Tuesday, May 03, 2011

I am become death, destroyer of worlds…

51st State

Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek

Publisher: Portal/Toy Vault

2-4 Players, 60-90 Minutes

Think: Post-Apocalypse Empire building with a confusing symbol language similar to Race for the Galaxy

Suggested Soundtrack: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

If there is one theme that seems under-represented in board gaming it would be the post-apocalypse. I personally have quite a weak spot for the genre in movies, I grew up on Mad Max and Logan’s Run. I have been heard to shriek “Soylent Green is made of people!” and have seen other classics like A Boy and His Dog, and Planet of the Apes, more times than I can remember. I see grim flashes of brilliance in 12 Monkeys, Children of Men and The Road. I’ve seen the train wreck messes of the genre like The Postman and I Am Legend more than a few times, and preached the insane gospel of Idiocracy to more than a few people.

And then board games. If you leave out the Zombie Apocalypse sub-genre, then off the top of my head the only two I can think of are Neuroshima Hex and this game, 51st State. Both set in the same universe, based on a Polish tabletop RPG that honestly sounds pretty interesting, but is sadly unavailable in English.

The Basics

In games of 51st state each player plays one of four randomly selected factions trying to build a civilization out of the ashes of a post-apocalypse United States. They are the Merchant’s Guild, Appalachian Federation, New York and the Mutants Union, each with their own set of base action cards, one each for Cooperation, Incorporation or Conquer. Each group has clearly different strengths and weaknesses dictated by their starting cards. For example, the Mutants Union can conquer even the most difficult locations in the game with the resource generated every turn by their faction; however, they have a difficult time Incorporating locations as it takes two of a resource that they have no immediate access to.

Turns are divided into the following phases: Lookout, Production, Actions, VP Count, and Clean Up

The Meat

Cards in the deck fall into three basic categories: Leaders, Locations and Contacts.

Most leaders accrue points for your faction based on actions you complete. Thematically amusingly, when a leader outlives their usefulness he can be “Killed” and replaced by expending a weapons token during the action phase.

Locations can be incorporated, conquered or cooperation established, as such each card has red, white and blue sections that correspond to each action.

Contacts provide a one-time use bonus to one of the three before-mentioned location actions. Conveniently, the contact cards color-code the available location actions; red contacts will conquer a region, which attaches the red portion of the card to your base to later use as spoils. Blue contacts are for cooperation, and they thus attach the blue portion of the card to your base and provide a cooperation bonus on every subsequent resource phase. Only the tan-colored incorporation contacts don’t quite match the white section of the cards, just a minor quibble.

Lookout! (Phase)

During the lookout phase players take turns drafting cards from a number of face-up cards dealt out to begin the turn. To keep the selection of cards from evaporating the game provides an odd sequence where after a certain player’s drafts an additional card is added to the table. I honestly thought that this would be overly complicated, but it turned out to be quite manageable and after a turn or two I found myself able to restock the pool correctly without having to recheck the rulebook.


When the production phase occurs each faction collects the resources available to them, at game start this is just the three workers and single resource indicated on the base cards. As the game progresses cooperation cards acquired increase production, as well as many of the locations incorporated. This is the phase in which locations conquered can be discarded for “Spoils” providing their one-time bonuses.


In addition to the three basic ‘Contact’ actions, players have a number of other actions at their disposal. Incorporated locations can be Redeveloped (read: replaced) for a single building material. This is a fairly critical function, as it provides a relatively easy way to get new buildings into play when older ones have lost their usefulness, as well as providing a bonus redevelop victory point.

Workers can be spent acquiring a resource from the bank, as well as being sent to work locations owned by yourself or an opponent. Outside of the card drafting sequence, and a couple of location abilities worker use is the only part of the game with any player interaction.

Game End

The game ends at the end of any turn when a player acquires 30 or more victory points. Each building and leader is a single point, beyond that, VP tokens are collected for redevelopments and leader executions, as well as leader and location abilities used during the action phase. VP are not constantly increased as earned, but rather counted up at the end of the turn.

The Beginning of the End

On a negative note, I felt the publisher should have included a play aid for the card symbols as well as the available actions. During our first play through we lost track of the ability to discard to draw and send workers to take resources from the bank. As a result Dan spent much of that game passing round after round waiting for the ability to take any actions. Additionally, the rule book could have been a little clearer at times, and many of the smaller rules kind of fall through the cracks due to their inconspicuous placement in the text. Also, the scoring track on the back of the box is functionally flawed. One bump of the table and the player tokens easily slide out of position.

Overall, I enjoy the game play, though games often seem to suffer from the randomness of the card drafting, and I can’t be certain just yet that the factions are well-balanced. I appreciate the quality of the graphic design and enjoy the mostly fresh feeling theme. The same game with a beaten-to-death theme like ancient Egypt or medieval city-building I would not have even bought, and probably would have had a cognitive bias against as well.

So I liked it quite a bit, and I’ll preach it’s gospel to my gaming group for a while, the end of the world is coming soon, after all.


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