We Svolos’ are a gaming family. We have a big pantry that doesn’t hold food. It holds our collection of board games. We’ve got a lot of ’em, too, and the collection’s always growing. It’s one of the things that binds us together, or love of complicated games with rulebooks that resemble college-level textbooks and take forever to setup and play. I suppose when a couple gets together at a vampire LARP, this is the sort of thing one should expect.
Each Christmas, Santa usually brings us a new game. This year, he brought Scythe, by Stonemaier Games. Set in an alternate universe 1920’s and based on the incredible artwork of Jakub Rozalski, Scythe is an engine-building game set in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of a great war. The players command factions scrambling to rebuild and re-establish themselves through resource gathering and building gigantic war machines.
Yes, you read that right. The game has steampunk battlemechs. I mean, if that’s not enough to make the sale, you and I are very different people.
The game is well packaged, with some truly wonderful plastic pieces to represent the ‘Mechs and characters you control and a ton of wooden pieces to represent workers and resources. There are several decks of cards to randomize objectives, combat, encounters and victory conditions, and cardboard coins to represent money. The game board is well-made and features some very nice artwork. The packaging is sturdy and includes a bunch of ziplock bags to keep all this stuff organized. Each player gets a board for actions and another for their faction. These boards are assigned randomly, which enhances replayability by changing how the game works on a per-player basis. All in all, I am very pleased with what we got.
The rulebook is well-organized, took an hour or so to read, and still managed to leave me with almost no idea how to play the game. Oh, I had a basic understanding of the turn sequence and mechanics, but I really didn’t come away with a notion of what a winning strategy might be. Fortunately, we don’t let things like that stop us here at the Thrakka Ranch. Around here, we believe the best way to learn a game is to set it up and dive in.
As we played, the rules became much clearer, and the organization of the rulebook made it easy to answer questions as they came up. On each turn, one can produce resources, move their units, bolster their military might, or trade money for resources. Each of the action choices come with a bonus action of sorts which allows the player to deploy mechs, upgrade their empire, recruit people to their cause, or build structures. If a player manages to get their character to the center of the map, they gain a fifth action from the Factory, which grants them a powerful new option and an additional way to move.
The goal of the game is to complete objectives, gaining a set amount of power, popularity, deploying all their workers or ‘Mechs, etc. as well as an individual objective represented by the two cards they’re given at the start of the game. Each completed objective is recorded by placing one of their six stars on a track. When a player places their sixth star, the game is over. Once that happens, there is a period of tallying up the score. The number of stars placed, resources each player owns and the number of territories they control get converted into money and the player with the most money wins.
The game starts at a very low tempo, making the opening moves easy for new players. The pace picks up considerably, however, as the game progresses and more options become available. Once we got the hang of it, we found the progression to be quite enjoyable. The more fiddly bits of empire management are abstracted to the point where one really only needs to be concerned with the broad strokes and even my ten-year-old son found everything understandable (the game’s rating is 14 and up, but he’s a Svolos and punches well above his weight).
Surprisingly, for a game involving giant, death-dealing mechanical monstrosities of Science!, combat is not the focus. While the combat system is outstanding in that it doesn’t rely on randomness but rather the player’s willingness to spend resources, successful invasions can cost the victor in a loss of popularity, which directly affects their final score. Units defeated in combat are not destroyed. Instead, they retreat to their home base, making conflict a much more low-intensity affair. The goal isn’t so much to rampage around the board on a kill-mad path of destruction as it is to manage the growth of your empire and protect key points that are crucial to your gameplan. A very nice touch.
Overall, we found Scythe to be a great addition to our collection. We had a blast and were up until 2 am last night playing it.