Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review: Wok Star

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 also enjoy co-op and real-time games, even when those two are combined. Finally, I'm not really a fan of most Chinese food (though I can wield chopsticks with fairly good skill), but I'll happily join folks at Chinese restaurants and fill up on fried noodles, white rice and fortune cookies.


The Overview:


The box cover artwork. However, the box is not actually square. It is 6.125" x 9.125" x 1.75". 



What's inside the (2nd edition) box. 



Wok Star is a cooperative real-time game where the players work together to prepare ingredients to serve Chinese dishes to awaiting customers. At the end of each round, players receive money for each customer that they successfully served in time and that money can then be spent to improve the restaurant or purchase new menu items that customers may purchase. At the end of the sixth round, players need to earn enough money to pay back the loan on their business.

The game is for 1-4 players and plays in about an hour, although failure could result in the game ending earlier. The number of players does not really increase or decrease the time of play, other than possibly adding a little debate between turns on what to do with the money.

The game has three scaling difficulty settings and once one is chosen, set up begins.

Each player begins with 3 six-sided dice of a specific color and every player begins with one recipe for the restaurant. The starting recipes are for low-ingredient, low-paying recipes. Each recipe has 4 customer cards associated with it. The customer cards for each of the active recipes are shuffled together and then a few cards (depending on the number of players) are taken out of the deck to create the "Potential Customer Deck". The remaining cards make up the regular Customer Deck. Since each recipe has 4 Customer Cards associated with it, this ensures that the customers coming into the restaurant will be seeking the dishes that the players have the recipes for. It also means that (at least for the first turn), you are not sure how many of the customers for your recipe will be in the Customer Deck. All four may be in there, or perhaps fewer. This makes planning for that fist turn a bit tricky. Two random Event Cards are drawn and shuffled into the Customer Deck. They will be resolved as they are drawn during gameplay.

Anyhow, each recipe also has a number of ingredients needed to create it. The tokens for each ingredient needed are taken out and placed on the game board, which tracks the available number of each ingredient. For example, if you have the recipe for "Wonton Soup", it requires the ingredients "Chicken Broth" and "Eggroll Wraps". The Broth and Wraps ingredient tokens need to be placed on the game board. Each player also receives a Preparation Card in front of them for each ingredient in their recipes. The Preparation Card is used to gain more ingredients during the game, and each Preparation Card can be Upgraded during the course of the game, allowing more ingredients to be received with each use.



Wonton Soup Recipe Card. It shows that it requires Chicken Broth and Eggroll Wraps to serve it. 


Depending on the difficulty setting of the game, each player may take a number of Bonuses at the start of the game. Each Bonus can be used to either Upgrade one Preparation Card in front of a player or to allow the player to take an additional die.

Finally, each player is dealt a Family Character Card, which gives them a one-time use special ability that will be available to them in the game. Gameplay then begins and runs through a total of six rounds (considered to be weeks in the game). Each round has the following Phases:

ACTION PHASE: This is the meat of the game and also the most hectic portion of the game. The first 20-second sand timer is flipped over. The first Customer Card is flipped over, showing what recipe needs to be served first. Each player then rolls all of their dice and the chaos begins.

A number of things can happen at once, and each is done in real-time. First of all, if a player wants to get more ingredients, they can "spend dice" to get more ingredients. Dice rolled are communal, so I can spend the dice rolled by the other players and they can spend mine. Each ingredient's Preparation Card gives you three ways to get more of the ingredient. For example, the Eggs Preparation Card lets you spend any die to get one Egg ingredient, spend a die that rolled a 2 to get two Egg ingredients or spend two dice with even numbers rolled on them for three Egg ingredients. The Upgraded version of the card lets you get more ingredients, so any die gets you 2 Eggs, a die with a rolled 2 on it gets you 3 Eggs and two dice with even numbers get you 5 Eggs.



Egg Preparation Card. 


Upgraded Egg Preparation Card. 



