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51st State: Master Set Review

51st State: Master Set
Portal Games
Ignacy Trzewiczek
Grzegorz Bobrowski
Engine/Tableau Building

51st State: Master Set is a fun, excellently-designed romp through the post-apocalyptic wasteland.  Tactical choices in the use of limited resources abound, and a tremendous amount of fun can be had in building clever synergies within your victory point engine.

51st State: Master Set represents something truly interesting – an evolution of a game’s core mechanics across multiple retail releases.  First appearing as 51st State, then being expanded and refined over the course of several expansions, and then appearing completely re-themed and retuned as Imperial Settlers, designer Ignacy Trzewiczek has finally brought his design full-circle, in the form of 51st State: Master Set.

Jess: But while it’s really cool that Ignacy has continued to refine and evolve the game for so long, we’re not really going to talk much about that.

Andrew:  Yeah.  The truth is we’re late to this party, having only played Imperial Settlers once and never having played the original.  Instead, we’re going to focus on 51st State: Master Set as its own thing, rather than judging or comparing it to its previous incarnations.

Jess:  That said, let’s take a look at the flow of this card drafting/tableau building/resource management post-apocalyptic powerhouse!

Trade deals are a critical factor in your per-turn income. But what else could you have used those cards for, I wonder…

In 51st State: Master Set, players will control one of four power groups who are trying to establish order in the wasteland of a fallen United States.  They will do this by building up production lines for supplies,  reclaiming and rebuilding the ruins of infrastructure buildings, making trade agreements, and, occasionally, burning a structure or two to the ground.

As a native New Yorker, it doesn’t shock me in the slightest that we’re our own faction.

Each turn, players will draft cards to add to their hand, will generate resources based on their structures and trade agreements, and then spend those resources to add buildings to their tableau. The goal is to build up enough infrastructure to support your push to 25 Victory Points, which triggers the final round – the player with the most points at the end of the final round is King President of the Wastelands, or whatever.

The components in this version of the game are really fantastic, as are the art and iconograpy.

Jess:  When I first heard 51st State: Master Set described, I had very different expectations of what kind of a game it was going to be.  The fact that it is post-apocalyptic in theme and guns are literally a resource lead me to think that it would be a very attacky game.  But to my surprise (and delight), it doesn’t have to be – I cosplay Imperator Furiosa as frequently as the next girl, but I do hate people kicking over my stuff.

Andrew:  Totally agreed.  Also, I have to say that one of my favorite things in game design is when you get to use the same component multiple ways (forcing you to make a tactical choice between multiple desirable uses), and the card design in 51st State: Master Set is a master-class (heh) in that philosophy.

Upper right: Cost to build. Upper left, raze bonus. Bottom ribbon, trade deal income. Middle text, location ability.

Location cards can be used in many different ways:

  • Built from your hand by spending grey tokens.  This adds them to your tableau, and gives you access to their unique abilities
  • Used as trade deals.  These deals don’t contribute abilities, but provide a steady trickle of resources every turn.
  • Razed by spending red tokens.  Razing a structure destroys that card, turning it into ‘ruins’ (which can be redeveloped later).  The owner of the razed structure gains some goods, though, presumably looted from the wreckage.

Jess:  See, that last one is really interesting.  Of course you can raze your opponents’ structures, but you can also raze cards straight from your own hand, gaining the loot you would have gotten if an opponent had razed it for you.  In fact, it’s definitely harder to go after your opponents’ cards, so picking the time to invest in doing so becomes a tactical decision, rather than a core gameplay mechanism.

Andrew:  Right!  And since you can still raze cards from your hand and get a benefit for doing so, it isn’t as though a whole segment of the games mechanics become useless if we decide to ‘play nice’.

Jess:  And beyond even that is the fact that for ‘open’ production buildings, you can even send your workers to your opponents’ cards.  Sure, you lose that worker, but you gain the resource just as though you had control over the structure yourself!  Sometimes it’s not worth blowing something up but using it for yourself instead.  I love that tactical choice, and 51st State: Master Set does it really smartly.

The bottom line is that 51st State: Master Set has a lot going for it.  The best moments come from developing clever combinations of structures – finding synergies in these wasteland hovels and building up your victory point engine piece by piece.  Sometimes its a race, with all players steadily ramping up production until someone hits that vaunted 25 points.

At other times, things slow down, and we may end up taking swipes at each other – but always strategically, since even the choice to attack comes at a cost (and not just in spent raze tokens – remember, your opponent will get some resources when you blow up their stuff).

Can you guess what number triggers the end of the game?

What makes 51st State: Master Set the ‘Master Set’, beyond just really nice components, is that it also comes with a couple of in-box expansions.  The New Era and Winter expansions can be added (separately, not simultaneously) to the base cards to add a ton of new structures, which in turn add new strategy.

We’re big fans of 51st State: Master Set – it is a clever design, clearly having matured over the course of several games, and is a lot of fun besides, and we highly recommend checking it out.

(Gameosity received a review copy of this title.  We were not otherwise compensated.)

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