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Subject: A short, play-oriented review rss

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Thierry Michel
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The following review of sorts is the product of my experience trying to convert a bunch of gaming buddies to Pax Renaissance (some took to it, some didn't). In any case I will omit below the description of the components and rules (it's been done well before, in this very forum), and try to focus on the actual experience of learning and playing.

A word about complexity:

The big hurdle when introducing players to the game - and then trying to get them to try again - is the complexity of the rules. Some of my wargaming partners, no stranger to big complicated rules, were turned off by this one - they never quite go into the logic and ended up having to guess why they could or could not do this or that action. The game, to me, is very tight and internally consistent, so I think there is a strategy for teaching it, without getting lost in the many possibilities offered by the cards, starting from victory conditions, explaining kingdoms and agents, and then getting down to card play (it's in fact the plan of this review). Nonetheless, the game is complicated, and the people who stuck with it were generally those who were invested in playing the period and the theme.

How to win:

The end game arrives surprisingly fast, sometimes too fast, in fact. It occurs in two ways, the first when one of the players manages to trigger a victory condition and the second when the deck runs out of cards, and it then comes done to points. The first type of victory comes in four flavors - representing different means to power, which are all relative (i.e. one has to be significantly better at what one chose to do than the next best player). Players can end up competing for the same type of victory, but they can also pick different paths - the game can play very differently from one session to another.

Typically, the first games will see imperial victories, where players fight for controlling the most kingdoms, through marriages and conquests. After a few games, as people get better at planning and defense, the full range of strategies is on display, and I have seen all of them in my games - religious dominance, money-making trade networks and enlightened politics. That the game manages to feel so wide in its scope, yet so focused on its theme, is the main reason why it was a hit with my group.

Map and pieces:

The game's Renaissance Europe is made of ten countries, each coming in four potential versions (secular/theocratic and autocratic/republican). The countries start independent, but soon will end up influenced by the players - through so-called regime changes, and the end map will be the result of the player's collective choices. Wars and revolutions are done by replacing the pieces on the map (the ruling class) with new ones, that come from the player's hand or were already present as discontents (basically, the former ruling class). The map starts sparsely populated, but players adds new pieces as trade promotes economic growth. One clever innovation here is the importance of trade routes that link corners of the map (and are subject to disruptions) and provide both benefits to the players who position themselves on the route, and to the countries that border them.
A big driver for players to topple regimes and put own their puppets in place is to secure valuable concessions on the routes, and to build an efficient economic machine that will keep them supplied with cash and recruits.

At game start, the countries bordering the Black Sea are particularly disputed, because of their proximity to the Genoese colonies where all medieval trade originates. As the game develops, the trade routes can shift (or not) and Western Europe can gain in prominence. The switch from Mediterranean trade to Atlantic one is not automatic, and won't happen necessarily in every game, but it is a likely possibility that players have to keep in mind. As a result of the interaction of the systems, the map becomes very dynamic, and diversifying one's assets, or keeping a cash reserve to respond to changing opportunities, is key.

The game engine:

In very general terms, like the others in the Pax family, the game is about acquiring assets and deploying their powers in a coherent strategy. There is very little randomness and no hidden information so the game can become fairly analytical, but in a very thematic way. The assets themselves are people, troops and institutions, and they are really evocative - playing your cards tells a narrative, and at the end of the game a story will have been built. The actual mechanisms of buying and placing cards are fairly abstract, but they are a means to an end - there is a tactical element to building your portfolio (called here tableau) but what really matters is what you do with it. In the end, the style of the player will drive their acquisitions, not the other way around: buying troops (Swiss, Janissaries) to execute an imperial strategy, investing in the church to neutralize secular powers, collecting economic assets, etc.

Tactics vs strategy:

One fear after the first few plays was that the abundance of choices would produce chaos, especially with four players, and that in the end the game would devolve in pure tactics, snatching the right card at the right time and playing it wherever it works best. There is a fair bit of that, especially in the learning games, when one player often hands another the victory through a mistake (typically, by weakening a third player and giving the victor the advance they needed). After a while, though, regular positional play pays off, and developing a network or defending a kingdom become more attractive than grabbing an indefensible target just because one can. I expect that more play with experienced opponents will reward even more strategy.

Why we like it (or don't)

The game manages to evoke an epic sense of history in a few hours times - that in itself is a feat that should make it an automatic buy for anyone interested in the theme. I would hesitate to call it educational, but the cast of characters and institutions presented in the cards is big, and one might learn a thing or two just by reading the flavor text.

Now, I started with the complexity, that and the peculiar logic behind the rules will turn some people off (a friend called it a game for left-brained people, and clearly he didn't count himself among them). I heard complaints about the ergonomics too - with four people, it can be hard to remember what assets everyone has, and while the icons are very good at showing what you can do with your own cards, they don't help that much with the person seated opposite to you. Finally, while the game is full of history, it is a game: medieval banking families were not behind everything that happened during these two centuries - it works well as a concept, but it does not pretend to be a rigorous simulation.

In the end, it is a fast playing game that takes a while to learn, but reward those who do with an extremely immersive experience. I struggled to find a comparable game, so I'll just say it does it own thing, and it does it well.
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Jack Francisco
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It's certainly a game that will reward repeated plays. I know that with Pax Po, playing it multiple times has allowed me to become familiar with the cards to the point where I know what they do at a glance. Pax Ren is one that rewards that familiarity even more.
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Mario Abad
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Since I bought it, this game hast jumped straight into my top 5. I just love the many choices it offers, the historical info (of which there is plenty) and the gameplay feeling.

The only downside, as you mention, is the difficulty of explaining the rules. Generally I'm quite good at it, but I find it hard to teach this game. The amount of icons is a bit overwhelming and it's not easy to remember what each action does (Wait, which agents take part in a Cmapaign?).

Anyway, I really hope I can get this game a lot to the table because I enjoy it so much.
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