Also, while this is happening, the current Customer Card needs to be served. This is done by a player expending all of the required ingredients. For example, Wonton Soup, which requires the ingredients of Chicken Broth and Eggroll Wrap, would require the players to deduct one from the Broth and Wrap ingredient totals to serve it. If the Customer is served before the timer runs out, then the player with the Recipe takes the card and places it face-up in their pile. If the timer has run out, but the players still spend the ingredients to serve the Customer, then the card is taken, but put in your pile face-down. Players may opt to "Turn Away" a customer if they either cannot or choose not to spend the ingredients to serve a customer. They are placed in the "Bad Publicity" pile. If too many cards end up in that pile, the game ends with the players losing.

As soon as one Customer is resolved, then Customer Card is flipped over and needs to be resolved. There is a second 20-second sand timer, so you do not get to wait until the first timer has run out before moving onto the next Customer. Any Event Cards drawn from the Customer Deck are resolved as they are drawn and then removed from the deck.

This Phase continues until the last Customer Card is resolved. Any dice not yet spent for ingredients may be spent at this time before moving onto the next phase.

ACCOUNTING PHASE: The real-time aspect is over for the moment, and players now take the time to collect their dice again. If any player has more face-up served Customers in front of them than they have dice, they get enough dice to make up the difference. For example, if you have three dice in your pool, but have five face-up served Customers this round, then you get two more dice to bring your total to five. Each player also then adds money to the restaurant's money track for each face-up served Customer they have in their pile. Each Customer pays from 2-5 dollars, based on the Recipe was required to serve them. Generally, smaller recipes that only require 2 ingredients pay $2, while a Recipe such as General Tso's, which requires four ingredients, pays $5 per face-up Customer served.

If no Customers were "Turned Away", then a random card from the Potential Customers Deck is added to the Customer Deck. Two new Event Cards are added to the deck as well, so there will always be two Events in each round.

PURCHASE PHASE: The money totaled in the last Phase is now available to be spent. The cost for items increases with each Round, so it is cheaper to buy something in Round 1 than it is in Round 4. Any money not spent, carries over into the next round. However, the money counter is reset to $0 for the last round, and the final amount will need to be made without using any saved money from previous rounds. Three types of things are available for purchase each round:

New Recipes: Recipes have a base cost depending on what round it is, then each specific recipe adds a little more to the cost, depending on which it is. Generally the "smaller" recipes are cheaper, while the large, more ingredient-dependent recipes (that pay more) cost more. When a new recipe is purchased, the appropriate Preparation Cards for the ingredients are placed out, and the ingredient quantity markers are placed on the board. The four Customer Cards matching that Recipe are taken. Two are shuffled into the Customer Deck and the remaining two are shuffled into the Potential Customer Deck.

Upgrade Preparation Card: Players can spend money to upgrade a Preparation Card. Upgraded cards produce more of each ingredient when a die is spent on it.

Advertising: Players may spend money on advertising to add a random card from the Potential Customer Deck to the Customer Deck. This means that more customers will need to be served, however, it means that more money can be made each turn.

Play continues like this each round, until the 6th and final round, where players need to earn enough money in the final round to pay back their loan amount and they will either win or lose. The amount required to win in the last round depends on the number of players and the difficulty level.


The Theme:

The pressure of a making enough money to sustain a starting restaurant and the hectic-pace of food service are both well represented here. However, of course, a lot of the theme is abstracted. As a cooperative game with real-time pressures on it, the game carries the same feel and pressured theme as games like Space Alert.

For me, who doesn't really enjoy (or know) Chinese food, the tokens could be anything for me. I mean, I really had no clue that you needed eggroll wraps and chicken broth for Wonton Soup. I would have just assumed that the required ingredients would have been wontons and soup and left it there. And, actually, my lack of knowledge of Chinese cuisine leaves me to wonder if that is even the same thing or not.

However, part of the challenge is that some recipes require the same ingredients. For example, beyond just Wonton Soup, the Potstickers and Eggrolls recipes also require eggroll wraps. This can add a lot more pressure and challenge to making sure that you have enough ingredients to serve everything. This also makes planning out your recipes that you intend to purchase all the more important.


