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Subject: A lumbering beast of an overview of a lumbering beast of a game rss

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PJ Killian
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PAX PORFIRIANA

A Game For 1-6 players, by Phil Eklund, Matt Eklund and Jim Gutt

1. A sort of introduction

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a wealthy, connected guy in a country on the brink of anarchy should be in want of more wealth and more connections, at least if said wealthy, connected guy wants to end up becoming the next President. So when the opportunity to make some ready cash comes along, letting a piddly thing like four thousand years of ethical and moral traditions get in the way of investing in a sweet little slave plantation in rural Sonora -- well, there's just no percentage in that.

Besides, I've got a bigger plan.

The ROI on that plantation is pretty sweet, after all, and the proceeds can quickly be re-invested in a gun shop just across the border in Tucson -- a quick tour de horizon indicates that there will be quite a seller's market in firearms -- and businesses in the US are just a bit more stable than those south of the border. As my money machine starts churning out the gold, a few timely donations buy the loyalty of some revolutionary malcontents (even anarchists have their price) who are looking to stir up some trouble and spark the Revolution. All they need to do their work is some guns, and way hey, look who owns a gun store? This guy, that's who. So they strap up (at a tidy profit to me), then march on that slave plantation I set up, burn the joint down, and their leader (me) gets hailed as a great revolutionary hero for striking a blow against The Man (also, in this case, me.) The lost revenue from the plantation will hurt a little, but I piled up enough cash in the interim to replace it with a shiny new copper mine, and the influence I have with the revolutionaries will last as long as I do.

However long that is.

Welcome to Mexico c. 1900. Money is a means of gaining power, power is a means of gaining money, everyone's for sale if the money's right, and absolutely no one, anywhere, has to show you any steenking badges.

2. What's in the box? What's in the baaaaaaaaaaaaawx?

Man, that's a little box. Little enough that you could be forgiven for thinking this is a little game. You get some wooden cubes in five decorator colors, a fistful of cheap plastic tiddlywinks in three colors, a rule booklet, and a whole hell of a lot of cards. Very portable. You can toss it in when you pack your bag for open gaming at your FLGS without risking back strain.

This is not a little game, box size be damned.

The cards are nice. They are small (bridge-sized) which is both a plus and a minus -- bigger cards would make this game quite the space hog, but their size and information density makes this a game uniquely unsuited to the nearsighted, those who are Unhooked on Phonics, or those who play dense, historically-themed card games by candlelight with their romantic partner(s) prior to a night of passionate lovemaking. There is a lot of text and information on them, some of which is meaningful in-game information, much of which is rich, delicious flavor text describing the many, many characters that populate this time and place, from the obvious (Pancho Villa and his merry men), to the curious (ancestors of Barry Goldwater and Linda Ronstadt pop up), to the "wait, what the heck?" (Franz von Papen, more noteworthy as the aristocratic German nitwit who inadvertently put Hitler in power, has a cameo role in this game as, well, an aristocratic German nitwit.)

The wooden cubes are exactly what you expect them to be.

The plastic discs work in a pinch, but given a choice, I recommend using some actual poker chips.

2a. A probably unnecessary aside

If you and your romantic partner(s) play Pax Porfiriana by candlelight prior to a night of passionate lovemaking, your relationship is either deeply healthy in a way few of us can imagine, or profoundly troubling. There is no middle ground.

3. A very brief rules summary of a game whose rules cannot really be briefly summarized

Pax Porfiriana is a tableau-building card game, a la Race For The Galaxy and Through The Ages. Your tableau consists primarily of enterprises (tan cards), which make money in various ways, partners (which come in four colors -- about which more anon), who provide you with a permanent special ability so long as they are in your tableau, and troops (also in the same four colors), who can be used to protect (in the literal sense) your own enterprises from the ravages of your opponents, or "protect" (in the Gambino-family sense) your opponent's enterprises by extracting some of the income they make. In addition, some cards in your tableau carry prestige points (victory points, more or less), which come in four flavors, and are your means of winning the thing when the government teeters on the brink of toppling.

At the start of the game, your tableau consists of a single card that represents your player character. Everything else must be purchased from the market. The market mechanism will be familiar to Through The Ages fans. Cards are expensive (16 gold) when they first come out, but get progressively cheaper (all the way down to free) as they slide down to fill empty spaces left by cards that are previously purchased.

On your turn, you take three actions. The basic actions are buying cards from the market, which (usually) causes them to go into your hand, or playing cards, which moves them from your hand to your tableau, typically at an additional cost. You can also sell cards from your hand or tableau for cash. There are some other more specialized actions you can take on your turn. Once you've taken your three actions, you clean up the display, and then collect income.

But wait, there's more.

