Welcome to our long awaited review of Scythe from Stonemaier games. This is a game that our fans have been begging us to give another try after my first couple of games, many years ago, did not go that well.
Read on to find out why I’ve changed my mind on Scythe and how it reinforced the idea that you can’t judge a game based on only one or two plays.
Disclosure: Thanks to Jamey at Stonemaier games for providing us with a copy of Scythe to give another chance. Links in this post may be affiliate links. As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and helps support this blog and our podcast.
What is Scythe the board game?
Scythe was designed by Jamey Stegmaier and features awesome evocative artwork from Jakub Rozalski, graphic design by Christine Santana and a solo mode from Morten Monrad Pedersen. Scythe was originally published in 2016 by Jamey’s own company Stonemaier Games and has pretty much been a hit since then.
Scythe, with just the base game, plays 1 to 5 players with games taking an hour or two depending on the player count, with your first few games taking significantly longer.
I’m pretty sure Scythe is an evergreen product from Stonemaier at this point and is very much still in print and can usually be picked up for less than its suggested retail price of $124 Canadian or $99 US.
There are many varied expansions for this game but for this review, we’re only talking about the core game box.
In Scythe you play the leader of one of five European factions in a 1920s that never was. This is a dieselpunk wartorn landscape of farmers and fields, monuments and mecha, with The Factory sitting at its middle.
The gameplay in Scythe is an asymmetric mix of worker placement, area control, engine building and exploration, with players taking only one or two actions each turn. This leads to a quick turnaround and faster than expected gameplay. In the end, it’s the faction with the most wealth that wins the game. Popularity combined with coins earned for accomplishing goals, area control, and resource build up will make up this end game wealth.
This is a medium to heavy Euro game with a low amount of randomness and a pretty steep learning curve, where each individual action is simple enough to grasp but figuring out how the various actions interact and work together is going to take more than just a couple of plays.
To get a look at the component quality in Scythe I invite you to check out our Scythe Unboxing video on YouTube.
Scythe has a lot of moving parts and that’s reflected in its components. You get plastic character models and mechs and wooden meeples, each of which has a unique design for each of the five factions. There is a rather large hex filled board with places to put many of the game’s cards and to track things like power and popularity.
The board is noteworthy because it’s two sided with the second side featuring much larger hexes (to use the second side of the board, you need the Scythe Board Extension which is sold separately and which we haven’t tried).
You also get wooden resources in four different types denoted both by colour and shape, wooden buildings for each faction, star tokens and other wooden tracking markers. Along with this are a few decks of cards which include factory abilities, combat cards, personal goals, encounter cards, reference cards, and cards for playing solo. The game also comes with some cardboard punch boards for money, encounter tokens, power dials, structure bonus tiles and probably something else I’m forgetting. As you can see in the unboxing you get a lot of stuff in this box which helps justify the rather high price point.
The quality of all of these components is pretty much top notch, with extra thought given to the actual composition of the components. For example, it matters in the game if a unit is made of wood or plastic. This becomes an easy way to tell what abilities work with which units, which units can produce resources, and which units can take part in a battle.
My only complaint with Scythe, component wise, is that the board is quite dull and it can be hard to tell the various hex regions apart from across the table. While each hex is distinguished by colour, artwork and iconography, I found it all kind of blurs together. I would have preferred if there was more contrast or the icons were bigger.
Before we move on I think it’s also worth noting that Stonemaier offers a wide variety of ways to upgrade these components including Scythe Metal Coins and Scythe Realistic Resource Tokens. In addition to official upgrades, places like Etsy are filled with a wide variety of Scythe upgrades and inserts.
Speaking of inserts, the box insert for Scythe actually works rather well and is designed to keep the miniatures and plastic components from getting damaged.
Scythe overview of play.
This overview is not meant to be a full game teach. Scythe is a meaty game with a weight approaching four on Board Game Geek. What I will try to do here is to give you an idea of how the game works at a higher level so that you can determine if it sounds like something your group would enjoy.
For a look at the setup and full gameplay of Scythe I recommend you check out Rodney Smith’s Scythe – How to Play video.
