This majestic creature is my war buffalo. His name is Mox, and he served as a companion through my first session of the bizarre new strategy game called Scythe. Fresh off a $1.8 million Kickstarter campaign, it was the game on everyone’s lips at this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis.
"Have you played Scythe yet?" everyone seemed to be asking everyone else. "How is Scythe? Is it really that good?"
Yes, I have played Scythe. And yes, it is really quite good.
In a fantastical version of an alternate history Europe, World War I and the battles that followed were fought by giant mechs. After the wars, the single, high-tech factory that supplied each warring faction fell silent. It is a kind of dark age, with five different nations vying for control of a poor, rural population. Over the course of a game of Scythe, powerful heroes will travel to the factory, bringing back new technologies to their homeland. Along the way, they will fight for the hearts and minds of the peasants who work the land.
Mechanically, Scythe is an asymmetrical wargame with strong European influences. It has elements of many other board games that you might have played before, but they’re mixed and matched in unusual ways.
To begin, each player randomly selects one each of five faction mats and five player mats. This forms a sideboard, which gets filled with wooden cubes and plastic mech miniatures. The wooden cubes will be used in a kind of solitaire-like worker placement puzzle that each player tries to solve as the game goes by, while the plastic mechs represent the military forces they’ll deploy on the map.
But each of these 10 mats is different. The Nordic Kingdoms faction mat notes that they are more naturally expansionist, and gives them rules for play and movement which are slightly different that those given to the Crimean Khanate, which is more militaristic. At the same time, a player with the industrial player mat will have a very different set of tools than the player with the agricultural mat.
Out of the box, Scythe has 25 different possible player combinations, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and strategies. You never know what you’re going to get each time you sit down to play.
Adding to the complexity, the faction and the player mats work in concert with the game board itself. There are natural barriers, like rivers, lakes and mountains, that cannot be crossed by every faction at all times. Resources — like metal, wood and food — are sprinkled across the board in just such a way as to create contested tiles and natural choke points between every person at the table.
It all works amazingly well. Setting up a game of Scythe is like tossing a set of finely toothed gears into the air and watching them effortlessly fall into place to make a ticking clock. And if you look closer, at the art on the various cards and on the game board itself, it gets even more interesting.
Scythe features more than 130 illustrations by concept artist and illustrator Jakub Rozalski, the creator of the 1920+ world. Rozalski based his world on the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, one of the last great cavalry battles in the modern world. He describes it as a "period when tradition clashed with modernity," when the world was "still full of mysteries and secrets" and "mankind [was] fascinated by engines, iron and steel, [and] began to experiment and try to build a huge walking machine."
Rozalski works exclusively in the narrow genre of alternate history pastoral settings featuring eastern European farmers and diesel punk technology. That’s why you’ll find Poland’s famed Winged Hussars fighting back-to-back with 10-story mechs. And, every once in awhile, he throws in a massive bear or, as previously mentioned, a war buffalo named Mox.
Scythe uses Rozalski’s art as a thematic core and as the inspiration for dozens of objective and narrative cards that players will pick up during the course of the game. Each one of them is a treasure, and many of them are available as high quality art prints.
At times I found myself torn between wanting to make the "right" move for my faction, and wanting to move into a space that would let me discover the next gorgeous piece of art by Rozalski. Maybe that was why I got crushed in my first game.
When the smoke clears, it’s not about how many territories you own or how many armies you have on the board. It’s about how much money you have. But, money can be earned in various ways in the end game tally: Win the first battle of the game? Take a bonus. Field all of your mechs before anyone else? Take a bonus. Increasing the nuance, all those bonuses are graded on a curve based on how popular you are with the people in your kingdom. Build your empire on the backs of the lower class and suffer the consequences.
Adding to the replay value, Scythe also comes with a single-player mode where a deck of cards provides all the intelligence needed to field the opposition. While I haven’t had time to playtest it myself, it’s exciting to know that I’ll be able to practice my strategies without getting four like-minded players together on a regular basis.
This year, Gen Con surprised and delighted with a bumper crop of diverse and unusual games. None was more unique than Scythe, and none in my opinion was more beautiful or more thrilling to play.