Thanks for joining in today as I wrap up my visit to the Granite Games Summit last weekend. If you missed Part 1, be sure to check it out Here. Next up:
My next meaty excursion was with the fine people of Board Game Replay – I joined them for a game of Scythe and we played several more games later that day. The summit was a great place to meet new people to play with! I didn’t back Scythe when it was its turn to shine as a Kickstarter hype in 2016, since my copy of Blood Rage was sitting on the shelf while I was looking for time and people to play with, but I knew it as another game that tries to capture that hybrid spirit — the designer originally announced it as “Agricola meets Kemet.” I wasn’t wrong.
Playing Scythe right after Blood Rage is a little disorienting because in some respects, these games merge fighting with economics in opposite ways. In Blood Rage fights are frequent but not always beneficial, in Scythe fights are infrequent but can be hugely beneficial. Both games want to make sure you pick your battles and only fight when you should, but they do so in different ways. Scythe is a slower game, where you build gradually and walk slowly. Starting in your corner of the board with meager means, you can’t really do much for a while until you get your economy and engine going. And even then, turns are pretty short as you can only do one thing each turn – so you have to plan ahead and wait for everyone else to do their thing before you can really get a few actions chained and your faction going.
Scythe is by no means a perfect game – it’s ginormous and quirky, with lots of moving parts. It has amazing graphic design that creates an intuitive user interface that helps quickly translate those enigmatic symbols to an excruciatingly satisfying personal puzzle. At the same time, it has some funky and clanky mechanics that feel tacked on to solve a design problem – the fact you get some benefits when your neighbors do specific actions or the fact you have to know each faction’s unique way to cross a river (helpfully provided on a reference card, but feels like a weird extra layer of mechanical restriction that doesn’t make a lot of sense and is really hard to keep in mind). The game tries very hard to make you care about other players’ personal board but you really can’t spare much mental energy given what goes on yours and the complicated situation on the board. In a way, this seems like a great basis for a cooperative game because you can’t possibly quarterback when you have no clue what’s going on in another player’s puzzle.
Furthermore, unlike Blood Rage, where each player starts with the same basic abilities and specialization comes gradually from the drafting of cards – in Scythe each player starts with a radically different faction from the get-go. This is actually pretty complicated because it’s not just a special ability of your faction but each player board is different – and that’s kind of frustrating because they are different in huge ways that are not immediately obvious. And they more than nudge you in a specific direction, they really structure your economy. And that’s the danger of asymmetric powers – that they constrain your strategic decision-making by rewarding to strongly one path and forcing you to choose between your faction’s power and losing.
But not quite. Scythe is a bit more restrictive than I would have liked but its economy is so rich and variegated that once you get your engine going, you’ll be able to do pretty much whatever you want as possibilities open up for you. I was playing an agricultural faction while my neighbor got the military one, so I was stranded on my little island producing resources while he was expanding and spreading his giant mechanical war machines. But soon enough I had so many resources that I could also produce some mechs, and I was so afraid of being attacked that I bolstered my combat so much that I was in a position to attack and became quite a military threat.
And the game really shines in the way it relies on true and trusted Eurogame feel – you always want to do more than you can, and every turn you’ll be agonizing over the fact you want to do multiple things at the same time. Like other engine building games, you’ll be working towards a combo only to be torn between following through with your project and adapting to the circumstances. You’ll be tempted to do something else and not enjoy the foundation that you’ve built, and that’s a really tough and juicy decision. The game ends before you’ve done all you wanted, and it ends immediately, somewhat abruptly, when someone suddenly decides they’ve had enough and they can probably win. In our game there were only two fights, right at the turn that ended the game – where my aggressive neighbor wiped out some of his other neighbors to bring the end-game before they were ready. I was joking that he was playing Kemet while I was playing Agricola – but I think it’s a testament to the strength of the game that his battles rewards ended up evenly matched with resource accumulation as he beat me by exactly one victory point.
So, for the last time, I can’t agree with the critical review – Scythe is not just interesting but also tense. As you build your little empire, you are constantly worried that you won’t have enough time — you won’t have enough time to enjoy the engine you’ve built because the game will end, or you’ll be attacked, or you’ll be forced to change strategy by the changing circumstances. I’ll have to play it more before I can say more about balance and other issues, but for now my only complaint was that with 5 players there was quite a bit of downtime, and though the mines bridge different parts of the board – I couldn’t and didn’t really care about the things that went down on the other side of the board. Scythe is, for sure, a unique experience and though it has some clanky elements – it does so many great things that are really nowhere else to be found that it really feels like board gaming art.