For all the stuff in the box, Scythe is pretty quick to set up and get going. You lay out the board, and each player gets a randomly assigned faction and takes the appropriate faction mat and all of the components for that faction. They then sit so that they can reach that faction’s home base on the board. Each player also gets a random player mat which they pair with their faction mat.
For experienced players the designer says to avoid two combos, these are Crimea/Patriotic and Rusviet/Industria. If you draw either of these combinations you should return your player mat to the pool and draw another.
Next, players set up their player mats with their components, which is pretty easy to do since the boards are two layered and it’s pretty easy to see what goes where. This includes workers, upgrade cubes, buildings and recruits. On the board, everyone will mark their starting popularity and power, and place their character on their faction’s base with two workers in the two hexes adjacent to that base.
A game of Scythe has no set round limit. The game is played until one player plays their sixth star token onto the board. The game ends immediately when this happens.
Each turn in Scythe you will move your action token to one of the four regions on your player mat. You will then get the chance to do the action listed at the top of the mat, followed by a chance to do the action listed in the same area at the bottom of the mat. There are four different top actions and four different bottom actions and each player board features these in a unique combination. In general, top actions get you stuff and let you do things on the map whereas bottom actions let you build things and place things out onto the board.
Each action lists a cost and one or more benefits that you get for paying that cost. Some of these costs and benefits start the game covered up and by taking the upgrade action, you will move things around changing the costs or improving benefits. Similarly, building mechs will unlock unique faction specific abilities.
All of this makes way more sense when you see it right there in front of you. Hopefully, I can help you out by going through the actions starting with the top actions.
Trade lets you spend a coin to gain resources or popularity. If your armoury is built you can also gain power.
Resources are needed to take bottom actions and to build things as well as being part of your end game wealth (remember in the end wealth is all that matters). Popularity is also a big part of end game scoring and power is used during battles.
An interesting aspect of Scythe is that any resources you collect are actually placed on the board. You need a unit with them to spend them and you are going to want to protect your resources from other players.
Produce is another way to gain resources, and is based on where your workers are on the map with each of the different types of hexes producing different resources, including cities which produce more workers. The cost for this goes up the more workers you have in play. If you get all of your workers in play you earn a star.
You start by only being able to produce in two hexes but that can be improved and building a mill can generate you resources in a hex without a worker needing to be present.
Bolster is a way to improve your power or gain combat cards. Both of these will be needed if you plan on getting in a fight. You can also gain popularity if you’ve built a Monument. You earn a star if you hit the top of the power track and/or the top of the popularity track.
Combats happen during movement and are always one player vs another. When battling players spend power which is combined with combat cards. The number of cards you can use is based on how many plastic units are in a fight. The only random factor here is which cards players have. The cards vary in value from two to five with the twos being much more common.
You earn a star for the first two combats you win, which is interesting as after that players are much less incentivized to fight.
Movement is the final top action and it lets you move two units each one hex. The ability to move more units can be unlocked as can the ability to move further as well as the ability to move through tunnels (which connect various areas of the map).
If, when moving, your character lands on a spot with an exploration token you draw the top card from the exploration deck and resolve it. These are always a lot of fun and give you three options. These include something small and free, something with a bit of cost that’s usually worth it and something terrible you can do for a great reward that gives you a popularity hit. Note also as mentioned above movement can also trigger combat.
There are a number of movement restrictions in place including rivers on the map, moving into controlled areas, lakes, and more. Each faction has its own way to cross the rivers which has to be unlocked by building the right mech. Some factions also have units that can swim, and the factory offers a new action option that includes letting you move a single unit twice.
That’s it for the top actions, let’s move on to the bottom actions.
Upgrade costs oil and lets you move a cube on your player board from a top action to a bottom action, this makes the top action more effective while making the bottom action cheaper.
Note that you don’t have to move a cube to the same area it comes from, you can pick any combination of bottom and top action to improve. If you manage to move all of your upgrade cubes you earn a star.
Deploy is how you get Mechs on the board. Each faction has four mechs they can build and building each unlocks faction specific powers.
Mechs cost metal to build. They are your main combat units but are also great for transporting farmers and resources. If you manage to build all four of your mechs you earn a star.
