Saturday, 10 June 2017

Pax Porfiriana

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Pax Porfiriana is based on the rule and the eventual fall of Porfirio Díaz. He ruled Mexico as a dictator for 35 years, from 1876 to 1911. You are one of his lieutenants, a local warlord. You and your fellow colleagues are all plotting to overthrow Diaz to become president yourselves.

The card at the top left is my character. Character cards are double sided. You start the game using this grey side, which means openly you are still loyal to Diaz, and you are still earning a salary of $2 per turn from him (the two cubes). Once you flip and declare your intention to overthrow him, you lose the salary, so you'd better have secured other sources of income by then.

The game comes with many cards, but only a subset is used each time you play. During setup, four Topple cards are shuffled into the deck. Scoring is done whenever anyone activates a Topple card. If one player has enough points to overthrow the government, he wins immediately. One unusual thing about Pax Porfiriana is its scoring system. There are four types of points (called Prestige). Each time scoring is done, only one type counts. It depends on what Regime the country is under at the time of scoring. If the regime is Pax Porfiriana (i.e. peace), only Loyalty Prestige matters. If the regime is US Intervention, then only Outrage Prestige matters. To win the game you need to decide which Prestige type to gather, you need to have the right Regime, and you need to have the Topple card resolved at the right time. When a Topple card is resolved, to win the game, the leading player must have more Prestige (of the right type) than the last two players plus Diaz himself combined. Diaz's Prestige is 2 by default. So even if the last two players have 0 Prestige, you still need 3 Prestige to win.

If no one manages to overthrow Diaz by the time the fourth Topple card is resolved, whoever is richest by then is the winner, because he is the most successful among Diaz's lieutenants and will eventually succeed him when he decides to retire.

Let's go back to your character card. When you declare your intention to become President, you lose your $2 salary. However making a declaration gives you 1 Prestige, which can be crucial to winning. Each character has two types of Prestige he can choose from, but once you declare, that Prestige you gain cannot be changed. Also there is no going back to serving Diaz. In this photo the Prestige options for my character are Loyalty and Command.

The card at the bottom left is an Army card. Armies can guard your businesses, or they can be your bodyguards. They can even camp at an opponent's business to extort money. The card at the bottom right is a Partner card. This card type has many different abilities. Both these cards have an oval mark, and these are the Prestige points. They are only counted if you have played the cards. To play a card you need to pay money.

This is the game board. There are always 12 cards on offer. The prices are shown. After cards are bought, remaining cards are shifted left to fill the blanks, and new cards are added at the rightmost slots, i.e. the most expensive slots. The card at the bottom right is the current Regime. It tells you what take effect during this Regime. The red and blue cards on the right are special cards which are always available. They are powerful, but expensive. Also you must use them the moment you buy them.

The card on the left is a business. The 10 at the top right corner is the cost to play the card. The single cube at the top left means a starting income of $1 per turn. The American flag at the bottom left means this business is located in the US. The mule icon means the mode of transportation to this location. The train icon means you may upgrade the mode of transportation to train for $4.

The card on the right is a bandit. You play it on a business to rob the owner of cash, and to cause unrest. As long as the business remains in unrest, it does not make money. The owner needs to spend actions to remove unrest. The Outrage Prestige icon means when you play this card on an opponent, you give him 1 Outrage Prestige.

Let's take a closer look at this Army card on the left. The train, mule and boot icons at the bottom tell you how much it costs to deploy the Army. These icons refer to the mode of transportation at the location you wish to deploy the Army to. The Mexican flag and the text Chihuahua means this Army can only be deployed in the Chihuahua region. The text Anarchy means upon playing this card, you must change the Regime to Anarchy. Cards which change Regime are valuable, since the right Regime is crucial for victory.

The Play

I did a three player game with Han and Allen. Han taught us the game. I struggled badly at the start, being very slow in getting my businesses running. Money was tight in the early game and businesses were not cheap to start. I did try to collect cards which I felt would synergise well, but without cash to play them, I was stuck with zero progress for quite some time.

Han was the Anarchist. He focused on collecting Revolution Prestige and he needed the Anarchy Regime. Allen focused on Outrage Prestige, and he needed the US Intervention Regime. I picked Loyalty Prestige, and I needed the Pax Porfiriana Regime. All three of us were quite focused on just one Prestige type. I felt it was more efficient this way. Allen was first to threaten to win, because he amassed Outrage Prestige quite quickly, mostly due to Han sending bandits his way. Economically he was able to match Han in the early game, while I floundered, so Han mostly directed the merry men his way. The first Topple card normally comes out about 40% into the draw deck, but when the first one appeared in our game, I felt it was quite soon. Allen did not manage to win at this first Topple event, with Han and I coordinating our efforts to stop him, but I was alarmed at how soon we had to be ready for the first possible push for victory. There was no time to waste! We had to be on alert right from the start.

