51st State: Ultimate Edition is the all-in-one package that includes the original core game as well as the two expansion decks: New Era and Winter plus the 4 “State Packs” (aka individual game variants that add new components and mechanisms).
51st State is set 30 years after a war that sees the collapse of the United States, the government, the military and civilisation are gone! In this post-apocalyptic world new powers, in the form of factions, have arisen and are trying to establish a new order and take control, to establish the 51st State! How will you achieve this? Pretty simple; many cards in the game will let you gain victory points, use them as often as you can because when any player reaches 25 VP they trigger the End Game Sequence. More on that later.
Originally published in 2016 by Portal Games and designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek with art by Grzegorz Bobrowski.
51st State is a card strategy came leaning heavily on the mechanics of hand management, worker placement and resource production/use, with some open drafting and asymmetric player powers thrown in for good measure. It is for 1-4 players and recommended for age 14 and up.
51st State is predominantly a card game and this Ultimate Edition contains a great many cards! Although you do not use them all at once, there are over 400 to drool over. These cards are a standard 63x88mm size, with great artwork and a decent thickness. I opted to sleeve everythign as they do get a lot of handling during setup and play but they feel durable enough for that not to be essential.
The Ultimate Edition has a minor upgrade to the wooden resource tokens and worker (meeples) in the form of single sided detail etching. A lovely touch that adds absolutely no benefit to game play whatsoever, but who cares when it looks great? The contact, construction, wild and shield tokens are all the same double sided cardboard that looks nice and works just fine (I would have paid more for acrylic or wooden versions, so it’s a good job they didn’t offer any in the crowdfunding campaign). There are some ‘upgraded’ wooded screen-printed Faction score board counters for all the 9 factions in the box. There is a cool looking plastic 3D “51st” first player marker, which is a definite upgrade on the original cardboard marker - it’s crying out to be painted too. The original, expansion and Uranopolis faction boards feature double-sided artwork (no difference in gameplay) on extra thick card and look great. These provide the layout for your tableau (state) building as well as asymmetric production and action references.
One big advantage to getting the Ultimate Edition is the triple layer insert that it comes with; allowing you to store and organise everything easily (sleeved or not). The token tray lifts out and is great for keeping your table tidy during play. There are individual bays for each expansion deck as well as a tray that works for draw and discard if you want. I genuinely appreciated this insert - having spent a fortune on various inserts/storage options for other games in the past - as it looks and feels like there’s no need to buy an alternative.
If you own or have played the core game there is nothing new in the game play of this 51st State Ultimate Edition. The various expansions tweak and add to the mechanics in various ways but they will not cause a problem to anyone familiar with the base game.
If you are new to 51st State, I will do my best to give you an overview of the game play and core mechanics.
Setting up is simple enough:
Select the core deck, add either the Winter or New Era expansion if you want to increase the card variability.
Then choose whether you are playing with one of the four expansions and add the applicable deck and components for that too. If you are totally new player, it’s recommend that you play a couple of games with just the core deck.
Choose Your Faction
Put the score board with applicable faction marker with in easy reach and place the token tray and (2 Connection decks) out and you are ready to start.
The first round begins with players drawing their starting hand of six cards, from which, four are chosen. This is done only once in the game. Then play begins with the Lookout (or drafting phase) - where more cards are chosen. Then the production phase is next, where you receive various goods from your Faction, deals and locations (early on you’ll get very little in the way of resources but this changes as you build your state). These two phases take a couple of minutes at most and the production phase can be done simultaneously to speed things up even more.
Then the first player takes their first action. You play one action per turn and you have 7 to choose from (two or three will not be available in your first turn or two) and they all involve either playing a Production, Feature or Action card from your hand into your State, making a ‘deal’, taking a card from the draw deck or connection decks or razing a location for its spoils. This is a bit confusing at first but keep the rule book’s turn guide reference handy and you’ll soon get the hang of it.
Play continues clockwise, with each player (usually) performing just one action. All actions require a cost of some kind to be paid - usually in the form of contact tokens. Once you run out of ‘goods’ to pay for these actions, you must ‘pass’. However, a strategic ‘early pass’ is sometimes a cunning option as it prevents other players from raising any of you locations or using your open production cards - use it wisely though as you will loose all unspent resources and tokens at the end of this phase.
Depending on when you pass or run out of resources, opposing players can end up taking several consecutive actions before passing. This feels great when it’s you, not so much when it isn’t. It is an interesting part of the game’s mechanics though. After all players have passed, the clean up phase begins, which involves returning all unspent resources and all goods paid as action costs (to score victory points) to the supply. The only thing you are allowed to keep for the next round are the cards in your hand. If you are lucky enough to have any Feature locations you may be able to keep some in ‘storage’ for the next round. The first player marker moves clockwise and the next round begins again with the Lookout Phase.
Even with just the core deck, the depth of strategy available is immense. Each faction has some unique asymmetric production attributes that lean towards certain cards, beyond that you are free to adopt a strategy - be that aggressive or minding your own business and change it as needed. The objective in any variant of the game is score the most victory points. Many cards provide opportunities to do this but do not underestimate the benefit of expanding your State as each card therein is wort a point in the endgame stage.
In 2 player games, there is not that much interaction between what you are doing and the actions your opponent takes. “Razing” one of their locations is the only way for you to negatively impact their State but this is usually quite expense in terms of Contact Token cost, so it won’t happen too often. Using an opponents “Open Production” is the other mechanism players interact and it’s a fun and hugely variable part of the game’s strategy and one that really becomes viable in 3 or 4 player games.
The art work on the cards has a colourful, ‘graphic novel’ look that really captures the feel of a post apocalyptic world. The card play involving making deals, razing locations and producing scarce resources fits into this theme very well. The “State Packs” build on this theme, introducing you to the evil AI “Moloch” and the unappealing prospect of venturing into “No Man’s Land” as well as adding new cards and game mechanics.
Pros & Cons
There is very little to count against 51st State Ultimate Edition, which so much content, game play variation, great components and art how could there be? It is an excellent solo play game with multiple options for this ever popular format to keep it challenging time after time. It plays great at two and three. Perhaps the only criticism I have is that in a four player game it can slow down a bit if one or two of your opponents are new to the game. Also, whilst it is relatively quick to setup it can take a lot longer to put away if you care about keeping the various decks separately organised as you have to sort through 100+ cards each time. Not a big deal if you’re going straight into another game using the same decks.
51st State is a very well designed card strategy game with a great theme. It does brilliantly what many games fail to do: provide a fun PvP experience with huge replay-ability and no single superior strategy, that is relatively simple to learn and doesn’t take hours to play. After teaching it to my wife, we are exactly 50-50 on wins. It works fantastically well as a solo game and is brilliant head to head. With 3 or 4 players there is a trade off between the game taking longer but having more strategic options available. The Ultimate Edition is phenomenal value, providing multiple variations to both solo and multiplayer games that will mean you could literally play hundreds of times and not feel like it was becoming repetitive.
51st State Ultimate Edition is perfect for the solo gamer looking for a challenge that, once learned, can be played in an hour and has many options to increase difficulty. It’s also perfect for partners looking for a great blend of head to head strategic action that doesn’t involve a lot of setup or even a board. If you are after a strategy card game that to play only with 3 other people then there may be better options out there but I still doubt you’d regret the purchase.