Build costs you wood and lets you build one of your four buildings. There is one of these in each action section of your player board. The monument earns you popularity, the mill produces resources, the mine lets you travel in the tunnels and the Armory gives you power.
In addition to each building giving you some form of bonus they also give you control of an area as long as no enemy units are present. This can be very important for resource management and end game scoring. Also, if you build all of your buildings, you earn a star.
Enlist is the final action and the most confusing. It lets you take a recruit token from your player board and place it on your faction board.
This does two things. You get an instant reward based on what you cover on your board then, for the rest of the game, you also get a bonus whenever you or the opponents to your left or right take the bottom action the recruit came from.
Plus you can earn a star for placing all four of your recruits on your faction board.
As hinted at above there is a way to unlock a fifth action area. If you successfully move your character into the factory you get to pick a faction card and this card will give you a new action spot with a powerful top action and a new bottom move action that let’s one unit move twice.
Having a second way to move can be a huge thing in this game. In addition to this, the factory counts as three territories when scoring area control at the end of the game.
One final thing you can do on your turn is complete a private objective. You get two objective cards at the start of the game and if you fulfil the requirements on one of them you can reveal it and gain a star. The second card is then discarded.
As a reminder here are all the things you can do to earn a star, complete all six upgrades, deploy all of your mechs, build all of your structures, enlist all of your recruits, have all of your workers on the board, complete a private objective, win up to two combats, hit max popularity and hit max power.
Once anyone earns their sixth star the game ends and you enter a final scoring round.
Remember how at the start of this I said the only thing that matters is money? During scoring, you take all of the coins that you’ve earned during the game and then add to that bonus coins earned in three areas. The amount of these bonus coins is determined by how high up the popularity track you got during the game, with more coins being earned the higher up you are.
The first bonus is for every star you placed. You multiply your total stars placed by the bonus amount and take that much money.
The second is for each territory you control. This includes any territory with your farmers or units in them as well as units with your buildings but no opponent units. Don’t forget the factory bonus!
Finally, you are going to add up how many resources you control on the board. Remember you have to control the hex with the resources to count them, unguarded resources aren’t worth anything. You get a coin for every two resources you have gathered.
There’s one last way to get a few bucks. You can earn some bonus coins based on where you built your buildings during the game. What earns this bonus is randomly determined at the start of the game and can include things like building in a straight line, building near tunnels and more.
The player with the most wealth wins, with $75 being considered a good score.
So far I haven’t mentioned the fact that each faction and player board are unique. The player boards have different combinations of top and bottom actions which can really change your strategy. Each board combination gives you different amounts of starting power, popularity, money, and combat cards. The cost and rewards for taking bottom actions also vary with each player board rewarding a different play style.
Then there’s the fact that every faction is unique, with each having its own game breaking abilities, some of which are unlocked right from the start and some that you will unlock by building mechs.
Scythe also includes an achievement sheet that you can fill out after each game. This sheet has a number of entries on it with things like “win a game without building mechs”, “be the first to win with each faction”, “have six stars but don’t win”, and so on.
Scythe Solo Mode
Before getting to my thoughts on Scythe, I also wanted to take a moment to highlight the solo mode that is included.
Solo play in Scythe uses a nineteen card deck AI. As a player, you play the game the same way I have already described but your opponent’s actions are determined by the cards and they ignore many of the core rules of the game.
For example, the AI opponent doesn’t generate or use resources, build buildings or have things like faction powers. Instead, they start with a character and two workers in play with their remaining mechs, stars and workers on the faction board. No player mat needed.
After each of your turns, you will flip over the top Automa card which will first tell you which enemy units to move and how to move them. This uses a neighbourhood system that is quite confusing at first and will take a bit to get used to. After my first play, I even watched a couple of actual play videos to see if I got it right and I think I did in most cases.
This movement may trigger combat. You do your part of combat the same, grab a combat wheel, decide how much power to spend and any applicable combat cards. For the AI, you flip a card and look at a combat gauge on the side, this determines how much power they spend and how many combat cards, if any, they use.
The winner gets a star as usual with enemy units retreating to their faction board, not their base. When winning a fight or scaring away a farmer you get a random number of resources based on another random draw of another Automa card.
