i can’t be sure how many board games started life as pieces of art. (Dixit, perhaps?) With Scythe, artist Jakub Rozalski’s alternate dimension paintings depicting a first World War fought with mechs served as inspiration for the game’s theme, and Rozalski himself took on illustrion duties. Here’s how to play:
Hi! It’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table, and this is Scythe, an area control/economic farming war game for 1-5 players. Let me show you how to play!
You and your friends play factions from different countries in the 1920’s in an alternate timeline where World War I was fought with giant mechanical war machines. Scythe was inspired by these paintings by Jakub Rozalski, who also illustrated the game. You’ll be moving across war-torn Europe as its peasants are busy bending their swords into ploughshares; the peasants generate resources for you that you can use to resurrect your country’s war machines and fight for dominance against the other factions. Once one player knocks enough milestones off this list, the game ends, and whoever has earned the most money, from a combination of achievements, area control, and resource generation, wins.
Scythe can be a challenging game to teach and learn because it contains a ton of interoperable moving parts. Everyone gets a faction board and a player board that gives you powers and abilities. Most of the time, i’ll show you the game from the point of view of the blue Nordic faction that starts up here at the top of the board, but keep in mind that quantities and costs and the order of actions can change depending on the faction you play, and the player board you’re randomly dealt at the start of the game.
You have three different units you can control in Scythe: your character, which is a plastic mini with an animal buddy, your wooden workers, and your plastic mechs. You start the game with your character on your faction’s home base, and two workers – one on each of the adjacent territories – but your mechs are all still all wrecked after the Great War, and you’ll have to acquire them later on. You can also recruit more workers, or build four different structures that give you various perks.
A territory is a hexagonal section of land that you or your opponents can control. So these are territories, but your home base is not. You can’t move into anyone’s home base, including your own, and no one can move into your home base. Generally, home base is where your units get bounced to whenever they lose fights.
You control a territory when one or more of your units is on the hex. The exception is your structures: you control a territory when your structure is on it, but if any opponent’s living, breathing units is there, the opponent controls the territory… until their flesh-and-blood unit goes away, and then you control the territory with your structure again.
Your player board is split into 4 different sections. On your turn, you have to place this pawn on one of those 4 sections – and it has to be a different section than your last turn. The 4 sections all have a top row action and a bottom row action. You can do the top row thing OR the bottom row thing OR both, but if you do both, the top row thing comes first. The game is designed so that you can do the bottom row thing while play moves on clockwise to the next player, to minimize downtime while you figure out what you want to do.
Whenever you see a red box, it means “you pay.” A green box means “you get”. Some boxes are covered up with these cubes; we’ll talk about them later. Another concept in Scythe is that you can always take less than you’re owed. So if something says you get 2 coins, that means you can take up to 2 coins; there are situations where taking less than you’re due is advantageous.
So let’s take a look at the 4 sections of your player board to see what you can do on your turn. When we’re finished doing that, we’ll know enough about the game to figure out how to score points to win.
By placing your pawn on the Move section of your board, you can take this top row action to move up to 2 different units belonging to your faction, 1 space each. Units can move to adjacent hexes; so for example, you could move your character here, and your worker here… but you couldn’t move 1 unit twice. You also can’t move your units across rivers… or onto lakes. “But wait,” you say, “My entire starting area is surrounded by rivers and lakes!” Yes, that’s the idea – every faction is isolated like that. The game gives you a little bit of time to build up your faction before you all get up in each other’s bidness.
These tunnels are like warp zones. If your unit is on one, you can use a move action to blip out to any other tunnel territory.
Eventually, the territories will start piling up with different resources. Any unit can carry any number of resources from territory to territory. What’s more, mechs can carry any number of workers from hex to hex. So on a move action, you could move this mech, which carries these workers, and then for your second movement, move this worker on to a further hex. Or, move this worker onto this hex, and then hitch a ride on this mech, which moves over here. You can pick up and drop off any number of resources or, in the case of a mech, workers, during a move action.
Your two plastic units – your character and your mechs – have to stop moving when they move into a territory with enemy units on it. If the hex only has workers on it, those workers run away back to their home base, leaving behind any resources that might have been on the hex. There’s a track on the side of the board that charts your popularity with the people; for every worker you scare away like this, you lose 1 popularity.
Your cowardly workers can’t move into any territory controlled by any of your opponents’ units, but they can move into territories controlled by structures.
