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Cole Wehrle
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A review like this demands a disclaimer. Many years ago, shortly after the release of Pax Porfiriana, I submitted a design for Pax-style Renaissance game to Phil Eklund. The design did not prove worthwhile, but it did pull me into the conversation around the game that would eventually become Pax Renaissance. I have watched the game with great interest almost from its inception. I recused myself from the playtest mostly because by that point I was up to my ears in my own projects and because I didn’t feel like I had the necessary distance from the design to be useful as a playtester. I first played the finished game in November at BGG CON and have played it fifteen times since. It is a remarkable game.

Next to generic fantasy and the Second World War, no topic in gaming has proven quite a magnetic as the Italian Renaissance. From Princes of the Renaissance to Princes of Florence, the Renaissance is well-trod ground. Yet, these games have always been too domestic and too local to truly capture their period. Even Avalon Hill’s bombastic Machiavelli fails to capture the scope of the time properly. The basic problem is always the same. The Renaissance was all about contact and trade. It was a period about a world beginning to come to terms with itself and its dramatic size and variety. To look at just what was happening in Italy is to miss the point entirely. If the Italian peninsula formed the center of a great revolution in ideas, it was a nexus fed by tremendous forces swirling around it.

Pax Renaissance takes this broad scope as its starting point. The first thing players do when setting up the game is to arrange ten map cards in a two by five grid representing Europe. Well, not Europe exactly. Rather, the map represents the Europe of those in control. The chess pieces on the map form the ruling class of the game’s ten kingdoms. They are a motley crew of ensconced nobility (rooks) and warrior classes (knights). These figures, though differing in their religion, are alike in their interest in the status quo.



Between these map cards are the favored serfs (pawns) who through hard work and political connections have secured trade concessions and begun to amass fortunes. At the start of the game there will only be between two and four cubes on the board. That’s you: a small cube in a very unfriendly world, literally living on the edge.

At first, you will probably want to put more cubes into play. The best way to do this is to play matchmaker, snagging up queens from the market and finding suitable beaus. Coronations will put kingdoms to play which allow players to place new concessions on the boarders of that kingdom. These little concessions are critical money-makers. Every once in a while, players will resolve a trade route. When this happens a big pile a money will wind through Europe, paying out coins to the favored serfs and bolstering the ruling class with levies in each kingdom it enters. The ruling class likes this because it secures its position with new knights and rooks. And, of course, the serfs don’t mind the inflow of cash. It’s good to be friends with the ruling class.

But there’s another Europe, a shadow Europe. As the various kingdoms become active, pieces may find themselves repressed. These pieces are pushed out of the ruling class and are instead stored on the corresponding king cards. Here they will fume until some conspiracy gives them a chance reemerge. Serfs can end up on these cards too. When a new player takes over a kingdom a previously privileged serf may find themselves consigned to bondage. When the kingdom changes hands again they may have a chance at emancipation, or, perhaps a peasant revolt will set things right.

In any case, timing is everything. A map card with lots of pieces is considerably more stable than one without any pieces. So, it’s usually best to wait until some foolish war destabilizes the Holy Roman Empire before triggering a massive peasant revolt. You also won’t be the only one looking to upset things. Another player may hope that the destabilized Holy Roman Empire may serve as the center for a Reformation of the Catholic church. Perhaps if a holy war could be declared another foothold may be established in northern Europe…

That kind of scheming forms the heart of Pax Renaissance. This is a game about the fate of Europe where players attach themselves to differing visions of what Europe can and should be. Can the Ottoman empire unite Europe under a single caliphate? Can the merchant adventures of a remote and backwards island like England upset the eastern trade monopoly? Can the exiled scions of the Byzantine Empire capture their ancestral home and remake Justinian’s empire? Will another Crusade restore Christian supremacy in the East or might the waring Italian states form an enlightened republic?



