Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Review: 51st State

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I'm also a fan of Race for the Galaxy (although I burned out of the game after playing the robot challenge) and enjoy many games with a post-apocalyptic setting, even if I'm not wearing a Pip-Boy during it.


The Overview:


The box cover. It is the exact same size as the Race for the Galaxy box, which is nice because it means I won't have to rearrange my shelves when I replace my copy of RftG for this. 



What's inside the box. As you can see, it's not the most effective use of space. 



51st State is set in the Neuroshima world, which is a Polish RPG set in a post-apocalyptic America. This is the same world setting as the game Neuroshima Hex!. Anyhow, the game is a card game where each player takes control of one of four factions and is trying to build their own country from the ruins of the world around them by using the cards from their hand in one of several ways. Each faction has its own strength in getting cards out, but once the mid-game it hit, an efficient enough engine can overcome any faction's weakness. The game ends when one player reaches at least 30 Victory Points, and whoever ends with the most points has created the strongest new civilization and wins.

The game is for 2-4 players and plays in about 60-90 minutes. Fewer players and more experienced players puts you on the lower end of the time scale, while a 4 player game will usually come in closer to 90 minutes to an upwards of 120 minutes for inexperienced players.

I'm going to get rather deep in describing the game play, so feel free to skip to the next section if you want to skip over the rules rehash.

The game set up begins with each player drawing one of the four starting factions. Each faction has four Faction Tokens, a Base Card (which tells your starting resources for each turn: 3 workers + 1 kind of resource) and its own set of three Contact Cards, which are a means to get other cards into play.



Merchants Guild set up: As you see on their Base Card (on the right), they start each turn with 3 Workers and 1 Fuel Resource. Their Contact Cards (on the left) show the three ways to bring cards from their hand into play. Since they begin with 1 Fuel token each turn, it is easiest for them to use the Caravan Contact.



Mutants Union set up: They start each turn with 3 Workers and 1 Weapons Resource. As you can see by their Contact Cards, it is easiest for them to use their Mutants Contact to conquer a location. 


One of the Faction tokens is placed on the Victory Point Track for each player and each player is dealt four cards from the deck. Play is ready to begin, and each turn breaks down into the following five Phases:

1. LOOKOUT PHASE: During this phase, each player gains cards to add to their hand. Five cards are dealt face up, and then each player takes turns selecting one of the cards for their hand. Depending on the number of players, more cards are added to the face-ups as some are drawn, adding to the choices to choose from as some cards are taken away. This also makes it hurt a little less if your card draft comes later in the turn. After each player has drawn two cards from face-up cards revealed during the Lookout Phase, they each receive one additional card to their hand drawn from the deck. A player can only have 10 cards in his hand during the Lookout Phase, and must immediately discard any further cards drawn during this phase if they go over that limit. There are three different kinds of cards in the deck:



Contact Card. 


Contact Cards are one-time use cards, which may or may not cost a Resource to use. This one does not cost a Resource and playing it allows you to take a card from your hand as an Agreement (since it is a blue Cooperation Card).



Leader Card.


You may have one Leader in play at a time. Leaders generally give you a few Resources (in this case, two Fuel tokens) and a means of gaining Victory Points (in this case, you gain a Victory Point for every future Fuel type card you play).



Location Card. 


Most of the cards in the deck are Location Cards. The two card icons in the upper left of the picture show the card type, which is used when Redeveloping a Location. The arrow to the right of the picture tells you the card's Distance. When you play a Location card, your Contact Card must be of at least this number of higher (Distances range from 1 to 3). The Scrap icon (looks like a gear) shows that if this card is played as a Location, it gives the player 1 Scrap per turn during the Production Phase. The blue bland at the bottom shows that it produces 1 Scrap per turn during Production if played as an Agreement. The red band at the top shows that if it is taken as a Conquest, it can be discarded for 2 Scrap tokens, but it is a one-time use as a Conquest.

2. PRODUCTION PHASE: Here players produce Resources and other things as per their played cards. Each Base Card, for example, produces 3 Workers and 1 specific Resource of one type (Scrap, Fuel, Weapons and Building Materials). However, other cards may also produce more Resources or Workers, or Contact Tokens (which work like one-shot use Contact Cards), or some produce Victory Point tokens. During the first turn, only 3 Workers and 1 Resource type will be produced, but once cards are played, more resources and assets can be produced. Cards are played in the next phase and I will go more into that then. However, this is where those cards that produce things will start to pay out. Cards played as Locations that produce, will produce during this phase. Cards played as Agreements will produce during this phase. Cards played as Spoils can be discarded for their resources during this phase.

