51st State Review

51st State during play

One of the newest titles to come out that looked fascinating was 51st State. When my Friendly Local Game Store had an open copy for me try, I jumped at the opportunity.

In 51st State, each player takes on a certain faction trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Every turn, the players will start by adding new cards to their hand (this is done by drafting the first 2 cards, and drawing the 3rd from the deck). Next, they will take turns placing cards and/or performing actions; when placing cards, they can either play them as red cards (one time use), blue cards (occur every turn), or as white cards (worth a victory point and a bonus, but might be usable by other players). At the end of the round, players each total their current number of victory points - and once a player has 30 points, the game is over with the player having the most points winning.

The first really neat aspect to the game (which is also the most innovative and truly the heart of the game itself) is the different ways that a card can be played. This is especially awesome because the different factions have different strengths and weaknesses. Specifically, each faction will start the game being able to play cards one way more easily than the others. Therefore, which faction you have affects how you play the game (another plus,but I won't get into that one). As stated in the intro, each card can be played 3 different ways. If a card is played as "red", then this means at the start of any turn you have the option of discarding that card and gaining the benefit that it shows. If it is played as "blue", it will be much less powerful, but it will give it's owner a benefit at the start of every turn. Finally, a card can be played as "white", which both scores a victory point, and also serves a variety of functions; it can give the player more resources, it may or may not be usable by opponents, it may generate victory points automatically, it may score victory points when it is triggered, or it may do something else. Overall, the different aspects of the card gives each player a lot of choices during the game.  As I said to start, this is the heart of the game, and it's heart is golden.

The next pro is the draft mechanic of the game. I like the fact that players have the ability to influence what cards they acquire (as well as what cards their opponents do or do not gain). The draft is not a huge aspect of the game, but it is especially important because of the difference in factions. For example, one of the factions is best at playing white cards to start off, but they can only play smaller white cards - the draft allows that player to gain cards that he can play instead of cards that he won't be able to play until later.

The final pro that I will mention about the game is that you are able to build on your previous actions/turns. Now, I realize that a normal concern with this type of mechanic is when the player in the lead is able to run away with the game. In 51st State, the game is short enough that this isn't really a major concern (normally around 6-8 turns). With that said, I really enjoy the fact that what I chose to play in an earlier turn greatly affects what I can play in later turns. For example, several of the cards, when played as "blue", generate victory points every turn. This is very nice, because it helps you win the game. However, if all I have played are victory point "blue" cards, I will have significantly less options than if I played resource "blue" cards. This really allows players to develop strategies throughout the game and decide how they want their upcoming turns to play out.

Though I really enjoyed 51st State, I would be remiss if I didn't mention some cons. First, 51st State definitely lends itself to "Analysis Paralysis" (thinking through so many decisions that you never bother to play). Since each card has three different ways that it can be played, and you can play off of many cards owned by both you and your opponent, there will be a large number of options during each action phase. This number of options can cause players who are normally fast to have noticeable pauses when determining the next action; I would hate to play this game with the people from my gaming group that are over-thinkers to start with.

The next con for 51st State is that I would absolutely hate to teach it to new players (which is unfortunate, since I am often the one teaching new games). Not only are there the different ways of playing cards, but there are also a ton of symbols on every card and many rules that just have to be remembered (a victory point building can only generate points three times; to replace a leader you must play a new leader and a gun resource; a leader can only have five victory points on him, etc). Essentially, the first game of 51st State, even more than most games, must be viewed as a "learning game". Actually, your first several games may be like this (I don't think we got everything right until my 4th game, and I'm still not certain).  This is a game that would really frustrate gamers that insist on understanding all of the rules going into the first game - that's just not going to happen.

Overall, I give 51st State an 8.5/10. I really enjoyed the game, considering it on par with Race for the Galaxy when it comes to gameplay (and thus I almost gave it a 9.0). Unfortunately, the difficulty in teaching 51st State keeps it (barely) out of my upper echelon of games. If you're willing to persevere through learning it, the game will be well worth your time - I look forward to playing it more!

If you like sci-fi games, you might also want to read about Glory to Rome, Cosmic Encounter, Battlestar Galactica, and Stargate SG-1 (so you know why you should never play it).


  1. Great review. I've been very interested in how it compares with RftG because even though I've enjoyed playing that, there is very little chance of ever teaching my fiancee how to play. Sounds like the same thing applys to 51st State. Who knows, maybe someone in my gaming group will pick up a copy and teach us!

    Thanks Josh!

  2. Thanks Josh, and thanks for reviewing this one. This is currently my favorite game, but I can't deny that the rules were a little tough to imbibe - the barely serviceable manual doesn't help matters. Great review!

  3. hi,

    thanks for the write-up. i was really hot on this game and followed it through essen and was the first game i played at bgg.con. we may have gotten a rule or two wrong in our first place and were kind of learning the different cards as they came up.

    i knew it wouldnt be fair to judge the game based on that play, so i managed to get in a second play later during the con.

    I found that the game seemed to lack that ability to really build a good in game economy for yourself like you would in RFTG(which the game is easy to compare to). Since you basically play through all of your cards on your turn, there isnt much left to planning. each turn felt disconnected from the next and from the last and the lack of interaction doesnt seem to help either. At the end of the day i wanted to love this game, but think it just falls short.

  4. I think the theme of this game comes through. 51st State doesn't usually allow you to build an efficient "engine" and this mirrors the world it takes place in, broken - you represent people making the best (or worst :) ) of the remains of society.

    After two or three plays the icons became second nature (just like RftG). Add in the New Era or Winter cards and the games options really open up. I love the series.