Base Game Review
Play Time (Box): 60-90mins
Play Time (Goof): 60-90mins
Producer: Portal Games
Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek
I’m coming around on engine builders.
Not people who build literal engines (although I’m sure they’re fine), but rather games about bringing certain mechanics, resources, and options together in order to maximise your score. In times past, if I wasn’t holding a gun and there wasn’t a monster for me to shoot at, I’d have questioned why the person who brought such a mundane game was wasting everyone’s time (past-Goof was a jerk).
But games like Android: Netrunner and Race for the Galaxy started to really bring me around. I know they’re not seen as “euro-esque”, but it’s fun having a concept in your mind, having opportunities come up which you take advantage of, and taking calculated risks in order to vie for success. It becomes almost a creative endeavour while you play. Turn efficiency and maximizing your chances of success in a game such as these are encouraged, unlike douchbaggery such as min/maxing in an RPG (I kid. Min/Maxers are… fine).
Like most gamers, I first heard of the Neuroshima setting through Neuroshima Hex 3.0. An abstract board game (another mechanic I’m coming around on – story for another time) with shooty shooty bang bang elements I thought might keep me interested… yeah… spoiler for a future article but I didn’t really like Neuroshima Hex. I was underwhelmed. But I really liked the setting. Post Apocalyptic stuff is always interesting to me and I thought the mutants and robots looked cool. I wanted to see what else was out there with this theme.
Thus 51st State: Master Set entered my life.
Sometimes I check out Watch it Played on YouTube to get a neutral idea about how a game plays before I purchase it. And the look of 51st State meant I immediately put it on the buy list.
I like games where you’re growing something (not literally. I mean farming games are… fine. Would you stop taking me so literally? You’re holding up the review). Whether it’s gaining levels, abilities and equipment as a character, or building a city or empire. In 51st State you’re expanding your faction through the use of locations. How you go about doing this is where 51st State gets interesting.
Each location can be used in one of three different ways: Build, Deal, or Raze. One of the things I love about these options is the fact the cost is the same (always 1, 2, or 3) but the resource you use is different. This keeps things streamlined while still offering a ton of options and strategies.
51st State is all about the combinations. You have to try and plan how you’re going to get the right resources to work for you. Maybe you’ve got a Fuel Tank which you generate 1 fuel from each round, and then you use your Convoy to turn that 1 fuel into 1 Blue Contact Token (a representation of your faction’s Dealing power), then you can take your newly acquired Blue Contact Token to the Gasoline Cultist who turns it into a victory point.
If you’re at all confused by the above paragraph – I get it. It’s one of those things you need to see in action and is a little hard to portray succinctly in written form. But it’s those sort of combinations you need to consider when you’re Building, Dealing, and Razing. I haven’t even mentioned each faction can deal with each type of resource slightly differently, and innately produces different types of resources. While it seems overwhelming and offers so much in the way of choice and options, I’m honestly blown away by how streamlined and clean 51st State is.
Another area 51st State creates interesting choices is through the Lookout Phase. In the beginning you’re just looking at what you need to build on the combinations. There hasn’t been a single game where by round 2 I’m not making hard choices between whether I want a card more than I want to keep a certain card from an opponent. It’s a small amount of drafting, and while it is brief it offers some control over how you continue forward, rather than only getting cards drawn face down.
This growing change in perspectives is masterfully done. Really. You start by growing your own faction and taking a passing notice at what your opponents are doing. Once you’ve got a little bit of a foundation, usually towards the end of the first round or when you’re looking to send your workers to get a couple extra resources from opponents open productions (which I’ll get to in a moment), you check out what your opponent has built, who they’re dealing with, and if any of it is too much of a threat.
Attacking other players in 51st State is costly. It is rarely advisable to go all out assaulting each other because the spoils you get don’t always fit into the engine you’ve built. But it’s not to say there’s no player interaction in 51st State. It’s just not the sole focus. You’re watching for opportune moments to strike, maybe they’ve got something which when destroyed will give you what you need in order to score more points or build another location. Maybe you can see their points total starting to climb and if you spend a bit to take out one piece of their engine you can slow them down enough to grasp victory. It’s a game of precision moves, not reckless assault. And I adore it. It encourages you to keep an eye on your opponents while not necessarily having a situation where one person feels they can’t accomplish anything because everything they Build gets destroyed.
This isn’t to say you can’t go gun blazing and seize control through a well armed faction. It’s just a bit more abstracted. You attack and discard locations from your hand. The most expensive location from your hand costs 3 Red Contact Tokens, the same cost as the cheapest player location to attack. So you have a much more profitable cost/reward margin.
