There is a bleak beauty that runs throughout the artwork in Scythe. Artist Jakub Rozalski does an amazing job of world building in his images of hulking mechs lumbering in the distance as poor farmers toil in the fields in the foreground. It’s an alternate history where black smoke chugs from engines that constantly remind the people they are at war. An age of struggle, hardship, and brutality. As I dug deeper into this world, it was not hard for my mind to construct the sort of propaganda posters that covered the streets during the 1920s and into the Second World War. I could see the bold lines and slogans – “First to the Factory” or “Mechs, Metal, and Manpower. Support the war effort” – starting to fade and tear in the harsh eastern European alleyways. And as I dreamed of campaigns attempting to make Wojtek the bear a symbol for the nation, I thought about how propaganda wasn’t just designed to rally public support. Sometimes it was an attempt to stem the tide of diminished moral before a nation gave in under the weight of it. Sometimes you had fascist dictators telling the people their lives may be hard, but at least the trains ran on time. Then, and now, that’s just not enough. You may be able to build the most efficient engine the world of Scythe had ever seen, but if you disregard your people, you will end with nothing.
One of the more infamous pieces of Propaganda from World War 2 was Mussolini’s attempt to convince his people, and the rest of the world, that Italian efficiency made them superior to other nations. True, he may have removed freedoms, directly or indirectly caused the deaths of countless countrymen, but one thing you had to give to Mussolini – he made the trains run on time. It didn’t matter that most of the improvements that had actually been made to the rail system had been made before he came into power. That was still his pitch. “You can trust me. I’m the reason this is starting to work again. I know things are hard, but look how far we’ve come.” It’s this feeling that can wind its way through the workings of a game of Scythe, as it is a game rooted in building a network of farms and workers to provide necessary materials. With a severely limited list of actions per turn, you are crawling your way across the map to get what you need. You send your people to the fields to get resources. You use resources to make mechs. Your mechs then allow your workers to travel farther so that they can get more resources. But you’ll need to make more people to ensure those resources are available to you. Basics of engine building. But this game also reminds players that even the most efficient engines need to be maintained properly or they’ll fail. You can push your people to the breaking point, and it’ll work for a while. You may even be the first to get a mech into the Factory at the center of the board to claim a powerful advantage. But if you put all your people in the fields, how will you bolster an army? If you press-gang every villager you see into military service or ransack every village for the war effort, eventually, there won’t be any resources to build with or people to do the building. And at the end of it all, no one will be with you at all.
The first time I played Scythe, I thought I had the game locked down. I had a decent sized section of the board. Had farmers on every available resource types so that I wanted for nothing. I even had my mechs tactically positioned to provide a defensive perimeter against any would-be attackers. But it came at a cost. Every time I discovered one of the game’s encounter cards, I chose the option that gave me resources or military strength to repel invaders. All the while, one of the players on the other side of the board took the time to improve his popularity with the people. My engine moved onward. I crushed the opposition. I sent my mechs into the fields and made my enemies’ people flee before me. It assured my supply chain but lowered my appeal. At the time, I thought nothing of it. I was checking off goals like wildfire. There was no way I couldn’t win. But my opponent continued his place as the voice of the people.
At the end of the game, the money was counted – and thus the points. I was confident in my position. I had made a powerful, efficient engine. An economic powerhouse. An impressive feat for my first encounter with the game, I assured myself. And then the bonuses set in. The bonus that said the amount of money you receive from any given goal is multiplied based on where you are on the popularity chart. The territory of the player who had been currying favor with the people all night wasn’t as impressive as mine – but he’d made it with the people’s support. For every bit of coin I brought in, he’d bring in two or even three. I didn’t even stand a chance. There was no great empire. No great nation of people holding aloft Wojtek flags and shouting my praises. I had become the tyrant. My engine was only as good as those running it, but I had tossed all of them into the fires to fuel my war machine. When my regime came to an end, there was no one left to remember it.