clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Scythe’s final expansion pushes tabletop gaming forward yet again

Stonemaier Games’ The Rise of Fenris sets a high bar

Stonemaier Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Jamey Stegmaier continues to surprise me.

Stegmaier is the designer of Scythe, a novel strategy board game released in 2016, one that is beloved by fans and critics alike. He’s set to release the third and final expansion for that game, called Scythe: The Rise of Fenris, at this year’s Gen Con in Indianapolis. After spending a few nights playing it, both with friends and as a solo experience, I’m absolutely blown away. Fenris is an incredible value, and represents board gaming’s new state of the art.

Here’s how it works.

a photo of miniatures from the board game Scythe
The main characters and faction mechs in the basic version of Scythe.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

Scythe itself is a fascinating game. Imagine a traditional American-style area control game (like Risk or Axis & Allies) mashed up with a European-style worker placement game (like Agricola or Lords of Waterdeep). Then, add in a retinue of dieselpunk mechs and wild, pastoral art from Polish artist Jakub Rozalski and you’ve got something really special. Mechanically, it pits up to five players (seven with the Invaders From Afar expansion) in a military and economic battle to take control of the world. In my original review, I described it as a finely toothed set of gears. It’s the rare game that’s incredibly complex, yet very easy to teach. It’s also a lot of fun to play multiple times over.

Fenris adds to that replayability in new and exciting ways.

First, it adds an eight-game branching campaign that accommodates from one to five players, just like the base game (or up to seven with a previous expansion). Reminiscent of the legacy-style board games pioneered by designer Rob Daviau, much of the narrative itself is hidden from view behind the pages of the game manual and inside individual sealed boxes. That also includes some exciting new game mechanics and other surprises. Revealing those secrets inside is a joy, so I won’t spoil the storyline here. Suffice it to say that Stegmaier — and his co-designer Ryan Lopez Devinaspre — have breathed real life into the game with their narrative.

Looking at Rozalski’s art, I always imagined that a marvelous science fiction novel was just waiting to be written about them. As it turns out, the storyline of Fenris could easily serve as its outline.

Jakub Rozalski

In addition to that eight-game campaign (which, like the original Scythe, you can also play solo) there’s also an entirely cooperative experience inside the box. The one-off scenario is completely separate from the campaign, but includes many of the new wrinkles that are added to the game mechanics. Again, I’m not interested in spoiling anything, but this new co-op scenario is the equivalent of a “comp stomp” mode common in classic real-time strategy games. It’s an absolute treat.

Finally, the Fenris expansion itself is entirely modular. That means each of the new features unlocked during the eight-game campaign can be used to create unique, one-off matches. Those features include options for speeding up gameplay or slowing it down. There are modules that add to the complexity of the game’s systems, ones that can handicap experienced players or give a boost to newbies. There are even modules that emphasize the mechanics of Scythe’s more confrontational, American-style roots and its more peaceful, Euro-style features.

There’s truly something inside this $55 box for everyone.

Box art for Scythe: The Rise of Fenris from Stonemaier Games.
Stonemaier Games

Most importantly, unlike legacy-style games like Risk Legacy and Pandemic Legacy, Fenris is entirely nondestructive. No adding stickers to the board or the manual, and no tearing up cards and characters. All of your progress in the campaign is tracked on a tiny half sheet of paper, and all of the faction and unit upgrades are represented by cardboard chits.

That means you can play the eight-game campaign again and again and again. The pack-ins even allow you to put the toothpaste back in the tube, as it were, hiding the secret new components inside so you can reveal them to a new group of players. That kind of replayability just isn’t possible with true legacy-style games.

Honestly, I wish I could tell you more about what’s inside. Perhaps I’ll talk about it on an episode of Quality Control, tucked behind our spoiler horn. But, for now at least, take my word for it: If you loved Scythe, The Rise of Fenris is simply a must-own. Pre-orders are available now and copies will be available widely on Aug. 17.

Note that the base game of Scythe itself retails for $80 and supports up to five players. There are also two other expansions, including the previously-mentioned Invaders From Afar ($30) which adds two more playable factions, and The Wind Gambit ($25) which adds airships and some new rules. The Rise of Fenris is compatible with both, but also plays well just as well with neither.