After moving the opponent will get something. This could be more units, money, power or combat cards. Next, the card may show some recruit icons, if you have unlocked the matching recruit you get the appropriate recruit reward.
Finally, in the centre of the Automa card there will or won’t be a big star. If there’s a star you move a counter on a star track. There are a number of these, that you select from at the start of a solo game to determine the difficulty you want to play.
As the counter moves up on this track the AI will gain stars, and it will also gain the ability to cross all lakes and rivers. This is the main way the Automa gets stars, though they can also earn them for winning combats as well as for getting to the top of the power track.
Just like the normal game, a solo play ends as soon as you or the AI places their sixth star and then points are calculated pretty much as normal though the AI won’t have built any buildings or have any resources in play.
How have my thoughts about Scythe changed?
I started this review by saying that this was a long awaited review. The short background on that is that I played Scythe back when it was the new hotness and it wasn’t a great experience.
I played two games with a group of hardcore cutthroat gamers who had played the game many times before. The two times I played I got totally crushed while fumbling around and trying to figure out not only how the various actions in Scythe worked but also why I would want to do any of them at a given moment. I found myself focusing on things that didn’t matter, totally missing that wealth was the be all end all and honestly having a pretty miserable time. At the time I blamed both the group I played with and the game itself for that experience.
Since that time I have had many people try to convert me over to Scythe and in general, I wasn’t willing to give it another shot. More specifically, I definitely wasn’t going to go out and spend $125 Canadian on a game I hadn’t enjoyed just to try it again. It wasn’t until Jamey offered up a review copy that I talked to my regular game group and decided to give it another go. In doing so I figured out exactly what went wrong with those first plays.
There is just far too much going on in Scythe for anyone to fully understand it all after just one or two plays. The problem with my first experience wasn’t really the game or the players it was the combination of both. No one sitting down to learn this game should be tossed headfirst into a shark tank of experienced players. Scythe is a game that’s best learned by experience and by playing around, not by trying to survive as everyone does everything they can to win at any cost.
Even Jamey himself, the designer of the game, recognizes this and addresses it in the rulebook by encouraging exploration during your first few plays. The reference cards even have recommended first actions that include suggestions like “take a top action no one has taken before to see what it does.”
This is what I missed out on when learning Scythe. I missed getting to discover and explore the game. That’s what I was able to change when I got my own copy of Scythe and introduced it to my regular game group.
Our first game with my copy of Scythe was extremely casual and we just had fun with it. We followed those recommended actions and played what was probably the longest game of Scythe ever, and that wasn’t a bad thing. It was a game that let all four of us slowly figure things out on our own and it was after that first game that I started to see the appeal of this well regarded game.
To me, this is the crux of enjoying Scythe. There’s a lot going on. While the actual actions in the game are simple enough to learn, the whole top and bottom action thing is very well done and pretty cool in play, and the asymmetric nature of the game is fantastic, you can’t possibly see how it all works together until you’ve sat down and done it yourself a few times.
It wasn’t until that overly long exploration game that I started to see how the player mats worked differently, I didn’t even realize at first that each one emphasized a different style of play. Heck, I didn’t even notice that the bottom actions were actually different with different rewards and costs, I just thought they were paired with different top actions.
That’s not to mention all the other stuff I discovered when playing, like why you may want to do one thing over another, how important protecting your resources are or the fact that you can go an entire game without a single combat and the game still works and you can still win.
This is important to note, despite the map and hexes with units on it, Scythe is not a folk on a map wargame.
While combat can be part of the game it’s very much not the focus of Scythe. As mentioned earlier, the biggest incentive for combat is earning those two stars, after that it’s not usually worth the cost or risk, unless someone happens to leave a big stack or resources just sitting there barely guarded.
There’s another deterrent to combat that I skipped over during the overview above and that’s the fact that if you attack a territory with farmers in it, they run away which can be a huge hit to your Popularity. The importance of that Popularity during end game scoring can’t be overstated. That was one of the things I missed when learning the game myself and it lead to my ultimate defeat.
