Review – My Little Scythe

Stonemaier Games hasn’t put out a ton of games (Viticulture, Euphoria, Scythe, Between Two Cities), but they’ve put out some of the most consistently high quality games around (What’s Your Game? is also really good at this). And I’m a gamer with kids. So when Stonemaier announced that My Little Scythe was on deck for this year, I was pretty excited.

In the vein of games like Ticket to Ride First Journey and My First Stone Age, My Little Scythe takes the central concepts of well-known grown-up game (in this case Scythe) and presents it in a more simplified version for kids. However, as I lay out how the game plays, I’m not going to explicitly compare it to Scythe. If you’ve played Scythe, the similarities will be obvious. And if you haven’t played Scythe, I’m guessing you won’t care.

Here’s what you get in the box:

What's In The Box

Probably the first component you’ll notice is the seeker pieces – two per player, matching the adorable critters on the box cover.

In addition to the seekers, the components includes plastic apples and gems as resources and treasure map tokens as quest markers. Almost everything, including the board, the cards, and the cardboard tokens is very brightly colored. The one quibble I had with the component was the coloration of some of the symbols on the dice – they correspond to the six sections of the board, but the red on the dice was pretty dark and I had trouble telling the dark green and the grey faces apart (the dice themselves are chunky and bright).

On each player’s turn, they get to take one action – Move, Seek, or Make. The Move action allows each seeker to move independently, up to two spaces (or one space if carrying resources). Those pink hexes on the board are portals, so pretty much everywhere is within two moves of where you are now. The Seek action puts more resources (and a quest) out on the board (alas, the ‘Seek’ action does not involve your ‘Seekers’). And the Make action turns resources (apples, gems) into things that will help you win (pies, spells, and player board upgrades). The same exact action can’t be taken two turns in a row (there is only one action on Move, but there are different kinds of Seek and Make).

In order to win, a player has to accumulate four trophies (only one trophy can be earned per turn). There are eight ways to get trophies – getting enough friendship, getting enough pies, getting enough spells, completing two quests, delivering a big batch of gems to the center hex, delivering a big batch of apples to the center hex, upgrading your player board twice, and winning a pie fight. Trophies are not lost later, so it’s possible to, for example, get the trophy for having pies and then go use them to win a pie fight. Each player will get one Personality cards at the start of the game that will make one of the quests easier – for example, needing fewer pies or only needing to participate in (rather than win) a pie fight.

start of the game

Move is the action players will take the most often. It’s what gets the seekers to the resources and quests, how to start pie fights, and how to make deliveries (but deliveries seemed difficulty as compared to the other trophies, so I wouldn’t expect to see them much). The three versions of the Make action are powered by the apples and gems being carried by the seekers – apples turn into pies, gems turn into spells, and one of each turns into an upgraded Move or Make action.

Moving a seeker into a space occupied by an opposing seeker starts a pie fight (this makes the attacker lose one friendship). Players make a hidden selection of how many pies to throw from their stash, and whether to include a magic spell (which are all just more magically generated pies). Highest total wins, with the loser being returned to base. The loser gets a small boost for losing, but the winner (probably the player who attacked) gets to keep all of the resources the loser had. Because going below starting friendship means players can’t earn trophies, and winning a pie fight gets a trophy, pie fights are generally off limits to players who haven’t gained some friendship.

Quests have variable effects. When a seeker ends on a quest token, the player encounters a situation and gets to choose from a ‘nice’ completion of the quest, a ‘mean’ completion of the quest, or just ignoring the quest (one of the completion options must be fulfilled to count towards the trophy). Most commonly, the ‘nice’ completion involves paying resources to get friendship and the ‘mean’ version involves getting something for free but losing friendship. For example, a player might run across an apple thief. The nice outcome is feed the hungry thief, paying pies to gain friendship. The mean outcome is to help the thief by stealing an apple from another player and losing a friendship. The ‘no thanks’ option just gets an apple.

