Of the three games from this year’s Nürnberg harvest we tried so far – Goa, Hansa and Sankt Petersburg – it’s the latter that made the biggest impression. This may yet change, since we only had occasion to play two-player games (which is also the reason this is just a session report and not yet a full-fledged review), but in the meantime I’ll tell you a bit about our game and why we enjoyed it so much.
Sankt Petersburg is themed on the founding of that great russian city. Each game turn consists of four successive rounds in which all players buy from a common pool of eight available cards until all of them are either satisfied or bankrupt, and then get victory points and/or new money for the cards they already have played into their display. One of the twists is that in each of these four rounds, only one kind of card will be used to refill the pool, and only that kind will be scored, although you are free to buy any kind of card.
In the first round, these are Craftsmen who provide you with money, the second round is Buildings which bring victory points, and the third round is Aristocrats who bring a little of both and additional victory points at the end of the game. In the fourth round, the Exchange cards enter the pool – these belong to one of the other three kinds, but they are generally improved versions with which you replace cards you’ve already played. There is no scoring in this fourth round, however, which means that you may happen to enter into the new game turn without any money in your hand if you spent too much of it for the coveted Exchange cards. In our game, this happened once to my opponent Petra whereby I got an opportunity to go Craftsmen shopping all on my own.
This basic structure is embellished by a few more rules. First, you can get cards cheaper if you already have some of them in your display or if you wait a whole round for them and nobody grabs them in the meantime. Second, and more importantly, you may put up to three cards in your hand instead of building them directly, but this carries a risk in the form of negative victory points if you haven’t managed to play them by the end of the game. And finally there are half a dozen cards that provide something besides the usual money or victory points, for example an increased hand limit of four cards.
My initial reaction after reading the rules might be similar to what you could be thinking now: So what? A game where you build stuff that gives you victory points and the means to buy more stuff does not, initially, sound like something the gaming world was anxiously waiting for. Nevertheless, I am pretty convinced even after a single game that Sankt Petersburg will be one of the highlights in a great year for gaming. Why’s that?
The triad of Craftsmen, Buildings and Aristocrats provides a number of choices on the strategic level: you can strengthen your economy by concentrating on Craftsmen, or you can rely on the steady victory point income of Buildings, or you can go for a large court of Aristocrats and hope that their bonus points will prove to be enough in the end. In our game, Petra went for Buildings while I tried my luck with Aristocrats after getting the Mariinskij Theater, a Building whose revenue depends on the number of Aristocrats in your display, early in the game. She won by 141 to my 133 points, so I probably should have known better than to trust the imperialist pigs – the game is set in Russia, after all
Seriously though, my failings were more on the tactical level, and there is quite a menu of decisions to find there, too. Do you buy cheap cards or expensive ones? The expensive ones all have a better ratio of cost/income, but you risk going broke for a round or two, and this will make your opponent extremely happy. Do you go for variety of do you collect sets to minimize the costs? Should you take that very attractive and very, very expensive card in your hand to play it later or should you wait, hoping that your opponent does not find it quite as attractive as you do?
Once you get into the swing of things, a lot of your plans and schemes will not only revolve around what you want for you but also about what you don’t want others to get. Although this is probably mere conjecture after only one playing, I suspect that this aspect will elevate Sankt Petersburg from a good game to a very good one, allowing the evolution of new strategies as everybody gets better acquainted with it. If I had, for example, based my Aristocrat strategy not only on filling my own court but also on depriving Petra of cards for hers, I certainly would have done better, possibly even good enough to win ... but revenge will be mine!
Quite apart from the thirst for that, I very much look forward to the next game, if possible a multi-player one. Oh, and one more thing: Visually, the game is a pleasure, too. It might even be my favorite of Doris Matthäus designs, and that’s definitely saying something ... I especially like the Aristocrat portraits, which are done as a very convincing to russian iconic works. And most cards have a golden metallic color worked in somewhere, and astoundingly, it does not seem tacky or flashy at all, but rather subdued and simply nice to look at. All in all, this is a beautiful game in all aspects, so don’t let it pass you by.