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Subject: There's No Determining If I Like This Game rss

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James Nathan
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I was eating an apple one day, and thought it would be funny to review it. Some friends thought so, and then I reviewed some more. After running through the cultivars available at my local store, and some roadside stands, there seemed to be a simple conclusion: I don’t really like apples. It seemed likely that what I enjoyed was exploring the varieties of apples - different flavors, sweetness, crunch, juiciness, and so forth.

I think I feel the same way about, for example, trick taking games too. I have a near-addiction to trying new trick taking games, but, really, I’m not sure I like any of them. I like exploring the design-space of turn order determination, how trump is chosen, and what not.

Which is all to say, sometimes a review isn’t a review. I pass no judgment. I’ve played a few Eklund/Sierra Madre Games before, and knew what to expect going into this - this was going to be more of an experience than a game. (And, as with my feelings on Splotter games, I wonder, if as a community, we aren’t much more forgiving of Eklund’s games than if, say, they were released on Kickstarter from an unknown designer.) But I can’t shake the feeling that this is Northwest Mexican History Fluxx.

I don’t say that with any derogatory intention.

It’s difficult to develop an economy or obtain partners when they can be nationalized, assassinated, or any number of other things, at a moment’s notice. You can try to play the keepers for the current goal, but I’m likely enough to draw an action card to make it moot.

Hey, I know, I’ll work on developing the items I need to win given the current victory conditions. Oh, you changed the victory conditions on your turn? And so did the other players? Well,…ok,…. (Ok, that’s a disingenuous explanation of the situation as, more likely, you’re building up a certain category, and will change it to the victory requirements you need prior to trying to declare victory)

Now the regime changed - income is W from X and Y from Z and now A can/’t do B. (Draw C, Play D, Hand Limit E, Keeper Limit F)

When I say more of an experience than a game, and when I say it’s a heavily themed version of Fluxx, what I mean is a tactical game, masquerading as a strategic game - though one in which while you can’t count on strategic decisions, you still have to move in that direction. And I find that frustrating.

But I may have reached a point where I don’t necessarily care if I'm playing ‘good' games. I certainly don’t want to play bad games either, but I’m currently enjoying appreciating designs for what they accomplish from a design standpoint, rather than from a gameplay standpoint. I always struggle to describe my feelings for Trick of the Rails - as I have an immense appreciation for the design, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily fun to play. I’ve been eager to get more plays of Situation 4 in recently, but I don’t know that I’ll ever necessarily find the right balance of players’ skills to make it really work.

Which is all to say, I may love Pax P (regardless of whatever sentiments I may or may not have expressed above). I’m certainly looking forward to Pax R. The theme is sufficiently strong such that when I relate what happens in a game afterwords there is an unavoidable narrative that comes out of mouth - nationalizations, assassinations, troops, transportation infrastructure upgrades, depressions… and that, to me, is a good sign.

Also to me, as I sit back playing it, I’m amazed that it doesn’t come off the rails. It all works! The regime changes, the market for the cards, the victory conditions, the player powers - I love playing this game, not in the sense of ‘it’s such a train wreck that I can’t look away’, but the opposite - ‘how can it not be a train wreck? how did they pull this off? I can’t look away!'

So that’s where Pax P. is for me. I once mis-spoke and said it was a game where you shouldn’t go in necessarily trying to win - that certainly isn’t true, and isn’t a sentiment I would ever support. What I should’ve said is that it isn’t a game where you should go in with the expectation that it’s simply a battle of wits, and that out-strategizing your opponents is sufficient to give you a victory - because it’s not.

I don’t know that I really like it.

I don’t really think it’s a good game.

But I’d play it anytime and enjoy it thoroughly.
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John Bradshaw
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Some interesting thoughts there James. It's a game that fascinates and excites me as I read the rules, look over the cards,and watch the videos. I've gone so far as to print up some of the files on here and make my own makeshift player board.

Then it comes to Games Night - and it's in my box of tricks, but I never suggest playing it - just a bit too intimidated by the prospect of explaining it to others and then dealing with all the questions that seem to arise in play.

I'll definitely get round to it one of these days.
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Barton Campbell
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There's No Determining If I Like This Review
Humm ... is this a good review? What does it mean if a game inspires someone to write a review like this? It sounds like the guy was mind f***ed and just managed to stumble away from the wreckage ... Where on earth can I buy this "game"? wow

Honestly, I've had this game since November. I also printed everything out and carried it around but never got it to the table. Then I sort of developed an interest in and ordered that game about wearing the tiniest bikini on the beach, Bravery in the Sand. And I've been playing that non-stop recently (yeah, it's that good, if panzer bingo is your thing). And in all that gaming goodness I sort of forgot about Pax Porfiriana. But thinking back, yeah, it's intimidating. Also I thought it was a multi-player game. Now I'm reading it's excellent 2-player.

