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51st State

[Jeff Feuer is relatively new to the World of Games but that hasn’t stopped him from voicing a knowledgeable opinion. In real life, Jeff is a professor of mathematics and he brings that analytical nature to his game playing and reviews. Jeff first appeared in the Summer 2007 Gamers Alliance Report with his review of Age of Empires III. Now he’s back and, with his 6th contribution, states his view on a card game set in a post-apocalyptic America.]

(Portal/IELLO/Toy Vault, 2-4 players, ages 12 and up, 40-90 minutes per player; $39.99)

 

Reviewed by Jeff Feuer

51stStatebox51st State is a card game for 2-4 players designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek, who is probably best known for his board game Stronghold. A game between experienced players (who know the rules and the cards) should last around 40 minutes, but I have not experienced a game even close to the “maximum” time of 90 minutes. The game takes place in the same post-apocalyptic world as the boardgame Neuroshima Hex by Jakub Jablonski and Tomasz Jedruszek (that was featured in the Fall 2007 GA Report). In this scenario, the United States has been destroyed by war. Thirty years have passed and a power struggle ensues …

Each of the players leads one of four factions vying for power: New York, The Merchants’ Guild, The Appalachian Federation and The Mutant’s Union. Each faction has its own strength and weakness which will be explained in more detail once the game mechanics have been discussed.

At the start of the game, each player receives the name card for their faction as well as three cards (called contact cards) detailing their factions’ particular implementation of the main game mechanics (again, each faction has different strengths and weaknesses in this regard), four cards dealt from the deck and four faction markers, including one to use on the point-scoring track. The game takes place over a series of turns until one player reaches a minimum of 30 victory points.

Each turn consists of five phases. The first phase is called the lookout phase in which players receive new cards. The mechanic for this phase is quite different, and worth discussing. For example, in a 4 player game, the first player chooses from five face up cards and the next player chooses from four face up cards as you might expect. However, a new card is drawn and laid out so that the third player also chooses from four face-up cards. The same thing happens so that the fourth player also chooses from four face-up cards. The players then go around choosing a second face-up card. The first three players choose from 3 face-up cards (replacing from the deck as needed) while the fourth player only gets to choose from 2 face-up cards for this second card choice. Finally, players go around taking a face-down card from atop the deck for a third new card this turn.

The second phase is called production. Players will have cards on the table in front of them. For the first turn, it’s just their faction card and contact cards. However, as the game goes on, players will have accumulated more cards on the table. Some of these cards allow the players to produce resources. In addition, all of the faction cards generate three workers and one of a particular resource (each faction produces a different resource from the other factions using their faction card). The resource that each faction produces is synergistic with their strength on their contact cards. For example, the Merchants’ Guild produces a fuel with their faction card (other factions may produce fuel with a production card they put out later) and then they can use fuel to make an agreement (their strength) in the next phase.

The third phase is when players perform a variety of actions. The cards in their hand represent a location near their faction. The cards have a red stripe on one edge, a blue edge on the opposite edge, a white stripe above the blue stripe and the majority of the card, in the middle is the name of the card, a picture and icons detailing a few other details about the territory. Players can do one of three things with the cards in their hand to get them on the table and use their benefit(s).

51stcardsThe first choice is to conquer the territory, essentially razing it to the ground and taking everything they can as a spoil of war. To do this, the player tucks the card (usually under their faction card) with the red edge exposed as their action. At any point during the game, regardless of phase or whose turn it is, the player can then un-tuck this card and discard it for the spoils (a one-time receipt of several things, like resources). They can make an agreement with this location, essentially making an arrangement to receive something every turn from this territory (less than the spoils give but it lasts for several turns). To do this, the player tucks the card with the blue edge exposed as their action. They will receive the good during production phases of subsequent turns. At most 3 cards can be tucked at any one time under a faction card (or a building which allows tucking of cards). However, tucked cards can be discarded at any time to make room for a new tucked card. The last choice is to incorporate the location, making it another territory in their faction’s control. In this case, the card is put down to the right of the faction card and the player will make use of the white strip above the blue strip in subsequent actions or turns. The main part of the card details a building in this location which gives the benefit detailed in the white strip.

