My Favorite Solo Board Games of 2020: #1, Scythe


A game by Jamey Stegmaier

Stonemaier Games.

BGG listing.

Olga had encountered formidable enemies in her lifetime, many of whom were summarily felled by Rusviet military might, but never before had she faced in battle a man who talked to his pet musk ox. Would he grip both horns first, before bending closer to reveal his deepest confidences into the ox’s ear? Or was one horn sufficient? And though this awakened the smallest smidgen of curiosity in Olga—who was this mysterious Bjorn from the frigid Nordic wastes?—she quickly flicked it aside to concentrate on the task at hand. Ox-whispering aside, she still knew she would reach the Factory quicker than anyone else.

I really, really love this game. When I finally opened the box—after sitting on my Shelf of Shame for months—it didn’t leave my table until after 18 hours of pure gaming pleasure. (Those weren’t consecutive hours; I’m not that kind of a nut.) The art and components are just gorgeous, and this also happens to be the first game I’ve ever blinged out, with upgraded coins and resource tokens.

The Nordic faction won over the neighboring Rusviets

Even now, whenever I take out the board and lay it out on my table, I’m already queueing the epic movie soundtrack in my head. “And so the battle of wills begins,” I say to myself, even if my Automa opponent is acting and moving according to random card draws.

Scythe doesn’t really lend itself well to the narrative fantasy I wrote in the introduction, for the gameplay is a bit drier than what I imply above. (The heroes have a backstory and special abilities, but that’s about it.) But boy does Scythe inhabit its milieu of an alternate-history 1920s Europe, with its cast of squabbling factions; I would love to read fiction set in this world where advanced military technology coexists with agrarian peasant society. (Wait: isn’t that the Global South, but without the mechs?)

Professional game critics, I am sure, would look at a game of Scythe and call it a so-called Euro game at its core. I myself see a mix of different game mechanics as I understand them. (As in my other game posts, I don’t have the vocabulary down yet to properly describe Scythe—but then this is why I write, to puzzle things out.)

In Scythe you have, for instance, some elements of the following:

  • Worker placement (you have limited actions per turn, and your actions are sometimes dependent on the number of workers or mechs you have on the map)
  • Area control (especially in the later parts of the game, since you get points for the number of hexes you control)
  • Resource management (you need resources to build mechs and structures, and to gain workers)
  • Engine-building (see resource management above—though this is an engine that can only be cranked up at certain times)
  • Tactical combat (though this is fairly straightforward—you don’t take wounds or roll dice—there’s still a constant gamble on how many combat points you’re willing to wager)
  • A victory point system (comprising different paths to victory, like the number of hexes in your territory, resources, workers, upgrades, fulfilled objectives, popularity, and so on, but the point is: you have to do almost all of them).
Zehra and the Crimean Khanate mechs

It’s the mechs that will throw some people off at first. You see the mechs and hexes on a map and you’d be forgiven for thinking Scythe was all about warfare. They give off those old Command and Conquer vibes that in fact have little to do with combat. (Although combat of course does feature in Scythe). An unprepared gamer expecting to gear up for skirmish after skirmish will be disappointed, as the mechs have far more important use as transporters of workers. (I assume in the multiplayer game they function more as deterrents to combat, a big contrast to the Automa who seems far more aggressive about attacking your workers.) It’s not that you don’t want combat—those fights count as one of your objectives too—but the fact that you’re rewarded victory points only twice for successfully kicking out the Automa’s mech from a hex should clue you in to the fact that blindly attacking your opponents won’t get you to victory. You only get combat credit twice.

As in similar games, there’s a laddering aspect: you can’t build mechs until you have enough resources, but you can’t have resources until you have workers in a specific iron ore hex, and you can’t have workers in the iron ore hex until you actually move them there, and you can’t even leave your territory to cross a river and move to the coveted Factory hex in the center of the map until… well, until you have mechs.

Each faction has its own strengths, but those strengths, generally related to your mech abilities, are counterbalanced and/or enhanced by the different capabilities you start with from a randomly-drawn faction mat. This makes for an interesting variability, making the game hugely replayable.

Because factions always start in the same territory, players tend to have the same opening actions. You can formulate a strategy with the faction-mat combination you have, planning several steps ahead, including your opening (just like chess)—at least until the Automa, or your opponent(s), thwarts your plans. So be prepared to do some tactical decisions on the fly when opportunities present themselves.

This may all sound complex, but it’s actually fairly straightforward. As I’ve read elsewhere, Scythe has easy rules; it just happens to have a lot of them. 

So why Scythe, over everything else? I can’t say that I considered every possible criterion and compared it to the other games. Agricola has cuter meeples—it has sheep, for crying out loud; Vengeance is more action-packed; Mage Knight has a wider, more adventurous sweep / more epic feel; This War of Mine is more emotionally involving; Bloc by Bloc is more politically engaging—so why Scythe? Because it’s a winning combination of all the game elements above—this marriage of strategy and tactics—that gives Scythe such a crunchy, consistently engaging, and utterly unique feel. 

I really, really love this game: Scythe was my favorite solo game of 2020.

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