I had thought my case was rather hopeless, since I had such a lousy start. To my surprise, we had quite a few twists of fate in our game, and all three of us had our moments of domination and near victory. We had dramatic rises and falls in fortunes. At one event, the Sonora region (I think it was) fell into turmoil. All business were destroyed, and new ones could not be started. This was devastating to Allen, who had many business there, while I was completely unscathed, because all my businesses were in USA. The underdog suddenly became the top contender. Such a game-changing event did not just come out of the left field. All cards enter the game at the rightmost, most expensive slots on the game board. They normally won't get claimed so early, so you have time to prepare, e.g. buy it yourself to cancel the event. Also once you have some rough idea of the card mix of the game, you will know it is a bad idea to put all your eggs in one basket.

Still, this is a turbulent era, so there will be many nasty events. You can mitigate but you can't avoid taking some hits. In our game we suffered an economic depression, which hurt all of us badly. A depression is triggered when two consecutive bear events occur. Han had explained this, but I had not paid attention to the bear and bull icons. I was caught unprepared. When a depression happens, income is greatly reduced, sometimes to negative, because you need to pay $1 per card in your play area every turn. You are often forced to discard some cards because you simply can't afford to keep them. When depression hit us, Allen had amassed the most cash, but with earning power plummeting, even that kind of cash wouldn't last forever. At that point I had one card in hand which could help me change the Regime to Pax Porfiriana. I was leading in Loyalty Prestige, and I would win if I could orchestrate the next Topple card to resolve with the Pax Porfiriana Regime. I was very anxious because I had it all figured out. I had enough cash and I knew what I needed to do to win. And then on Han's turn just before my victory, he changed the Regime to Anarchy. My plans went down the drain. So near to heaven, only to find myself crashing straight to hell. It was an emotional rollercoaster.

I became kingmaker on the last turn of the game. The fourth and last Topple card was on the board. Han was poised to win because the Regime was Anarchy, and he had enough money to trigger the Topple card, and would have enough Revolution points to overthrow Diaz. I could trigger the Topple card early to spoil his plans, but the game would end anyway since this was the last Topple card. Allen would be the winner because he had the most cash on hand. In the end, I decided to stop Han, since it felt wrong to not stop the most immediate threat. So Allen won, by tiebreaker (kind of).

My play area. My character card on the left is still showing the grey side, which means I have not yet openly betrayed Diaz. I still have those two cubes earning me $2 per turn. The two orange bandit cards under my character card indicate that I have been attacked by bandits twice, each time giving me 1 Outrage Prestige. This was Han's work. He had attacked Allen and given him many Outrage Prestige points earlier in the game, and then later on he said he had to give some to me in order to prevent Allen from winning. That was so... convenient. Disrupting my businesses was an... ah... unfortunate side effect. All four cards in the centre are my businesses. One of them is still suffering from unrest (red discs), so it is not making money for now. The two mines on the right have no cubes on them because we are in a depression now. Mines don't generate income during a depression.

The Thoughts

Pax Porfiriana is about competing amidst chaos. I find the twists of fate exciting. You can never be sure how long your good fortune will last. You need to be alert all the time. It is not easy to win since the rest will always work together to rein you in. Masterminding a successful coup takes patience and careful planning. If you manage to pull it off, it is very satisfying. The buildup towards the day of reckoning is tense. That feeling of almost getting there is tantalising. This is the kind of anticipation and exhilaration in football (soccer), not the kind in basketball.

Leader bashing might be a point of contention. It seems relatively easy for the non-contenders to work together to stop the leader, when to pull of a win the leader needs to get so many balls aligned. It can be frustrating to see your carefully laid plans spoiled by a rabble of losers. Still, I feel a successful coup is very much possible, albeit challenging. In fact the difficulty makes the victory sweeter. Ultimately, everyone wants to win, and not just stop somebody else from winning. It is more important to invest in your own path to victory. You should only do the minimum necessary to stop an opponent.

The victory condition is unusual and requires getting used to, but once you grasp the concept, it is not all that complicated. Overall, this is a game with many rules and details to manage. Learning it does take some effort. However the level of detail makes the game an immersive experience. This is a gamer's game, and a flavourful one.

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