If your fighty plastic units move into enemy-occupied territory, and there are one or more other fighty plastic units present, they have to stop moving, and combat will commence after you’ve completed all of your move actions. We’ll talk about combat a little later.
If your character, specifically, moves into a territory with one of these encounter tokens, its movement stops, and you resolve the encounter. We’ll look at encounters in a bit.
There’s no limit to the number of units and stuff that can be on a viable hex.
If you don’t want to move when you take this action, you can alternately gain this many coins.
When you place your pawn here to produce, you have to pay any of the uncovered costs listed here. At the beginning of the game, all of your unrecruited workers are blocking these costs, so you don’t have to pay anything. But Scythe is a game with peekaboo powers, which means that as you start recruiting more workers from the left to the right, you uncover these cost spaces, so this action gets progressively more expensive. i guess that’s more of a peekaboo pain-in-the-butt.
You get to produce resources on this many hexes that have workers on them. Pick up to two territories with your workers on them, and produce as many goods as there are workers. Farms make food, forests make wood, mountains make metal, tundra makes oil, and villages make other workers. So you can produce here and here for 3 food and 1 worker. Or here and here for 1 wood and 1 wood. The resources go on the board, not in your supply, because if your opponents manage to muscle their way into those hexes, they control those resources.
Sometimes, you don’t have access to certain territories to produce the stuff you want, so you’ll place your pawn here to take the Trade action. You pay 1 coin to get 2 of any resource – wood, food, oil, or metal – either both the same, or both different – and put them on a single territory where you have at least one worker. Or, you can go up one tick on the popularity track.
If you put your pawn here, you can pay 1 coin to bolster your troops. There’s a Power track down here, and you move your token up 2 spaces. Alternately, you can draw one of these combat cards from this deck. Those are all the top-row actions. Before we go over the bottom-row actions, we should take a look at how combat works.
When one or more plastic units enters a territory controlled by one or more enemy plastic units, it’s fight time. Both players involved in the battle take one of these wheels. First, you secretly choose the number of Power points you’re going to spend. Your Power points are on this track, and 7 is circled to remind you that that’s the max number of power points you can select from the wheel.
Next, for every plastic unit involved in combat, you can tuck one of your combat cards in behind the wheel to tilt the battle in your favour. Most factions start the game with at least one of these combat cards, and they range in power from 2 to 5. The distribution of each power level in the combat deck is listed here. So both combatants choose power to spend, tuck zero or more cards (up to the number of their own units in the fight), and throw down!
The bigger number wins, and ties go to the aggressor – the player who moved into the territory and picked a fight to begin with. Both players lose the number of power points they committed to the fight on their wheels (not on their cards), and then discard any combat cards that they used. All of the loser’s units get bounced back to their home base, leaving any resources behind. If you’re the aggressor and you scare away any workers, you lose 1 popularity point per frightened worker. If you’re the defender, and you successfully repel some workers who snuck into the fight while riding on a mech, you don’t lose popularity. As a concession, if the loser contributed at least one point of Power to the fight, either on the dial or through combat cards, he or she draws a new combat card.
Now we know how combat works, and we’ve seen all four top-row actions. Remember, you can alternatively or additionally take the bottom row action in one of the four sections where you place your pawn. All of these bottom-row actions cost resources – oil, metal, wood, or food – and the costs differ by player board. You can cash in any resources on territories that you control with one or more of your units… or your structures – but remember that an opponent controls a territory he or she occupies if it only has one of your structures on it. So you can spend these resources, or these ones, or these ones, but not these ones, because you don’t control the territory, and not this one, because this resource is now the Rusviet Union faction’s to spend – unless the russkies leave without taking them. Then they’re yours again. For now.
This bottom-row action lets you Upgrade. Pay this many barrels of oil to move any one of the six cubes from here to any one of the recessed red spaces down here. By doing this, you’re increasing the benefit of a top-row action, and decreasing the cost of a bottom-row action. Peekaboo powers! So if you moved this cube from here down to here, your Bolster action now gets you three power on the Power track, and this bottom-row action costs 2 food instead of 3. You also get some money for upgrading.
This bottom-row action lets you pay a certain amount of wood to build one of your four structures. They are the monument, the mill, the mine, and the armory. You place the structure on any territory you control, as long as you have at least one worker on it. REDO SHOT – you used a character instead of a workeri guess the workers are in charge of construction. Once again, it’s peekaboo powers: you uncover new top-row perks as you pull these structures off your board.
