Thank you for checking review #52 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
An Overview of Scythe
Scythe is a game designed by Jamey Stegmaier and was published by Stonemaier Games. The box states that it can play 1-5 players and has a 90-115 minute play time and a BGG weight rating of 3.36.
It is a time of unrest in 1920s Europa. The ashes from the first great war still darken the snow. The capitalistic city-state known simply as “The Factory”, which fueled the war with heavily armored mechs, has closed its doors, drawing the attention of several nearby countries.
Scythe is an engine-building game set in an alternate-history 1920s period. It is a time of farming and war, broken hearts and rusted gears, innovation and valor. In Scythe, each player represents a character from one of five factions of Eastern Europe who are attempting to earn their fortune and claim their faction’s stake in the land around the mysterious Factory. Players conquer territory, enlist new recruits, reap resources, gain villagers, build structures, and activate monstrous mechs.
Each player begins the game with different resources (power, coins, combat acumen, and popularity), a different starting location, and a hidden goal. Starting positions are specially calibrated to contribute to each faction’s uniqueness and the asymmetrical nature of the game (each faction always starts in the same place).
Scythe gives players almost complete control over their fate. Other than each player’s individual hidden objective card, the only elements of luck or variability are “encounter” cards that players will draw as they interact with the citizens of newly explored lands. Each encounter card provides the player with several options, allowing them to mitigate the luck of the draw through their selection. Combat is also driven by choices, not luck or randomness.
Scythe uses a streamlined action-selection mechanism (no rounds or phases) to keep gameplay moving at a brisk pace and reduce downtime between turns. While there is plenty of direct conflict for players who seek it, there is no player elimination.
Every part of Scythe has an aspect of engine-building to it. Players can upgrade actions to become more efficient, build structures that improve their position on the map, enlist new recruits to enhance character abilities, activate mechs to deter opponents from invading, and expand their borders to reap greater types and quantities of resources. These engine-building aspects create a sense of momentum and progress throughout the game. The order in which players improve their engine adds to the unique feel of each game, even when playing one faction multiple times.
Setup and gameplay for 1 Player
Because this is a super-popular game, I won’t go into a ton of details here about anything except the Automa system for the game. Others have likely done a far better job at providing rules explanations and/or overviews of this game.
The Automa player uses the character, mechs, and workers of the chosen faction (as well as the military and population trackers and star tokens). There is a deck of cards that get shuffled and used that are double-sided, with the first side being used until the Automa places its first star. Then the deck reshuffles and flips, granting the Automa (generally) stronger and more aggressive actions.
Possible actions from the Automa include moving a worker, moving a mech (either non-aggressive or aggressive), moving the character (usually to try and get to the factory). The movement style initially sounds intimidating, but really it is a smooth system with only a few parameters. They units/workers essentially “teleport” to a spot adjacent to at least one of their other units. For workers, it is usually the space closest to the most allied units. For mechs and the character, it is to either be adjacent to your units or closer to the factory. They also will often gain resources of some sort, whether in the form of more units or in coins. And they will almost always advance the cube one space on their difficulty card.
That difficulty card will tell you once the Automa has riverwalk and can cross outside of their territory. And it will identify the turns in which the Automa will earn a star. The Automa’s popularity is static, remaining at 10 for the entire game, but its power level can increase and is used during combat just like a player. In addition to the auto-triggered stars, the Automa can earn stars for winning combat and for maxing out their power.
Like the multiplayer game, the game will end when one player places their 6th star.
The more Automa systems I play, the more I like them as a solo gamer. This one intimidated me. It had a rulebook just for the Automa, after all. And not a small one. I had heard it was a challenge to operate. Well, it turned out that the Automa wasn’t bad to navigate after all. Much of that rulebook was giving demonstrations of movement, which is the key to the Automa. It wasn’t that thick, either, when I started getting into there. And wow, this Automa packs a punch in terms of challenge. After being confident from a Game 1 victory over Autometta, I went on quite a losing streak on the Automa difficulty. It is easy to navigate (usually) and provides a challenge. What more could a solo gamer ask for?
Have you played Scythe with 2-players and wished for a little more combat/interaction? The Automa will deliver that in spades. Some would argue this is better solo than as a 2-player game and, depending on play styles and your expectations of the game, you might be right. This Automa will never turtle. It also is rarely predictable, since you don’t know which of X movement options will be drawn. You have an idea of what they might do. You can plan accordingly. But you’ll still always need to adapt and react at points when it does exactly what you didn’t want it to.
As alluded to already, this game really feels like you’re playing against an active set of decisions rather than an arbitrary card draw. The deck of actions, and the operation of the Automa, hit upon the key decision points in the game. It isn’t about building stuff, or moving cubes on a player board. They key interactions happen on that map, using power to drive your opponents back or to keep control over the factory location. The Automa will never get into the 3rd tier of multiplier, the one good thing about it because it will dominate that map if you don’t do something about it. It is not uncommon for an unchecked Automa to control 11-15 territories. That’s a lot of points, plus it gains a coin or two in a good number of rounds. You need to be aggressive in order to stand a chance against the higher difficulties.
Player aids. I cannot emphasize enough how important these are from taking a good game and making it a great experience. Not just the first play, but for every play. It helps keep things fresh in your mind as to what you can do, or what is necessary to execute. The player aids here come in the form of cards for the Automa, describing how to do each of the possible actions. Without these cards, there would inevitably be a lot of flipping through the Automa rulebook. Which would make this experience be far worse and less likely to hit the table. The Automa is very fun to play against. Those cards, though, are what makes this a perfect package for the solo gamer.
