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SAINT PETERSBURG

[In this issue of GA REPORT, we welcome another new voice: Mark Delano. Mark is no stranger to the gaming scene as he tells us in his bio:

Descended from a long line of cardplayers, I’ve been playing games as long as I can remember. Introduced to wargames and rpgs by my older brothers, I went to college an avid player of both. There I made a fortunate connection with the boardgaming club that was just in the process of discovering German board games. This meant I had access to people that were playing older boardgames that I had not been exposed to before, as well as encountering the new wave of games becoming available. Now, twelve years later, I can say that the interest generated by that experience has failed to wane.]

(Rio Grande Games, 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, about 30 minutes; $27.95)

 

Saint Petersburg is a loosely themed game of populating and building St. Petersburg during Peter the Great’s reign. Each player uses their initial stake to hire traders, build buildings and attract aristocrats trying to net the highest victory point total at the end of the game. The designer is listed as MichaelTummelhofer, which appears to be a pseudonym for a collaborative design effort. After several plays I can definitely say I enjoy the game. However I’m afraid there is less to it than one might hope for.

The board is functional if unremarkable, since most of the space is taken up with locations to place the four decks and to display the cards that are available. The cards have a certain quirky appeal, with a consistent style that preserves their clarity. The only insignificant complaint is the redundant cards and pieces for showing who goes first in each phase.stpete

The game plays in a series of turns, with each turn having 4 phases. A phase focuses on a particular card type, starting with Traders and proceeding through Buildings, Aristocrats and Upgrades. Upgrades improve the characteristics of the other three types of cards. At the beginning of the phase, the board is replenished up to eight cards from the appropriate deck (Trader deck during the Trader phase, Building deck during the Building phase etc.). Cards have a printed cost as well as stating whether they provide money, victory points and/or some special power. After the replenishment, each player, in order, is free to buy cards, store cards in their hand or pass. If all players pass in a row, the phase is ended. Until that point, play continues clockwise around the table. At the end of the phase, money and victory points are collected for the cards of that phase. Upgrade cards are considered the same type as the card they upgraded, so there is no income at the end of the Upgrade phase.

Once all four phases are completed, the turn ends. Any unclaimed cards at the end of a turn are placed on the discount row, which makes them cheaper but still count towards the total number of cards available. Any cards on the discount row at the end of a turn are discarded. This ensures the board will not permanently be jammed with cards that the players do not want. If during the board replenishment of any phase the last card of a type is drawn, the game ends at the conclusion of that turn. Players score additional victory points for unique Aristocrats and any leftover cash and lose points for any cards left in hand.

Each type of card has its own area of expertise. Traders provide the best money for their cost, while Buildings are generally excellent sources of victory points. Aristocrats are poor sources of money for their cost, but the more expensive provide victory points as well. In addition Aristocrats score an end of game victory point bonus depending on the number of different ones that are possessed. Upgrade cards can change these rules of thumb, turning a Building into a money generator or an Aristocrat into a source of victory points. In addition, there are several special cards in the Building and Upgrade decks that allow discounts on other cards, drawing from the decks directly, holding more cards or converting money directly to victory points.

Strategy in the game comes down to deciding when to switch from getting money to getting victory points. The Trader cards should almost always be purchased until the last two turns of the game. One of the more important reasons to save money is to make sure you have enough to purchase whatever Trader cards are available on the following turn. It is possible to buy victory point Building cards from the very first turn, but this will generally leave the player far too cash poor by the middle of the game. The temporary victory point lead generated by this early purchase will rapidly evaporate. The special Building cards are almost always worth buying early, as they are either very cheap or very powerful. In particular, the Observatory can potentially be a game winner when purchased early since it allows drawing from any deck to try and get a useful card. With decent luck it will provide 2-3 playable cards that would not otherwise have been available. It has the additional power of “pushing” a deck, drawing cards from it in order to end the game sooner.

The more expensive Aristocrats are all worth the money spent on them. The Upgrade deck is the most unpredictable, since it will sometimes provide the exact card needed or a completely useless card. The Trader Upgrades are almost always useful, although they also require particular Traders in order to be used. The Building Upgrades are most powerful early, since they often turn a Building into a decent if expensive money generator. The Aristocrat Upgrades are vital late as they can increase the end of game Aristocrat bonus substantially.

I find Saint Petersburg entertaining but lacking a certain depth. There is a large element of luck in getting the right cards at the right time. In addition, certain cards are significantly better or worse than others. The biggest culprit in this regard is the 18 cost Aristocrat which has a return of 6 cash and 3 victory points, not to mention contributing toward the Aristocrat bonus at the end of the game. This is a tremendous bargain, easily better than any other single card. The 17 cost Building isn’t nearly as good, providing an income of only 5 victory points. Often there are few decisions to be made, with the available cards being either a must buy or a must not buy. Early on money is much more important than victory points (since that money can be turned into victory points later) so, as mentioned, it’s mostly a matter of judging when to switch from focusing on money to victory points.

Another significant problem is that the cost of the cards is closely tied to the number of turns in the game. Since three player games tend to have more turns in them, this makes the mistake of buying victory point Building cards early even more dire. The monetary return of Traders and Aristocrats make them mandatory for the first few turns of the game. This results in a mechanical grab for every Trader or Aristocrat available, with occasional consideration given for useful Upgrade cards.

Despite these complaints, I’ve enjoyed playing Saint Petersburg. The game plays quickly, easily clocking in at under an hour with experienced players. It’s fun to try to make the best of the cards available. I think after another two or three plays, I won’t be eager to play it, but I wouldn’t mind sitting down to an occasional game. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Mark Delano


 

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