The pedigree of the new 51st State: Master Set is a little odd, what with it being a dirtied-down version of Imperial Settlers, which was itself a prettied-up version of the original 51st State. Out with the brain-slamming hieroglyphics, out with the gamiest rules, and in with what just might be the cleanest presentation of post-apocalyptic living out there. Like many other fans of 51st State, I was skeptical that this new edition would be able to hold an acetylene candle to the original. So what’s the verdict?
In a word, this is damn awesome stuff. And if you get on my case about that being more than one word, I’ll raze your best buildings to the ground for pestering me. This is that sort of game.
For those who aren’t in on what 51st State and Imperial Settlers are about, let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re looking to expand your nation, which happens to be a scrappy union of mutants. We grey-skins got to stick together, after all. As of this moment you’re low on manpower, so you’re looking at a Merc Outpost. Now, right away, you’re presented with a tough choice, because there are at least three ways to use that card. The main way would be to annex it into your union, placing it in your ever-growing roster of structures. From then on, as long as you don’t pave over it to make room for something else or one of your rivals doesn’t burn it to the ground, you can trade something — a jerry-can of fuel, a crate of guns — for some workers. Great! Problem solved.
Then again, maybe that isn’t the best idea. The Hegemony has been raiding your territory, so perhaps you don’t want to take direct possession of something you might not be able to keep very long. Instead, you could make diplomatic overtures with that Merc Outpost. Then they’d send you a worker every so often. You wouldn’t be able to squeeze quite as many workers out of it, but at least they’d be out of the crosshairs. Problem solved.
Or — and 51st State revels in how many times it gets you saying that word — maybe you just ought to attack that Merc Outpost yourself. The stereotype is that mutants love attacking things, so why disappoint your detractors? Razing the base to the ground will give you a pair of workers right away, clapped in irons and ready for hard labor. It might be a one-time gain, but it just might be easier to pull off than either of those other options. Problem solved.
Every single card in 51st State offers this manner of choice. Where it really begins to shine is when you’ve got a hand full of them, a dozen opportunities and missteps all packed together. In addition to that Merc Outpost, you might be looking at a Brick Supplier for construction, a Church that might increase your state’s prestige, a Gasoline Drinkers’ Den where you can sell your surplus fuel in exchange for victory points, and a Scrap Trader who’s happy to buy iron off of you. The trick is to string these together in such a way that balances your need for more resources and laborers and cards against your need to transform those things into points.
This isn’t made any easier by the fact that most of your resources aren’t all that valuable on their own. Much of the time, resources must be swapped for a second tier of resources called “contacts,” which are a nation’s means of annexing, making deals with, or attacking cards. Guns, for instance, aren’t all that useful until they’ve been put into people’s hands and marched into enemy territory — unless you’re selling them for points, that is. Fuel can be turned into diplomatic overtures, and scrap becomes your ability to build structures out of your hand. The result is an increasingly complex game of economics, one where the shrewdest players will account for every last gear and pistol in their inventory.
It wouldn’t be surprising if a tableau-building economic game like 51st State was played mostly heads-down, with minimal interaction between the people seated around the table, but 51st even has an answer for that years-old problem by providing ample means to mess with your rivals. Some of the time this takes the form of using an opponent’s production building, handing them a worker in exchange for whatever that building manufactures. More often, you’ll be attacking people. Just as you can burn up the cards in your hand, so too can you stockpile guns, trade them for combat tokens, and start putting enemy real estate up for fire sale. This isn’t something you’ll always want to do, since burnt-down buildings provide a decent foundation for the construction of something else, but when a particular structure is earning a rival four points each round or would dole out some much-needed loot, there’s little reason why you shouldn’t go ahead and watch the world burn.
In practically every way, the Master Set improves on the formula that began with the original 51st State and was made somewhat friendlier in Imperial Settlers. It loses some of its old complexity in translation, but makes up for that in its ease of play. For one thing, the original game featured the “Rule of Three,” which stated that any structure could only score thrice before needing to be replaced. Here, each building is only usable once or twice a round, and the game is so brisk — three or four complete rounds being the longest I’ve seen — that each building will only have a few chances to shine anyway. The same goes for the game’s length. With so many options, it’s possible to spend an inordinate amount of time rifling through every single play, but since a game only lasts until someone reaches a certain (pretty low) threshold of points, it’s pitched as a breakneck race to erect the best possible income of points in the shortest possible amount of time. Dull, 51st State is not.
Instead, 51st State is perhaps the tableau-building genre at its pinnacle, full of important decisions, ways to undermine your opponents, spot-on hand management, and one of the tightest economic races I’ve had the pleasure of running in. As I wrote before, this is damn awesome stuff.