Saturday, December 29, 2012

Pax Porfiriana

Sierra Madre has continued on its recent roll for me. I was torn on Origins: How We Became Human, and didn't really like anything before that, but I have enjoyed High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Porfiriana a great deal, all for similar reasons but all in their own quite distinct ways.

What all the games share is a deeply-researched setting. You have always had to approach Sierra Madre Games with a somewhat different aesthetic sense than other games. You can't go into it thinking primarily about game mechanisms, or how you can work the interacting game systems, or even how you are going to use the game systems to win. You need to think first about figuring out what the game is trying to say: in the case of Pax Porfiriana, it's covering and commenting on the chaotic period before the Mexican Revolution in 1910. This is not to say that the game systems are unimportant, or that you should not be trying to win. It's just to say that you will grasp the game more fundamentally and appreciate it more if you think of it as being about a power struggle between four factions in an unstable Mexico on the brink of dramatic change, change that you are trying to navigate your way through, rather than as a collection of game mechanics that you are trying to extract the most points from. As you play and come to grips with the game, the more gamerly elements will fall into place, but at the end of the day it's going to be the game's deep engagement with its subject that sells it – so build your relationship with it starting there.

The achievement of the most recent 3 Sierra Madre games (High Frontier, Bios: Megafauna, and Pax Profiriana) is that they've been able to mesh this subject engagement with clean, playable game systems. Previous games – American Megafauna and Lords of the Sierra Madre – took their themes too literally, cramming in representative game systems that turned out to be too many trees, not enough forest. Certainly High Frontier and the subsequent games require rather more player commitment and buy-in than a typical game to be worth the effort, but none are particularly more mechanically daunting than an average high-end euro. I found Pax Porfiriana to be much cleaner-playing and accessible than the complicated and thematically tortured Trajan, the thematic but mechanically clunky Dungeon Lords or Space Alert, or Fantasy Flight's straightforward but badly explained Android: Netrunner or Merchant of Venus, just to pick a few.

(As an aside, Origins: How We Became Human, the first of Sierra Madre's "modern" games, is an odd case. I love the idea behind the game and the systems are clean-playing and evocative. But many details of the game balance seems suspect – Acculturation is a major offender – in ways that make it not fun to play. I'm still in search of a set of tweaks that will let that game deliver on its potential. They must be pretty close at hand somewhere. Fortunately the later games seem to have gotten past this).

I think of the period covered by the game as a prequel to the great ideological wars of the 20th Century, the Spanish and Russian Civil Wars. Unlike those conflicts, which were full-on wars, Pax Porfiriana is more of a power vacuum. Ruled by a weakening Porfirio Díaz, Mexico is ready to be pushed in one of four ways.

The key to understanding Pax Porfiriana the first time out, something the rules dramatically fail to explain unless you read the historical background, is the relationship between these four competing factions: the Mexican Federal government of Díaz; the United States; the Mexican local governors, which the game views as akin to modern warlords; and the communist/anarchist rebels. Each faction is keyed by color, and is strongly linked to a "regime" (in the game, the current dominant political environment) and a type of prestige. So, for example, U.S. troops, enterprises, and politicians are blue and tend to fare well in the U.S. Intervention regime, in which the dominant political force is the U.S. actively meddling in Mexican affairs. They are likewise linked to the "Outrage" prestige, in which the U.S. is getting progressively more fed up with the anarchy on its border. Should Díaz be given a shove while the regime is U.S. Intervention, the competition to be Díaz' successor will be decided by Outrage, with a faction that has generated enough becoming governor as the U.S. annexes Mexico. On the flip side, the Communist revolutionaries are red and linked to the Anarchy regime and the Revolution prestige. Anarchy is hard on big businesses (mines and banks) but allows troop cards to move more freely. If Díaz weakens during anarchy and one player has managed to get a big enough share of the revolutionaries and their Revolution prestige points, they can take over after the elections. Díaz will have an opportunity to topple four times during the game, each of which can be under a different regime and so can be affected by different forces.

