Jamey Stegmaier's Scythe has become a modern classic. It's an action selection engine-building game that's a tussle between world powers set in the 1920s in a steampunk alternative universe, and since its original publication by Stonemaier Games in 2016, it's spawned several expansions, including a legacy-style campaign version and even a spin-off children's version: My Little Scythe!
Players each have an asymmetric power and starting resources but their individual player boards, tho' different, all do the same thing. On your turn you choose one of four positions on your player board. Each of the positions has a top action and a bottom action. To take the bottom action, you'll need to spend the specified resources. These you collect by placing out your workers into areas you control. With your leader you may try to collect exploration tokens as these give a choice of valuable benefits. There's combat, which involves comparing the 'power' you commit plus cards that can add to the power, and that's likely to feature more once players are able to deploy their mechs.
One of the many pleasures of Scythe is the way the game accelerates as you play it. You start off often only able to take the top action on your board but one of the bottom actions on which you can spend resources is upgrading your board: by moving a cube from the top actions to the bottom, you simultaneously increase the benefit derived from the top action while making the bottom action cheaper. This acceleration gives Scythe a very distinctive and increasingly exciting game arc.
There are various paths to victory. You can place a star out on the board to mark off any of 10 achievements; and the game ends when any player places out their sixth star. Your score per star, and for area occupied and for unspent resources, is a multiplier that's predicated on where you are on a popularity track; and some actions can cost you popularity...
Scythe is beautifully produced, with great art from Jakub Rozalski, and its excellent components include great-looking minis and mechs. There's a solitaire option, playable against the automata rules, but the game shines as a competitive multiplayer experience. The box includes components for up to five players but for me the standout feature of the game is its impressive pace. If you play with three players, you can take your action and immediately plan the action you're going to take on your next turn. With everyone doing likewise, turns come around super quick and there's no downtime at all. You can achieve something close to this taking the player count up to four, but if you play with the full complement of five then the game can slow down exponentially: not just because there are two more players before your next turn comes around but because the board gets very crowded and you'll increasingly find another player's actions have precluded you from taking the action you'd originally hoped to take so players can't reliably plan their next action in advance.
That's not to say, Scythe is unplayable with five. It's just a notably less pacy game. The Invaders from Afar expansion added the components for two more factions into the mix. I like to think Jamey Stegmaier's intention was simply to increase the choices open to players and so add to the game's replayability. It does, however, make it possible to take the player count up to seven. Just because it's possible, doesn't make it right tho'. I like having the choice of more factions but I'd always prefer to keep the Scythe player count at three or four.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)
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