Review – Scythe: The Rise of Fenris

The Rise of Fenris is the third component of the ‘expansion trilogy’ for Scythe, the highly successful and highly-regarded strategy game from Stonemaier Games (part of a trio of amazing games from 2016, along with Terraforming Mars and Mansions of Madness). Rise of Fenris serves two functions as an expansion – it is a campaign and also a plethora of modules (including a cooperative mode). Stonemaier identifies almost all of the details of the expansion as spoilers, so most of this review will go below the spoiler bar. These are mostly mechanical spoilers – some of the mechanics reveal something about the plot of the campaign, but many times the spoiler is a mechanical twist that arises at some point (there’s always a story element there, but there’s no need to spoil the story for most of these).

The spoiler-free basics are that Rise of Fenris provides an eight-game, story-driven campaign. As noted above, mechanical adjustments will be made over these eight games, sometimes for a single game and sometimes for the remainder of the campaign. This is not a legacy game, but there are both mystery punchouts and mystery boxes to be unlocked over the course of the campaign. The winner of the eighth game is the winner of the campaign, so anyone can theoretically win the campaign. But there are ways that performance during the earlier games accumulates to a player’s benefit in later games and in the scoring for the eighth game. So, even though anyone can still win the final game, long-term performance is still highly relevant. New players can be added or dropped midstream without any real fuss, although this is unsurprisingly unsatisfying. There are the usual Stonemaier Automa solo rules for the entire campaign (I don’t play board games solo, so I have no personal opinions on the effectiveness of these rules). Note that significant chunks of Rise of Fenris are not compatible with the Wind Gambit expansion.

My spoiler-free take is that Rise of Fenris presents a solid campaign – it varies things up, there’s the usual gorgeous art and a lot of nifty background (pages and pages of it). Personally, I’m interested in the ambiance of Scythe more than the particular story, and it’s kind of unclear what role the players actually have in the campaign’s story, so for me it wasn’t amazing. But still solid. For me the most noteworthy part of the expansion is simply the introduction of all of the modules. A few of them are things I would probably only use during the campaign, but most of them are very useful as fun ways to add variety to all sorts of games. Some of the modules don’t really add any complexity, and most of the rest only add a little. That’s great for a big expansion (too many expansions lose value because they bog the game down with excess complexity). And what complexity Rise of Fenris does add should be readily handled by the audience of this expansion, which seeks added variety over multiple plays.

I would recommend Rise of Fenris to anyone who is a fan of Scythe. The game was already very replayable, and Rise of Fenris extends that by adding a lot of high-quality variety.

Below be spoilers!

OK, anything down here might be a spoiler. Mostly mechanical, but bits about the story will come through.

There are thirteen modules included in Rise of Fenris (some compatible with each other, some not), including a coop mode and a way to add Automa bots to a multiplayer game (I generally can’t stand ‘dummy players’ so I did not test out this final module). The most noteworthy modules fall into three categories – new factions, new triumph tracks, and mods.

Rise of Fenris introduces two new factions, Vesna and Fenris itself. Neither faction has its own home base on the board, but instead grabs one of the unused positions at the start of the game. Vesna and her cybernetic canine sidekick are about varied play. Two of her mech abilities (riverwalk and speed) are always available, but she starts the game with four mech ability tiles (out of almost 20) to place in the remaining two spots (or cover up one of the two printed abilities). She also starts with three factory cards – but all factory cards are one-shots for her. Fenris is led by Rasputin and has mech abilities like “horrify,” “death ray,” and “fanatical” – just in case you were wondering if they were completely and totally the bad guys. Fenris is visually striking, as its giant tin-can mechs tower over everything else in the game. Fenris uses influence to enhance its movement and punish the movement of others. The influence tokens are worth negative victory points, so Fenris needs to get them out of its personal supply. Whenever Rasputin moves, he drops an influence token in that territory and in any unoccupied territory on the board. The influence tokens do not impede Fenris’s movement, but enemy units moving into an influence territory must stop and pick up the influence token. One of the Fenris mech abilities allows them to ‘teleport’ anywhere on the map with an influence token (although Fenris has to pick the token back up). Both of the new factions add interesting new ways to play, and I would include them in any non-teaching game of Scythe.

