[Actual Play Review] Territory Control Double Feature: Scythe (Stonemaier Games) & Rising Sun (Cool Mini Or Not)

I’m starting to get the hang of this board game business, I think – insofar as I’m starting to get a feel for what I actually like. Co-operative games will always be my preference, but if we absolutely must compete, the pure abstraction of the resource/worker placement game where everything’s different coloured cubes or discs and theme is some variant on “yer a capitalist Harry” is not for me.

I feel like I’m into a good hearty territory controller; something with the whiff of a grand strategy vidjagame such as Total War or Civilisation or Crusader Kings about it. Actually engaging in battle is optional – I like a diplomatic solution as much as the next reasonable fellow – but the theme of conquering and claiming an important patch of land speaks to the wargamer in my soul. I also appreciate actual models – they don’t have to be super-sophisticated but if you show me a cube and tell me it’s a worker I’m never going to be that interested.

Both the games I’ve tried in the last ten days, at Croydon’s Ludoquist on either side of a trip to Venice (it was superb, thanks for asking), have struck the right kind of chord in my heart. Neither is quite on Near and Far‘s level – i.e. ‘practically perfect in every way’ – but they’re both up there and they’ve helped me work some things out. They both also strike me as the sort of games it’s worth playing a lot – bedding in on and learning in greater depth than my infrequent voyages into these strange waters have afforded so far. Let’s have a natter about them.

Scythe

 

Scythe is a dieselpunk extravaganza, set in a corner of Eastern Europe that never quite was and involving several factions scrambling to control a huge factory complex and the surrounding resources. You have soldiers, you have mechs, and you have a named character leader with a backstory. Aesthetically, it talks to the Iron Kingdoms fan in me, even before you factor in that one faction (the one I played) is essentially Khador.

I shan’t bother with describing the mechanics, as Stonemaier provide an excellent summary on their site. Instead, I’m going to say that Scythe is one of those rare games I wanted to play again straight away, because it feels learnable in a way that’s sort of familiar to me, probably because of how wargamey it feels. Once the basic mechanics of collecting and using resources are down there’s an immediate sense of “OK so let’s try focusing this next”.

I do have a little beef with Scythe, though.

Firstly: it does the same “draw your playstyle at random” thing Lords of Waterdeep does. It bothers me less here, because you still get to pick your faction and so you have some control over the mechanics available. Rusviets still gon’ Rusviet – they’re still going to have their teleporting trickery and their combat bonuses for workers and their ability to bully across rivers early on. It’s only the precise economy involved – which resources you’ll need to prioritise and which actions you’ll need to select – that changes, and I think that’s more like playing an unusual scenario in a wargame.

Secondly: if you’re not paying very close attention to what everyone’s doing, someone can ‘play with themselves’, ending the game by achieving a bunch of conditions with maximum efficiency and collapsing whatever you’ve spent the last twenty minutes anticipating. I grasp that that’s the point of the game, but it’s one thing to lose because your big gambit didn’t pay off and another to lose because the game ended before your turn.

Despite this, I could see myself getting into Scythe, almost as a substitute for the wargames I don’t have the luxury of playing much these days, and as something that works more smoothly as a scales-to-multiplayer endeavour. I’m going to have a poke through the strategy articles on Start Your Meeples and see how the other factions play (I don’t think “I always play Rusviet” quite aligns with board game etiquette), and then I might venture some spending money on a base set. If nothing else, it’s more likely to see use than the 40K army I started this time last year and have done next to nothing with.

Rising Sun

Rising Sun is a CMON game, so it’s going to have minis: some quite nice plastic jobs which seem to need a level of assembly. They’re one of the things I like. I’m also quite taken with the game’s alliance mechanic: each season of play opens with the opportunity to buddy up with another player, sharing bonuses on the actions you declare and allowing you to amicably resolve conflicts over territory without anyone necessarily having to die. It’s all represented on the table with some nice little yin and yang pieces that sit together, and I think it could make quite an interesting couples’ game (with the ever present option of betrayal on the cards too). Finally, it’s refreshing free of logistics; there are concerns about bringing in currency to pay for things and support one’s endeavours on the battlefield, but there’s no mucking around collected three black cubes and two red cubes before you can get a white cube. If you want to recruit some lads you play the action that lets you recruit some lads and you will get at least some lads for your trouble.