In addition to the cards that go in your tableau, there are headline cards (with a pale yellow background) which are played immediately upon being purchased from the market, and can (the option is in the hands of the purchaser) be used to cause an event that usually affects all players to one extent or the other. There are also black cards (actually more of a midnight blue, but just never you mind) which are played against the partner cards in your opponents' tableaus -- typically to steal them into your hand or kill them off altogether. There are also orange cards, which work much the same way as black cards, except they're employed against your opponent's enterprises instead.

But wait, there's more.

Many, many cards, when played, cause the current Mexican regime to change. At game start, the regime is Pax Porfiriana (hey, that's the name of the game!) which indicates that the federal government under the enlightened (?) despotism of Porfirio Diaz is firmly in charge. Card play can cause this to change to Martial Law (local governors and their militias are running the roost), Anarchy (what it says on the tin), or US Intervention (the Yanquis are fed up with all the lawlessness and have sent in the Marines to sort things out.) Government type has ripple effects on several aspects of the game.

But wait, etc.

Those orange and black cards? Many of them feature an upside-down prestige point marker. This is called victim-awarded prestige, i.e. the point is given to the person who has the black/orange card played against them. If you strike someone down in Pax Porfiriana, you run the risk of making them more powerful than you can possibly imagine. One amusing side effect of this is that it is possible, if not downright encouraged, to use orange and black cards against yourself to reap this victim-awarded prestige.


3a. A phrase which, if used to describe Pax Porfiriana, indicates that the commentor should seek professional psychological guidance

"Multiplayer solitaire."

4. A brief decent into Kabbalah

Terrifyingly, there is still more to the rules I have not described yet, and will not attempt to do so in this space. Thankfully, the game does hang together rather coherently once you start playing but there's a lot to drink in at first.

The number four looms large in this game. There are four colors of troops and partners, four regimes, and four flavors of prestige points. There are a few mechanisms in the game that steer you towards specializing in one color of troops/partners, but one of the challenges of the game is balancing the need to accumulate a lot of points in one category with the need to diversify your VP portfolio to prevent others from sneaking a cheap win, because dig:

When a topple card (a special type of headline card) is purchased from the market, only the type of prestige point that corresponds with the current regime counts towards victory. Everything else ain't squat (in this instance.) If more than one player exceeds the prestige point threshhold for winning on a given topple card, or if all four topple cards have been discarded without a winner, the winner is the player with the most money, and none of the prestige points matter.

5. A more general note about the rules

There are a lot of complaints about the rulebook. The mildest thing that can be said about them is that they are idiosyncratically structured. Other, less mild, things have also been said. These complaints are not totally off the mark. (If you've gotten this far in this review, you are probably aware that idiosyncratically structured writing is not a massive turn-off for me.) But I will echo everyone else's advice about reading the rules -- do not skip the Glossary. There's important and substantive stuff in there. In addition, well, this is just a big complicated game with a lot of moving parts that cannot be easily summarized in a big friendly eight-page four-color booklet such as the Euro-gamers do. There's no logical, rigidly straightforward structure to contain all of the various nuances of this game.

5a. A more specific addendum to the more general note about the rules

There is a notably hard-libertarian/Objectivist/gold-bug streak running through the copious historical notes and popping up now and then in the actual gameplay. For what it's worth, your faithful reviewer is firmly planted within hollerin' distance of the left end of the American political spectrum and considers Ayn Rand et al to be profoundly silly. The extent to which this political disagreement with Pax Porfiriana's auteurs affects his enjoyment of the game is: zero.

6. So, having ground through more than 1600 words so far without much in the way of critical commentary, would you like to enlighten us as to whether this is a good game, Mr. Reviewer Guy?

Yeah, it's real good.

7. What's so good?

There's 200 cards, and fewer than half are used in a typical game. With a few minor exceptions, there's no guarantee that a given card will be in play. Result: replayability (at least insofar as variety leads to replayability) is through the roof. Some games are incredibly tight on money, others have enterprises out the proverbial wazoo. Sometimes, troops are maneuvered left and right, sometimes, they hardly make an appearance. What worked for you last game is not guaranteed to get off the ground this one.

Theme is everywhere. Just about every card is unique in some way and just about every card has a thematically justifiable reason it has the effects it does. There's plenty of great games to be wrung out of a simple deck of cards, but few of them come anywhere close to telling the story that a game of Pax does. The historical notes (pages of them in the rules, and one on damn near every card) are a real window on a period of history about which you probably know damn near nothing.

Theme is mirrored in mechanics as well. The people depicted in Pax Porfiriana were gamblers in an environment that rewarded gambling. Banditry, government interference, striking workers, and even guerilla warfare were constant threats to their accumulation of money and power, and when they crapped out on one gamble, they dusted themselves off and started again. It's a rare thing to end a game of Pax Porfiriana with the first enterprise you started with, and the winner is the player who rolls with the punches and adapts to the situation on the ground.