You know what? I think this is a good review. No, not a "good" review. What does 'good' mean anyway? That some idiot liked the game? That means nothing if the idiot that is me doesn't like it. No, this isn't a good review. It's an inspired and thought-provoking review. I would even say it's post-modernist or whatever you want to call it (however, not the post-structuralist scam that passes for post-modernism in academia). I've got to take the plunge.

P.S. I'm not personally scared to play the game. (whistlesure). I'm scared of having to explain it to my friends. Somehow, I feel that it's a lot less intimidating once you set it up and just begin plowing through it. These are similar to the kind of comments that I normally see over at Tigris & Euphrates or Napoleon's Triumph. Something is happening here. I'm excited.
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Martin G
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James, I enjoyed this review. You articulate your thoughts on the game well without bothering to regurgitate the rulebook. And I agree with you that Pax is primarily a tactical game. However, from the perspective of 60+ plays' experience, I think you undersell the strategic elements in a couple of ways:

1. Every card comes into play first through the public market. So when you make a decision, you do it informed by the knowledge of which cards players have already taken and which ones are soon to be available. Speculation gives you an additional tool to influence what gets taken when and to profit from it. If I drop down an expensive Partner with a headline that will Strife him sitting in the Market, I can hardly complain when I lose him a turn later.

2. The victim-awarded Prestige system is a brilliant way to turn what could be a game dominated by take-that into something more subtle. Yes, you can nationalise my enterprises and assassinate my partners, but you might just be making my Outrage win all the more likely. Each orange or black play has to be weighed carefully as to what it gives away as well as what it gains.

3. You admit this yourself, but a key part of committing to a strategy is owning the means to change to the desired regime. So, yes, regimes will be pushed back and forth to shift the economic balance between the players, but you can still bend the situation to your will in a 1-2 punch with a Topple.

I posted Pax Porfiriana: the Annotated Game to illustrate the thinking, strategic as well as tactical, that goes into each turn of a well-played game of Pax.

For me, the game it's most similar to is Innovation and it's no coincidence that both get compared to Fluxx. Both are games that can shift rapidly and wildly, that demand quickness of thought and creativity in response, but that still favour players who have a strategic objective grounding their tactical manipulations. I prefer that type of thinking (and find it more relevant to real life) than the machine-tooled perfection of our most strategic games.
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Paul Agapow
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Just to pick up on the point of narrative: this is one of the strongest (and least commented upon) aspects of Sierra Madre games - the almost inadvertent construction of a story.

Indeed, there are elements in almost all of the SM games that provide little in terms of game or strategy, and are are there largely to service the story of the game. As you said, people come away talking of how they assassinated a key supporter, stormed a gold mine and seized government. (Or in the case of High Frontier, slungshot around Mars, trailing a kilometer-long cooling system, propelled by a continuous wave of nuclear detonations. Or, for Origins: How We Became Human, sent their tribe trekking around the Pacific Rim across millions of year, taming wild dogs and racing from rising waters.) Sometimes, I've ended up comparing these games with one that might be considered a polar opposite: Tales of the Arabian Nights. Yes, there's a game there, but more commonly people are less invested in the the winner and more in saying, Dude you will not believe what just happened ...

PaxPo is the SM game in which the story and game integrate most tightly and - not coincidentally - it's the most successful as a game qua game. The story is still there, but it's better welded to the gameplay and strategy. Yes, there are turns of outrageous fortune, but the players need to ride these and adjust their tactics. Most impressively, by using just a random slice of the deck, games of PaxPo do actually end playing differently: there's lots of guns in this one, there's no Sonoran businesses in this one, the economy is buoyant in another.
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Dennis Ku
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I don't think Pax is actually a very difficult game to learn at its most basic level, but to have any idea how to play it well - I think that's when the learning curve climbs. And in order to do that, you need a few opponents willing to play this often, and that's where I've had problems. My main gaming opponent absolutely hates it, although he gave it a few shots. Too bad, as I really enjoyed trying to figure it out.
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Igor Radic
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Your review makes me thinking how many times did our gaming group played Pax Porfiriana - almost every other day,for the last 15 days 8 times.
I'm holding a record of 8 lost games in a row,so i'm not gonna write any review soon.
However,even for the ppl who initally did not like theme,after one play becomes irreversible addicted to Pax Porfiriana,and that is what makes this game or to be precise a study great.
Hated it and love it at the same time - but regulary we bring Pax Porfiriana at the gaming table.
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Warren Smith
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Nice review. I really like how you were able to capture the way the game makes you feel. It's a great reminder that games, like art, are experiences and not always objectively 'good' or 'bad'. When a game challenges our conceptions of what a game is, it feels strange.

Not that Pax is way out there - it isn't. It's basically a really awesome resource management thing with high player interaction and strong theme. But it is different.

On a final note - like so many great games, this is not one to be tamed after a few plays. Repeated play is where it's at.

Thanks again!
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