Friday, 1 December 2017

Pax Renaissance

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Pax Renaissance is a card game by Phil Eklund, and it is in the same series as Pax Porfiriana. That means this is no simple card game. It is more complex than many boardgames, and it is truly a gamer's game. The setting is Europe during the Age of Renaissance. You are banker dynasties pulling the strings behind the scenes, manipulating politics, religion, science, trade, warfare and revolution. Your actions determine the course of history. Decide the future of Europe, and if you play the biggest part in this future, you win.

This is how a game is set up. The ten cards in the centre form a map of Europe. This is your game board. Each card is also the location of an empire. There are gaps between the empires, allowing placement of your concessions (the cubes in green, orange and yellow). The game calls them concessions, but I'm going to just call them merchants. The row of cards above with white backs are the west cards. They affect the 6 western empires. The row of cards at the bottom with black backs are the east cards. They affect the 4 eastern empires.

Every turn you get to perform two actions. You have many options. One of them is to simply buy a card from the east row or west row. Cards on the left are cheaper than those on the right. Every time a card is bought, cards to its right are shifted leftwards and a new card is drawn for the rightmost slot. This is Through the Ages style. If you have cards in hand, another action you can perform is to play a card. Depending on whether it is an east card or a west card, you play it on the right or left side of your player card. This difference is important because when you perform the operate action, you trigger either all your east cards or all your west cards.

That green card is my player card. I only have eastern empires and east cards, so they are all on the right side of my player card. The horizontal cards are the empire cards, while the vertical ones are the regular cards. You start the game controlling no empires. You get to control them via various means, e.g. marriage, conquest.

Card powers vary greatly, and each cards has multiple abilities. Most of the things in the game can only be done using card powers. So you want many cards played before you, to allow you to do many things. Each card specifies where its powers can be used. Some are specific to an empire. Some are for a whole region (east or west). These three here are all empire-specific.

Among the black, white and pink pieces, the horses are the knights. You can use them to invade neighbouring empires. They also defend an empire under attack. The cylinders are the nobles. They only defend. Black, white and pink mean Islamic, Catholic and Reformist respectively. Some wars are fought between empires, regardless of the religious beliefs of their fighters. Some wars are fought between religions, and only the relevant believers fight.

The black lines and the white lines which run around the board are trade routes. When you buy cards, the money paid accumulates in a pool. If you decide to perform a trade fair action, money is distributed from this pool. It goes to players who have merchants along the trade routes. Empires along the trade routes also get to build armies. The trade fair action gives out money and also affects the military strengths of empires. When you take this action you need to be careful not to benefit others too much, if at all.

The map cards are double sided. Most cards start with the kingdom side face-up. The other side is the theocracy side. You flip the map card over if an event causes an empire to become a theocracy. On the kingdom side there is a small icon indicating what type of theocracy the empire may become. England, France and the Holy Roman Empire may potentially become Reformist theocracies. Portugal and Aragon may become Catholic theocracies. The Papal States and the Mamluk Empire start off as theocracies, being Catholic and Islamic respectively. If they ever flip, they become theocracies in each other's religions, i.e. the Papal States may become Islamic, and the Mamluk Empire may become Catholic. We didn't have any flipping in our game. I am guessing this is quite rare.

These are the four victory cards. None are active at the start of the game. In the second half of the game comet cards start appearing. If you buy a comet card, you get to activate one victory card. From that point on, anyone who meets the requirements on the activated card may perform a victory action to win the game. In the game we played, quite often we needed both the actions on our turn to meet the victory requirements. We still needed one more action to actually claim victory. By the next turn, the winning condition had already been disrupted by the other players. The need to spend an action to claim victory is a clever stroke, making the game much more challenging.

The four victory conditions are (1) controlling more kingdoms than other players, (2) controlling more republics and laws than other players, (3) being most influential in the dominant religion, (4) controlling more merchants and merchant ships than other players. As you can see, they are all very different.