World Championship Russian Roulette
After lifting the heavy weight of both Blood Rage and Scythe, the group was ready for a quicker and lighter experience. I brought out the recently released but horribly named World Championship Russian Roulette. It’s a small game about shooting your own brains in an attempt to click your guns more times than anyone else. The game has few moving parts. First, you may cheat by pocketing your bullets and other people can accuse you – which opens the door to bluffing and accusations. Second, you bid – guessing how many times you can pull your trigger without blowing your brains. Lastly, by dying or successfully accusing others you gain some action cards – powerful effects that let you look at your deck, or change someone’s die, or point your gun at the sky.
I didn’t take any pictures because it was a very quick game, but the game was both fun and funny. Matt from Board Game Replay said that this game might replace Cash and Guns for him and I tend to agree – both games do a similar thing with bluffing and pointing fake guns at each other but there’s something a lot more tense about pointing that finger gun to your own head. Sure, there’s definitely some random luck involved in the draw of action cards and you’re not going to know what to expect of them in your first couple of plays. But the game is so short you’ll usually want to just try again, and there aren’t that many of them.
Two Rooms and a Boom
Staying with Tuesday Knight Games, the evening was rounded up with their epic mass participant social deduction game – Two Rooms and a Boom (2R&B). The game was ran by the summit organizers who did a great job making it fun and accessible for people of all ages and walks of life. We played several rounds, adjusting for varying player counts each time but had over 20 people in all games. 2R&B is a chaotic game of secret identities where each player is secretly assigned to a team – half of the group is trying to keep the president away from the bomber while the other half is trying to make sure the bomber blows up the high-ranking target. It’s a mad scramble to figure out who’s who under time pressure and work with teammates to send the right people to the other room.
It’s a great game for a convention, as it really gives you an excuse to talk to many people you wouldn’t otherwise approach. After several rounds we didn’t just learn people’s names but we had fun moments to chat about later that night and the next day. The game is easy to teach, fun to play around with and ends pretty quickly. The only weakness is that it takes a bit of skill to balance the roles and match them to the temperature – finding enough roles that spice up but don’t confuse players can be a challenge. But even though there were some wrinkles, fun was had by all. I found myself, as a mime, trying to communicate valuable information about the president’s location to the only red teammate I could find. He was frustratingly uncooperative which drove me nuts until I learned he was actually a spy from the blue team. It’s not so often that you try to play charades with someone you think is trying to understand you but actually they just want you waste your energy. Very funny indeed.
Right before I left, I was able to squeeze in a couple of games of the highly praised Gen Con madness Captain Sonar. I was quite happy about it because it’s one of these games that shines with 8 players, which isn’t something I’m likely to have outside of a convention context. It’s a game that pits two games of 4 players against each other in a submarine battle that combines hidden movement, real time, and panicked team work. Your team will work together to operate a submarine that breaks down with every turn, trying to catch the opponent’s submarine and blow them up with a torpedo before they do the same to you. That’s a particularly dangerous process because if you get closer to your opponent, it’s quite likely that that will give them exactly the last piece of information that they need in order to know where you are, and blow you out of the waters.
Captain Sonar is really stressful because like many real-time games, you’re under the constant pressure of thinking through complicated problems quickly and figure out what you want to do. On the other hand, the time pressure comes from the speed of your opponent and so if they’re equally incompetent, you have a bit more breathing time to think things through. The game also stops fairly frequently as both submarines are using their sonars to figure out the other submarine’s location. The fun in the game came from the way our failed team came together by the second game to move in a semi-competent manner to both figure out where the other team and charge the systems you need to fire at them. Being the captain was enormously stressful but also highly rewarding – snaking around a fake island, then leaking the fake information to their sonar felt clever, until my ship broke down completely as I tried to get out of the corner I placed myself in by snaking around myself. Or the conversation I had with the communication officer where we jointly made the decision to erase the entire trail he’s been drawing and start from scratch because it seems like we made a mistake. It was such a tough decision, especially under time pressure! It was a great way to finish a great weekend of gaming.