There is some gristle in the gist though. The variable turn sequence is enjoyable – being able to choose from four actions and getting to do something fun on your ally’s turn means there’s a reasonable chance of getting to do something like the thing you wanted to do. However, it is vaguely frustrating in that IF one has constructed a scheme in one’s mind AND one has a fairly inflexible core faction ability AND the right actions refuse to come up THEN you find yourself stalling for a season. With only three seasons to play through, that can spell defeat in a manner quite unsatisfactory.

Games that mutate under my hands and change the structure of the turn don’t sit well with me; I have a strong dislike for Race for the Galaxy and its variants because I’m not good at second-guessing people and rules at the same time. More serious board game people tell me this sort of thing is ‘more strategic’: I disagree. I think it spreads the strategy out differently. I personally appreciate a firm sequence of structure and play so I can concentrate on reading and predicting the opponents’ behaviour, or a firm alliance between the actual players so I can concentrate on understanding the shifting situation.

What I’m saying is: I like my strategy distributed for depth rather than breadth. I also suspect that my level of ‘spergery means I’m always going to get a bit narky at operations that change every turn unless I’m playing something like Fluxx where there’s nothing else to think about; no map placement, no alliances, just focusing on the pure flow of rules.

That said: I’d like to play Rising Sun again. Its potential for fun kingmaking alliances and bizarre gambits outweighs the minor frustration of its inconsistent structure, I think, and it’s probably another of those games that rewards a level of mastery. We certainly found that knowing the autumn card decks in advance would have given us an idea of what sort of approaches to build into during the spring and summer. Perhaps people who are more accustomed to board game conventions than I could read ahead and guess that there might be bonuses for going all in on oni or virtues or similar? I wouldn’t know. I’m still figuring out all this stuff. Where’s the tape measures and why aren’t there dice?

4 thoughts on “[Actual Play Review] Territory Control Double Feature: Scythe (Stonemaier Games) & Rising Sun (Cool Mini Or Not)

  1. I like these reviews, possibly because I’m also a wargamer first who’s been chucked in with a bunch of board gamers by circumstance. I regret not commenting on your last one, about Near and Far, but I did read it. Hopefully I can have a go at the game some day.

    Now, two observations for discussion:

    1: There’s something odd to me about games that have amazing, detailed miniatures but aren’t war-games. It sort of reminds me of a novelty chess set for some reason.
    2: That thing that you call breadth of strategy, and the boardgamer people said was simply “more strategic”… I know what you mean and I think in a strange way the more elements like that that you have to keep in mind at once, the less it feels like a game and the more it feels like muddling along making hesitant or daring stabs in the dark, with a vague plan in mind, and hoping you come out on top. In other words, feels like real life.

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    1. Remember: no such thing as dead content here! You want to comment on an old post, YOU GO AND DO IT.

      1. I… sort of know what you mean. It’s the kind of thing that ‘classic’ board games do as a prestige/novelty thing and that a lot of ‘new’ board games eschew hard in favour of soulless cubes (never trust anyone who can only parse the board through cubes and meeples, they’ve gone Too Far, they’re eurogamers now…).

      2. Something, something, Andrew Eldritch, something something “rules he can understand, unlike his life”. I’m sure I’ve said this before – but it’s interesting that such a level of muddlement is desirable to some people. I once had a theory that the convoluted and tedious day-job-soap-opera school of roleplaying was most attractive to people who didn’t have day jobs of their own to handle and were trying for a sort of imitative validation experience. I don’t see that so much in board game folks so I’m wondering what the deal might be…

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      1. Is there anything Andrew Eldritch can’t do? He’s a rock star and a gaming sage. Amazing.
        And yes, maybe the appeal is something akin to that of reality TV (though I imagine most gamers would hate that comparison). I certainly think something like Agricola has the same relaxing, slow-living kind of feel as watching idiots going on dates/cooking food/tattooing other idiots. It’s (sort of vaguely) like experiencing real life but with precisely zero consequences.

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      2. He’s also a competition-standard fencer and fluent enough in German to have a side gig writing computer hardware columns for years on end. (Not to mention the other languages. And the programming/production chops. Bastard.)

        You’re on to something with reality TV. The sort of gentle, endless pace of it. I used to sneer at Channel 5 for doing nothing but screen Big Brother for hours on end, but then I think about all the Let’s Plays I watch and wonder if I have a leg to stand on. Let’s say it’s research and leave it at that.

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