Friday, 26 August 2011

51st State

Plays: 3Px1, 2Px3.

51st State came out last year and caught my interest as something with similarities to Race for the Galaxy, my favourite card game. Throughout the past year I have been occupied enough with many new games to play, so I gradually forgot about it. Now that Han has bought a copy, I had the chance to try it.

The Game

51st State is a card game where you play cards into your tableau (or personal playing area). You use your card powers to gain various resources, and eventually victory points. The story behind the game is set in a post-apocalyptic USA, where the 50 states are no more, and players are new powers rising up from the ashes trying to establish and to lead a new USA - thus the 51st state.

The game comes with a lot of air.

Most cards in the game represent locations. One unique aspect of 51st State is how there are 3 ways to use a location card. (1) You can incorporate it to make it part of your nation, which means you play it as a new card in your tableau. (2) You can negotiate a deal with it, which means you tuck it (showing the blue edge) under your base card, and every round from the next round onwards you'll gain something. (3) You can attack and conquer it, which means you tuck it (showing the red edge) under your base card, and in a future round you can discard the card to gain a windfall of something. By default every player is able to do one of each type of interaction every round, but depending on the faction that you play, the costs and effectiveness differ. Also some cards let you do more interactions.

Incorporating new locations to your nation is probably the most desirable. Usually the benefits are better. However negotiations and conquests have their advantages too. Since by default you can only incorporate one location per round, negotiations and conquests let you maintain your momentum of expansion. There is a default limit of only 3 deals and/or spoils of conquest though, so you also need to think carefully how to use your cards.

One of the factions in the game is the Merchants Guild. The base card generates 3 workers and 1 fuel every round. The three cards on the left are the three basic contact cards, which differ in cost and effectiveness depending on the faction you play. E.g. the blue card means you can pay one fuel resource to establish a deal with a location which is up to distance 3 away. Location distances vary from 1 to 3.

There are various resources in the game. Resources are usually needed to play cards. They are also needed to generate victory points. One tricky thing is resources that you can't use get discarded at the end of a round, so it is important to try to have cards that generate resources and at the same time cards that use such resources. What's agonising is often the same card can do both, but you can only pick one way to use the card. Another tricky problem is cards that generate victory points can only store three victory point tokens, which means they become useless after their capacities are reached. You will often find that you are now producing resources which can no longer be consumed for points. You'll need to find another card to use these resources, or you can build over the fully-utilised card.

There are leaders in the game, who usually bring some resources with them, and provide a way of earning victory points. They have a higher limit of storing 5 VP tokens, and once their usefulness expires, you can "retire" them by playing a weapon resource, and then play a new leader.

The way you gain cards is by a simple drafting mechanism. A number of cards are revealed at the start of each round, and players take turns picking cards from the pool. Two cards are drafted this way, and a third one by blind draw. Some cards let you draw more cards when in play, but usually you only gain 3 cards every round - just nice for you to incorporate one, make a deal with another one, and conquer the last one, that is, if you have enough resources to do all these.

The game ends when a player reaches 30VP, from victory point chips, and from locations and leaders which count as 1VP each.

The Play

I have played a few games now. The first game was a bit of a struggle because of the need to look up what the various icons mean many times. The cards don't have text describing their powers. The other thing I felt was the game was quite solitairish. We were all busy trying to work on our own tableaus, and we didn't really watch what others were doing. Maybe it's something we'll only start to do when we get more familiar with the game. There is player interaction in the card drafting. You may want to take cards that others find attractive, but it seems it is usually more important to take what is useful to you. I'm not sure it's worthwhile to forgo a card that's good for you to deny an opponent a card that's good for him but useless to you. The other main player interaction is paying attention to whether your opponents have open-to-public locations that you can visit to buy goods.

In the first game that I played with Han and Allen, Allen lagged behind in incorporating new locations to his nation, which slowed him down. However by game end he had caught up and although still came last, was only a few points behind. I had a good start and lead most of the way, eventually winning, but I had misplayed one rule about the ability to tuck additional cards, and that little difference may have meant a loss for me, considering how close our scores were.

The mistake that I made in the first game is that blue edge card tucked under the Watchtower on the top right. I should not have been able to tuck that card in the first place. I can tuck it under my base card if it still has an open slot (which it doesn't now).

This is how a 3-player game in progress looks like.

In the next few games that I played against Michelle, the final scores were far apart. She won two games and I won one. In two of the games one side had a very lucky start, allowing a very quick build-up of a resource-rich nation. That side took the lead and never looked back. The lagging side could not do much to stop the leader, and could only work on trying to catch up.

Another game with a different faction - the Appalachian Federation. I made the same mistake with the extra-tuck-slots card. I should not have been able to tuck that 4th card under my base card. I should have removed one of the first three blue edge cards before I tucked it.

This was the game I won by a big margin, because early in the game I struck a deal that gave me 2 fuel resources every round, which I could then use on my blue contact card that needed 2 fuel resources.

Borgo the Almighty is a leader. He comes with one red contact token of value 1. Every time you conquer a location (i.e. tuck a red card), you gain 1VP.

The Thoughts

I quite like 51st State. Although it's a play-cards-to-tableau game, it feels very different from Race for the Galaxy. I'm not exactly sure why I like it that much, given that it is in a way a convert-resources-to-victory-points game, which is what I didn't like about Troyes (which I wrote about recently). Maybe it's the theme. Maybe there's always the feeling of seeing what cards you get this round and trying to make the most of them. Player interaction is quite low, definitely much lower than in Troyes. It's only in the card drafting, and in those open-to-public locations. These open-to-public locations allow other players to visit to gain something by paying you 1 worker. You can only deny entry by passing (i.e. not taking any more actions for the round). I guess I like the feeling of how you are gradually building up your nation, increasing your resource production and finding cards that convert your resources to VP's. Because of the 3 VP tokens limit, you need to plan for when some locations cease being useful, and you need to evolve your tableau to continue to be effective in generating VP's.

Learning the game is a little daunting because of the many icons. Be prepared to refer to the reference page in the rules a lot in the first few games. The low player interaction doesn't bother me much so far, maybe because I have been busy enough trying to optimise my own tableau. The upcoming expansion The New Era, which can also be played as a stand-alone game, is supposed to address this.

If 51st State stands up to more plays, I will likely get a copy myself. This was what happened with Race for the Galaxy. Han was the one who bought a copy first, and after I tried it, I wanted one myself.

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