The Play

The difficulty in the early game is money. It is not easy to make money. You need money to buy cards. You want cards because they let you perform actions. The more cards the better, generally. I struggled with funding more than Han and Allen. Buying and selling cards is not an effective way to make money. You buy at at least $1, and you sell at only $2. The trade fair action is a better way. You need to deploy merchants and feel the money pool tempo. Everyone wants to execute the trade fair action at a time most profitable to him. You need to know when best to strike, before someone else does it.

Basic actions like buying cards, playing cards, and running trade fairs are not complicated. However there are many other types of actions, especially those enabled by cards, which are much more complex. This is not an easy game to teach and to internalise. Cards have a lot of text and many icons. Flavour text (historical notes) do take up much space, but aside from that, there are still many icons and keywords which are relevant to gameplay. The two card rows work in a similar manner as Through the Ages, i.e. like a sushi belt. New cards enter on the right, get moved towards the left and eventually get purchased. Usually you have some time to study the cards and plan ahead. Despite being a card game, you don't feel there is much luck. In fact it feels more like an open information game. The card rows are open information.

The game supports 2 to 4 players, and 3 seems to be the generally accepted ideal player count. In our 3-player game we had an interesting balance of power. Whenever one person threatened to win, the other two collaborated to thwart him. It was never easy to run far enough that others couldn't drag you back. The game can be quite vicious. You do need to keep tripping up your opponents. Some card powers are very powerful. I wonder whether 2-player games will be less interesting due to the higher likelihood of a runaway leader.

Only a subset of cards are in play each game. My gut feel is each game can be very different from the next, depending on what cards happen to be in play, and also the order in which they are drawn. The game is very much about considering the current landscape and making the most of it.

The black and white pieces here are the bishops. Black is Islamic and white is Catholic. Bishops are powerful pieces because they neutralise almost all abilities of the cards they are on. In our game, they were used to shut down cards which would otherwise have been able to behead queens, resulting in royal marriages being severed, and kingdoms lost.

The horizontal cards are the empires I control. I took hold of the Byzantine empire (light blue) through a royal marriage (my queen is the vertical card tucked under the Byzantine card). The three empires beneath the Byzantine card were captured through conquest - the Ottoman Empire (dark green), Hungary (light green) and the Papal States (white). If I lose the Byzantine empire, I will lose all three vassals as well.

Empires rise and fall easily. In this game you have no loyalty or attachment to empires. They are just tools. Just objects. You need to manipulate the geopolitical landscape to your advantage. You need to set up a victory condition which is easiest for you to achieve, or else you will need to chase after what someone else sets up. Since the victory conditions are rather different, it is possible that every player aims at a different thing. The game can become a race instead of a tug of war. However it will not likely stay a race all the way to the end, because if anyone threatens to cross the finish line, the others will be forced to trip him up. You may steal something from him which does you no good, but at least you slow him down and give yourself more time.

In my game with Allen and Han, we teetered at the edge of victory quite a few times. It often felt oh so close - just one action away from winning. The game situation can change quickly. There are multiple aspects to the game and thus multiple threats and also multiple opportunities. The game is not about being good at everything. It is about not being bad at everything. You can choose to be good in only one thing. That might actually be enough to win. But then it is also a little risky because you have no reliable Plan B. The only thing you must not neglect is making money.

The Thoughts

Pax Renaissance is rich, complex and challenging. The box is small and unassuming, but the game is ambitious and serious. It is a gamer's game, and only for gamers who have the appetite for some complexity. You need to commit effort to be able to appreciate and enjoy the game. I have only played one game, but I believe it has much variability due to how only a subset of cards are in use each game.

This is mostly an open information game, so it can feel quite competitive. With less luck, you feel more responsible for your mistakes and losses. You also feel proud when you make the right strategic moves. The game is satisfying in this way. You feel you have done something clever and outsmarted your opponents. Just be prepared that it comes with the kind of pressure when playing open information games. It is a battle of wits, and not everyone likes games of this nature, or will be in the mood for this type all the time.

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