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Subject: Pax Pamir - A Compelling Tournament of Shadows but is it FUN? rss

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Ben Wickens
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I came to Pax Pamir having played the other two games in the Pax Series (Porfiriana and Renaissance) and ranking each of the two I had already played as comfortably in my 10-15 favorite games of all time. Pamir feels strangely the hardest game in the series to review and I have started and re-started to review this game several times.

Theme, role and setting
The so called Great Game or Tournament of Shadows looks at 1830s and on-wards in Afghanistan as both Russian and British Empires wanted control and influence over the country for their own reasons. One element of the "game" that is compelling for me is that it was not simply a matter of war-ing forces, it was as much about building up local support, spy networks and other factors. Some accounts of the conflict focus all on the super powers and forget that there were powerful forces within Afghanistan that were also at play. These forces are represented here so we have a three way conflict but each player can be linked to any side and can choose to switch sides if it can be in their own interest to do so.

Compelling and tense decisions

In Pamir you have a lot of elements you are trying to balance at once. Firstly you are trying to make sure that your faction is in a strong position to win the game (most of at least one type of unit and some of each unit on the board), then you are trying to make sure that you are well placed in your own faction with victory points but not so well as to lose the cooperation from others with the same faction. Then you want a hand in some of the other factions with spies...Then you want to have a good mix of units, operations in your tableau and stars in the four different types that give you passive abilities like increased hand and tableaux size. Then you want to defend your tribes and roads from attack, have a good amount of currency and put the other players and factions under pressure....Oh and you want to make sure you are getting cards that will help you and not make cards that will help your opponents be easy for them to get....Oh and you want to try to make sure that the regime/nation state favors you and ideally that you have cards in your hand that will switch regime to ones that will give you the win...And finally you have the potential to switch alignment so if the game isnt going your way you might be able to make a last minute attempt to salvage your position.

All of these choices are juicy and compelling but they will not for many people quite have the fun factor of some of the activities of the other games. The pacing is slower than the other games and your choices often more difficult to balance than in the others. In Porfiriana you are simply trying to get victory points in the different factions, money and develop a tableaux... oh and maybe set up combinations to bring in a win when a topple appears. In Pax Ren you are trying to manipulate the state of the world to where your victory points / strengths lie. In Pamir you are balancing on a tightrope with many different balls in the air.

Sometimes you can find yourself without good choices, your money is spend, you have limited choices and none of them correct the weaknesses of your position. It can be a slow grind that requires patience and strong play to get into contention again.

Many variants to tweak the game for your group

I cannot think of another game in my collection with as many different ways of playing the game. I think the biggest difference is whether you play Nation Building Rules or standard. With standard rules it is very easy particularly with new players that the game can be widely varied in length. The 4 topples are seeded in the last two thirds of the deck and the game can end at any point. As a topple card appears in the market the game will slow down and it will be very tense but the game could end in not much more time than it took to explain the rules. With Nation Building rules it is much more likely to play to the fourth topple and will always play to at least the second and often the fourth. However when a topple comes out it is not as straight forward as sometimes you might be fairly happy to let the topple succeed even if you are only gaining 2 points and one of your opponents is getting 3.

The default rules are strong states but if you want easier to explain topple rules, a quicker game or you want topples to score more often in a nation building game weak states are an interesting option. You only need your faction to be strongest in whatever the regime is.

Then there is an expansion that adds Wazirs, events and capability cards which radically shake up the feel of the game. Going down that route the designer has suggested a variant with the capability cards that gives each player a starting capability (that they need to activate).

All these different ways can radically change the game. Without the expansion content the theme might not be shining as bright as some would like, with it the choices might be overwhelming for some, or others might feel the delicate balance of the game is thrown sideways with fewer standard cards in the game and other ways of balancing out your position with Wazir ops and events. I still have not discovered the way I like best although it is probably nation building rules and probably with the expansion and strong states I can easily see me choosing a different rule set for a given group.