In order to conquer a location, the player must use a conquest power. To establish cooperation with a location, the player must use a cooperation power. To incorporate a location, the player must use an incorporation power. This can be accomplished by using the appropriate contact card which details which resource(s) must be spent to perform the conquest, cooperation or incorporation. Each card has as one of the icons in the middle of the card near its picture a number in a black arrow. This tells players how far away this location is from the lands under control of the player that has the card in his/her hand. In order to perform one of these three actions to put the card down on the table in front of them, the player must total appropriate powers that at least match this number. For example, a card with a black arrow that has a 3 must have conquering powers that total 3 to conquer it. The Mutants’ Union has a conquest contact card that says a gun resource can be spent to conquer a location up to 3 range away. This is the strength of this faction. The other three factions have conquest contact cards that allow the player to discard a gun to conquer a location up to 2 range away. In order to conquer a location that is 3 range away, they need more conquest power than their conquest card has. There are cards in the deck that have conquest, cooperation and incorporation cards (some of which require no resources) and some cards (either as spoils, through agreement or incorporation) produce tokens that have these powers as well (requiring no resources to use, but the token is discarded when used). Powers can be totaled to reach or exceed the range.

Different factions have their own strengths and weaknesses in using these powers. Incorporating is generally the best of these powers since it gives a permanent victory point (each location incorporated is a VP). Being able to incorporate a distance of 2 seems to be more valuable than conquering or cooperating a distance of 2. New York produces a scrap resource which can be used to incorporate a distance of 1. This appears to be weaker than the Mutants’ Union ability to produce a gun each turn and use it to conquer a distance of up to 3, but spoils aren’t always useful (and don’t usually generate a VP directly like incorporating). Every turn it’s useful to incorporate, if possible, while the same is not always true of conquering or cooperating. The Merchants’ Guild produces a fuel resource which can be used to cooperate with a location with a range of up to 3. Lastly, the Appalachian Federation produces a building material resource each turn, which can be discarded with a card from their hand to incorporate with a location with a range of up to 2.

Incorporated locations represent either action locations (where a player can play one of their workers to use the building in that location), a production building (either open for other players to play a worker and produce the building’s benefit or closed and just produces during the production phase for the player who incorporated the location) or a trait, which is a benefit the building gives without needing a worker or a production phase to take advantage of it.

Also in the deck are leader cards which have benefits and give a permanent VP. At any time as an action, a player can discard a gun resource to “shoot” the leader (which gives a VP) and then they are free to put down a new leader. Players can also “upgrade” a location to another disregarding range, but having to meet other requirements that include matching icons in the main part of the card. Doing this also gives a VP in addition to the VP that having the location incorporated gives. Each location can give at most 3 VP chits over the course of the game (to prevent a player from running away with the game using one very powerful combo, they must be more creative than this). Players can send worker(s) to work at open production facilities of other players. Players can also send two workers for any resource they wish (including the universal resource token which is a wild resource token).

In the fourth phase of each turn, the players total up VPs to see if anyone has reached the end of game condition. VPs are accumulated by having a leader in play, having locations incorporated, or by having them generated as a benefit of leaders, buildings, spoils or agreements (at most 3 VP chits over the entire game).

The final phase of the game is called clean-up. All spent and unspent resources are discarded, including workers. The only way a resource can be kept is if the player has a building or a leader in play which has this as a benefit (with a “keep” icon on it).

So what are my thoughts on this game? They are mixed. There are things I like. It is very much a resource management style game, which I tend to enjoy. The puzzle of how to manipulate the resources and buildings I have in order to get the resources and results I want is one I truly enjoy. This game is also an engine building game, a genre of play I like as well.

What are some of the complaints? One nitpicky complaint is that the faction cards could be done with a faction mat instead. This mat would have the faction name, resource it generates (plus the three workers that all factions generate) and its conquest, cooperation and incorporation powers on it rather than 4 cards for each faction. The game is quite fiddly with all the resource tokens which are quite small and hard to pick up in order to get or discard them. It takes too long to play and seems to wear out its welcome when it gets beyond 90 minutes. The game is so thematic that some mechanics of the game would be better (more strategic, for example) if implemented differently instead of using theme. For example, the lookout phase could be implemented differently so that there was less luck. The card that is drawn to allow the third player (in the first go around of card selection) could be really good – and the start player and second player never had the chance to choose that card. So the start player benefit for that turn never occurred. Also, it’s not clear that the 4 factions are balanced. Some have argued that spending a card in addition to the already generated resource makes the Appalachian Federation weaker than the other factions. I see this but being able to incorporate earlier than the other players can make your engine get off to a good start. Then again, if there are only range 3 cards to choose from, there isn’t anything this player can do at the start of the game. There are also some buildings that are a little too powerful and annoying (e.g. the one that lets a player steal a resource token from another player). It can really screw up a player’s turn to lose a resource, especially when the stealer can choose which resource to steal.

In summary, don’t expect the next Race for the Galaxy (Winter 2008 GA Report) or Dominion (Winter 2009 GA Report). But if you like the theme and/or resource management and/or engine building games, you should give 51st State a try.

 


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