51st State Master Set Review – The Post Apocalyptic Mafia

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Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek
Publisher: Portal Games
Players: 1-4

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The art of writing a rulebook for a boardgame is a sacred one, mastered by few and royally buggered up by many. Whomever penned the rules for 51st State, though, knew their stuff, not only making the whole thing easy to understand but also appealing to my sense of humour. On placing the victory point board on the table the book has this to say, ” Place the Victory Point track on the table in reach of all players. We say this in case there is some really dumb dude who can’t figure it out for himself.” It’s full of cheeky lines that make the usually dull chore of leafing through rules a lot more enjoyable. Pay attention, other designers, this is how you make learning entertaining.

So, 51st State takes place within the Neuroshima Hex series of boardgames. Don’t panic, though, because that fact really doesn’t matter. The game features some lovely artwork on its glossy cards, but really the theme is nothing more than a very thin veneer. This could quite honestly be any postapocalyptic world. Your goal is to take control of one of four states and then expand your influence by taking over various locations that will produce resources for you. All of this is done in order to be the first player to reach 25 victory points and hopefully secure the win.

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This so-called Master Set contains the base game, plus two expansions; New Era and Winter. These add a total of 100 new cards to the game, bringing the total count to 188. The rules state that only one expansion should be used in conjunction with the core game at any given time, but that does mean that after every match you have to sit down and separate all the cards. Honestly, I found playing with both expansions and the core set was fine, although for the sake of this review I mostly stuck to using one expansion so that I could  talk about 51st State as it was meant to be played. Weirdly for something titled the Master Set it’s missing an updated version of the Ruins expansion, which brought leaders to the game.

Everyone in the game gets dealt a total of six cards, four of which they get to keep while the remaining two get tossed in the discard pile, unwanted and forgotten. You’ll also be given your own player board, next to which you’ll lay down the cards you play. A new round starts with a number of cards equal to the amount of players plus one being drawn from the deck and placed in the middle of the table for all to see. Then each player gets to choose one card, starting with whomever has the first player token. The card that is left over gets tossed on the discard pile, its obvious lack of attraction a black-mark upon its soul that will doubtless haunt it for life. This process gets repeated, but this time the player that chose last previously picks the first card this time around.

Then you move onto the production phase, which is where you get to gather up all the lovely goods and resources that your sprawling state is pumping out. By default your will produce a few things as listed on the playerboard; three workers, one resource, one grey Connection token and a bonus card taken from the top of the towering deck. As the game goes on and you play cards the production phase will become much bigger as your state creates mountains of goods. To save time the rulebook suggests that everybody do the production phase together. Sage advice because otherwise it can take a while

Then you get to the good bit; expanding your state so that it can gradually take over the world! You don’t build new structures in your empire, rather you simply take control of existing areas by expanding your influence. In terms of mechanics this translates to spending an amount (up to three) of grey Connection tokens equal to the number shown on the card you want to play, and then tossing said card down on the table. There are three types of card that you can play, each of which has a corresponding row next to the faction board. Production cards are self-explanatory; these are the structures and areas that you take control of which pump out goods such as oil, machinery, weapons, connection tokens and even more cards. Some will simply toss out one or two goods per turn by default, while others will spit them out based on how many icons of a certain type you currently have in play. There’s also open production buildings, which mean an opponent can send a worker to them on his or her turn to produce that good for them.  Interestingly cards that produce extra Connection tokens often have open production, so putting one down comes with the knowledge that you might be helping someone else out, too, although they’ll have to spend a worker to use it.

The second row is for what is known as feature cards. These often includes locations which will give you a boost in victory points based on how many of a certain icon you already have in your state, but can also include cards that let you store goods so that they don’t get discarded at the end of the round.  Yet more cards give you a small store of resources that will stay on the card until used up, or will activate upon certain things happening, such as the Espionage Centre which gives you an extra card whenever you make a deal. More on that later.

The third row is home to cards that let you take actions, which most often involve trading in your goods for victory points or Connection tokens. Actions like these and the ones available on your playerboard can only be taken once per turn, though, so you can’t just spam a single card to acquire masses of points like some sort of point-hoarding dragon sitting atop its pile of treasure.  But there are other types of action, such as trading in resources to draw extra cards or to gain more workers. Speaking of workers you’ll find that most cards which let you trade things in for points or other things will require a worker, making them the most consistently useful resource in the game.

