I’m usually a little sluggish to check out new games, which is a strange quality for someone who reviews them. Mostly I like being able to assess them apart from the inevitable flurry of enthusiasm that accompanies popular new releases. When there are so many new games to play, waiting six months or so can be useful, just to see what is still being played at that point. But this weekend I had the opportunity to play Scythe, and in this case at least I see why people are so enthusiastic about it. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
There’s definitely a sense of unfulfilled expectations though, because in my head Scythe was somewhat similar to something like Chaos in the Old World or Cyclades, an elaborate thematic Euro where the players are fighting over control of various territories. I was right about the first part, but territory control isn’t actually as much of a factor, or at least it wasn’t in our game. There’s not a lot of reason to hold specific spots on the map, and even if you are shut out of someplace you can usually find what you need elsewhere.
No, rather than territory control, Scythe is basically a dolled-up production game, the kind of thing that in its starkest form is usually designed by someone like Stefan Feld. There are a ton of interlocking systems that all pull in different directions and all work toward overall victory. The cliche for games like these is “point salad,” an expression that has become overused to the point of becoming meaningless, but anyway it doesn’t really apply here. It’s true that almost everything in the game bumps you toward victory, but there are a couple of differences between Scythe and games that usually bear the dubious distinction of point salad.
The first is that everything in the game feels at least marginally connected to the setting. This is not exactly revolutionary, since there has been a rise in recent years of defiantly Euro designs that are rooted in extremely strong themes and settings. I’m thinking in particular of the afore-mentioned Chaos in the Old World and Argent: The Consortium, but there are others too. Scythe connects to its agrarian-mechs theme quite well. Mechanically the game isn’t really something fresh so much as it is something meaningful. It’s helped by the production, which is frankly astonishing.
But the second factor is that you aren’t exactly going for points at all, and this is what I like best about the game. The game revolves around achievements, of which there are around a dozen available and open to everyone. When you achieve one you put your marker on the board indicating so. These might be for moving some resources to the end of a track, or by getting specific pieces on the board, what have you. Interestingly, this reminded me most of all of Nexus Ops, the classic dudes-on-a-map game that utilized secret objectives to huge effect. In Scythe the objectives aren’t secret, but the game has a similar arc. Players spend the first two-thirds of the game setting up different possibilities, and then the last third is a flurry of activity as players suddenly start claiming achievements left and right, often realizing they are set up to do something without meaning to do it.
This gives Scythe a nice emphasis on the short game that works much better for guys like me. I suspect that you can just do whatever in the first half of the game, since everything you do pushes you toward some kind of goal. More experience will provide more focus and expertise, but you feel like you are doing something even if you aren’t playing very well. The other quality is that it grants flexibility, allowing players to shift gears when another achievement becomes more attainable than a previous one. Euros often have a problem with this, forcing players to stay on their path to destruction. Not so in Scythe, where plans can be improvised quickly.
I also want to touch on the combat, which I really enjoyed. That’s probably because it reminds me most of all of Dune. You commit a certain amount of resources, and the loser loses all of their stuff in the territory, while the winner keeps their units but still loses the resources they committed. There are power cards too, but the game is mostly centered around the double-guessing of a blind bid, rather than the actual troops on the board. It’s an effective method of combat, although it is a bit bloodless, which won’t help people who want more fightin’.
It’s not perfect, at least not after one game. The achievements are the focus of the game, but there’s a lot of scoring that takes place afterward to actually determine the winner. I’m fine with this really, but it does draw focus away from the achievements some, and I’m not as into that. The other thing is that it has that annoying habit where even the simplest task in the game requires several steps, which is something I tend to find exhausting. Still, the setting helps with that a lot. There’s also not a ton of interaction, especially not in the early game while players are still not bumping against each other. To make up for this a little, the game uses one of the more annoying mechanics out there, where you can basically get an upgrade that gives you things for someone else doing an action. This is not really interaction of course, but it still forces you to say what you’re doing all the time so other players won’t miss the appropriate bonuses.
But overall I was quite impressed by Scythe. It’s a very polished design, obviously well-developed and gorgeous to look at. It also manages to be a little more free-wheeling than heavy Euros often are, offering tactical rewards and strategic flexibility that usually isn’t present in this genre. I look forward to playing again, and I think it might end up being one of the better games of the year.