Collectively the players will answer these questions through their attempts to activate and then secure one of the games four victory conditions. That’s right, this is a Pax game without the standard “Topple System.” Instead governments are going to be toppling with alarming regularity over the course of the game. Then, towards the end of the game four “Comet Cards” are going to come out in the market. When players buy these cards, they get to activate one of the conditions. Each condition presents a new path to victory from owning a bunch of kings and vassals (Imperial Victory) to securing influence in the supreme religion (Holy Victory).

These conditions are not balanced nor do they try to be. The Imperial victory is certainly the easiest to achieve but for this reason it’s often the last activated as cash-rich players without kings will be sure to activate the early comets for their own purposes.

All of this produces an outrageous push and pull between the players as they step over each other and their favored regimes in order to snatch the brass ring. But this jockeying has consequences. More than any of the other Pax games, Pax Renaissance is deeply hydraulic. A new government in England tends to have repercussions elsewhere and what goes around tends to come around with alarming regularity.

Such butterflying can also be seen in the game’s economy which builds on the semi-closed economy of Pax Pamir. Here, however, there are far more ways to pull money in and take money out of the game. The repression of pieces can quickly syphon cash back to the bank (colorfully called “China”). Trade, on the other hand, can bring new money in circulation. This means that cash tends to “pool” less than in Pamir with just about every player having some opportunity gain some revenue source. This is important, because players will have plenty of things to spend money on. More than either Pamir or Porfiriana, it’s common for cards to be bought from the rightmost market column. And the Imperial Victory often requires an ample treasury to fund campaign actions.

On top of it all there are a new set of special actions to master. Believe it or not, just about everything I’ve described to this point can be done independent of the special actions on the cards. As with Pamir, when players buy and play cards they are also setting up a menu of possible special actions which they can activate with either an Eastern or Western Op. These Ops allow a player to take actions on all of the cards on either side of his or her tableau. The actions give players a huge range of options, from conspiratorial “sieges” which can gradually erode power (setting the stage for conquest or revolution), to beheading those same troublesome conspirators. Unlike Pamir, these actions are largely “free” in that they only require activation to use. But, players will be flooded with demands on their actions and so taking the time to purge the Hungarian court just may not be worth the effort.

Nor will you always have the opportunity to use your actions. The spies which threatened tableaus in Pamir have in Renaissance been replaced by Bishops. These Bishops likewise travel on tableau cards, but here they are less agents of destruction. Instead, they silence the cards on which they stand, disallowing non-religious actions. Collectively, they add an important strategic axis. One of the best ways to deal with a warmongering empire is to send in Bishop to calm things down.

Of course, Bishops have their own vulnerabilities. The card that hosts them can be sold or beheaded, and another bishop of a rival faith might come stop by for a little religious debate that end in mutual destruction. Having witnessed my share of religious debates I can attest to the accuracy of Phil’s simulation in this regard.

It would require another essay of considerable length for me to sort through the many claims Phil is making with his treatment of the Renaissance. I find many of his arguments compelling and some spurious. For example, his general theory of state stability and regime change rings true, as does the link between trade concession and political connection. However, the core argument that the bankers of Europe were the great drivers of all that the game represents seems impossible. And I know many Lutherans who would have some serious problems with the framing of the Reformation as pawns in a battle of bankers. There is something conspiratorial about the whole thing. Then again, games cannot help be conspiratorial. The “player” in any historical simulation—let alone one as broad as Pax Renaissance—is always a thin conceit. The shallowness of representation tells us more about the limitations of our art-form than our history. We know that a moment is made by many people and many histories all pushing on each other. Only so many players can sit at the table and play a game.

The best and most revealing games find ways to transcend this limitation. As players push towards victory, the friction between their positions can generate a remarkable energy. Suddenly, the world of the game might seem to be filled with many voices. By this metric Pax Renaissance is a breathtaking accomplishment. The Europe captured by the game seems positively teeming with possibility and, for a moment, players can seem to exist in a world that is so much wider than the ten map cards arrayed on their kitchen table.

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Cole Wehrle
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Andrew Denison
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Awesome review! I really want to get Pax Renaissance and Pax Pamir to the table more.
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Mike Oberly
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Cole, this is a tremendous piece of writing. I'd hate to describe it merely as a 'review'. Phil should put this essay at the end of the rulebook in future editions.