Another player interaction to consider is the Open Production spaces. Basically some of the places which give you things can also give your opponents things if they send a worker to your State. However this also gives you another worker for the round. Meaning you’ve got another important decision to consider – do you Build a location if your opponent can take advantage of it? How badly do you need it? How well can they use it? I played a three player game recently where two of us were building Open Production locations but the third wasn’t. So the resources two of us were giving each other were sort of balancing out, and we were boosting each other while he started falling behind. This wasn’t an intentional strategy but rather an interesting observation after the game.
It might seem an odd place to talk about the opening hand, halfway through the article, but the fact you get six cards to start with of which you then discard two, I think, gives you so much more control over your starting position. You can start planning your combinations from the moment those cards are dealt, getting into the thick of the game immediately. There’s no slow ramp – the game snowballs into bigger and bigger combinations but there doesn’t appear to be a “common sense” opening move. You do what you think will work best for the combination you’ve worked out.
When I first played 51st State I made the mistake of thinking some factions were underpowered. This was larges because I would take say, The Merchants Guild, and focus solely on Deals. I didn’t really consider this strategy actually works against maximising round efficient. You have to dabble in most areas of the game – Build a decent amount to keep your engine going, Raze the occasional location for resources you can use in other areas. Each faction becomes more of a different starting point, a different focus to get your engine running, not necessarily a different “win strategy”. I know at first pass it seems a minute point, but it can mean the different between barely winning and losing badly.
The community on Board Game Geek has voted the best number to play 51st State is 2 players. I wanted to address this point here because it’s a comment I hear from the gaming community a lot. I actually like 51st State at all numbers.
Where I think the comment about 2 players being best is because 51st State can be really mentally taxing. I’ve actually Inception-ed myself a few times. I start thinking so far ahead about what I need to do by the time it’s my action I can’t remember what bloody step I’m actually up to. It’s a fun mental exercise. And this is one of the reasons 51st State stands out to me as an exceptional game. So few games give me this level of depth in this short a timeframe. So if it takes too long to get back to your turn just purely because you’ve got three or four players, I can really understand how frustrated players could get. I personally find the higher player counts give me more of a chance to plan my actions while the game keeps moving.
If you’re the sort of person prone to Analysis Paralysis, you can get really bogged down in all the combinations and decisions you can potentially make. Which can be like receiving an unsanitary colonoscopy from a mutant when you’ve got about ten actions you need to take in a very precise order and your opponent needs to analyse every new aspect presented to them. 51st State is not AP-friendly. But having said this, I’m not really AP friendly. So 51st State and I get along nicely.
Pros: +Multiple card uses, +Strategic options, +Streamlined, +Control over deck, +Growing Perspectives, +Good at all player counts.
As an Australian, statehood isn’t really at the forefront of my mind until State of Origin time. So maybe the whole “becoming the 51st State” thematic element is lost on me a little. But the way each faction feels – the look, the colour, the gameplay elements which change… I can happily get carried away with. I want to take The Apalanchian Federation and focus on having features in my state which I upgrade, or take the Mutants Union and tear through the country like a raging badass.
The way I view cards in your hand in 51st State is the intelligence your faction has gathered and as the leader it’s your duty to work out how best to engage with this information. Do you look to add the Corner Shop to your state? Deal with the owners? Or kill them and take their stuff?
The cost of a card is called its distance. Which is interesting thematically. What it feels like Portal Games were going for here was the contact tokens are the abstract representation of the resources you have to effectively interact with the location: Grey being the infrastructure to bring said Corner Shop into your state, Blue being the merchants or negotiators who’ll strike the deals. Red being the manpower and weapons to take it by force.
I know I just said the combat with the “NPC locations” out of your hand was a bit abstract. But when you think about how the fighting works from a thematic standpoint it actually makes a lot of thematic sense. An all-out war between two of the player factions would be costly, and although one side may emerge victorious, a third faction who is uninvolved is likely to be even more prosperous when left to its own devices. Attacking a Corner Shop who hasn’t joined another faction and therefore isn’t as well defended makes so much more sense in this context.
I do wonder sometimes if the post-apocalyptic setting deters some peopl1e from picking certain games up. It makes me wonder how well the setting is actually embraced – not by the consumer but by the designers. When you look at some stand out examples of post-apocalyptic games like Dead of Winter – or in the realm of video games something like Fallout and The Last of Us – there’s clearly a market for them. But I think maybe creators have to realise there are different kinds of apocalypse settings. You either go sombre and dark, give people the feelings of dread and betrayal. Clutching on to survival with every fibre of their being. Or you go brutal and revel in the chaos. Too many try to have it both ways and end up accomplishing neither. 51st State revels in its brutality, with some twisted cards when you stop for a moment to think about it. And I adore it.