8. Having said that...

Is Pax Porfiriana for everyone? Hells no. I've played this with people I assumed would love it who came away indifferent or hostile, and I've played it with people I figured would hate it who came away impressed. So it's a bit hard to peg. But I would suggest, as a rule, that people for whom a controlled, predictable environment in their games should steer clear. Likewise for people who want minimal strife and backstabbing in their games. Likewise for people who regard the thematic content of a game (and it's attendant chrome and complexity) to be superfluous window dressing.

If you want a game focused on long-term strategic planning that inevitably rewards the best execution of the best plan, run for the hills. Pax Porfiriana is a game that is nasty, tactical, thematic and narrative-driven, and thus swimming upstream against the trend of Euro-games that are lightly interactive, strategic, and driven by gameplay.

I can't guarantee whether you will like this game. Even if your tastes are very similar to mine. What I can guarantee is that this game will not feel like just another cookie-cutter worker placement cube pusher; on those grounds alone it's worth a look.




A few things that didn't fit elsewere in this review

You can play this game solo, according to some rules in the book. I would not recommend this game for someone planning on playing this primarily or exclusively solo. But it's an option if you want it. The game is surprisingly playable by dealing out a regular three- or four-handed game and just playing all the sides as best you can, if you're into that sort of thing.

The game ramps up in chaos the more players you add. I haven't tried playing with five players, let alone six (there's only enough cubes for five but you can easily add a sixth player by cannibalizing another game's cubes), but I imagine that a five-six player game would be crazily chaotic in a not-that-great way. Three seems to be the sweet spot. The game plays surprisingly well with two, as well.

Play time is highly variable. Player count matters (the more the longer), and there are several AP-producing aspects of the game between the time to read out the cards, counting prestige, negotiations, and the sheer wide-openness of the game. You can chug through this game in 60-90 minutes if everyone's moving along. But the game can also run three hours with people who are not even playing intolerably slowly.
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Martin G
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Brilliant!

(It's Eklund without a 'c' by the way )
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GeekInsight
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Great review! Thanks. I agree on nearly everything, but that's boring. So I wanted to point out the one potential area of disagreement:

CmdrOverbite wrote:
If you want a game focused on long-term strategic planning that inevitably rewards the best execution of the best plan, run for the hills. Pax Porfiriana is a game that is nasty, tactical, thematic and narrative-driven, and thus swimming upstream against the trend of Euro-games that are lightly interactive, strategic, and driven by gameplay.

I think Pax tends to reward long-term strategic planning with the execution of the best plan. It's just that, the situation "on the ground" tends to swing a little chaotically and the best planning changes. You can't see the end from the beginning.

It reminds me a little of heavy train or 18xx style games. Which I generally do not enjoy. Yet I like Pax a lot. You need to plan, you need to watch your income, you need to strategize - but you also need to scheme. You need to get in the other guy's way and you need change the tide (or ruling government) to your advantage.

And, while I enjoy the narrative, it's the gameplay that brings me back. That and the wonderfully divergent types of games that Pax plays. Sometimes you're awash in cash. Sometimes it seems like the bear market will never end.
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Les Marshall
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Excellent review. As to your closing comments, I concur that 3-4 players is preferable. 5-6 does become uncomfortably chaotic.

One of my favorite card games of all time.
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PJ Killian
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qwertymartin wrote:
Brilliant!

(It's Eklund without a 'c' by the way )

Corrected. No offense to Mssrs. Eklund, who no doubt would have been buying me a helicopter on the strength of this review were it not for this regrettable error.
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bestia immonda
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Brilliant review of a brilliant game!
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EXTRA AVOCADO! Sonderegger
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MyParadox wrote:
Great review! Thanks. I agree on nearly everything, but that's boring. So I wanted to point out the one potential area of disagreement:

CmdrOverbite wrote:
If you want a game focused on long-term strategic planning that inevitably rewards the best execution of the best plan, run for the hills. Pax Porfiriana is a game that is nasty, tactical, thematic and narrative-driven, and thus swimming upstream against the trend of Euro-games that are lightly interactive, strategic, and driven by gameplay.

I think Pax tends to reward long-term strategic planning with the execution of the best plan. It's just that, the situation "on the ground" tends to swing a little chaotically and the best planning changes. You can't see the end from the beginning.


