Ben, dropped me this piece as his first reaction to what has to be one of the most highly anticipated tabletop releases ever. Like Ben I’m still letting my final opinions percolate some more before it gets a final review, however inspired by his musings I’ve added some of my own, so think of this as the equivalent of two old farts pondering a prize winning whippet over a pint of stout.
Ben: In 2015, the most highly anticipated game of 2016 according to BoardGameGeek was Scythe, by Stonemaier Games. The hype had been bubbling away for some time, starting with the fantastic artwork by Jakub Rozalski which inspired the game in the first place, and continuing with BGG message boards on the extensive playtesting process, and ultimately fired up by scintillating podcast interviews like the one Mike and I carried out with Jamey Stegmaier in November of last year.
Then came the Kickstarter launch. I logged on the moment the project went live and by the time I had pledged my allegiance it had already doubled its goal. By the end of the campaign, one which asked for $33,000, it had cleared a record-breaking $1.8m in pledges. It was a phenomenon.
And before I get stuck into the game, a quick note on the campaign. Jamey Stegmaier knows how to run a Kickstarter. He literally wrote the book on it. Updates are sent regularly and always have something new to say, even when not a huge amount might seem to be happening. Jamey engages with fans commenting on the campaign and on BGG. He maintains transparency about any problems that might come his way. He could not do it better. The project was due to deliver in August of this year and, despite the ambition involved, he managed to get it into people’s hands in July (for the most part).
And yet despite this, he has also received a battery of negative comments from (in my opinion) over-privileged backers. Not about the game, but about the process. The EU fulfilment company let Jamey down and he maintained his usual transparency. At worst, people are getting their games in the month in which they were told they would receive them, but as per usual the Internet mouths off and hands out a beating to a good man. Collectively, we all need to give Jamey a pat on the back, say well done, and offer to buy him a drink should we ever get the chance, because what should be a highlight for him as become a thankless task.
Mike: Unfortunately this is a problem not isolated to just Scythe and is fairly prevalent throughout KS, much is just ignorance of people not understanding exactly what it is they are investing their money in and some of it is just unfortunately good old fashioned geek collector entitlement and wanting that new shiny toy, now now NOW!!
Ben: To say Scythe is ambitious is to underplay everything it attempts. Firstly, it attempts to be the most beautiful game around (and pretty much succeeds, I have to say). The artwork (and glorious artbook, in the copy I bought) is incredible, and invokes the theme incredibly. Or should I say the game plays off the theme of the artwork incredibly. Everything is tied together in one beautiful package. Secondly, it attempts to be, at surface level, simple and fast to play, with potentially overlapping turns to increase the speed at which it can be played. But that appears (at first glance) to sit at odds with the depth of experience and complexity of options it presents. It features, to some degree or other, elements of worker placement, resource management, territorial control, combat, miniatures, asymmetrical abilities, hidden and open goals, and a scoring mechanism that means you never really know who is winning. And it claims to be able to do all of that in a running time (including setup) of under 2 hours.
The question is, can a game accomplish all of that and still provide a satisfying gaming experience? I have so far managed one game of Scythe and, to be honest, I can’t be definitive on this, but that’s not a negative. That depth of experience and complexity I mentioned? That needs more than one play to unravel. At this point, I don’t know how satisfying a game of Scythe can be because I don’t know what I’m doing. And again, that’s not a negative. I played the game and very quickly knew what I was doing, I just didn’t know what I was doing. I knew what my options were on my turn, I very quickly understood how my turn worked and exactly what I could do. I just had no idea what the right thing to do was.
Mike: I’ve been fortunate to get two games in at this point and while i’m still no closer to formulating any kind of game winning strategy, Ben’s thoughts encapsulate something that’s tickling at the back of my brain. Scythe is this smorgasbord of mechanisms and ideas that gel together rather well like a Peanut Butter and Jelly gaming sandwich but i’m yet to be convinced its greatness is the sum of its parts. Like a Magpie Jamey has borrowed mechanisms and features such as the wondrous Terra Mystica player boards or the deterministic combat of Kemet and Rex, these are fascinating mechanics all but I’m not yet convinced that Scythe offers anything all that new, rather some very polished spins on other designs.
Ben: And this is the key to Scythe’s brilliance – it is designed in such a way that you can (relatively) quickly explain to someone how the game works, but you can probably never explain to them what they should do next. There are so many different directions in which a game can go, both individually and for the group around the table as a whole, that any decision you make can potentially be right. Or wrong. It’s like Schroedinger’s boardgame.