I am in the first stages of trying to learn the rules, but it's evident that this is a mind boggling, sprawling game. The lineage from Porfiriana and Pamir is clear, yet this feels like a completely new design. The proof is in the play, though, as ever. Very excited about this design.
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Mick Mickelsen
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And Cole didn't even mention that you get all this game in one tiny little package!

I love this game. It's Europa Universalis translated into some cards, a few pages of rules and a few chess pieces, and It's Here I Stand for 2-4 players playable in less than 2 hours.
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Cole Wehrle
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mickmick wrote:
And Cole didn't even mention that you get all this game in one tiny little package!

I love this game. It's Europa Universalis translated into some cards, a few pages of rules and a few chess pieces, and It's Here I Stand for 2-4 players playable in less than 2 hours.


I nearly titled the review "Here I Stand Killer" but couldn't quite bring myself to do it. Beach's design is seminal, but it is also extraordinarily demanding and too top down in its ethos. It's a fine political game, but the Renaissance demands the kind of multi-leveled treatment that Phil and Matt give it here.

That the game scales beautifully from two to four players and takes only an hour once players get a good handle on the rules is really amazing.
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Christopher
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mickmick wrote:
And Cole didn't even mention that you get all this game in one tiny little package!

I love this game. It's Europa Universalis translated into some cards, a few pages of rules and a few chess pieces, and It's Here I Stand for 2-4 players playable in less than 2 hours.


I'm not yet on board with Pax-HIS comparisons. I believe they offer two, unique perspectives of the Renaissance, and are very different games.

Here I Stand is extremely one-dimensional compared to Pax Ren, but it was intentionally designed that way. At its core it is a war game with a hint of politics. It creates a facade of religion and trade through card play, but a player's success, even the protestant player, is measured by the amount of territory acquired or lost. I enjoy the military aspect of HIS and believe it effectively tells a fine story.

Pax Ren's narrative somehow simultaneously zooms in and out. Players are not generals, kings, or popes - rather they are 15th century versions of the Koch Brothers and George Soros. Their focus is entirely different from HIS: influence is no longer measured in the size of your empire (because you don't have one, at least not for long), but in your ability to effect changes in that region. And, your ability to influence change alone is still not enough to win. You also need to position yourself to choose how success will be measured.

Yes, HIS and Pax cover similar topics, but they do so very differently. I enjoy dudes on a map, but I also like intrigue, royal weddings, and beheadings. Right now, I prefer Pax Ren and believe it is a better game, but HIS still has a place on my 'want to play' list.

ninja'd by prose master cole
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Mark von Minden
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
That the game scales beautifully from two to four players and takes only an hour once players get a good handle on the rules is really amazing.

I meant to ask you if you tried the 2p game and how it went. Sounds like you had a favorable impression.

Great review Cole. This has me excited to dig in more (haven't played since my two games at bgg.con).
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Geoff Conn
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I have to say, this raises the game considerably in my eyes...I did not think the pax system would make sense in this arena until now.
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Mick Mickelsen
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falafel007 wrote:

I'm not yet on board with Pax-HIS comparisons. I believe they offer two, unique perspectives of the Renaissance, and are very different games.


I agree they are very different games. Here I Stand is excellent, but it doesn't scale well and it is crazy long.
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Richard Hellsten
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mickmick wrote:
falafel007 wrote:

I'm not yet on board with Pax-HIS comparisons. I believe they offer two, unique perspectives of the Renaissance, and are very different games.


I agree they are very different games. Here I Stand is excellent, but it doesn't scale well and it is crazy long.

I think its easy to argue the other way too, Pax Ren is amazing, but when the players know what they are doing, the game is very quick. To the extent that the renaissance is not done justice in 45 minutes.