Scaling

For my money is is much better at 4 than at any other count. With 5 the game could take too long, could drag with slow players or maybe feel too chaotic. It might work better than other pax games with 5 but its still not ideal for me. With 2 I would just play something else and whilst I would happily play it with 3 I think the play will often go 2 players 1 faction and one player the other. It has less variety and doesnt seem as interesting. This isnt a problem, most games have ideal player counts but the other pax games spoiled me a bit by working on so many different player numbers. I also love soloing Ren and have really enjoyed soloing Porfiriana. I have yet to try the solo rules but I have not enjoyed soloing this (playing multiple sides) nearly as much as I have with other games in the series.

Comparisons to other Pax Games
Using Nation Building this is the longest, least scalable game in the pax series but it does not have the "end at any time" feel of the other games in the series so you know what you are getting when you start a game of Pamir. It is slower paced and your role is less "fun" than in the other games - taking over power in Mexico or pulling strings behind the scenes to shape the world is more appealing than surviving Colonial meddling in Afghanistan better than other local tribes. In truth though despite sharing several mechanics with other games in the series the feel of this game is so different as to make these comparisons a little irrelevant. Pax Pamir is a unique war game that feels very different from other war games but also very different from the other games in the Pax series. A player could love Pamir and dislike the other pax games or visa versa. A lover of Porfiriana could feel inhibited by the starting hand size of 1 or the start tableux limit of 3. Or they might not like the whole faction aspect to the game with shared and temporary incentives.

Conclusion
Overall I love the game. The game is a tricky sell, it needs people who can look past the basic (but good for what they are) components, who can cope with a fairly complex games with tough choices and penalties for not choosing well that are fair but significant. They also need to be happy with the cerebral feel of the game with the potential for periods when the game can feel like it has slowed down, maybe even stalled for a few turns. With the right group though there is nothing else really like it. Its one part stock game, one part war game and one part euro. The tableaux building elements are unique and the passive powers of the stars in the tableaux is not something I have seen anywhere else and works very well.

This does not have the flow or streamlined nature of some of my other favorite games (you could play 7 Wonders, Ticket to Ride, Race for the Galaxy and a filler or two in the same time as one game of this) and does not quite hit the very highest of heights that Renaissance can but its rule set is much more accessible. This may be the most accessible Pax game and it does introduce people to a very compelling series of games.

Whilst there is a lot of skill and not much luck in the game in the chaos and choices opponents make you could easily find that the "best" player does not win. Each game tells a compelling story, full of compelling choices but its not like chess where the best player will win most of the time. The experience and insight into the history of the time elevate this game to places where most board games cannot go.

Overall this is a very memorable game and one of my favorites. It comes highly recommended particularly if the theme or choices the game offers appeal to you but know you need the right group and ideally repeat plays for it to shine.
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Jack Francisco
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I agree that it's best at 4p. At 2 or 3, you could have zero interaction as players focus on one regime unopposed. Not the best at those numbers. I can appreciate the game, but for me, Pax Por and Pax Ren are better.
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James Webb
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senorcoo wrote:
I agree that it's best at 4p. At 2 or 3, you could have zero interaction as players focus on one regime unopposed. Not the best at those numbers. I can appreciate the game, but for me, Pax Por and Pax Ren are better.


I'm slowly coming to realise that, once you throw in Khyber Knives, Pamir is my favourite of the three. I suspect that I'm in the minority, but something about it just tickles my fancy in a way that neither Ren nor Por do.
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Adam Gastonguay
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You're very right in that this is huge kettle of fish and hard to handle. It's also the game where I learned to be Mean with a capital 'M'. You've got to play to make the game unfun for the other players to win, and revel in it. Take all the money. Discard all the campaign cards. Stay in Economic mode when there aren't any yellow actions available. Keep your dagger out while making it socially unacceptable for them to unsheathe theirs.

