To see a full playthrough of 51st State: Master Set, click here.
What is this game about?
51st State is an engine/tableau building game set in post-apocalyptic America. You represent a faction that is vying for dominance over this new "51st State." Each faction has different advantages, and you will need to use different strategies depending on which one you play. The goods you collect power different actions, all of which contribute to the growth of your state. Victory is determined by who has the most victory points at the end of the game.
51st State is also a card game: Players use cards from a common draw deck, but every card is usable in some way. You can raze cards in your hand (or in enemy states) for extra goods, you can flip cards to make "deals" with various locations and collect extra goods from them every turn, or you can build cards as "locations" that both give you points at the end of the game and offer additional goods, actions, or other bonuses. The amount of flexibility this game allows you is almost frustrating the first few times you play.
How does it play solo?
51st State: Master Set has official solo rules that enable you to play against an AI opponent. This opponent is able to attack you and amass locations, which in turn allows it to amass victory points. You race the AI on the VP track, and final scoring happens when one of you hits 25 points. You then add points for the number of locations you have built and any bonuses they offer.
Sometimes you get unlucky and the AI beats you. But solo 51st State is mostly a competition against yourself, with the AI as your timer. If you get pretty wily with the way you use your cards, you will be behind in the early stages of the game, but come back to get pretty far ahead of the AI player.
51 State: Master Set makes for a satisfying solo gaming experience if you enjoy engine building. I derived the most pleasure from figuring out how to maximize my advantages and milk the game for every last resource or point I could get out of it. Because there are multiple factions to play, as well as cards from two 51st State expansions included in the master set, you will get enough variability to keep you busy for a while.
I will say, however, that I found this game very difficult to play at first. The theme and art are awesome, but the theme and the mechanics don't necessarily work together intuitively. (Why do gas cans, but not other resources, help you get tokens that allow you to negotiate deals with other locations? Why do you have to trade pistols in for separate red tokens that allow you to attack, rather than just fire the damned pistol?) There are a lot of tokens and fiddly little actions to keep track of, and without obvious thematic anchors, I had a really hard time getting into the rhythm of the game.
Once I got more accustomed to playing 51st State, I honestly enjoyed myself. But I feel like the barrier to entry might have been a bit too high for the game I got after investing the time and effort.
Do I recommend it?
If you enjoy creating a tableau, getting an engine going, and experimenting with different card interactions, then yes. I recommend 51st State: Master Set. If you get this game expecting some thematic, Ameritrashy fun, run away right now.
Imperial Settlers: The Elephant in the Room
51st State: Master Set is very similar to another game from Portal, Imperial Settlers. The mechanics are similar, and the solo rules for 51st State are derived from the ones for Imperial Settlers, even though the first edition of 51st State came out before IS. The games naturally encourage comparison. My thoughts on Imperial Settlers are here.
Overall Rating: 3 stars
5 stars - I love it!
4 stars - I really like it.
3 stars - I like it.
2 stars - It's ok.
1 star - Meh.