The games sit at very different ends of the historical games spectrum. I cant see how one can replace the other at all.
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Cole Wehrle
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falafel007 wrote:

Here I Stand is extremely one-dimensional compared to Pax Ren, but it was intentionally designed that way. At its core it is a war game with a hint of politics. It creates a facade of religion and trade through card play, but a player's success, even the protestant player, is measured by the amount of territory acquired or lost. I enjoy the military aspect of HIS and believe it effectively tells a fine story.

Pax Ren's narrative somehow simultaneously zooms in and out. Players are not generals, kings, or popes - rather they are 15th century versions of the Koch Brothers and George Soros. Their focus is entirely different from HIS: influence is no longer measured in the size of your empire (because you don't have one, at least not for long), but in your ability to effect changes in that region. And, your ability to influence change alone is still not enough to win. You also need to position yourself to choose how success will be measured.


Right. So both games are committing crimes of representation. With HiS you are getting a one dimensional view of things ("You are Charles or Henry or whatnot") which flattens all of the social and cultural and political movements into event cards. A lot of people get erased with this choice and the six player regimes look a lot more inevitable than they probably are. With Pax Ren, you get a much broader representation. That, to my mind, is a very good thing. HOWEVER, you have to buy into the game's conceit that the bankers were the ones pulling the strings. This is a hard pill to swallow, given the kind of nonsense that gets bandied about these days about George Soros or the Koch brothers or (worse still) some grand conspiracy of (usually Jewish) bankers operating at a global level. I'd hate to think that the game might be misinterpreted by someone on the alt right and used as proof of world order.

So, we've got to pick our poison. Either we take the whiggish HiS with its conflation of the national and the personal or we entertain thoughts of a vast conspiracy.

As I said in my review, I think these positions have a lot more to do with the limits of game design than with our history. For this reason, I think I'm more inclined towards the conspiratorial because I think that if it misses the big picture it gets so many things at the local level right.


mrkvm wrote:
Cole Wehrle wrote:
That the game scales beautifully from two to four players and takes only an hour once players get a good handle on the rules is really amazing.

I meant to ask you if you tried the 2p game and how it went. Sounds like you had a favorable impression.



I like the two player game but it has a different feel. For one it is shorter. Usually our games have taken about 30-45 minutes which puts this in Porfiriana territory. As with Porfiriana it's a little easier to snatch victory. The small deck size can make certain victory conditions more or less impossible. Still, I've really enjoyed the two player game and would say that it scales well. I would say the sweet spot is probably 3 or 4.

RAVENBURG wrote:
mickmick wrote:
falafel007 wrote:

I'm not yet on board with Pax-HIS comparisons. I believe they offer two, unique perspectives of the Renaissance, and are very different games.


I agree they are very different games. Here I Stand is excellent, but it doesn't scale well and it is crazy long.

I think its easy to argue the other way too, Pax Ren is amazing, but when the players know what they are doing, the game is very quick. To the extent that the renaissance is not done justice in 45 minutes.

The games sit at very different ends of the historical games spectrum. I cant see how one can replace the other at all.


Now that I've gotten a pretty good handle on the game, we can usually play a couple of matches in a sitting and even a four comet game can be finished in just over an hour. The game may be, on balance, the fastest of the Pax games so far.

This makes the comparison between HiS and Pax Renaissance hard because we are almost comparing different genres so its difficult to say which is better. The time it takes to play a game surely counts for something, but I don't think longer is necessarily better. I've played games of Lords of the Renaissance that took 12 hours to finish. They were magnificent in their own way, but, like the adaption of Lords of the Sierra Madre into Pax Porfiriana, I think the power of Pax Renaissance is in its ability to compress without that great of a loss of detail. Phil and Matt manage this by looking at the world a little differently from the rest of us. Don't get me wrong, I like HiS, but I find the way Pax Renaissance handles religion (via Reformation one-shots, bishops, and their interface with state structures) far more compelling than the dice mini game of HiS.