When taking the Seek action, the player will put out a gem, an apple, and quest, and then either a second gem or a second apple. The general region of the board for each new token is dictated by the dice. The player then chooses the exact space. While quests must go in an unoccupied hex, resources can be placed directly on a seeker. Of course, this is convenient when the player has  seeker in that region. But there’s also a reason to drop resources directly on other players’ seekers, because this increases friendship. Note that it isn’t really feasible to avoid taking the Seek action (especially because it can be used to generate friendship to allow for a pie fight or a ‘mean’ quest completion), although it’s more efficient to be Moving and Making as much as possible, mooching off of other players’ Seeks if you can.

 

Game end is triggered when any player gets to four trophies. Then each player who does not already have four trophies gets one more turn – and on this final turn, players are not limited to one trophy each. If more than one player ends the game with four trophies, the tiebreaker is friendship.

The play time listed on the box is 45 minutes, and the game really does play quickly. The trophies are not that far off. And, while they don’t all come in a big cascade, the end can sneak up if you aren’t paying attention, as players can go from their first to third trophy in short order (especially when quests are involved, as they not only are a win condition in and of themselves, but also generally advance towards some other win condition).

I played My Little Scythe with the family, and it went over very well with the eight-year-old (the game is listed 8+). A non-trivial part of that was down to the irredeemably cute seeker pieces and the generally vibrant color scheme (that Stonemaier dedication to component quality pays off again). The mechanic of getting friendship for placing resources in other player’s hexes worked very well – getting to give an apple to another player become double-exciting, instead of a more mechanistic view of it being a downside to earn the friendship. Indeed, although he recognized that friendship was meaningless between the trophy condition and the ‘you can’t get a trophy’ condition, the eight-year-old only ever wanted to do one thing that lost friendship – start a pie fight.

There are, however, a couple of things to keep in mind if you’re going to attempt to play My Little Scythe with kids at the younger end of the 8+ suggested age range – and I say these having played with a relatively experienced gamer of an eight-year-old. The first is pie fights. The theme of pie fights are cute and all. But you can still pie fight your opponent out of resources they’ve spent several turns collecting (and you can get a trophy in the process). This may not go over well. Yes, that means a kid might both really enjoy starting pie fights and also hate having pie fights started against them. Welcome to having kids (although, to be fair, I’ve known adult players who have the same basic outlook).

Additionally, the trophy system probably requires a little too much forward planning for the younger set. As I discussed in my recent podcast episodes on games I play with my kids, the importance of long-term planning is something you have to watch out for. Most younger kids have a limited ability to plan long-term, and so it can be an impediment when long-term planning matters a lot. Ideally, a game for little kids won’t see too much drop-off in performance if you’re only looking at this turn, or maybe this turn and next turn. My Little Scythe involves a bit more than that, because it really benefits you to think from the beginning in terms of how you’re going to get your trophies – getting a bit of Friendship, a few pies, a quest, and a couple of spells doesn’t get you very far. So be prepared to provide a little guidance, or risk having the little kid end the game with only 1 trophy (luckily, because it becomes pretty clear to the grownups that the game is about to end, and you can get a couple of trophies on the final turn, just giving some firm guidance on the last couple of turns can change that 1 trophy into 3 pretty easily, thus avoiding a sadness-inducing blowout).

Of course, the flipside of that last aspect is the observation that for the grownups there is actual planning to be done in My Little Scythe, if you want to. For example, it can pay to time Seek actions when opponents have just taken Move actions, so that you get the first crack at picking up resources/quests you place. And recognizing in advance which trophies to go for is handy (although be willing to change based on quests). The trophies did not feel like they were created equal, so I would anticipate almost always going for the quest and upgrade trophies.

Add it all up, and I expect My Little Scythe to play really well for a lot of families. The cute critters, bright pieces, friendship mechanics, and appealing gameplay made My Little Scythe an instant hit for our kids.

 

Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.

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