Learning the Game:

The game's rules are actually rather simple. The rules are laid out in an 8 page 6" x 9" booklet that is full of pictures and examples. Still, I think that the rulebook still leaves some things to be desired in its rules presentation. I've got a lot of games and I'm our group's regular game explainer, but there were a lot of little rules that were very easily missed and a few that were a little confusing from the first couple of readings.

The layout of the rules could be better, but a play-through or two really helps to define the gameplay better. I think that, despite the real-time aspect of the gameplay, the rules would have benefited from a long-form written out example of play to help understand the pacing of some of the actions.

The basics of the game, however, do really come quick from a sample play. I highly suggest teaching the game with one round without the timers first, then starting over and including the timers.


The Components:


The game board which tracks the quantity of each ingredient. 



Ingredient tokens used to track quantity of each ingredient. 



 Cards for the game. 




The board tracking the quantities of five different ingredients.  



The version that I have is the second edition Gabob printing. Z-Man Games has recently acquired this title, and I would not be surprised to see some production differences between this and the next printing.

That being said, I do not see what Z-Man games would have to do to improve the components of this game. They really are very excellent. The board is thick and sturdy and I actually like the puzzle-build of it instead of having a bit of a fold in the material.

The wooden tokens to mark the ingredient quantities are sturdy and well-produced and the artwork used throughout the game is crisp and thematic.

The cardstock on the cards is a little thin, but nothing too terrible and completely usable and I'm certain most players will immediately solve this problem by sleeving them. There are a number of dice, which are all of fine quality as well.

Really, for a small production run, I really see no problem with the components. My timers differ in time by about 1.5 - 2 seconds, but that is just a problem with sand timers in general.


Playing the Game:

Game play is relatively easy to learn. Again, I think one round without timers, then restarting is probably the best way to learn this game.

Actual game play can be very chaotic with the real-time aspect thrown into the mix. Like most co-op games, there may be a problem with the alpha player, but with only 20 seconds per Customer, you really do need someone to be making certain decisions and quickly.

The game also may seem almost impossibly hard at first. It takes a few plays to really start to develop a sense of what kinds of strategies need to be used. However, once those strategies are understood, the game can actually start to become a bit easier.

However, part of the fun of the game is with a group that is determined to find that strategy that will pay off; the group that will reset the board again and again to start over to try from scratch to perfect it. You will find out how important menu planning is, as well as doing things such as getting more recipes to make more money as well as to max out dice pools.

I feel a little bad since we've won at the game. I almost miss that combination of determination and frustration of those early games that we had. That isn't to say that the game does not have any replayability - it does. However, learning what kinds of strategies worked best was a very interesting and fun part of our early games.

And for the hell of it, here are two major rules blunders that we had in our early games, making it seem nigh impossible to win:

*If you served more Customers than you had dice, you only gained 1 die. This is instead of gaining enough dice to equal the Customers you served. As a result, we never came near maxing our die pools.

*Each Preparation option could only be used once per round. So, if I used a die with a 2 for more Eggs, I couldn't use another 2-die for more Eggs that round. As a result, we were always struggling for ingredients.

Figuring out what we were doing wrong actually made the game seem suddenly so much easier, since we had determinedly played incorrectly like this for a handful of times.


Scalability:

Here is where this edition of the game starts to run into a couple of little problems. The game is playable from 1 to 4 players (though the 1 player game is essentially one person playing the 2 player game). The game is fully scalable and playable with any amounts of those people, but the game is progressively more difficult for fewer players. So, a two-player game is much more difficult than a four-player game.