Where HiS has a significant advantage I think is in its treatment of diplomacy. Here Pax Renaissance's blistering pace doesn't really allow room for meaningful diplomatic maneuver. I think this remains Pamir's greatest strength compared to other Pax games. But, for a game that captures the geopolitics of the reformation, HiS is still about as good as gets.
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Richard Hellsten
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Peoples preferred duration of game is something that will vary. I am heavily resistant to the BGG community's urge for reductionism that games have to 'fire' other games. Here I Stand is a game that shares a historical time frame with Pax Renaissance and little else. I'd hate for someone to miss out on HIS on the basis that they were told that Pax Ren has completely superceded it.

To make it clear, I love both games. In fact I think Pax Ren might be my favourite game in the last few years. However, the game length will inevitably 'cheapen' what is going on here. Vlad the Impaler ends up getting reduced to a card that will take control of Hungary most of the time. In a shorter game where play immediately moves on to the next thing there is no weight to what the card represents. This is a common flaw IMO in 'shorter' games.

This sliding scale is not anything new. Ultimately my goal here is to encourage others to try things and not bend to the perceived wisdom of the BGG community that all games must be 'elegant', 'streamlined' and playable in 60 minutes. To blinker yourself in such a way would be to miss out on a variety of great gaming experiences.
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Cole Wehrle
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RAVENBURG wrote:
However, the game length will inevitably 'cheapen' what is going on here. Vlad the Impaler ends up getting reduced to a card that will take control of Hungary most of the time. In a shorter game where play immediately moves on to the next thing there is no weight to what the card represents. This is a common flaw IMO in 'shorter' games.


I'd say this is more of a problem with the players than the game.

I feel like you're misunderstanding my point. The important distinction between HiS and Pax Ren is not length but focus. HiS, almost despite its length, is a far more focused game. This means that the game is really good when it comes to geopolitics and really bad when it comes to its representation of the stability of regimes and the interactions between state legitimacy and the reformation/political unrest.

As I said, there's a reason I didn't title my review "HiS Killer." Pax Ren does no such thing. However, I would suggest that Pax Ren better captures its period than HiS and has many more interesting things to say about that period.

That doesn't mean HiS shouldn't get played.
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Roel van der Hoorn
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Although I haven't played Here I Stand, I found The Napoleonic Wars and Virgin Queen too long for my taste. And while their asymmetrical design is an accomplishment, player engagement/involvement is asymmetrical as well. And that is something I do not particularly enjoy. For me it makes them once-in-a-year games.

I find the COIN games somewhat better in that regard, since player involvement is relatively symmetrical. But their length and pre-determined strategies are still somewhat of an issue for me.

Where the Pax games really shine is the distance you have as a player to the actual factions. 18xx games, while being totally different, also have this. It gives you an enormous freedom as a player to pursue yóur strategies, compared to the strategies of the actual factions. The only limit is the cards that come out on the market.
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Richard Hellsten
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Cole Wehrle wrote:
I feel like you're misunderstanding my point. The important distinction between HiS and Pax Ren is not length but focus. HiS, almost despite its length, is a far more focused game. This means that the game is really good when it comes to geopolitics and really bad when it comes to its representation of the stability of regimes and the interactions between state legitimacy and the reformation/political unrest.

No, the original point I was replying to was about length not focus. I understand your point, and don't disagree. Pax's abstractions let it cover a wider variety of things, but risk the subject matter becoming a veneer over the game mechanisms.

As for whether the blame lies with the players or the game I think both have their fair share of the responsibility. As previously stated, you can't do justice to the Renaissance in 45 minutes.
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Cole Wehrle
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RAVENBURG wrote:

No, the original point I was replying to was about length not focus. I understand your point, and don't disagree. Pax's abstractions let it cover a wider variety of things, but risk the subject matter becoming a veneer over the game mechanisms.


My bad. I thought you were responding to my comment (and was therefore a little confused).

There's another conversation here about immersion when it comes to little card games like the Paxes. I remember a conversation I had awhile back with a friend about Race for the Galaxy. He said that his first play was awesome because the game felt so thematic and the narrative just jumped out. Repeat plays killed the game. As he played faster he didn't feel like he has a way to plug into the plot anymore.