3. ACTION PHASE: Starting with the first player each player takes one action, then passes play to the left. This continues until every player has passed their actions. Each player can take the following actions on their turn:

• Conquer a Location: This lets you conquer a card and place it under your Base as a Conquest with the red band showing. Conquests can be "cashed in" during a Production Phase and usually give a lot of Resources, but it is a one-time use. Conquests are performed with the red Contact Cards and Tokens.
• Establish a Cooperation: This lets you place a card as an Agreement under your base (with the blue band showing). Agreements provide the Resources or Assets listed on them to the player during each Production Phase. However, your Base Card can only have three cards attached to it, so you may want to choose your Agreements wisely. Cooperations are performed with blue Contact Cards and Tokens.
• Incorporation: This lets you place a card next to your area as a Location. Cards used as Locations can vary in ability. Some produce Resources or Assets during Production, some can be used as Actions (costing Workers) to use whatever ability the Location has and some simply provide an ongoing trait for the player. Incorporations are performed with the beige Contact Cards and Tokens.
• Redevelopment: This action allows a player to expend a Building Material Resource in order to "upgrade" one of their locations. The player discards the token and chooses a Location already in play in their area, and may replace it with another card from their hand (provided that the card types match). This action ignores the Distance of the new card, and since Locations are each worth Victory Points, you get a Victory Point token for the location you just discarded.
• Play or Exchange a Leader: Leader cards can be played as an Action. They are 0 Distance Cards and do not require resources to play. However, in order to replace a Leader with a new one from your hand, you need to discard one Weapon token (presumably to arm the coup) to replace them. Like Redeveloping Locations, you place a Victory Point token on your Base Card for your discarded Leader, so you still get points for having had them in play.
• Discard Two Cards and Draw One New Card: This is fairly self-explanatory.
• Send a Worker to Work at a Location: Certain Locations that you may have in play may have performable actions on them. In order to take the action, you must spend Workers on the Location. A Location's action can be used a second time, but it costs one additional Worker to perform it a second time (for a total of 2 Workers for most Locations).
• Send a Worker to an Opponent's Location: Certain Locations played can be used by opponents and they can perform the action on that Location Card. You can perform the action on the card, but your opponent gets to use the Worker for themselves later in the turn.
• Send Two Workers for One Resource: Simply, you discard two Workers and take and one Resource token of your choice. This is often in instrumental action early before your cards are producing useful Resources.

4. COUNT VICTORY POINTS PHASE: Here each player counts their Victory Points. Unlike most game with a scoring track, points are not added from turn to turn, but rather recalculated each turn. Anyhow, each Leader or Location that you have in play is worth 1 VP. Certain cards or actions generate VP tokens, so their values are added to your score. Each card can only generate 3 VP tokens on it, however (except your Base Card), so certain cards will eventually wear out their usefulness and you may want to consider Redeveloping them since the tokens on the redeveloped card will move to your Base Card, freeing up the new location to possibly gain new VP tokens. If any player has reached 30 or more Victory Points then the game ends with whoever has the highest total. If no one has reached 30, play continues.

5. CLEAN-UP PHASE: Here all players discard their unused tokens. You cannot carry over Resources from turn to turn except with only a few Locations that allow you to hold tokens. So there is no incentive to hoard resources from one turn to the next. If you can use it, you might as well try to use it.


The Theme:

Now I've never played the Neuroshima RPG. And, frankly, a Polish RPG set in America seems a little odd to me. However, the actual physical location doesn't really matter much (other than one of the factions is New York). I cannot attest to how well it represents portions of the RPG, but the card theme does carry a post-apocalyptic flavor to it.

Each faction plays differently, so the Merchant player will be more likely to Cooperate with locations while the Mutant player will be more likely to attack and conquer locations... at least until a thriving engine is built in their growing civilization.

What it comes down to is that 51st State is an engine-building card game. You don't really get a deep sense of the theme from the gameplay itself, but the cards at least set up a "realistic" narrative. For example, the Merchants send a Caravan to create a Cooperative Agreement with the guys in the Workshop, while New York builds a Railway to Incorporate the Old Depot as one of its permanent Locations, as the Mutant Union sends its well-armed Mutants to Conquer Bunker to cash in on its rich Resources then discard it as a useless husk. The narrative is there, but the gameplay itself is not dependent upon building the narrative.


Learning the Game:

The game's rules are presented in a full color, 12 page 6.5" x 9.25" rulebook. It goes into very good detail and breaks down cards and actions in their own full sections. The game itself is fairly simple to learn and the rules really do write everything out fairly well. Though it does seem common to miss a rule or two in your first play despite it being written out there.

Once the rules are down, strategy, especially the differences from Faction to Faction will take longer to fully grasp. The only downside to learning the game is that there is a nice player-aid that was included as a bonus at Essen. This should have been included in the box (my assumption is that this was a production issue, because a player aid seems like an odd freebie for Essen release). However, it is available as a PDF download on BGG.


The Components:


Close-up of the New York Faction Base Card. 



A couple of Location cards showing off the beautiful artwork on them. 




 Tokens used in the game. 




Victory Point Track annoyingly placed on the back of the box.




Appalachian Federation set-up during a mid-game play. 



The components are pretty much just cards and tokens. The cards are of a decent stock and the illustrations on them are beautiful. The tokens are standard cardboard punch-out size and work well for what they are needed for.

What is notable, however, is what is missing.

First of all, the production run was missing some 2-Distance Contact tokens. This is annoying, but the game is still playable. However, the number of tokens in the game is too tight. For example, more Worker tokens could be used. It doesn't make the game unplayable, but it does add a bit of annoyance as you need to shuffle around tokens on the cards to replace them. There is a fix pack in production, but it leaves people who ordered it through a third party overseas vendor at a little bit of a loss.