Part of the reasoning behind this is because with fewer players, there will be fewer dice rolled overall, which are essential for getting enough ingredients to serve all of the recipes. Every player begins with 3 dice in their dice pool and can make out at 8 dice in their dice pool. That means in a two-player game, the players begin with a total of 6 dice and can max out at 16 dice. In a four-player game, the players begin with 12 dice and can max out at 32 dice. Sure, fewer recipes need to be completed with only 2-players and a smaller total dollar amount must be met in the 6th round, however, the fact is that fewer dice equals fewer options to really optimize your dice expenditures. For example, if using a die with a 1 on it gets me 3 Pork from my Upgraded Preparation Card, the more dice I roll, the more likely that I will have a 1 to most efficiently get the ingredients.

This doesn't break the game, but it does really alter the difficulty levels with fewer players. There are unofficial variants on BGG to aid gameplay with fewer players, but it would be nice to see official changes made in the Z-Man edition of the game.

More players does add a bit more chaos to it, and there is more of the potential problem of alpha players to arise or for players to want to take different approaches, but these are more limitations of specific groups and even then, they do not really off-set the fact that more dice give more variability and more of an opportunity to optimize spending your dice.


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, she's generally a big fan of cooperative games and she has had experience with Space Alert and enjoyed the real-time aspect of the game's challenges. She also really likes Chinese food more than me, and unfortunately for her, our relationship has lessened the amounts of times that she's been able to eat it. That being said, she really enjoys this game. In fact, she has this "has to beat it" mentality when it comes to cooperative games, and despite the fact that we had played it wrong our first couple of times (making it next to impossible to come near winning), she eagerly suggested setting up the board again to play one more time after we lost. Since learning how to play correctly and learning which strategies play out best, our games are less likely to end in the humiliating levels of defeat we had in our early games, and this has actually made the game more appealing to her. So I may not want to order out for Chinese food often enough for her, but at least I can offer this game as a sort of weak substitute.


The Pros:

*Real-time cooperative game makes it fit into a small (but fun) niche sub-category.
*Hour playtime makes it a good length without overstaying its visit.
*Excellent components that will probably only improve with Z-Man's printing.
*Challenging gameplay that also has multiple difficulty levels.
*Artwork is simple, but thematic.
*Decent, cute theme makes it family friendly (though the pace may stress many families).
*Figuring out the best strategies of play make for a very interesting game.
*The chaos of the action round is a lot of fun to try to manage and maintain.


The Cons:

*Scalability issues make the game much more challenging for less than four players.
*Rulebook could be laid out better and some rules explained a little better.
*Scarce, small print run, making it either expensive to purchase or hefty to trade for (will be rectified with the Z-Man printing, however).
*Part of the fun is determining the strategies that win, and once you have it, the game is still fun, but some of the challenge is gone.
*Alpha players, as with most cooperative games, may try to dictate other players too much.
*Card thickness is a little thin.
*Bad die rolls can make it impossible to serve all customers, though this is more of a factor with fewer players. But dice do impact the game, so those who fear luck in games should be warned. However, for those who like mitigating the luck of die rolls to still try to succeed, it can be a plus.
*Game has some stereotypes of Asians and Asian cuisine, which may be uncomfortable for some (the worst offender is an Event card which allows the players to immediately gain more meat ingredients, implying that cat and dog is used).
*Game actually doesn't satisfy my wife's craving for Chinese food, but rather adds to it.


Overall:

Wok Star is a cute, fun real-time cooperative play game. There are not a lot of other games in that category, but they usually make for fun gaming experiences. The theme and art style of the game makes it seem like it may be a family game, but the frantic and hectic pacing may turn off many families. The game's length is perfect, and it never wears out its welcome during the hour or so that it is on the table. Part of the game's initial challenge is to figure out the types of strategies that work best, and once they are found, the game loses some of that exploratory charm. However, the game still remains challenging to win, especially with differing difficulty levels. Replayability may suffer slightly from the discovery of successful strategies, which become paths to follow in later games, but this isn't the type of game that really feels like it should find its way to the table every time. Like Chinese food, it's better when it ends up being the occasional treat of a meal instead of a regular weekly diet. Still, there are enough variables in play that make each game itself challenging and offer just enough replay value that the game doesn't feel "solved" by always employing certain strategies.


7.5/10

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