If you build your monument, you gain a point on the Popularity track every time you take the Bolster action.
Building your armory gets you a point on the Power track whenever you Trade.
Wherever you plunk your mill, it will generate a bonus resource on its hex, whether on not you have a worker present, over and above whatever you get during a regular Produce action.
The mine is your own personal tunnel. You – and only you – can travel through it to any of the other tunnel territories on the board.
Each territory can only have one structure on it – only one of yours, or anyone else’s.
Taking this bottom-row action enables you to pay a certain amount of metal to resurrect one of your mechs from the Great War. You have four dormant mechs that you can recommission, and each one covers up a different peekaboo power. Place the mech on any territory you control with a worker on it – again, i guess the idea is that the worker is constructing the mech – and take the money bonus on the board. Any power you uncover is now usable by all your plastic units – your character and all your mechs.
All of the powers are mostly the same for all five factions, but there are a few key differences. Grab a snack, get comfy, and we’ll rip through what each power does.
The leftmost mech power for all 5 factions is called riverwalk, which enables your mechs and your character – but not your workers – to cross rivers. The format is the same for all factions, but the details differ: your plastic unit can move from any territory to either of the two depicted territories. So the Nordic faction, for example can cross a river from any territory into either a forest … or a mountain.
On the rightmost side, the same power for all factions, is Speed. This lets you travel 1 extra hex when you move a unit.
This column features powers involving combat. The Nords can pay 1 power before combat to weaken their opponent by 2 power. The Saxons get an advantage when fighting in tunnels; their opponents begin combat with a 2 power deficit. The Crimeans can randomly steal an opponent’s combat card at random before the fight begins. The Russkies get to play an extra combat card as long as they have at least 1 worker caught up in the fight (THYIS BATTUL BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE), and the Republic of Polania doesn’t lose any popularity points whenever they scare undefended workers off a territory after winning a battle. They still lose popularity if they frighten off one or more undefended workers in a non-combat situation.
Anything goes in the final column, where each power is highly individualized.
The Nordic Kingdoms get to travel on and off lakes as if they were regular territories. They can’t strand any workers on lakes, and they still can’t build structures on lakes. If they lose a fight next to a lake, they can choose to retreat there instead of all the way back to their home base.
The Saxony Empire gets to travel back and forth between tunnel spaces and any mountain territories they control.
The Crimean Khanate can travel from any territory to their home base, or to the home base of any faction that’s not currently playing the game. This is a one-way ticket – you can’t warp the opposite direction, from a home base to any hex on the map.
The Rusviet Union can move from any village they control to the Factory territory in the middle of the board and back. More about the Factory later.
And finally, the Republic of Polania can build a mech and uncover this power enabling their plastic pieces to use lakes like warp zones to travel to other lakes.
The last bottom-row action available to you is Enlist. Start by paying the required amount of food. Then, just like your structures, you get to remove one of these four cylindrical tokens, and put it on one of these four spots on your faction board, claiming whichever prize you place it on: two power, coins, popularity, or combat cards. By doing this, you’ll also uncover another perk. You don’t collect it now, but you do get it when either you, or the player on your left or right takes the bottom-row action it’s next to. So if you enlist the token next to Deploy, then any time you or your opponent on the left or right Deploys a mech, you get 1 bonus coin. The other perks are 1 power when you or a neighbour upgrades, 1 popularity when you or a neighbour builds a structure, and 1 combat card when you or a neighbour Enlists. Enlisting also gets you some extra spending money.
STARS AND ENDGAME SCORING
Now that you’ve seen most of what Scythe can do, let’s look at how to win! At the top of the board is this star chart filled with video game-like achievements. Every player has six star tokens they can place up here. You can place a star here for Upgrading all 6 of your cubes to the bottom row, here for deploying all 4 of your mechs, here for building all 4 of your structures, here for Enlisting all 4 of your cylindrical recruits, here for producing all of your workers, here for completing one of your objectives – every player begins the game with two random secret objective cards, and if you complete one before or after taking a top- or bottom-row action on your turn, you flip it over and place a star… and you can only earn a star for completing one of your two objectives. You can place a star here when you win a fight, and another star here when you win another fight, but two fights is the limit for placing stars. You can keep fighting if you want, but extra wins won’t earn you extra stars. You can place a star here or here if you max out on popularity… or power, and your star stays there even if your levels drop later in the game. When a player places his or her sixth star, the game ends.
