“The world you know no longer exists. There is no government. No army. No civilisation. The United States has collapsed, and now thirty years after the war started, new powers finally try to take control over the ruined country, try to establish a new order, try to control others and create a new country, a new state: the 51st State”
This is the blurb on the back of the post-apocalyptic world of 51st State by Ignacy Trzewiczek. For the uninitiated, Trzewiczek is the designer of 2014’s extremely popular Imperial Settlers and the newly released but also wildly popular, Robinson Crusoe 2nd Edition.
One of Trzewiczek’s earliest games, 51st State was expanded multiple times, but now, this reworking of the original game contains not only the base game, but two expansions ‘Winter’ and ‘New Era’ for the price of a normal game (result!). With multi-use cards, you will build locations, make deals with other survivors and of course, you will burn your opponent’s buildings to the irradiated ground in a bid to be the person who earns the most victory points at the end of the game.
Once you have made your way through one of the funniest and brilliant game manuals you may ever encounter, you and up to three friends will start every game of 51st State by choosing one of the four available faction boards.
Will you choose the aggressive Mutants Union and focus on razing every location you see? Or will you choose the more tactful Merchants Guild and make beneficial deals across the wastes? Of course, you’ll choose the faction board that bests suit you, and still burn things to the ground anyway. You’ll shuffle the huge location deck and then you will deal six location cards to each player, of which they will keep only four. Then, place your colour coded point trackers on the scoreboard and you’re pretty much ready to begin.
The flow of the game progresses in rounds that follow four main phases:
- The Lookout Phase: Refresh cards and create a flop from which the players will draft cards over two rounds.
- Production Phase: Each player’s ‘states’ produce resources players will need to build and grow their own states, or indeed, raze your opponents.
- Action Phase: Taking one action at a time, players will take as many actions as they wish, using their buildings and player boards until every player has passed and the phase ends.
- Clean Up Phase: All resources, tokens and goods are discarded.
Play continues in rounds, following the four phases, until one player reaches 25 points, which signals the last round of the game. Once every player has passed in the final action phase, points are tallied and the game ends with the winner having the most points.
51st State: Is it good?
In short, yes. It’s very good, excellent even. The rule tweaks from the first edition are all welcome improvements that make the game easy to teach and simple to learn. Yet, that’s not why it’s good. Every round in 51st State is engaging, challenging and thought-provoking. Each card in the original 88-card deck has multiple uses, making each round an exercise in brain-twisting alchemy as you try to transmute every single card from useless lead to game-winning gold.
I’ve personally witnessed friends who are not usually prone to analysis paralysis crumble under the pressure forced on them by the seemingly unlimited options. Which would ordinarily be a con, but in this game the atmosphere is constantly thick with tension as the machinations of each player grind like rusting gears against each other.
The runaway leader issues inherent in the original game have been tamed with an eye for balance most games would be envious of, if games could indeed be envious. The player interaction, which primarily occurs through the razing mechanic, is very strong as you examine each opponent’s board with an eye for detail that would rival any crook-handed jeweler.
Trzewiczek has taken a game beloved by those fortunate enough to have played it and made it an instant classic with real potential to outshine even Imperial Settlers. It is best as a two-player game, as the ‘one action at a time’ playing style keeps the momentum of the game hurtling along at a Fury Road pace, but the four-player game suffers very little, allowing for a bit more time to concoct your, most likely very evil, plans.
Whether you are tired of post-apocalyptic settings, or you adore them unquestioningly, I would encourage anyone to pick this one up and give it a solid try. Your first game will likely result in confusion, but your second and third games will see you re-examine and refine your efforts. Soon enough, you will be as in love with this game as I am.
The production quality, the simple mechanisms and the interesting puzzle you’re presented with all make this game worth investigating. The only issue I could find with this one is the sheer number of components. Which isn’t even necessarily a bad thing, and perhaps it’s the eco-warrior in me, but half of Fern Gully seems to be contained within this box and it can appear a bit more daunting than it is.
Overall, this is a masterfully designed game that showcases a designer reaching the zenith of his creative powers and one that would be welcomed in any collection.