Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Hitting the Table: Scythe

Scythe is one of those games that has been very hotly anticipated. It raised 1.8 million dollars on Kickstarter, and has finally made it out to retail. And it's fantastic.

The game is a bit intimidating-looking.  Each player gets a faction board and a player board, and then a bag with wooden bits and five plastic miniatures (four identical mecha and one hero). The wooden bits are a baffling selection - there are cubes and hearts and a bug-shaped thing and stars and workers and buildings and a pawn and ...

Mid-Game Player Boards
Yeah. It's jarring.

So the goal of the game? The goal is to score points. You get points for stars placed, for territory control, and for hoarding resources (yes, really). And money. Because all of the points are really just money, so money that you've stockpiled is also points. The value of each of your scoring categories (other than money) depends on how popular you are.

The game ends as soon as a player places their sixth star. You can earn stars for winning battles (no more than two can be earned like this), for upgrading your production, for getting all of your mechs onto the board, for getting all of your workers onto the board, for maxing your popularity, for maxing your military might, and for getting all of your buildings into play. I'm leaving out one or two star-earning methods, too.

Each turn, you'll place your pawn in a space on one of your board. That space makes two actions available to you. You can take either or both. Each action has a cost (with a red background) and a benefit. To earn the benefit, you need to pay the cost.

The top row of actions are pretty straightforward. Produce resources. Trade to earn goods. Move your pieces on the board. Gain military power.

The bottom row is different on every board. The actions themselves are the same, but the costs and rewards differ, as does the top-row action to which they are paired.  In the player board picture above, the yellow player can pay two lumber to build one of their buildings and earn one money (based on where the yellow pawn is).

Each faction has its own special ability, and the mecha have different upgrades as well. Every time you build a mech, all of your mechs (and your hero) get an upgrade.

This game is a difficult one to teach, because there really is a LOT going on that you need to hit people with. Movement, combat, production. Every player needs to learn the eight available actions - and that takes time.

But in play?  It's good.  Really good.

You end up with players all over the map, each pursuing specific resources and agendas in an attempt to be the one to end the game. Because the player who places that sixth star usually wins the game. But not always.

There are a couple of caveats, though. Things about this game that are less-strong that may cause you to not like it. Because it's not a perfect game. It has flaws.

Honestly, though, outside of Dungeon Twister, is any game perfect?

Flaw #1: Limited Player Interaction
Yes, you can move around and pick fights and move the other guys around on the board. But only two of those fights can win points for you (unless you're a specific faction). So there's not really any point to fighting combat after combat after combat. And the fact that attackers lose popularity for sending workers home means that a lot of combat genuinely isn't worth the effort.

Flaw #2: Sudden Ending
In the handful of games I've played, the game's ending was almost outta nowhere. We could look at the board and see that we were only a few turns from winning, but every time it's ended even earlier than we had expected it to.

Flaw #3: Clear Best Path Forward
Each player gets a faction board and a player board. That player board makes some actions cheaper or more efficient than others, which makes it very clear what the best strategy for that player is going to be before the game even starts.

None of these are, for me, deal-breaking flaws. Flaw #3 comes close, but it turns it into an optimization game. "Can I make my strategy work better enough that I can pull ahead of the other players?"  Experienced players will have an advantage, here. And I suspect it can be an overwhelming one - but I haven't played any games with hugely disparate levels of experience, yet.

The components are fantastic. Each faction has a distinctive mech and a distinctive hero. Each faction has differently-shaped workers.

The art is insane. It's all by Jakub Rozalski, who has designed an entire world that is almost but not quite 1920's Eastern Europe.

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