Scythe Digital Edition Review25 Jul 2019 0
Scythe Digital Edition Review
Released 05 Sep 2018
Three years ago, in the crowded Exhibitor’s Hall and bustling gaming rooms of GenCon 2016, a copy of Scythe could be seen everywhere, stuffed under attendee’s arms, poking out of shopping bags, sprawled out on gaming tables and convention floors. Its sheer ubiquity that year should give some evidence of its quality. To be the “game of the Con” at the largest tabletop convention in North America is no simple thing, but Scythe earned this spot by delivering on the entrancing aesthetic style — the pastoral diesel-punk landscapes of artist and worldbuilder Jakub Rozalski — that garnered it so much attention, while at the same time packaging it with a legitimately well-crafted tabletop experience.
Easy to learn, reasonably fast to play, and sporting some high quality, gorgeously designed boards, mats, and pieces, the original version of Scythe is worthy of the praise that was heaped upon it at launch, and has remained a go-to comfort food for many a tabletop group even to this day, as evidenced by its steady position consistently near the top of BoardGameGeek’s “The Hotness” chart.
Two years after its physical release, Scythe moved to Steam with Scythe Digital Edition, essentially a straight port of the original tabletop board game. Both editions are set in the world of Rozalski’s 1920+, a sort of quasi-alternate history post-First World War Europe that emerged out of Rozalski’s distinctive paintings depicting idyllic scenes of eastern European rural life juxtaposed with enormous Mechs looming ominously in the background.
In the game, players take command of one of the five factions (seven, if you have the Invaders from Afar DLC) in order to gather resources, build structures, deploy Mechs, and fight for control of the board. The world is abstracted into a hex-grid board, with each player in a corner and the Factory, the source of the Mechs in the games lore, at the center. Play proceeds as each player goes around the board, selecting a 'top row' simple action from their playmat: either moving, producing resources, trading, or gaining one of the various currencies types. Each of these top-row actions corresponds to a stronger 'bottom row' action, based on the playmat you are assigned at the start of the game, that allow you to perform more powerful abilities like building structures or deploying mechs for a set resource cost.
Different mats align different top and bottom row actions, so that in one playthrough you can only deploy a Mech after using the move action, while in another you can only do so after bolstering your military power. This makes it so you can’t necessarily play in the same style every game. You have to use what resources are available to you based on your starting position to make the best of synergizing your actions. With the exception of the Rusviet faction, players can’t take the same top row action twice in a row, forcing you to perform a delicate dance of gathering and spending resources while also dealing with enemies who might be trying to disrupt the careful rhythm you’ve worked yourself into.
When two players find their Mechs or character units occupying the same hex, a battle ensues. Combat is fairly simple: players secretly wager between one and seven combat points, alongside one of the combat cards that can be picked up over the course of the game. Both players reveal what they’ve wagered and whoever has the highest point value wins, with the loser being forced back to their starting position (puzzlingly, it is the attacker who wins in the case of ties). It’s a fairly basic combat system, but one that forces you to think carefully about when to engage and when to withdraw, as even with maxxed out combat points, a player can only really have two high value fights before becoming utterly exhausted and exposed, which even in this fictional dieselpunk alternate history, feels period appropriate.
While it’s not an overly complicated system, if you're new to Scythe than the tutorial is pretty straightforward in explaining how the different parts of the board operate. Once you know what’s happening, it's fairly easy to keep track of what's going on across the board and to start planning two or three moves ahead. The resulting gameplay loop is a satisfying tug-of-war that constantly pulls you between playing it safe in order to optimize resource management and taking risks by exploring outwards to put pressure on your opponents and get bonuses by snagging up the event tokens that are littered around the board.
Once a player has acquired six stars — awarded for completing objectives, performing certain bottom-row actions a number of times, winning battles, and maxing out particular currencies — the game ends and points are calculated. All of these factors, plus a host of other bonuses for controlling territory or placing structures near certain objectives, are tallied together to decide the winner. This means that a player could initiate the endgame without actually winning the game, adding an extra layer to consider while racing to the finish.
Art and Design
As solid as the nuts-and-bolts gameplay is, the allure of Scythe has always been largely aesthetic. It's no exaggeration to say that Rozalski’s art and the craftsmanship of the miniatures is what allowed the tabletop version to raise the princely sum of almost two million dollars on Kickstarter from nearly twenty thousand backers. There has long been an unsatisfied niche audience for western-style mecha, more tank-like and realistic than their lithe, humanoid eastern counterparts, and Scythe delivers with some really well designed war machines that feel distinctive and appropriate for each faction.
Unfortunately, one of the few complaints worth mentioning is that on the game board itself, Scythe’s Mechs, the lumbering and awesome colossi from Rozalski’s paintings, are downright visually puny, too small to even appreciate the fine craftsmanship that no doubt went into making the original pieces. Take, for example, the Crimean Khanate’s Mech, a big, two-wheel, lumbering tractor-like thing, based on the bizarre-but-real Russian prototype Tsar Tank from the First World War. A solid choice for the still-nomadic, only recently industrialized faction that the lore establishes the Khanate to be. When holding a miniature in your hand, it's easy to appreciate these finer details, but in Scythe Digital, the mechs are crowded out by worker and resource pieces of the same size, all stuffed onto a tiny tile. Bumping these models up just a bit in size, and maybe adding a bit more spit and polish, could go a long way to making them feel as visually imposing as they should rightfully be.
A similar complaint could be lodged abound Scythe’s sound design. While the soundtrack is a really solid mix of rustic and rural eastern-European inspired tunes, military marching tracks, and rising orchestrals that feel fitting for each faction, the sound design more generally could use some work. Not all actions have an accompanying sound effect and it's a bit jarring when an opponent is executing their turn in dead silence with only the background track playing as cover. There are sound effects when pieces move or get deployed, but the soft taps of plastic-on-cardboard are more there to remind you that this is a port of a board game, rather than conveying anything meaningful about the world of 1920+.
The sound design would have been better served if it had abandoned completely the skeuomorphic board game sounds for something that better captured the brooding atmosphere and dark mood of Rozalski’s paintings. Obviously, this would have required quite a bit more work and some extra resources, but little details like absent sound effects reveal the seams of the game in a very unbecoming way.
With that said, Scythe Digital is still an extremely satisfying port of one of the best tabletop games of the past decade. Built on steady foundations with a nail-biting gameplay loop and sporting some gorgeous art, it’s well worth the relatively low price of admission, especially if you can grab it during one of Steam’s frequent sales. While some visual and sound design elements don’t totally land, these small grievances don’t seriously detract from an otherwise solid experience. If you’re a fan of the original Scythe and have trouble nailing down flakey friends for an in-person game night, or are a solo strategist looking to drop a few hours into a mechanically sound game that’s fun to pick up and play but difficult to master, Scythe Digital Edition is a great option to have.