Another component issue that I have is the Victory Point Track being on the back of the box. Since VPs are totaled each turn, and not added, the VP Track is only really used to gauge other player's relative positions. However, it really should have been printed on a board and included in the box.

And, also, as I mentioned before, there should be four player aids in the box, especially for a game that is this icon-dependent.

Overall, the short supply of tokens makes some aspects a little annoying, but ultimately, it is still fully playable as it is.


Playing the Game:

Game play is relatively easy to learn. Even the icons used are pretty intuitive and are learned quickly, with the only exception being the icons used to draw different cards at the end of the Lookout Phase. However, I would still highly suggest downloading the player aid PDF from BGG to help play along in those early games.

Similarly to Race for the Galaxy, some players will be turned off by the idea of "multiplayer solitaire", which is a factor in the game. However, the open drafting and the fact that you can use some of the other player's locations allows for a bit more interaction than vanilla RftG out of the box. There are also a couple of Locations which can allow a player to steal Resource tokens from another player.

The game, ultimately, is about building the most efficient engine the quickest. If that appeals to you in cards games (such as Dominion and Race for the Galaxy), or at least doesn't turn you off, then you will probably not mind it here.

How to incorporate cards to your play area becomes the real strategy. Sometimes it is more beneficial to Conquer a card for a big one-time pay off. Sometimes it is best for the long-term Agreement to get the Resources without allowing other players to use it as a Location. And some cards are frankly most optimal as Locations to maximize their benefits. But the options for each card's play really makes the game interesting and gives the player so many options. It is the crux of the game and watching your faction's engine build into a great production center really is the thrill and appeal of this game.

One thing to note, however, is that by adding a lot of Locations to your play area, the game can creep up to be an unexpected table hog. It isn't too terrible, but it definitely can be a factor in three or four player games if you have a smaller table.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2 to 4 players and it is fully playable with no changes to the rules for any of those numbers other than adding cards to draft in the Lookout Phase. In fact, I have enjoyed playing the game equally with any number of players since the strategy does not really change that much; you just need to watch out for more people possibly overcoming your engine.

Since it does have that "multiplayer solitaire" aspect to the game, there really isn't any way to "gang up" on the leader, so more players does not really impede any planning either. Adding players adds a bit of downtime, but that is really only a factor with newer players who will invariably take more time planning out their strategies and how to maximize their actions each turn. And that is something to consider: those prone to analysis paralysis can very easily slow the game down to a halt as they try to weed through all of the possible actions to playing each card to come up with the optimal play each turn.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. The more she likes a game, the more likely I'll see it in our rotation (without having to first build up my gaming capital by playing a bunch of games she prefers first). That being said, I didn't think that the theme would really appeal to my wife (and it didn't). However, as is often the case, she ended up being a very shrewd and calculating player. She enjoys games that have more theme than engine building, but she is often quite calculatingly efficient at building her engines in these games.

After a couple of plays and getting the rules down, she's somewhere on the gauge between tolerating and liking the game, though probably slightly closer to liking than just tolerating. However, the fact that the game is playable with two and doesn't take too long, makes it a perfect game for our weeknight game rotation, so I'm sure that it'll get a fair amount of two-player play.


The Pros:

*A great, engaging card game that comes in around the 90-minute mark.
*While not hugely thematic in feel of play, the game builds a fair narrative of your actions.
*A good engine building game.
*Easier to learn than RftG.
*Icons used are a bit more intuitive than that of RftG.
*There is a lot of variety in the way that each card can be played, creating a lot of strategic options.
*Beautiful artwork on the cards.
*Four factions are each balanced and play to different strengths, creating good asymmetrical balance.
*Game is easily set up for expansions.


The Cons:

*Some may be turned off by the multiplayer solitaire feeling.
*Missing a couple of tokens completely and on the short supply on some of the others.
*A number of icons to learn.
*No player aid in the box.
*Can sneak in and become a table hog with a lot of Locations played.
*Each Location being playable in three ways really gives those prone to AP a lot of time to pause and study each card and can make that last turn point run a long, drawn-out process of maximizing cards.


Overall:

51st State is a game that I knew that I had to have. I am a huge fan of Ignacy Trzewiczek's Stronghold and I was really interested to see what his next game design would hold. It has not failed to engage and impress me. It is a shame that a few production problems have marred the game from being the biggest RftG killer right from its first production. However, the gameplay here is fully engaging and there is a lot of strategic depth to playing the factions efficiently and working off of their starting strengths. There is no loss in gameplay from playing with 2 players or playing with 3 or 4. The factions are asymmetrically balanced and the options that each card presents offer a lot of options and a lot of variety in replayability, and this is not even mentioning how expandable the game stands to be for the future. This is easily one of my favorite games to have played in 2010 (even if it was a bit of a chore to get it into my collection finally). I am eagerly looking forward to Ignacy's next game, but not before he puts together an expansion or two for this game first.


9/10

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