I'm not a good player by any means, but when I've had the good move, I've seen the frothing hatred on other player's faces and I know I'm doing it right. Porfiriana is a bit more obvious in its duplicitness. Everyone is backstabbing each other with smiles on their faces, knowing full well that bullets are flying in their names. Renaissance has world changing events happening, but if they know you're responsible, you've already lost. This one is right in the middle. Subtlety until striking. Duplicity until revelation. Bowing to the Sultan to give your archer a clean shot.

All three games give such a different experience. They are all great for different reasons.

Great review.

I talk too much.
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Ben Wickens
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I do like the game with the expansion thrown in but also in a curious way it makes me like the base game on its own more too. I think the expansion brings out thematic elements and gives a few more ways of getting things done. Once I am seeped in the theme I need the thematic events less. Still I generally prefer to play with the expansion.

As for rating the games in order I think they all offer such different experiences and I like them each for different reasons with different people and at different times. I am probably preferring to play Pamir to Porfiriana at the moment but that is in part because I have played Porfiriana lots (10-20 times live plus 70 online). I like the uniqueness of Pamir. I will stress though that whilst I like the variety of all the different ways of playing the game if it was just on the standard non-nation building rules I would like this less than the other two games in the series. Also though there are a lot of people for whom Renaissance is just too many rules, too many exceptions and too hard to see what to do and why. For those people there are still some who like Pamir.
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Brad Keusch
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revgiblet wrote:
senorcoo wrote:
I agree that it's best at 4p. At 2 or 3, you could have zero interaction as players focus on one regime unopposed. Not the best at those numbers. I can appreciate the game, but for me, Pax Por and Pax Ren are better.


I'm slowly coming to realise that, once you throw in Khyber Knives, Pamir is my favourite of the three. I suspect that I'm in the minority, but something about it just tickles my fancy in a way that neither Ren nor Por do.


you aren't alone at all, most of my group agrees, though pax ren is a close second
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Adam Deverell
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Quote:
All these different ways can radically change the game. Without the expansion content the theme might not be shining as bright as some would like...I still have not discovered the way I like best although it is probably nation building rules and probably with the expansion and strong states...


I agree with you here. Expansion + nation building + strong states is my prefered option for a game that is straight out fun, in particular nation building.

What I don't think nation building does is necessarily highlighting the theme. The central theme of squabbling, backstabbing, argumentative tribes comes out much stronger if you don't use nation building.

My first two games was played five player, base game, original victory rules. What quickly happened was a lot of squabbling and over analysing and arguing about who could win and how. Most of the game was spent preventing fellow alligned tribes from getting ahead.

It quickly bogged down into a stalemate, hours passed and eyes glazed over. Yet, I think this is the theme that Cole was going for - bickering tribes on the fringes of the empire, one eye on the enemy and one on each other.

It just wasn't that fun.

Nation building and the expansion made the game far more breezy, quick playing and fun. You could trigger a topple without giving the game to your ally. You could jump ship purely to catch a few VPs. I liked it. It perhaps lacked the tension and diplomacy of the original, but it was more accessible and likely to catch new gamers.

Still, I think with 4 - 5 really experienced gamers it would be fun to jump back to the original VP conditions. I'd probably keep Pax Pamir: Khyber Knives in as the events shook things up a bit and the augumentation cards saved one star cards from being duds.

Looking forward to playing this again soon.
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Adam Deverell
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Quote:
Also though there are a lot of people for whom Renaissance is just too many rules, too many exceptions and too hard to see what to do and why. For those people there are still some who like Pamir.


Pax Ren is the more opaque and least accessible of the Pax games, but once you get a handle on it, I actually think it is probably the quickest of the three. You can really tear through a game. There's still a bit to think about with card plays, but it's also really rewarding when your tactical nous pays off - and the rules are pretty tight too.

If I had to rank all the Sierra Madre Games from Pax Prof onwards (I'm yet to play Bios: Megafauna (Second Edition)) I think Pax Ren could be #1.
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