I've found that mirrors my own experience with Race but it has not happened with the Pax games. The mechanisms are so strange that usually it takes until all the players grok all the systems that players can give themselves the mental space needed to see the story being told. All three of the Paxes I think tell remarkable stories with a degree of sophistication that we don't usually get in board games, but, at the same time, most of the time those stories are missed because players are either struggling to grapple with the gameplay or just playing two darn fast to appreciate what they are doing.
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MikeOberly wrote:
Cole, this is a tremendous piece of writing. I'd hate to describe it merely as a 'review'. Phil should put this essay at the end of the rulebook in future editions.


I can certainly think of a few essays it could replace.
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Giannis Agoras
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Great article.

The mechanic of choosing the victory condition is the greatest addition to the PAX series, as it gives the new player the ability to have a plan right from the beginning. This change makes it THE most accessible of Pax (and maybe SMG) games so far.

I have only played it 2-p for now, and it feels a bit short. A victory can be snatched quickly and the requirements esp. for globalization and Imperial victories, feel a bit easy for the 2 Player game.

As always, with SMG games, the stories that can be told with the gameplay are simply amazing.

Regarding the "political" aspect of the game's modelization of the period's economic/political forces at play, i think that there is a strong "lets be vocal for all the good things capitalism has brought to the world" ideological undercurrent in the whole design, in the notes, the text of the cards, the assumptions and exlications given.

Being vocal about ideology is obviously inviting debate, but this can only add to the experience of the game. Great work!!

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Colm McCarthy
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Oh, I had the good sense not to read the essays at the end of this one, lest they provoke a lefty embolism in me I shall sell the game to my group by simply placing the words "evil" and "shady" in front of "bankers", or by telling them "It's like Illuminati, but with Martin Luther and way more beheadings"

The gameplay itself (as I continue to stumble through learning) is wildly cool. And in the end, that's all that matters to me.
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ozzy perez
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I consider myself a fan of Phil Eklund's original design ideas. I bought and played Pax Renaissance, Greenland and Neanderthal but I had a huge issue with the rulebooks for each one of those games. The considerable length of play in all of them was also a factor. If this game plays in 45min-1 hour, I am immediately interested. Cole, what is your opinion of the rulebook for this one? Is it more streamlined than the others?
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Cole Wehrle
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So, with regard to game length, I'd say that this game is eventually about an hour long--which is about the same as Greenland/Neanderthal. Expect it to take a few plays to get you there. My first play was two hours long and everyone at table had played other Pax games.

As for the rules, I find that Phil's rulebooks are not that bad. There's a reason he uses the old school "wargamey"/"reference" approach and I think that a rulebook with a lot of narrative and cross-referencing multiplies potential conflicts. (cf. FFG's rulebooks).

That said, Phil has developed his rules-writing. For instance, there is a much more robust overview of play that gives a bird's eye view on the systems of play. The concepts in Pax Renaissance are also pretty easy to grasp because the theme is considerably more familiar to the average gamer than the theme of Bios: Genesis or High Frontier.

I guess that's a long way of saying that the rulebook is marginally improved but still features all the hallmarks of an SMG rulebook (heavy use of definitions, little hand-holding, etc).

The game isn't hard to play, but there are some barriers to entry still.

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Are there many changes in the living rules or can I play using printed version?
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Cole Wehrle wrote:


As for the rules, I find that Phil's rulebooks are not that bad. There's a reason he uses the old school "wargamey"/"reference" approach and I think that a rulebook with a lot of narrative and cross-referencing multiplies potential conflicts. (cf. FFG's rulebooks).
...
The game isn't hard to play, but there are some barriers to entry still.



I would say all of this is true. I've taught myself the rules and dummied part of a game with no difficulty. There's nothing in the rulebook that is inherently confusing, or wrong, it's just not as user-friendly as it could be - it's a web of cross-referenced definitions.
You might almost say it was written by an aeronautics engineer.

I would just say you just have to get into a completely different mindset, letting unfamiliar actions and soon-to-be-defined words wash over you like warm marmalade.
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Samuel Hinz
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Nothing ever prevent you from using the printed rules
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