So what is it and how does it work? It’s a game set in an alternate 1920s eastern Europe. A great war has subsided, a war fought with giant mechs which are kind of like the Industrial Age’s version of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim, and now five nations (soon to be 7 in an expansion to launch later in the year) are fighting* to gain overall control of the populace and, at the centre of the board, The Factory. Your goal is to become the most powerful nation in the region, with your power demonstrated via a combination of popularity, territory, achievements, resources and money (end game scoring converts all of these to money).
The game gives you a lot of different ways in which you can earn each of these and differing strategies will need to be developed according to the abilities of your nation and the ways in which your opponents play. One thing’s for sure, with all the options at hand, no two games are ever going to be alike.
The achievements are at the core of the game and much like in Stonemaier’s previous game Euphoria, can be earned in a number of different ways, meaning that every strategy is just as valid as the others. There are 10 separate achievements and the moment one nation triggers their 6th the game ends but where Euphoria crowns the winner solely based on placing the final star, the multifarious elements to the final scoring means that the winner of that particular race isn’t necessarily going to win the game overall.
Mike: My initial thoughts are that despite all the choices available to you at the start of the game, essentially its still all coming down to a couple of key factors, how high a rank you’ve attained on the popularity track and how much of everything you’ve grabbed, despite all the multiple choices and perceived paths to victory they’re a bait and switch burying the ultimate win condition in a fogginess of perceived choices. It does come across at this point as a very shiny group solitaire game of racing along your tech trees.
Ben: The one problem I have – and this is minor quibbling given everything the game manages to achieve – is that the ending feels fairly arbitrary. Why should six stars mean that it’s game over? Why are stars, territories and resources worth money and, more specifically, worth the money they are valued at? Why is this money the thing which determines the nation that has supreme reign over this region? This is a game and it has to end somewhere. It’s hugely enjoyable to play, and hugely strategic (even if I have no idea what those strategies are right now). It’s a game which, I think, will only gain in richness and depth as time goes on. And equally, the arbitrary end point is something that can be raised with many other games – like I said, it’s a minor quibble – but where everything else is so strongly tied into the theme, tied into the artwork, tied together, it just feels a bit… well, arbitrary.
Mike: I think this star collecting is the one thematic misstep that Scythe takes, its doing this sterling job of trying to layer a world and its factions over what is essentially a Euro only to fall into this tick a box to win mechanic that is exposed as exactly that, a win tracker. I get why its there, as a clear visual clue to everyone at the table who’s on first, but thematically its nonsense. The one bugbear I’m struggling with myself is the whole conflict of Scythe, I know that this was never intended as a war game, but so much of it is geared towards the creation of your Mechs clunking about this ravaged battleground yet the conflict by way of the mechanics is discouraged (you’ll lose popularity hand over fist if you do go on a kill crazy rampage). Now this could be I’ve not worked out a way to make this work to my advantage, but ultimately at this moment its the one part of the game that has left me underwhelmed.
Ben: Ultimately, what I think is going to keep me coming back to Scythe again and again is the way no two games will ever be alike. One opponent offering different tactics, a different combination of faction strengths, different objectives and on and on, mean that what would be a sensible approach in one game would be the wrong one in another game. This is a game that will keep the player on their toes. With a game like Viticulture, there is a tried and test route to victory (or at least I have found there to be). And that’s not a knock on Viticulture, given I ranked it as my number 1 game, that’s just to say there is a strategy that works consistently. In Scythe, my impression after one play is that there is no such thing as a strategy that will work consistently.
Scythe is a game of beauty, and a game of strategy and nuance, and I am certain I will be enjoying it (and probably still learning it) many years from now.
Mike: This is a handsome looking game for sure, and the collectors edition components are things of beauty. Does this live up to its hype, no, but then it never really had a chance to do everything that people thought it would. What it is is a hugely satisfying experience that falls short of the sum of all of its parts, i’m certainly fascinated with rummaging in its guts some more and exploring what choices and strategies that there are to be found. Ultimately time is going to tell on this one, whether it is this elaborate puzzle to be unravelled and decoded or finally a beautifully conceived and turned out one trick pony. I’m certainly interested in finding out.
*Fighting as in a struggle, not necessarily as in combat. There is combat but it’s not going to be happening every turn.
I’m sure that Scythe is destined to be one that’s going to split the geek opinion and a game that’s going to come in for some lively debate (look for a forthcoming podcast when we’ll do just that) but for the time being I’m happy to get into it on our forums, come join the fray over HERE.