The relationships between factions, prestige, regimes, and victory are the core of the game and if you can grasp them in the context of the historical event, you will be most of the way to understanding the game. The White local warlords are the easiest: white troop and personality cards will have the Command prestige points directly on them and will themselves enable regime changes to the white Martial Law. Other factions, though, are more complicated: blue U.S. troop cards will change regime to U.S. Intervention, but the Outrage then required for victory will need to be engineered by Mexican elements. Loyalty is required to become Díaz' hand-picked successor should the regime remain in Pax Porfiriana, which can come from a variety of sources including businesses and politicians.

The rest of the game is pretty straight-ahead. Every turn you get actions to draft and play cards. You'll need to build up enterprises (banks, mines, plantations, gun stores) to generate cash. You'll want to recruit troops to protect those enterprises, extort your enemies, and provide political leverage (playing troop card frequently triggers a regime change). While you're doing that, you'll manage a wide variety of other special events, personalities, and institutions driven by action cards. There will be unrest to put down and factional strife. People will be thrown in jail. Lawsuits are filed, enterprises nationalized. The amount of historical detail here is amazing, but it is all built on top of a very clean-playing card game.

I like Pax Porfiriana for a lot of reasons. The main ones are the same reasons I like Republic of Rome: it presents a chaotic period in a chaotic way, with players struggling to navigate an unpredictable political landscape. Unlike Republic of Rome, it does it with very few actual rules and streamlined gameplay, accomplishing everything Lords of the Sierra Madre did with a fraction of the footprint. With a variety of paths to victory – Loyalty, Revolution, Outrage, and Command – players have flexibility in choosing different thematic paths. It manages to be chaotic without relying on the traditional and unsatisfying crutch of "take that" card play; events tend to mix things up more than simply hammer one player or another. The game rewards a nice balance of planning for the future and rank opportunism.

I think Pax succeeds for me because of this balance and nuance. The game comes with 210-ish cards representing enterprises, troops, personalities, and historical events (all of which are unique). In an average game you'll see maybe 60-80 of them. So each game presents only a slice of the whole environment, and will have a different texture as you have shortages or surpluses of troops or enterprises and some subset of the powerful, game-changing cards show up. On the other hand, its enough cards and a large enough percentage of the total for the game to retain thematic cohesion and present the players with calculated rather than arbitrary risk. Players are not going to be hosed for lack of opportunity – you should not have trouble building up your income and power base to be a player in the game (both of which could be problems in both Bios: Megafauna and Origins). A game which didn't generate enough enterprises or troops or cards of one faction to be interesting is certainly a remote possibility, but it's very remote and worth tolerating.

Especially in light of the game's duration, which is only about 2 hours when played correctly (the first time I played, I misunderstood a rule and we ended up inadvertently playing the Iron Hand variant which can be much longer with more players – 4 hours – and is not recommended). It's enough time to generate action, for players and factions to rise and fall and for the fate of Mexico to be decided, but it's also short enough to leave you wanting more.

So check it out. At only $35 direct from Sierra Madre, there is a lot of game in the compact box.

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I'll close with some advice for teaching the game, if you're the one who gets to do that. It's my traditional advice: don't over-focus on mechanisms. Pax Porfiriana is complicated not because the game mechanisms are complicated; they are not. It's the relationships between the cards and the regimes – how the elements in the game are arranged – combined with the large number of options available to the players. So explain the factions, explain a little bit of the history. Because Pax Porfiriana has this different aesthetic, I think having an understanding of what the game is trying to say gives the players more useful context for understanding how to play it than simply running the sequence of play and explaining the individual actions.

4 comments:

  1. Fantastic review of my favourite new game of 2012, thanks!

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  2. I played it for the first time yesterday and loved it. It really captures the essence of LOTSM in a much cleaner-playing game, and no "salted" mines! Note that regardless of your ultimate path to victory, you'll need money. My revolutionary player was happy to profit from capitalist transportation patents and gunstores--to finance red governors I needed for the revolucion!

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  3. Fantastic review Chris. Can't wait to get my copy to the table!

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