Now Popularity is a special metric, because it multiplies the value of the stars you place. At the end of the game, if your Popularity token is in this bracket, each of your stars are worth 3 coins. 4 coins anywhere along here, and 5 coins per star in the top bracket. These brackets also award increasing numbers of coins at the end of the game for each territory you control, and for each pair of resources piled up on those territories, rounded down.
Each game has a random score card that gives you extra points for building your structures next to things, like tunnels or lakes. So the Nordic player has a structure next to 1 2, 3-4-5 lakes, and will score 6 extra coins if this card was dealt to the board for this game.
Tiebreakers are, in this order:
- Number of workers, mechs, and structures
Controlled resource tokens
That’s almost Scythe in its entirety! There are just a few more things to know, and you’ll be ready to play.
i mentioned earlier that when your character moves into a territory with one of these Encounter tokens on it, your character’s movement stops. Next, once all other movement is finished, you remove the token from the board and draw an encounter card. Each card gives you a multiple choice action you can take. Most of the time, you’re playing with or helping the locals, and they’ll give you a better exchange rate on stuff that you can’t achieve anywhere else. The third option is usually some jerk move that’s high cost, high reward. Remember, only your character can have an encounter – not your mechs or your workers. Any resources you earn from encounters go on the hex where you encountered the uh… encounter.
In the dead centre of the board is the Factory, which used to produce mechs in the Great War. If you arrive there with your character (and it has to be your character), you get to fish through this randomly dealt deck of player-count-plus-one Factory cards. You pick one, and then place it next to your player board, where it becomes an extra action space where you can play your pawn. The top-row actions are really good, and the bottom-row action always lets you move one unit two hexes… or three hexes if you’ve unlocked the Speed ability by Deploying the appropriate mech. With this extra slot, you can potentially move units every turn, instead of every other turn, since you always have to put your pawn on a different section each turn.
You can only get one Factory card for visiting the Factory, and if you’re the first one there, you get your pick of the deck, which dwindles as more and more players take cards. You can build a structure on the Factory territory, and at the end of the game, the Factory is worth 3 territories to whoever controls it for scoring purposes.
The last thing we’ll go over are the different special abilities each faction has.
Nordic workers can swim across rivers.
The Saxony aren’t limited to 2 combats or 1 objective card when placing stars – they can complete both of their objectives for stars, and place a star for every fight they win.
The Crimean Khanate can spend 1 combat card once per turn as if it were any of the four resources.
The Rusviet Union doesn’t have to choose a different player board section every turn; they can place their pawn on the same section multiple turns in a row.
And the Republic of Polania can take two multiple choice options during an encounter, instead of just one.
It is possible to play Scythe solo, but playing against the game’s robot is complicated enough to warrant its own video.
To set up for a multiplayer human game, place the board on the table non-gigantic side up… you can order a board expansion from the publisher if you want the game to be huge by using the flip side. But nuts to that. i’ve got a little house, and a little table, and i won’t be mocked for it, Jamey Stegmaier.
Next, shuffle the different decks of cards and place the combat cards here, the encounter cards down here, the objective cards here, and player-count-plus-one Factory cards over here. Put the money and resources nearby. Deal out one structure bonus card at random. Anywhere you see these encounter symbols, place an encounter token.
Deal 1 faction board and 1 player board to each player at random, and then re-jig your seating arrangement so that everyone is seated near their home base. Grab your player pieces and put your character on your home base, and two workers on the hexes adjacent to your home base.
Everything else goes on your two boards: your mechs, your cubes, your structures, your workers, and your recruits. Your pawn goes nearby. Your faction board gives you your starting power, and a number of combat cards to draw. Your player board tells you how many objective cards to draw, where your popularity should start, and how much money you begin the game with.
The player who was dealt the lowest numbered player board goes first, and play continues clockwise.
And now, you’re ready to play Scythe!
Get Your Own Copy of Scythe
Scythe began its life as a Kickstarter campaign, but now, you can buy most (if not all) of it — additional factions, upgraded components, extra cards, and its various expansions (Visitors from Afar, The Wind Gambit, Encounters, and The Rise of Fenris) without too much hunting. The base game is available on Amazon. If you shop for your own copy using the link below, i’ll receive a small commission.