Scythe is about planning your actions and making sure you have the resources on hand to maximize your turns. You want to take advantage of both the top and bottom actions on your board as often as possible. It’s also about figuring out what your board and faction are good at and leaning into that as well as taking advantage of your faction’s unique abilities.
Even the fact that each faction has a different version of the Riverwalk ability greatly impacts what parts of the board players will have access to and how quickly they can expand. In Scythe, the order you do things in can be key. The order you take certain actions, and whether you do them at all, can greatly affect how the game plays.
Do you rush to get your mechs out? Do you bother to build tunnels? Do you get your recruits out early to take advantage of your neighbour’s bottom actions? and more.
Some other highlights of the game include a very well written rulebook (with an excellent Scythe FAQ available online, which we didn’t have to reference often but it was good that it was there for some edge cases). The component quality is awesome and I love how Jamey differentiated the various components by what they were made of. If a piece in Scythe is plastic there’s a reason for that. This helps as a reminder both during play and when teaching the game.
I also really appreciated the achievement sheet. Looking at it I actually discovered more aspects of the game. For example, one achievement is to win without building mechs. When I first saw that I thought “How the heck can you do that when that means no Riverwalk?”
Sitting down to our next game I decided to try to play without mechs and that led me to discover other ways to move around the map. Thus giving me insights into that game that I may not have realized had I not read that achievement. This is exactly what I meant by saying Scythe is a game meant to be explored.
I like the nearly deterministic combat system in Scythe. Each player entering a fight knows exactly how much power the opponent can spend and how many combat cards they have and can add to that power total. While you may not know exactly what cards they hold you do know the distribution of the cards, and this can lead to some interesting bluffing and back and forth.
This bluffing is only one social aspect of Scythe. Another part of the game, which the groups I’ve played with haven’t really taken advantage of, is the fact that you can make deals. These deals can even include coins (and remember money is all that matters at the end). You can bribe people, pay people off, use coins to encourage someone to take a certain action, etc. Interestingly, similar to a game of Diplomacy or Risk, none of these deals are binding.
While these aren’t mechanics that I tend to really enjoy, I know there are groups out there that eat up this kind of player interaction.
As for playing solo, I thought it was okay. It definitely worked mechanically and wasn’t that fiddly. While I would much rather play the game with a real opponent it’s still a nice option to have.
Solo play is simple enough overall even though the movement rules take a bit to wrap your head around. I suggest that anyone trying to master solo mode do what I did and watch a couple of videos to make sure you are getting it right.
I do appreciate that this solo option is here and dig that there are different difficulty levels but I doubt I’ll be playing Scythe solo much myself.
It’s interesting to note that online you can find ways to play with more than one automa character, though you need a separate deck for each. There are also rules online for playing with a mix of multiple humans and automa. This isn’t something we tried, though it actually seems to be the preferred way to play solo in the BGG forums.
There is also an app called Scythekick that is meant to help with solo plays, as well as adding something to all human games.
Overall Scythe is the perfect example of a board game that can’t be judged based only on a couple of plays. This is a big, meaty game that is best approached slowly and explored along with a group also new to the game. While each individual action and system in this game is easy to understand, seeing the big picture of how things interact is not. If you do happen to be playing with experienced players I encourage them to take it easy on any new players, to help them discover the intricacies of the game and not just stomp all over them.
In this world of one and done game nights, Scythe almost fails. If I had only played this game twice I wouldn’t be writing this review now. Obviously, enough people liked it on their initial play that it grew to be as popular as it is, but I’m sure there are plenty of other gamers out there that gave up after their first couple of plays just as I initially did.
Scythe isn’t a game to be taken lightly, and isn’t going to be a game for people who aren’t willing to sit down and learn the ins and outs and develop some form of game mastery through multiple plays.
The thing is, if you are willing to put in that work, Scythe becomes a fantastic game. It has a ton of depth. It features near infinite replayability due to the different faction combinations, objective cards and events. There are a huge number of different strategies and ways to play Scythe, all of which can be totally valid.
Personally, I’m very happy that our fans convinced me to give Scythe another shot. I now fully understand how it’s ranked among the top games in the world.
What’s a game that you weren’t sold on at first but that you grew to love over more plays, we would love to hear about it in the comments below.