at the same time. It was all a bit much, honestly.
So imagine my surprise that Scythe is actually one rattlesnake of a game, tightly coiled and packing enough bite to back up all that noise.
Let me tell you about Scythe by not talking about Scythe for a minute.
One of the best things a board game can pull off is that moment when its systems coil back in on themselves like a nautilus shell, each compartment more vested and more intricate than the last, and all structured together to form a cohesive whole. Games like Pax Pamir — where every action bears some relation to each other action — exemplify this, letting even small choices hide swelling consequences down the line. Many Eurogames, with their optimized moves and focus on minutiae, seek to tickle that part of our brain that loves mastering disparate systems.
However, the problem with many Euros isn’t that they’re bad; it’s that they’re so solitary in nature, all too often breeding a heads-down sort of play where everyone is focused more on the development of their own tableau than on the state of the board. This is a terribly sweeping generalization, naturally, but the brass ring of smart Euro and hybrid-style game design is to get everyone to look up once in a while, to focus on both the fine-tuning of their own board and the state of the game at large. To split their attention between the internal and external, so to speak. To get the left brain chugging cheerfully alongside the right brain.
What I love most about Scythe is that it pulls off both of these goals in fine fashion. It’s a game that sees you tweaking the workings of your faction like a clocksmith, measuring out the gears and grams of an efficient empire and evaluating all those three-steps-ahead moves — and it’s also a game of broad conflict, posting posturing mechs on your borders, and deploying a muskox-riding Viking to steal an opponent’s stockpile of timber.
This is largely thanks to the way Scythe splits its own attention. Broadly speaking, it’s a brain with both halves working in tandem, both feeding information and resources to the other. There’s the map, where your workers gather resources, mechs and heroes do battle, and territory is lost or gained. Out there, it’s all untamed frontier. If you want territory, you’ve got to take and hold it, whether by waging battle or bullying everyone with a few well-positioned mechs and a surplus of ammunition. Then there’s the player board, all cubes and careful tuning and upgrades and bonuses, the clockwork Euro heart of your kingdom. What’s so smart about Scythe is that both halves are entirely reliant on the other, with the best things happening on each half because of actions you took on the other. Want to upgrade something on your faction board? Well, then you’ve got to get out there on the map and stockpile the right resources. Want to conquer a particular sector? Well, first you’ll have to grow your power and earn some mech bonuses. Playing heads-down might let you shape a fine empire, but you’ll need to put yourself out there on the map if you’re bent on victory.
The thing is, I haven’t even touched on the setting yet, and already I’m gushing about how well Scythe accomplishes its goals. So let’s back up a moment.
Here’s the scene: after an alternate mechanized Great War, the city-state (only known as The Factory) that fueled the conflict with its big old robots and glowy-blue power sources has collapsed, leaving a power vacuum that its neighbors are hoping to exploit. Thus everyone sends in their best heroes and tools, hoping to annex the place and become dominant in this brave new world of big walking robo-suits.
As far as setups go, it’s perfectly serviceable. Where it succeeds, however, is in presenting its conflict as an honest-to-goodness blitz to win the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of the locals. The goal is simple enough: have the most money when the curtains go down. The highway to your destination, however, is anything but straightforward.
First of all, much of the game revolves around earning stars, little achievements that represent your progress towards establishing dominance over the city-state. Pretty much everything inches you closer to earning a star. Completed an upgrade? Great! That’s one-sixth closer to earning the star for upgrades. Built a mech? Fantastic — once you have all four out there, you’ll earn another star. Won a battle? Completed one of your objective cards? Star, star. Your progress is gratifyingly brisk.
Better yet, almost everything in the game is pitched to provide both an instantaneous and a delayed reward. When upgrading, for instance, you not only remove one of the cubes on your faction board, thus increasing the benefit of its corresponding action. You also move it down to the bottom row, blocking out a bit of the cost of something else. That’s practically two upgrades for the cost of one! Similarly, building a mech not only means you now have a new battle unit stomping around the map, but also that you’ve just earned an upgrade, letting your guys cross rivers or move faster or perform better in battle. Even the seemingly-wimpy “enlist” action, which gives you a onetime bump in cash or whatnot, becomes absurdly powerful once you realize that it gives you something every single time a neighboring player takes its corresponding action in the future. If you’re sitting next to someone who’s clearly pursuing a particular strategy, you can enlist recruits to give you bonuses every time they take a step towards meeting their goals. Very cool.
This level of interconnectedness extends to pretty much everything in the game. Consider, for instance, how you can travel around with regular workers to dissuade enemies from firing on you for fear of angering the locals, especially since your level of popularity largely determines your income of cash at the end of the game. Squatting on the center spot of the board might not earn many resources, but it’s worth a whole lot of territory if you can hold it until the end, so a sit-in of civilians might be enough to dissuade your opponents from dislodging you. If that doesn’t do it, then maybe a healthy supply of combat cards will suffice.
If it isn’t clear, I’m having a grand time with Scythe. If I had to offer a downside, it’s that the game can occasionally become a bit dull in the early and middle stages as players evaluate their overwhelming quantity of actions. After all, this is a game that’s easy to become lost in, focusing so much on the sheer volume of what you can do that you fail to play to your strengths. Unsurprisingly, first-timers might find it mind-boggling and unfocused until they finally navigate a path to stomp forward.
After that first time, however, Scythe is one of the most interesting games of the year. This is game design at its most rewarding, offering meaningful interaction on the map alongside the fiddle of fine-tuning your faction board, not to mention the balance of powerful mechs alongside alternate strategies for neutering their effectiveness, geography that both matters and can be circumvented, and an entire host of interesting decisions every step of the way. Every now and then, it’s nice to see reality live up to the hype.