The nice thing about playing solo is you can hand-pick both factions. Want a tight board? Make sure you and the Automa start as neighbors and they will be in your face early. Want a little time to get that engine started? Make sure you’re on opposite ends of the board. This is a best-case scenario as their faction powers don’t really impact the game (apart from a few cards that give added bonus to a specific faction).
Multiple difficulties allow you to scale the game for your skill level. Even better is the ability to have several Automa factions in play. I don’t know that anyone would ever want to, but in theory you could have a way to play solo against all of the other factions. Because it isn’t a “beat your high score” system, that adds so much replay value to a great game. When you get to a point where you’re consistently winning, you can move on to the next challenge.
The biggest deterrent to the game being played, as a solo gamer, comes in the setup. It isn’t the game’s fault. At a higher player count, the setup is exactly what you want for what you get out of the game. As a solo game, it is a little longer than I’d like. But there really isn’t any changing that. Streamlining organization, such as with a Meeple Realty insert, would help. But right now it is all in baggies, which is a clean organization system but it takes time to set up. Too often I’ve shoved Scythe off the list of games to play for an evening because I have X other games that I could be mid-game in by the time I’d be ready to start a round of Scythe.
Scythe is a game that can feel notoriously long. Not so much in a solo game, unless you’re having to constantly look up how to make the Automa work. There is a cap on the number of turns you’ll get (seen on the Automa’s particular difficulty card) so you can get an idea exactly how many moves you’ll make. The problem with solo Scythe, and this ties into the above, is that it ends too fast. For the time it takes to setup and play the game, I want it to last a little longer in order to make that prep time feel worthwhile. This regularly clocks in under an hour, which is a perfect length for a solo game on a planned solo night.
This is me complaining, but I wish that the factions did play differently for the Automa. That they had a card (at least one) that took advantage of a unique power or ability to set them apart like they are in a multiplayer game. Something to provide an X factor that needs to be planned for in case the deck happens to hate you and have it appear when you least want that to appear. I know, it would complicate an already seamless system. But for the base game factions at least (I think the Invaders from Afar factions do have some unique flare) they are just too samey when played by the Automa.
This is a game that provides a very satisfying solo experience whenever it hits the table. I have never walked away from a solo play of this feeling like I wasted my time that was spent. However, it runs into the same issue as Mage Knight: the setup and teardown prevent it from hitting the table as often. This game is nowhere near as burdensome as Mage Knight for that, but it is enough that I often think twice before grabbing the game. I prefer a game I can get into in about 5 minutes, but if I plan my session out ahead of time I can do some of that prep work earlier in the day (especially now that I have a game room!)
The best thing I can say about the solo game is that it truly feels competitive in the same way that a multiplayer game would. Yes, the Automa “cheats” with its movement method. Yes, it gets stars at predetermined times and its popularity track never moves. But it spreads throughout the board and places those stars quickly toward the end. It gets aggressive, and can use that to make a late-game push for victory. I’ve played the Automa over half-a-dozen times and I think I’ve won 2 games so far. Sadly, one of those was my first play (and I won by 1). It hands it to me in a way that I haven’t experienced as much in multiplayer games. And there are some who play against more than 1 Automa. I think they’re crazy, personally, but that is my thoughts on that option.
What seemed like a daunting Automa to pilot turned out to be really simple after a few turns. The reference cards for that Automa are really nice, and help with being able to keep things moving forward. I don’t have to memorize the movement style of each one and the different priorities. I just have to grab the corresponding reference card after flipping the Automa’s movement card. That is nice. This is definitely the most complex of the Automa systems I’ve played, but it really does a nice job of imitating player movement possibilities and does so without being overly taxing on the solo gamer.
And Scythe is one of those solo games that has provided me with those memorable situations. My most recent loss had them at 5 stars and I was at 3. It had a few more spots to get that next star, and I was going to nab one with every turn until I hit 6. It was perfect…as long as it drew anything but the Aggressive Mech card with its next action. I grabbed my star, leaving myself vulnerable for a single turn. It came at me with the mech. I played my one Combat Card, a 4, with the hope that it wouldn’t spend any of its cards or combat. I lucked out…it didn’t play cards. It just spent 5 power, enough to secure its 6th star and end my hope for a victory.
Those are the moments that stick with us as gamers. Reaching those “as long as X happens, I think I can win” moments. And then seeing how those play out from there.
This is a game that is hard to express just how satisfying the solo experience can be. Yet for the retail value of $80 MSRP, it would be difficult to recommend to someone who exclusively wanted it for solo gaming. Is it worth it? Yes, with the caveat that you play it enough times to feel it was worth that price. There are a ton of small-box solo games that could be purchased for the same amount, after all. I think it is worth it. I’d buy it again, even if I knew I would only get to play it solo.
If you’re likely to play with others, too, then it moves into a highly recommended game. The solo experience will make it a worthwhile addition on the shelf, and it is a game that I’ve enjoyed at all player counts (even 2). It provides a nice engine-building experience, and is very, very polished as a system and will be a staple in my collection for a long time.
Hopefully you found this article to be a useful look at Scythe. If you’re interested in providing support for Cardboard Clash so I can continue to improve what we offer, check out my page over on Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/CardboardClash.
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