Scythe: Digital Edition PC Beta Impressions

By Matt Thrower 25 Apr 2018 0

The upcoming adaptation of Scythe must be the hottest thing in digital board games right now. So, it's a pleasant surprise to find that the studio, The Knights of Unity, have it up for a free beta test until 2nd May via Steam. We took it for a spin, to see how it was shaping up.

Fair warning, the very first impression is not promising: a modal box prompting you to login for online play. If, like me, you prefer to start with the solo version all you have to do is click the cross in the top right. Then you'll get a more standard game-start screen, and things begin to improve.

ScytheBeta1

There's a series of tutorials which take the form of quick missions to guide you through the game rules. Each is solid as a stand-alone introduction. The trouble is that they don't join up into a coherent experience and will likely leave newcomers with only a vague idea of how to play. If you want to be competitive, you'll still need to read the rules. There's a link included in the app, which opens a pdf copy from Dropbox.

Reading and understanding them, though, will not teach you how to put them into practice. Scythe is one of those games with lots of tiny moving cogs, and it's your job to try and get them to turn in unison as best you can.

A lot of thought seems to have gone into how to make the UI of this fairly complex game as accessible as possible. There are highlights and flowcharts and reminders galore to keep you informed of what's going on. But it's a tough ask, and there are still hills to climb in this beta. Although the core game flow is very clear, more occasional actions are far more obtuse. It's easy to make mistakes.

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That makes the lack of an undo button even more of a glaring omission. I know this is something of a divisive issue. But if ever there's a game that needs an undo button, it's Scythe. I suspect we'll get one in the final release, but in this beta, it's a frustrating gap.

Slowly, however, you'll learn how it works. And then it'll be time to learn a different lesson about Scythe. Namely, that knowing how to play and knowing how to play well are very different things. Don’t worry, the digital version will teach you that soon enough.

Right now, there's a limited selection of factions available for play, but the AI on most of them is pretty good. They won't challenge the best players, but they'll make a handy mess of new ones. There's a raft of stats to help you keep tabs on their game state as well as yours. And the game is very good at showing you what they're doing, and when. After a few games you may want to speed up those animations, though: another useful feature that's missing.

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Presentation is very good. Lots of the wonderful artwork that was key to the original's success remains in the game, reproduced in glorious high definition. The studio has replaced most of the plain wooden pieces and tokens with more visually pleasing alternatives. The Mech models in particular look excellent, glowing with soft lights. Sound, by contrast, is pretty awful, with a repetitive soundtrack and a very limited palette of effects.

Online play promises plenty of features, but it proved almost impossible to use in this beta. Connections seemed buggy or maybe just very, very slow. Perhaps this is the result of too many people logging on to try it out: that may be part of the purpose of the beta. Hopefully it will help them to iron out the issues and deliver on the promise of eventual cross-platform play via Asmodee accounts.

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That's okay, though. You can still enjoy yourself against the bots. And in doing so, I discovered something interesting. I'd played real-life Scythe a couple of times after release, and I didn't really get it. It seemed too confusing, too long, with too many moving parts to bother getting to grips with. There are so many other games to play, I couldn't see why I should lavish the required attention on this one.

Now, though, I can play a game in a half hour. I can have a tooltip, or a tutorial remind me of a rule I've forgotten. And after a few times round, I'm beginning to understand why the game is so highly rated. It's an ever-shifting puzzle with a multitude of parts and paths that your opponents are forever pushing around. Trying to get them to line up to your advantage is addictive and satisfying. Scythe: Digital Edition shortens the feedback loop, lets you have another crack at solving it in record time. If the studio can fine-tune the diesel engine behind the game, it could be a huge winner.

Scythe: Digital Edition is due out on Steam sometime in Q2 2018. You can access the beta now until May 2nd, 2018 by signing up for a free Asmodee account via their website.

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