I always think of it as:

1. Get locked into a long term strategy via early prestige.
2. Try to hide your intentions while benefitting via clever tactical decisions.
and then either:

3a. Succeed with that plan you had in a stunning coup de grace

or you know

3b. Throw the bathwater, baby, and bathtub out to try a new strategy because of a volatile card market.
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Geoff Burkman
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Excellent review that succeeded in interesting me in this game. GG was immediately called for upon reading the header for section 2. Nice!
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G. Gambill
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A fantastic review of one of my favorite games! Informative and amusing as well. I like your writing style. Keep up the great reviews!
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Chris Morris
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I really, really want this game, but I doubt the group I play with would take the time to "get it". It's a shame because I think. This would be a wonderful "Burn your brain out"-type game.
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Tom Shields
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Brilliant! Your creative exuberance mirrors the game so well, it's a great playground for the multi-layered energy you project. Thanks for writing this, and I've been reading your game comments and they're filled with this same insight & energy... just... just yeah!
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Ian Allen
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Well I don't know what the hell you were talking about, but at least I have no idea what you were talking about.

You are the true Dennis Miller of boardgame reviews.

Keep it up. We need more of whatever that was out there.

I think ....
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O.Shane Balloun
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Came for the lumbering beast. Found and read "2a." Was not disappoint.
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Mattias R
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Thank you for the great and unconventional review!
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Marc Conrad
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Great review! I play Pax Porfiriana for the greater good of the Mexican people. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet--it's the same with nation building. Please ignore any gun running, assassinations, exploitive capitalistic economic development, foreign meddling, mercenary armies, slavery, and any revolutionary foment amongst amigos.
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Mike Clarke
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CmdrOverbite wrote:
The ROI on that plantation is pretty sweet, after all, and the proceeds can quickly be re-invested in a gun shop just across the border in Tucson -- a quick tour de horizon indicates that there will be quite a seller's market in firearms -- and businesses in the US are just a bit more stable than those south of the border.

As my money machine starts churning out the gold, a few timely donations buy the loyalty of some revolutionary malcontents (even anarchists have their price) who are looking to stir up some trouble and spark the Revolution.

All they need to do their work is some guns, and way hey, look who owns a gun store? This guy, that's who. So they strap up (at a tidy profit to me), then march on that slave plantation I set up, burn the joint down, and their leader (me) gets hailed as a great revolutionary hero for striking a blow against The Man (also, in this case, me.)

The lost revenue from the plantation will hurt a little, but I piled up enough cash in the interim to replace it with a shiny new copper mine, and the influence I have with the revolutionaries will last as long as I do.

Way to paint the picture. The entire game in a nutshell right here. Wildly entertaining review. Thanks!
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James
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Ace review. I've had this sat unplayed for ages, now its back on the must-play pile.
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Jonathan C
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Wonderful and fun review, keep them coming!
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dave
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Great review. Thanks.

This game looks great. It kind of reminds me of the COIN games--none of which I've played either, but is that reasonable? Seems like there are different factions all trying to out-maneuver each other in a closed space. The 2 hr game length seems much more playable here..
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Wendell
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dave65tdh wrote:
Great review. Thanks.

This game looks great. It kind of reminds me of the COIN games--none of which I've played either, but is that reasonable? Seems like there are different factions all trying to out-maneuver each other in a closed space. The 2 hr game length seems much more playable here..

Similar in the underlined sense, though of course the way the COIN games play is very different from Pax Porf. Starting with the fact they have maps!
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Michael Brands
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Completely Misleading Review Title
Yes, that's right: The title of this review is completely misleading -- entirely, unequivocally, and sadly so.
This game is, simply, AWESOME -- and sheer genius!
The initial learning curve can be intimidating – admitted. However, the printed published rules are much better than any other approach to learning the game. Focus on how to win first, and the elements that go into that, to understand the heart of the game. With that, you can begin to realize very quickly the genius of this game: It is highly thematic, it is deeply strategic, and for that combination (already rare in games that reach the level of excellence), this game is playable (even very playable once you learnt it).
From there, the more you play it, the more you will appreciate the multiple thematic layers of potential strategies, and how these possible paths are inter-related in very fascinating ways. Games will be different every time, the Hacandado you play makes a different every time, you can try out very different paths every time.
I’ve looking into history games lately, for a new avenue of hobby gaming. I also want a game that is rich in theme and deep in strategy – and still playable with all of that. I am going out on a limb – but: This game might be the best of that sort. It is all of that, and playable in a couple hours – something very few games can boast when they seek to combine rich theme and deep strategy and historical setting.
What did I say at the start: This game is AWESOME – and sheer genius!
Happy gaming…
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Bippy the Goat
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This game is a beast to learn, but has so much fun flavor text that it is fun to play even if it is hard to predict or control.

Rule upon rule, layer upon layer, it is nowhere near as streamlined a revolutionary card game as, say, Guillotine, but it will reward players who enjoy a vast, sprawling brawl.
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Grant Linneberg
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5a.

+1

 
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