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However, there is a small problem to taking control of all these wonderful locations, because in one of the game’s very few moments of actual human interaction other players can come along and screw up your day by razing your cards to the ground. To do this you need to spend red Connection tokens equal to the amount shown on the faction boards; three for production buildings, four for features and five for action cards. Like regular Contact tokens you can grab raze tokens typically by trading in weapons on certain cards, or by using a faction action. The mutants are particularly adept at this as they can trade in a single weapon for three tokens, making them capable of razing one production building per turn if they want. Toss in a couple of other cards that can also convert weapons into tokens and you’ve got a dangerous and rather annoying tactic. When a card is razed the player causing the havoc gets the spoils listed on the top right of it, while the victim gets the solitary resource listed on the bottom. The razed card is then flipped over to indicate it’s now nothing but ruins, which is important.

Why? Because of the development option of the game. You see by spending a single brick you can replace an existing location with a different one provided they have at least one matching icon. This also earns the player a bonus victory point. It’s a great way of throwing down cards with a distance of three when you don’t have the tokens needed. But ruins change this up by allowing you to develop WITHOUT having a matching icon, thus razing somebody’s building can also grant them a chance to toss down something more useful and earn a bonus victory point, too.

You can also ditch cards from your own hand by razing them, done by spending red tokens equal to the card’s distance value. You toss the razed card into the discard pile and then claim the spoils listed on the top right, making it a good way of quickly earning resources from cards that may otherwise not be too useful.

If you want to remove the risk of your cards being razed by other players with a vendetta then making deals might be the better choice. To do this you get your grubby mitts on some blue  Connection tokens and then spend a few of them equal to the distance value of the card in your hand that you want to make a deal with. Then you take that card, flip it upside down and place it at the top of your faction board with the blue deal portion visible. That card will then produce the listed good/victory point/resource every turn, and best of all it can’t be razed. The tradeoff is that deal cards don’t count as a bonus victory point at the end of a game like regular locations do. The Merchants are quite good at this tactic since they can trade in one oil for three blue Connection tokens, letting them make a deal with one long-distance location or several closer ones in quick succession.

There is another way of avoiding having your precious locations razed; passing. At the start of any of your turns during a round you can opt to pass, at which point you’ll be out of that round entirely. Sounds terrible, but the advantage is that you can no longer be touched by other players. In a two player game this can infuriate a opponent because if they just spent a turn gather some red Contact tokens to trash a valuable building, passing renders that plan useless. Of course the catch is that passing early in a round can mean leaving a lot of potential points, tokens or resources on the table. It’s an interesting tactical choice.

Another way of earning Blue and Red Connection tokens are the two Connection decks. One set of the cards are Punks (red) and the other Merchants (blue) and the top card of each deck gets revealed at the start of each new round. By spending two workers a player can lay claim to one of these two cards and then cash it in for the amount of tokens listed on it. This also denies anyone else the chance to grab the card, making a nice tactical choice; do you spend workers early in the turn to grab one of the cards despite knowing that workers are needed for almost everyone card that converts resources to victory points, or do you ignore them for now? Having said that the connection decks do feel a little out place, like they were added as an afterthought to help make razing and deals more important in the landscape of the game.

When everyone has finished up taking their actions all goods and tokens are put back into their respective supplies, clearing the entire playing area for a new round to begin.

Play continues like this until someone hits 25 victory points, at which point the rest of the round is played out, giving everybody a chance to earn some last-minute points. Bonus points are also awarded for every card in your state, thus it is possible for the person who hit 25 points first to actually lose the game due to other people having slightly better engines or larger states that let them squeeze out a few extra points.

Achieving victory, then, comes down to building an engine that spits out resources, which in turn can be converted to victory points. As the game progresses you build more stuff that produces more goods and tokens which in turn are used to build even more stuff and so on. Whomever manages to piece together the most effective engine will eek out the extra points needed to pick up the win. Given the nature of the game, though, this naturally means that matches can sometimes come down to the luck of the cards. Usually battles will be fairly even, but other times one side or the other will get lucky and wind up clearly dominating thanks to cards that work well together. To be fair to the game, however, it does as much as it can to help mitigate the damage that luck can do, starting with the fact that you get a choice of four cards out of an initial hand of six. The draft phase is also a neat addition since it provides further opportunity to grab cards that will work in synergy with the rest of your hand or cards already in play. Even if you get a pretty poor run of luck you can generally find something to do with most cards you draw, even if they don’t initially seem to have a place in your well-oiled machine. With the option to toss one on the field, raze it or make a deal there’s generally something to be done with a card that seems otherwise useless. Likewise random goods can often be used up if you try hard enough. A lot of the game boils down to recognising how to use absolutely everything, and not leaving wasted resources on the table.

