The past month has seen a huge amount of hype surrounding Stonemaier’s newest game, Scythe. I featured photos of it in my article on why high-quality gaming components are so appealing. Board gaming forums and Facebook groups have been seeing a massive number of photos, reviews, trash talk, and all manner of similarly excited posts. Twitter has been abuzz with mentions.
But not nearly as many people have taken the time to lay out just why Scythe is so incredible. I’ve spent a lot of time playing this game, both on Tabletopia and my own kitchen table, and I’ve come to believe that it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played. In fact, I gave it my only 10/10 rating on BoardGameGeek (at least so far). I really believe the hype is warranted.
But at the same time, it is hype, and people get understandably annoyed with it. So I’m going to use this post to lay out exactly why Scythe is making such a big splash, and try to draw some more generally applicable lessons for game designers in the process. Let’s take a look.
Scythe was made by gamers, for gamers
This seems obvious, and not very insightful, but let me take a minute to explain what I mean. When I was unboxing Scythe, it became very clear that the guys at Stonemaier had been annoyed by the things that vex most gamers, and they did their best to address every single one of those issues during the design of the game.
It starts with the box itself. My biggest complaint about Blood Rage, as an example, is that I can never get the box closed. It just seems too small for the game. It’s possible that everything fits in there, but I’ve never been able to make it so. Scythe, on the other hand, easily holds all of the game’s contents, with some room to spare. Getting everything back in the box is easy, because there’s a diagram printed directly on the side of the box showing you how everything fits in (genius!).
The game came with four plastic storage containers for the realistic resources, and even came with extra bags to store everything. Extra bags! It’s extremely convenient, and players will really appreciate it.
In a game with a lot of rules, it can be tough to keep everything straight, and that can significantly slow the game down the first few times you play. Stonemaier obviously didn’t want this to happen to Scythe, so they included some extremely useful quick-reference cards. One of them even gives you recommendations on what to do for your first five turns. Important rules are summarized on another card, and another shows the river-crossing capabilities of each faction. The rules explicitly encourage players to not focus too much on rules, and to just get started playing—which is what a lot of people want to do, but it’s not always feasible. In Scythe, it is, and it’s encouraged.
Scythe is expensive. And as games get more expensive, players are expecting a lot from each game; one of the things that helps to improve the value proposition is the addition of a solo play option. Scythe includes a card-driven artificial intelligence, much like the one included in Viticulture, that lets you play the game solo. It’s surprisingly challenging and deep enough to keep players interested. Obviously it’s still a solo game, and the experience isn’t as rich as playing with other humans, but it lets players get more out of an expensive investment. Another bonus.
Solo play might be driven by card-drawing, but very few other parts of the game are determined by luck. There are no dice and only occasional card drawing. Combat is based on resource expenditure and willingness to commit (as well as a few mind games). Planning, skill, foresight, and reading other players’ actions are rewarded, while luck is significantly downplayed. These are all things that players of medium-to-heavy games appreciate.
Finally, in a surprising touch that shows a huge influence from video games, an achievement sheet is included with the game. Players who get certain types of wins, such as the first win in a year, first win with a specific faction, first win with different player counts, and first win with over $100, get to write their name and the date on the achievement sheet. It adds some lasting bragging points to significant wins, which is something that a lot of other games don’t have. It isn’t needed, but gamers will love it. It’s a perfect example of the nice touches that Stonemaier put on this game.
Of course, if a game is to succeed, it can’t just address the little things that players get annoyed by. It also has to have compelling and balanced gameplay. Because I’m trying to keep the standard “review” elements of this post to a minimum, I won’t spend much time on this, but there are a few important things I should mention.
First, at least as far as I can tell, there’s no inherently dominant strategy. You can focus on upgrading, deploying mechs, building structures, or enlisting recruits in the early game, and depending on other factors, it could be a winning strategy. It depends partly on the combination of faction and player mats you’re dealt, which increases variety between games, too.
There are a lot of ways to accumulate victory points—combat, research, building, completing your objective, and so on—and winning a game can include any of then. You can win without completing your objective just as easily as you can win by amassing power and smashing your opponents.
Similarly, you can be victorious without winning—or even taking part in—combat. Accumulating resources, placing your workers, and developing a solid farming strategy is just as important as being able to win a fight. In most games, it’s significantly more important. Balancing the euro-style accumulation of resources and engine-building with the threat of combat (as the threat is usually more important than the actual combat) is quite a feat, and Stonemaier has pulled it off flawlessly.
A great attention to detail
As you might expect, a game that’s been designed for medium-to-heavy game fans is going to spend a lot of time getting the details right. There are a ton of little touches that are mechanically (and often stylistically) totally unnecessary, but add a lot to the overall experience.
For example, each faction has differently designed meeples. The game would have been just as good with standard meeple designs, like Carcassonne or Lords of Waterdeep. Instead, however, each faction-specific meeple is crafted to—at least very slightly—resemble the characters of the players’ faction.
In the Collector’s Edition, players get to use realistic resources instead of wooden pieces. The food resource looks like a sack of grain, the wood resource looks like a log, the oil resource looks like an oil barrel, and the metal resource is an actual tiny metal bar. They feel great in the hand, serve as phenomenal conversation pieces, and, again, add to the overall experience of the game (as I discussed in my post on high-quality components).
The board itself is gorgeous, with small details to find in every hex, whereas it could have been much more abstract. The Factory cards each have a picture of a retro-futuristic piece of war technology, where they could have had the same image, or a picture of the Factory itself. Each faction’s power dial reflects their overall aesthetic. Each encounter card is an absolute work of art in its own right.
All of these details impress upon the player that the designer, illustrators, and everyone else involved in the creative process put a huge amount of time, effort, and passion into the game. Scythe is a work of art. So much so that Stonemaier has made an art book available that collects Jakub Rozalski’s art into a beautiful hardcover.
A perfect 10
And that artistry is really what sets Scythe apart. All of the things that make it a phenomenal game come down to the fact that the guys at Stonemaier obviously put a tremendous amount of themselves into the game. They’re gamers, and they really took the time to understand what players want—and what they don’t want—and used that to inform the game design.
Creating a game that has high-quality, balanced gameplay and combining that with display-level art that encourages players to tell stories and inhabit a shared world for a few hours is a huge accomplishment, and Scythe nails it. Combine that with the obvious amount of thought that went into making the overall experience better (even with things that seem totally inconsequential), and you have a game that scores a 10.
And lives up the the hype.