Walking machines -the pinnacle of industrial marvel-, stalk along the horizon, doing battle with other towering mechs. The sky clouds with floating iron ships, passing ominously above as farmers scythe through the wheat and store the grain to fuel soldiers for the ongoing war.
There will be many paths to victory. They will be long, and you'll need to plan ahead, out-think your enemies, cultivate your territory, win the favour of the people, and ultimately, claim the land for your Faction.
Released in 2016 after raising nearly $2M on Kickstarter, Scythe, a competitive engine-building game set in an alternate-history 1920's Europe, took the board game world by storm. Now, over two years later, Scythe continues to expand, offering new and innovative takes on the genre.
I spoke with Jamey Stegmaier, lead designer of Scythe about his philosophy and mindset when developing this epic and rich game.
'I designed Scythe based on the world created by Jakub Rozalski.' Stegmaier said. 'He created it at the same time I was designing the game. So my main philosophy was to make sure that every mechanism in the game represented the feeling the players has when looking at the art.
'I wanted them to feel like they were participating in the world.'
Rozalski’s art is a genre of its own. Part Steampunk, part weird-science, part wartime fiction, the world of Scythe evokes a peculiar mix of peaceful crisis, capturing the imagination of the players and launching them into a rich setting in a genre of game where narrative and lore often take a very far back seat.
It is not the original setting and phenomenal art that make Scythe unique. Players are randomly assigned both a Faction, which determines their starting territory, abilities and special rules, as well as a Player Mat which gives everyone a different combination of actions, strengths and weaknesses.
No two games of Scythe will be alike, and a skilled player will need to quickly adapt to different play styles from game to game. You'll need a keen mind for resource management, as well as the ability to chart a course to victory.
And quite possibly, you’ll need to strike the heart of your enemies at the most optimal time.
'I'm more of a Euro game designer and player.' Stegmaier told me. 'I like player agency and control with only a dash of randomness and chaos.'
Part of this randomness comes from the Encounter mechanic. Encounters are one of my favourite aspects of the game- you draw a card adorned with a beautiful piece of Rozalski's art, and that art will be a story in and of itself. You're then given options on how you would like to interact with that story.
Stegmaier, designer of both Charterstone and Viticulture, took to the design of Scythe with a clear goal in mind, and with all aspects of game leading back to that goal. Embarking on this quest was no mean feat.
'Mostly I'm trying to tell the story of Jakub's world, while still allowing each group's narrative to emerge from the way they play the game.' Stegmaier said. 'Most importantly, I wanted the game, -especially The Rise of Fenris-, to create memorable moments for players.
'The main challenge was player interaction.’ He continued. ‘I wanted there to be player interaction on the map, but not so much that players didn't feel like they had control of their fate.
'Finding this balance took a lot of playtesting.'
As Scythe has grown over the years since release of the core game and the first expansion, Invaders From Afar, Stegmaier has integrated community development very heavily. This lead both to spin-off titles like My Little Scythe, as well as full expansions for the core game.
'Both The Wind Gambit and The Rise of Fenris originated as fan expansions that I found and realised had a tonne of potential.' Stegmaier said of the process. 'Scythe Encounters features 32 Encounter Cards inspired by fan designs.’
Game designers, like a lot of artists, tend to get precious about their creations. While interacting and discussing games with the community that plays them is nothing new, Stegmaier has really taken community engagement to the next level.
'I think it's all about showing fans of the game that the creator is listening to them, and that they matter.’ Stegmaier told me. ‘I'm very active in the Facebook group and on BoardGameGeek. My design principles have grown over time, but I think they've remained pretty consistent throughout Scythe.'
Scythe manages to offer a whole lot of moving parts without becoming overwhelming. Every type of of gamer will be able to find something they love about the experience.
'I think I’ll go with the fact that all resources are kept on the board.' Stegmaier said of his favourite thing about Scythe. 'It’s a little thing that players often stop noticing after a while, and it doesn’t always matter, but it creates such a strong connection between the things you’re doing on the board and the resources that enable those actions. This is opposed to most other games (including my own), where the resources you produce are kept off the side of the board in your personal supply.'
Scythe is deep and broad enough that I believe playing it can be a hobby in and of itself. You can spend hours and hours exploring the world, the expansions, discussing strategy, trying new tricks and adapting to each new board state before you even look at the massive Rise of Fenris legacy component.
Such an undertaking, which can only be described as “epic”, can be daunting for players new to the game. Scythe truly has something for everyone, and while the game has a clear winner, as well as a sheet of achievements for players to sign their names to (which I personally find to be an excellent touch), the game can also be enjoyed casually.
The engine-building aspect can feel almost meditative at times. If you like the Euro experience where you just sit back, relax, cultivate your land and make your people love you, you certainly can do that. It feels great, and it’s a perfectly legitimate path to victory, as well.
There are a lot of moving parts to the game, but Stegmaier had accessibility firmly in mind when he designed the core box experience.
'The first time you play Scythe, I would recommend using the quick-start card as a guide.' Stegmaier said. 'It encourages you to try each of the different actions once so you can understand how they work, and then it guides you gently into some tactical and strategic decisions.'
Scythe is a truly unique and must-play experience for every tabletop gamer. The expansions enrich the world and guide you into a deeper narrative and strategy.