Pros: ++Feel like a leader, +Unique factions, +Cards as intel, +Engage in the world.
I can’t remember a time being unimpressed with the artwork from a Portal Games product, and this holds true for 51st State. The cards just take you into the world of brutal characters, and scavenging what you can to survive. You get excited when you find a Pub or an old School, rather than half registering its existence like you would in the real world.
Sounding almost contrary to the drab world you’d expect a post-apocalyptic theme to typically be, the vibrant colours give me a similar sensation to the more comic book-y type of post apocalypse. Rather than feel depressing or scare people off, it draws you in and gets you to embrace its brutality (much like Krieg from Borderlands 2). I never felt the factions in the game were overly melancholic about the world as it was, but were rather embracing their violent new reality, grasping life by the throat.
The symbology in 51st State might be a lot to look at initially, but I never felt overwhelmed by it. Each of the three options a card grants you are laid out clearly and individually as not to get them confused. And the location cost being consistent across all three uses keeps it clean and easy to understand. (I taught 51st State to a friend who doesn’t play a lot of tabletop games the other night and his brain initially melted over how much information was on the card. But after 1 round, he was making moves easily and saw what he could have done better right from the beginning. We ended with three points between us so I feel like my point still stands.)
Honestly any other game of similar weight which I’ve played has a card or two which you need to go to the FAQ over. There’s often some weird interaction or wording on a card which doesn’t add up and it slows down the game and can cause players to start debating “but according to this rule” (you’ll notice I said debate, not argue. Don’t argue over games kids. Play nice). In 51st State the cards themselves are really simple to understand. It’s not about interpretation, it’s about how you use them.
I love the different rows of cards you’ve got Built in your state. The production, feature, and actions rows. And the Deals you’ve made being up the top of the faction board looks good… as long as you don’t have too many because once you do it starts to lift the board up, cards can slide around and it gets too messy. I’ve stopped putting them up there and just started putting my deals to the left of my faction board.
I LOVE the fact Portal Games decided to use both sides of the Faction board with different artwork. And each faction has a male and female option, which is cool. Not only does it allow players to pick and choose how they’d like to identify in the world, but it gives more depth to the 1world. You get to see how different members of the same faction may dress differently or have varying interests. It gives the game more personality. I think this is the point I’ve been trying to drive home during the whole article – 51st State Master Set has personality.
What I hate about the player boards is that in trying to make them more interesting by not just having rectangle boards, it messes with my self-diagnosed OCD. There is a side of the board I simply won’t use. And it’s not because I feel like choosing one cool looking character over the other, but simply because it looks wrong to have what is clearly designed to be the top left part of the player board anywhere but there. ARGH! I can’t be the only one out there thinking this can I?
THIS! This is how you do a rulebook. Teach me something and make me laugh while you do it so I’m eager to read the next section. I have a whole article talking about ways to learn games because rulebooks are so damn dull (I even mentioned this as an exception to the dullness at the time). There’s a right balance of entertainment and explanation, the comedy never becomes intrusive. Honestly, I rarely reread rulebooks after learning the game (and sometimes I only read them because I love you guys and want to do this job properly). I’d honestly rather watch a two hour playthrough on YouTube and work things out myself than read a rulebook. But with 51st State I’ve actually found myself showing people the entertaining little snippits. If I’m showing people your rulebook and talking about it as a positive, rather than leaving it in the box while I play, you’ve done something of value.
I’m going to quickly throw this in because I need to talk about it but this review is already getting way too long (all the pent up reviewing in me from this unexpected hiatus) – but the tokens in 51st State are really fun to play with. Their colour and design really adds to the comic book feel I was talking about earlier.
Pros: +Artwork, +Colour, +Symbology, +Clear card layout, +Use of boards, +Rulebook, +Tokens
Cons: -Deals start to lift the player board, -Odd shapped boards.
51st State has rocketed up to being one of my favourite games. The mentally challenging combinations, the colourful world building – it leaves me with the desire to consume more of such a great game.
I give 51st State Master Set:
51st State Master Set comes with two expansions – New Era and Winter. I actually haven’t talked about them in this review, and I’m not going to (obviously. You read the word “Conclusion” as the section heading yeah?). I went back and forth when deciding if I would (and realized I also haven’t played the Solo version yet). The Expansions are actually technically included in the box. Eventually what won me over was the excuse to play 51st State after I’ve finished this review, which feels like it speaks volumes about how much I’m loving every minute.
I got my copy through Tabletop Wonderland
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