Rise of Fenris also includes three ways to change up the triumph track. There are war and peace tracks that replace the entire standard track. The war track reduces the number of stars that can be gained from building things, and eliminates stars for workers and popularity, while ramping up the combat-related stars. Conversely, the peace track eliminates combat-related stars and rewards more peaceful activities. They succeed at significantly change the general playstyle – you’re going to need to fight in a war game and there’s almost no attacking in a peace game. A third option is triumph tiles, which provide 10 randomized triumph objectives each game. These modules are obviously incompatible, but each achieves its objectives well, providing satisfaction for bloodthirsty players, peaceniks, or those who just want to change it up. Within the realm of repeat play, I would be inclined to consistently use the triumph tiles to keep things varied and interesting.

There are also two types of “mod” available – mech mods and infrastructure mods. When playing with mech mods, each player gets a random selection of tokens that they may use to replace some of their usual mech abilities. Infrastructure mods are flat-out powerups, such as the ability to perform an action for free once per game. Except infrastructure mods to noticeably accelerate the game. Mech mods are all right – they’re interesting, and changing out the mechs move has a real impact, but they aren’t super-exciting and they make players do some real long-range analysis at the very start of the game. Infrastructure mods, on the other hand, are pretty much all upside (unless you just prefer the game slower). They’re exciting and they barely add complexity. I would use mech mods, but not all the time. I would use infrastructure mods pretty much all the time.

The other four modules come in pairs. First, there are alliances and rivals. Rivals encourages player combat by letting you call your shots against other players at the start of the game and then earning stars for winning combat against said players. Alliances allows players to grant each other abilities (usually a version of the faction ability) and cash, but then effectively precludes them from attacking each other for the rest of the game. Alliances are valuable, providing some real juice to the two factions involved. However, that doesn’t mean everything will be copasetic – the fact that your ally can’t attack you without suffering a big penalty means you can potentially use your pieces to block their access to parts of the board. Rivals mostly works when you’re using the war track, or if you generally just want everything to be bloodthirsty. Alliances, on the other hand, isn’t particularly linked to the peace track. It’s value can depend on preferred playstyle. There’s little point to them if your group won’t want to make alliances for fear of giving other players an ability or because players too aggressively try to use the alliance to hurt their allies. But when formed early and often they can, like infrastructure tiles, let players feel cool by combining two faction abilities and speed things up a bit.

The second loose pair is Tesla and Mad Tesla. Both of these involve the scientist appearing as an NPC. Normal Tesla helps out whoever earns him (by completing encounters) while Mad Tesla goes around and gets in fights. Normal Tesla can be unbalancing and (as you might guess by now) I’m not enamored of having an NPC piece randomly wandering around messing things up. In the context of the campaign, they serve a story function. Outside of the campaign, they aren’t something I would want to play with, although Tesla’s miniature is cool.

The coop mode is known as Desolation. The Desolation enemy faction (which should be, but is not required to be, Fenris) starts out surrounding the factory. One third of the way into an eighteen-turn timer, the Desolation faction moves out and starts attacking. The players win by placing enough triumph stars (using the individual triumph tiles described above, including several unique ones for the coop mode) before the timer runs out or the Desolation faction gets enough combat wins. Alternatively, the players can go full aggression and just wipe out the Desolation faction. I’ll admit that a cooperative mode was not a thing that is really needed for Scythe, but Desolation works well and provides yet more play variety.

Probably the only ‘story spoiler’ that isn’t tied to a new mechanic is that I do wish your faction changed up more often, or not at all. You’re going to be the same faction multiple games in a row, and that actually works against the variety that the campaign otherwise introduces. At the same time, there are points where you can just change factions during the course of the campaign (and are likely to, given that new factions are introduced). The fact that you can change at all muddies the thematic waters of the campaign. If I, the player, am not the faction leader or the faction as a whole then who exactly am I in this story? I felt like the middle road of changing factions sometimes, but not always, made for a middle road that neither promoted story coherency nor produced as much gameplay variety as I wanted.

Overall, Rise of Fenris produces a lot of valuable options. In repeated-play situations – which is what expansions like this are for, after all – I would probably use or make available four modules in every game (infrastructure mods, one of the triumph mods, and both new factions) and sometimes use another two (alliances and mech mods). With the option for cooperative play thrown in, that’s a lot of additional high-quality variety that’s added to Scythe.

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