That can become a bit of a drag, however. Later in the game when players typically have fairly sizable states filled with cards and the game has devolved into letting the engines run, rounds can take a while as everybody slowly burns through their goods and cards one by one.

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There’s also not a lot of variety in the cards. One would like to think that the two expansion sets that come in the master set would add in some interesting new types of cards, but they don’t, instead they just add more of the same with a few minor variances. There’s only a few intriguing variants, such as one that gives you an extra card every time you raze. Expansions typically offer the designer/s a chance to flex their mental muscles and either refine their original idea or build upon it with interesting new mechanics. The two expansions here don’t do either, introducing absolutely no new rules or different styles of card. Really, they just add more. By time you’ve played your first game of 51st State you’ll have run into countless cards that say “spend 1 worker and X goods to produce X victory points” and countless more than produce one resource of any given type.

With that said the relatively tame design of the cards boils down to synergy, a word I’ve not really used since my days of building decks in Yu-Gi-oH! and Magic: The Gathering. A wider array of card types would have made luck play a much larger role in the game since it would be more difficult to draw cards that synergise well with others. And boy oh boy, do you want that synergy bad. Anybody who lucks out on a few cards that work together will gain a huge advantage, which is again why the game is so eager to give everybody massive handful of cards. In the images adorning this review like so much megapixel candy both myself and my friend had actually gotten quite lucky, with my mutant playing enemy lucking into a pile of cards that help him pump out weapons at an absurd rate along with plenty of cards that let him convert those to points. I, meanwhile, had managed to setup a good production line of oil that could be traded in (along with the customary one worker which every card of that type seems to need) for those lovely, lovely points. Plus, excess oil could be traded recycled for plenty of blue Connection tokens, hence there being plenty of deals sitting at the top of my playerboard.

Finally, I find the asymmetrical design of 51st State to be a let-down. I love the concept of asymmetrical games, but in this instance each of the four factions are almost identical, and thus play almost exactly the same. The only differences between them is that they each produce a single different resource by default, and can convert things into tokens at different rates. Mutants, for example, are better at getting red Connection tokens to help them raze while the Merchants can acquire blue Contact tokens for deals more easily. Sure, this does alter the way a game plays out a little, obviously tending to result in the Merchants making a few more deals than the Mutants might and such, but once production gets going that single resource the state puts out by default makes less of a difference, as does their capability to create tokens. I would like to have seen more significant mechanical changes for each of the four factions, because otherwise they might as well just all be the same.

But probably my biggest gripe with the game is the lack of interaction between players. Aside from razing cards and using open production areas most players are in their own little isolated bubble, constructing their engines with barely a thought given to anyone else. The only time you have to adjust strategy is if a player is maybe using your open production cards a lot or constantly razing valuable cards in your production line. Aside from that, what everyone else is doing really doesn’t matter very much. That doesn’t take away the sense of satisfaction to be had from pinpointing the weakest chain in a player’s machine and taking it out, but I’d still like to see more ways for players to interact.

At least I can’t fault the game’s presentation as it seems clear that everybody involved in the project wanted it to look and feel like a quality product. The oodles of tokens and wooden pieces feel great, and the cards themselves feature some lovely art as well as a glossy finish. The only blemish is the box itself which is not only far too big for the actual contents, but doesn’t even include a decent insert – all you get is one channel running down the middle.

All in all 51st State is a very solid engine-building game that even includes a reasonable solo-mode, something which I may tackle in a separate Single-Player article. While it isn’t a strategic juggernaut juggling a sizable hand of cards that each have several things that can be done with gives you a lot of work out, turning each round into a sort of puzzle as piece together how best to use up your available tokens and resources. Do you send a worker over to use an opponent’s open product to net a bonus token that can be used to toss out that card with a distance of 3? Or do you keep the worker in order to use an action card that lets you trade-in for some points? Speaking of which, do you spend your resources now or maybe use them to Connection tokens instead and either make some deals or raze some cards? There’s plenty of choices to make, but it’s just such a shame you’ll so rarely bump heads with the other players or ever get excited over a card. There’s never a moment when you watch somebody put something down and act like, “Holy shit! That’s a freaking awesome ability!” Nor are there any genuinely exciting moments. There’s no epic plays that suddenly change everything or reveal some masterful plan that a player has been working on all game. It’s just people putting down cards every turn, building and building and building their little engines.

So to wrap everything up, 51st State is a very enjoyable time that is probably worth your time if you’re into engine-building games. Keep in mind that as a relative boardgame noob I’ve not stopped to compare 51st State to Imperial Settlers, which is apparently very similar, so you might want to check that out. But back on topic; it’s a solid game with some great ideas and a couple of flaws that hold it back from being truly great.

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