51st State: Master Set is, essentially, a second edition of 51st State, (a game that I haven’t played), that incorporates a few expansions released for the original game and, supposedly implements small tweaks that Imperial Settlers (another game I haven’t played) made to the original 51st State mechanics. I mention those things because, after playing 51st State: Master Set, I feel like I have been missing out on 51st State this whole time, and I am very interested in trying out Imperial Settlers. This is a great game, and while I can’t say whether it is a necessary purchase if you own the original version, or if you own Imperial Settlers, I can say that it is a worthy, fun purchase based on its own merits.
51st State is a race to 25 points that successfully merges engine and tableau building, card drafting, and resource management, with a small sprinkling of worker placement. The game places each player in control of one of Neuroshima’s disparate factions, each fighting to carve off the biggest piece of the pie that is the post-apocalyptic United States by … scoring points! The factions are asymmetric, and while they initially don’t appear to be too different from one another, in practice they feel very different and distinct. After a single game with each faction, I had a clear favorite chosen (Mutants Union for life!) that played directly to my preferences and play-style.
Like many engine building games, 51st State offers an ever-present sense of gain. As you play, you get more, and can thus do more. Nearly everything you can do in the game rewards the player with more stuff, whether it be new Locations that can themselves produce resources, or give you additional actions to take on your turn, to making Deals with cards in order to be guaranteed a steady supply of resources during the game. Even Razing cards from your hand is like popping a little pinata of resources that you can use to do more Building, Dealing, and Razing on your quest for points.
One of the best things about this game is the fact that all of these options, and all of these gains, are built right into every card. Cards are drawn and drafted from a single central deck, which, if handled differently, could have seen players’ successes and failures simply based on the luck of the draw. 51st State nearly completely avoids this by making every card usable in every way. If you like a card’s ability, Build it, or, if you have a Location that has already been built that shares a Type with a card you like better, Develop that old, less awesome Location into the new, shiny one from your hand. If you’d prefer to get a safe, steady income the resource offered by the Deal on the card, go ahead and make a Deal. If you’d rather Raze it to the ground for an immediate influx of resources or points, you can do that instead. The cards all have a Contact cost, ranging from 1 to 3, but even if a player ends up with all 3-cost cards in their hand early in the game, there are usually ways to convert resources in to enough Contacts to exercise at least one of the options presented to them.
The biggest downside to 51st State is that with numerous options comes numerous tokens (13 different tokens to be precise), each with a different effect. There are the worker meeples, followed by the Resources, which come in 5 varieties: Fuel, Iron, Guns, Brick and Ammo. Contact tokens come in 4 flavors—blue, grey, red and universal—and finally come the less-often used Defense and Development tokens. While the Contact tokens are easy to track by their colors (red to Raze, blue to Deal, and grey to Build) the Resource tokens are generally best put to use by trading them in for something else, usually points or more Contact tokens. This means that you not only need to keep track of which tokens you have, but you also need to be able to keep track of what you want to turn them in to. Once it clicks with players, it becomes second nature to plan ahead and figure out what to do with the plethora of tokens that you acquire, but for new players it can be very confusing to figure out why you need one Resource over another, which you should be trying to get your hands on, and whether it is smarter to make Deals, Build, or Raze cards.
The best and most successful strategies in 51st State are generally those that maximize the game’s strengths while minimizing its fiddliness via smart use of action economy. Since unspent tokens are generally lost at the end of each round, players are encouraged to play as tightly as possible. It does no good to produce piles of extra Resources that can’t be spent, so the trick is to produce exactly what you will use at any given time, and that plays back into the game’s option-filled cards. Making the best use of each card is easier said than done, and finding the perfect balance, while avoiding waste, is tricky, and it can feel absolutely wonderful to get that balance just right. It feels great to be able to fire off 4 or 5 actions in a row, after your opponents have all passed for the round, as the machine you’ve crafted hums along efficiently.
You can’t ever rest perfectly contentedly in 51st State though, as there is just enough player interaction to keep you on your toes. The Raze action isn’t just a way to turn cards in your hand into a quick injection of goodies. Players can also Raze Locations that their opponents have built. It’s generally more expensive to do so, and it gives that opponents a bit of recompense when it happens, but it can really throw a wrench into the cogs of their machinery. Because this game encourages tight play, Razing a location at the right time can give you exactly the edge that you needed to win, but the same can happen to you. That bit of added tension, of never knowing when your opponents might show up to set something on fire, really gives the game that little extra something that keeps it from being just another multiplayer-solitaire game where your opponents are really just a measuring stick to compare your final score against.
A note on solo play: 51st State has a solo option that is quite fun, and comes close to capturing the same feeling of the normal play mode. It feels frantic and tense, and holds up over multiple plays. I definitely prefer playing against other people, but the solo mode is a great way to get familiar with and learn more about each faction, and figure out how best to play to that faction’s strength.
A note on “chrome”: The art and component quality in 51st State are excellent. The theme and the mechanics work well together even though the mechanics don’t feel thematic in and of themselves. I pre-ordered the game, so my tokens are actually a bit fancier than the retail version, although the retail version contains the same wooden tokens, they just lack the stamped bits. The cards are easy to shuffle, and are well laid out and easy to read. The rulebook is a bit odd though. It was written in a thematic-narrative way that is kind of funny (intentionally), but that narration ends up being more distracting than helpful.
The bottom line:
51st State: Master Set is a great game that has an excellent flow to it, and it gives a constant sense of accomplishment. Playing smart and efficient is key, as, at its core, 51st State is a game of smart economics painted with an interesting, post-apocalyptic brush. It plays very differently from Portal Games’ other games set in the Neuroshima universe, but, even though it isn’t a game about directly destroying your opponents in combat, it still uses the theme and mechanics to effectively give players the sense of fighting over what few resources remain in its desolate wasteland.
Get this game if:
You like the Neuroshima universe.
You enjoy engine/tableau building games.
You like economic games.
You prefer to outwit and outplay your opponents instead of beating them in a direct, head-to-head fight.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike card games.
You prefer cooperative games.
You dislike points-race games.
The copy of 51st State: Master Set used for this review was purchased by the reviewer.
51st State is a great game that has a great flow to it. The theme is rich and flavorful, and even though the mechanics and the theme feel like separate entities, they work wonderfully side by side to give the feeling of scrounging for, and fighting over, the scraps of a destroyed society.