What do you know about the scythe? For one thing, it’s a tool for harvesting crops. It’s also a handy weapon. But in the board game Scythe (by Stonemaier Games), does it reference a harvesting tool or a weapon? I submit that it’s both (as does the rule book, so confident I’m right about this).
Looking at the box art, one might think that Scythe is a war game. And it is. Sort of. But war doesn’t happen as often as it might seem, because winning the game doesn’t necessarily mean destroying the other players. Rather, there are many objectives players try to complete, and once a player has completed six of them, the game ends. Winning battles is only one of the many ways to get ahead in the post-Great War era of Eastern Europe.
But before we talk about anything else, it might be helpful to know a bit more about the game itself. Scythe is an area majority, resource management engine-building game for 1-5 players. Each player has a unique faction (with unique abilities) and a unique player mat (all with the same actions, but the costs of actions differ). Players harvest resources, build buildings (for bonuses), recruit mechs, and engage in thematic encounters.
I gotta say, the game is beautiful right out of the box. It may look like a lot at first glance, but worry not! Everything has its place, and it’s all streamlined in such a way that it’s not too difficult to learn. The actions are intuitive and, since there are only four main actions, you’ll get the hang of things quickly. The rule book is a huge asset to the game; it is well-written and easy to follow and understand. For a big-box game like Scythe, that’s important.
Perhaps the most important part of this review is that of gameplay. Is it fun? Is it tough to learn? Is it worth investing in all of the expansions? (I’ll leave that last one for you to figure out on your own.)
Well, I am happy to say that Scythe is a remarkably smooth game in terms of gameplay. As mentioned above, there are four main/top actions (called “top” because they’re at the top of your player mat), which helps keep your brain from exploding while learning. Those four “top” actions can move into other actions; for example, if you move into a space with another player’s mech or character, you start a battle.
There are also secondary, or “bottom,” actions (because—you guessed it—they’re at the bottom of your player mat). You can carry out a bottom action while the next player begins their turn, which helps cut out some of the downtime that would otherwise be there. I really like that aspect of the game, especially if the game is going to take a couple of hours to play through.
Another aspect of the gameplay I really like are the multiple paths to victory and, by association, the end-game condition. I mentioned that once a player places all six of their stars on achievements, the game ends. This makes it interesting for a few reasons. The first is that it gives you options. If you’re trying to accomplish one achievement but you somehow end up closer to another, go for that one instead. Each achievement can only be done once, with the exception of winning battles, which can be done two times. While this does encourage combat, it also encourages players to leave others alone, since they won’t be getting any stars out of it after their initial two.
The second reason I like the end-game condition is because the game ends as soon as someone has placed their last star. This brings the other players together—at least for a little while in the end—to keep one player from winning. The player interactions throughout the game are fun, but it’s the end-game that really ratchets things up.
All in all, I am very happy with how Scythe plays. There is a lot to like, and it’s not too tough that beginners to the hobby couldn’t pick it up after a few rounds. It’s a fantastic game for those looking for some combat but would also like to, you know, farm and build and stuff.
The theme of an alternate history 1920s Europa wouldn’t have been my first pick—or top 10 for that matter. And yet, I like it. A lot. The design really helps you get into the feel of the world, through art, actions, and encounters.
Speaking of encounters, this is probably one of my favorite aspects of the game. When your character (the human/animal duo) moves to a spot with an encounter token, you take the top encounter card from the deck. The card gives you three options, and you pick one of them. Some options include helping you gain free workers or mechs, and others give resources…at a price.
And then there’s the art. Actually, let’s make an entirely new section for that, shall we?
I can’t talk about Scythe without mentioning the artwork. It’s so good! The encounter cards show such a vivid snapshot in time that I find it difficult to choose an option because I’m too busy looking at what’s going on in the picture. They are top notch, and I highly recommend taking a moment to look at the images before choosing an encounter option.
But it’s more than just the encounter cards. The board itself looks wonderful, the faction boards are detailed, and everything is done with such quality that I’d be happy framing the cards and box for their art alone. It’s this attention to detail that helps the game stand out as it does.
I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to talk about Scythe’s solo variant. The first solo game from Stonemaier Games I played was Wingspan, and I thought it was amazing. The same people that created Wingspan’s solo variant also created Scythe’s, so I had high hopes.
My hopes were met. The Automa rules are really, really good. It does take some time to get used to the Automa’s actions, but it starts to make sense relatively quickly. Toward the end of my first solo game, I wasn’t flipping through the rule book nearly as much. So that’s promising.
The Automa doesn’t act like a regular human player, but that’s to be expected. Instead, the Automa kind of teleports from A to B, as per the directions on the current Automa card. What it does do to near perfection is that it simulates what another player might have or do throughout a game. Scoring was also super close, which is a sign of good balance.
While I love playing with others, I do love a good solo game, and Scythe didn’t disappoint.
These are the things that make the game so awesome (for me, anyway):
- Solo variant
- Smooth gameplay (solo and multiplayer)
- Option to battle or not as you choose
- End-game trigger
- Balanced at all player counts, including two players
Things to Consider
While the following point may not be inherently “bad,” it is something you may want to consider.
- Automa can feel a bit glitchy at times, but just for a moment or two (trying to keep track of everything it does and where it can and cannot go).
Honestly, that’s really the only thing that I could see being an obstacle, and that’s just for solo play.
For me, I love a game with a strong theme and tight mechanics; it helps me experience the game while I play it. I love how the game plays, and I love practically everything about it. I’m not always aboard the hype train (after all, there are some “highly popular” games that I’d rather not ever play again), but I can definitely see why Scythe climbed as high as it did on Board Game Geek.
And while good, smooth gameplay is essential, Stonemaier Games didn’t scrimp on the aesthetics, either. The art is stunning, and the components are all thick and high quality. This combination drives home a strong thematic experience. I’m a big fan.
What about you? What do you agree or disagree with me on from this review? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
About the Author
Benjamin hails from Canada but now lives in Kentucky with his wife and kids. He’s a certified copyeditor through UC San Diego’s Copyediting Extension program. He’s a freelance writer and editor, covering everything from board game rule books to novels. An avid writer of science fiction and fantasy, it comes as no surprise that his favorite board games are those with rich, engaging themes. When he’s not writing or playing games, Benjamin loves to play ultimate Frisbee, watch and play rugby, and read the most epic fantasy books available. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminKocher and Instagram @Benjamin_Kocher. You can also read his board game inspired fiction at BenjaminKocher.com.