A Wintry New Era for 51st State
I love post-apocalyptic stuff. Mostly because I’d be a pro at surviving the wasteland. Sure, sure, everybody says that. But I really would. Why? Because I’ve planned it all out, see. I’ve got my— well, more on that some other time. A man’s gotta have some mystery to him, you know?
For now, let’s talk about 51st State, a trio of games by one of my favorite designers, Ignacy Trzewiczek of Portal Games, set in the same blasted North American landscape as Neuroshima Hex and The Convoy (which was one of the best two-player games of 2013). This trilogy carries all the staples of the genre: scarce resources, harsh conditions, frumpy mutants… but even so, they manage to create their own vision of the world after the fall. Let’s take a look at all three!
51st State: Rob, Bargain, or Build?
I’m just going to pile the negatives at the front, because other than some shoddy token quality, a rulebook speckled with eccentric translation errors, some particularly obscure iconography to decipher, and a distinct first-try feel to it all, 51st State pushes a lot of the right buttons for me. It isn’t the drafting that does it (though I do love drafting), nor the tableau-building (though I also love building tableaus, even though I couldn’t tell you what “tableau” actually means). Rather, it’s the way each card tells its own little story, and offers different outcomes depending on the setup of your expanding nation.
For example, consider the Police Station. Your eager young empire has come across a wasteland Police Station, still full of cops, still armed to the teeth, and still beating minorities, though nowadays the minorities have four arms. Now that you’re aware of the presence of these police, what do you do? The simplest option might be to cut a deal with them, letting them operate in exchange for a cut of their armory every so often. Or, if you already have some weapons stockpiled, it might be easier to exterminate them and take all their guns at once, not to mention strike some fear into the locals. Then again, you could also annex them completely, taking them under your wing and providing them with periodic weapons shipments to enable the continuation of their good fight, bringing law and order to the wasteland — and, more importantly, increasing your reputation.
And every single card offers these different options, spinning these little stories about the growth of your nation. Sometimes they’re funny, or sad, or merely practical. You can annex a pub for the useful information spewed by its drunken visitors, or raid a pawn shop for lots of random resources, or rebuild an old cinema to remind everyone how cool and unbeatable your rising empire is, or annex a school for its pool of orphan laborers.
The economy to make all this happen seems intimidating at first, especially because you’re working with four separate tiers of resources. First of all, you’re always managing your hand, trying to utilize the best cards and dumping (or better yet, conquering) the ones that don’t quite fit into your plans for expansion. There’s an element of worker placement as you assign laborers to work at certain buildings or make use of an opponent’s structures. And then there are the main resources themselves, stuff like guns, gas, and scrap. These can often be exchanged for victory points (provided you have enough spare laborers to carry them to the appropriate annexed building), or used to purchase the goods of the final tier: various “contact tokens” that represent your nation’s ability to interact with foreign elements, whether through conquest, diplomacy, or annexation.
There’s a lot going on, especially all at once, right from the very start of each game, and there are a whole lot of symbols you’ll have to learn before a card starts to make sense at a glance. But after some time and a few games’ experience, 51st State congeals nicely, revealing a compelling romp through a very unpleasant future.
The New Era: Now Letting You Attack Your Friends!
If I had one lingering complaint with 51st State (other than the sub-par components, poor rulebook, and dozens of weird symbols), it was that you were basically doing the “solo multiplayer” thing, with everyone focused on their own tableau and trying to generate their own victory points, sans any real way to hassle other players. Considering the very direct violence of the other games set in this world, the sudden hands-off approach to diplomacy felt incongruent. You didn’t win Neuroshima Hex by laying a bunch of tiles on your own board until they looked pretty; you exploded each other until someone emerged from the fray, bloodied but victorious. Like Thunderdome, but less silly. Way less.
Enter The New Era, complete with higher production values (wooden pieces!), a much cleaner set of rules, and new ways to interact with other players. It’s exactly the same system, right down to a few duplicate cards; only this time you can spend those later-game diplomacy and conquest resources to either make deals with opponents’ locations or destroy them, stealing their spoils and leaving rubble in the process. So if your buddy has set up a means of feeding building materials into his skyscraper reconstruction project, now you can ride up and burn the whole thing down, laughing maniacally as you watch his expression turn from hope to despair. What’s he going to do with all those bricks now?
It cannot be overstated how much this improves 51st State. Where previously a runaway player could continue running away, now it’s possible to drag the winner back into the mutant-lobster bucket with everyone else.
Other than that, The New Era is functionally identical to 51st State. It’s still got a wicked sense of place, my favorite example being the courthouse. What do you think it provides? Knowledge? Justice? Nope, you tear it down for its bricks. Which is rad.
Winter: Less Luck, More Control
Last but not least is Winter, which continues to evolve the 51st State system in two unique ways.
The first is that it mitigates some of the randomness of the original. In 51st State and The New Era, you were often on the lookout for heroes, special cards that provided extra opportunities to store resources between turns and generate victory points, and instant cards. These latter cards are things like “Thugs” or “Bridge,” discoveries you could capitalize on to get a bunch of diplomacy, annexation, or conquest tokens, often without paying any resources. Depending on the point the game was at, these could be hot items at the start-of-round drafting phase, and could be massive game-changers if a player happened to get the right ones at the right time. Early on, some well-applied mutant mercenaries could effectively double the size of your empire overnight.
Winter’s first major change is the Frozen City, a repository for heroes and instant cards. Now any player can send workers to claim these cards, at least until they run out, making the early game that much more fast-paced and exciting.
The second big change is that it slows the game down by adding a timer. Instead of playing to a set number of victory points, as in the first two iterations, now you play for a full six rounds, each one accompanied by some sort of extra bonus. Early on, for instance, you get additional resources and cards, while later on you get tokens that let you redevelop outdated structures into something more useful. And while this can slow the game down quite a bit with more than three players, it gives you some breathing room. Now you can enjoy your built-up nation for a while, burning enemy buildings and making expedient deals with their points-generating structures and trying to convince your friends that they’re winning and no you shouldn’t count the victory points right now.
If you haven’t picked up on it by now, I’m a big fan of 51st State in all its forms. The best way to enjoy it is to pile all three sets together, fill up the Frozen City, and go to town, eking out some sort of living in this brave not-so-new world.
Unfortunately, I have to confess to pulling a bit of a dick move with this review. See, it’s become increasingly difficult to lay paws on 51st State, The New Era, and Winter, and for the time being there isn’t a reprint on the way. Like its subject matter, this is a remnant of a long-lost age — the early 2010s — and no amount of nostalgia is going to bring it back. So saddle up and take it where you can. Personally, I’d pick violence, but diplomacy might serve in a pinch. I have no idea how you’d go about annexing a board game, so that’s out—
However! The good news is that Ignacy Trzewiczek is releasing a new version of the same system under the name Imperial Settlers. I haven’t played it, but I hear it’s more streamlined, friendlier, and not quite so dark (though I count that last bit as bad news). It will be out soon, and you can bet I’ll be taking a look to see if it can compete with my current favorite tableau builder. It has quite the reputation to live up to, after all.