Once again, I wish to review a Pax game. This is third Pax game I have learned and played. The first Pax game I learned and loved was #Pax Pamir (Second Edition), second one was #Pax Porfiriana. I still own, and have yet to play, #Pax Viking and #Pax Emancipation.
I still haven’t quite decided what I should call my reviews. I am thinking of calling them Marsh’s Mendacious Meanderings. Let me know if you think that would be fitting or not….LOL
The Pax series is a series of games, mostly published by Sierra Madre/Ion Game Design. The games carry a variety of themes, but are loosely connected mechanically speaking. Very broadly speaking they are very tactics-heavy tableau builders with high player interaction. They tend to share a common card market. They tend to have pretty simple gameflow, but hugely complicated decision spaces, and a fairly opaque game-state. Also, most of them tend to have some sort of design or development connection to Phil Eklund. As such they tend to be pretty polemical in nature.
Firstly, I want to give my experience with Pax series thus far. Around the end of 2019/beginning of 2020 I watched a bunch of videos and read a bunch of reviews about various Pax titles. At that point I decided that this was a genre I wanted to explore. I didn’t know if I would like any of them or all of them, or…… But it felt like I would probably like one or more of them. As such I started acquiring them. Firstly, I preordered #Pax Emancipation. Next, I kickstarted the 2nd printing of #Pax Pamir (Second Edition). Then I bought #Pax Porfiriana. After that, I backed #Pax Renaissance: 2nd edition and #Pax Viking on Kickstarter. The interesting thing about this is, due to the exigencies of Kickstarter, preorders, and living in a foreign country, I had paid for these 5 Pax titles before playing even one. This brings to mind an obvious bias. I was pretty invested in the Pax system before even experiencing it. That being so, the likelihood of investment bias is pretty high.
My specific experience with Pax gameplay is as follows:
#Pax Pamir (Second Edition). I learned this one by playing it solo two-handed once. After that, I played it a number of times solo, with the Wakhan opponent. And, I played it several times two player, both with and without the Wakhan opponent. I feel quite comfortable with this PP2e. It is, by far, the easiest one for me to read the game state on. This is probably due to its use of VP’s which make it easier to parse player position. That combined with the exquisite usefulness and readability of the coalition blocks makes it super easy to see who is in the lead for the next dominance check.
#Pax Porfiriana, I learned the same way as PP2e, solo two handed. Since then, I have exclusively played it with Ricky Royal’s solo variations on the official solo mode. This is probably equally light in terms of rules as PP2e, but in terms of gameplay, the opacity is much heavier than PP2e. I feel like I have played it enough to feel pretty comfortable with it, but it is definitely one that takes more investment than PP2e.
#Pax Renaissance: 2nd edition, the subject of this review, is a bit of a different beast, but it definitely shares a similar game engine to the previous two games mentioned. I have played it solo several times. I have played it solo two-handed, as well as messing around with the official solo rules. So far it is, by far, the fastest of the Pax games. In terms of my comfort level with this, I am still not super comfortable. The basic gameflow is super similar to the other Pax games I have played. But the card interactions and affects are much more complex, and the game state is much more opaque than any of the other two games I have played. That being said, my familiarity with the basic game engine used, and my several complete plays as well as my several walkthroughs, do make me feel like I understand it sufficiently well to give this basic review.
Also, I think it is only fair to mention some of the Kickstarter drama surrounding the release of this particular title. This title was kickstarted with Pax Viking and #High Frontier 4 All: Module 3 – Conflict. I did kickstart this game. SMG and Ion Game Design were the ones in charge of this campaign. Unfortunately, they were less than communicative and the campaign itself was plagued by a number of unanswered questions and unaddressed concerns. It feels like the issues in the comments were exacerbated by the fact that the first edition of PR was a cult classic and was the most highly regarded by the fans of the Pax series. Add to that, that it had been out of print for some time. And you end up with a bunch of, frankly rabid, fans who were incensed by any changes made in the 2nd edition. Drawing particular ire were several issues.
All that being said, the real concern is the fact that Ion/SMG didn’t really seem to be listening to their backers during the whole campaign. This is a troubling signal from a game company, and I admit, it would make me question the wisdom of backing one of their projects in the future.
1200 words in, I am finally ready to start on the game. Pax Renaissance is a game set, primarily in the old world, of the renaissance. The game sets you as an early banking magnate, one of the early super wealthy that financed kings and religions. This game will have you sponsoring voyages of discovery, propping up republics, or even financing religious revolution as the winds of fortune blow. The point of the game is to bring about your idea of a better future. If you think about Bill Gates, and his activism in trying to combat what he sees as evil and bring about what he sees as good, you can get an idea of what this game is trying to represent. The whole thesis of the game, as expressed in the rulebook runs thusly: Renaissance bankers, what do you know about them? That they were rapacious, greedy, and fabulously rich? That they purchased Kaisers and Kings? What you don’t know is that they were the first capitalists, the first to overcome the tyranny of warlords. As they vanquished medieval feudalism, they steered the western world out of the dark ages and into the world of 747’s, skyscrapers, and Coca-Cola. This is the thesis of the game.
The theme is certainly interesting, and has enough fact to be somewhat convincing, in spite of the fact that the basic premise is, largely, ahistorical.
The gameplay is uber simple. On your turn, you may do 1 or 2 actions. Your choices are:
You may do any combination of these actions. You may do them in any order. You may choose to do any of the first three actions twice, instead of only once. Some of the complexity comes from the iconography on the cards. There are a number of factors that come into play with these. These may give you the opportunity to be introducing troops in various sectors of the map, or bishops to silence your opponents. You may be able to assassinate the king that somebody has under their thumb, or you could even launch a strawman attack on one of the kings under your control in order to create a republic. You can cause peasant revolts, or open up China or the Spice Islands for trade. Truly, the number of things that are available to do through your cards are truly impressive and exhaustive.
The way that you win the game is also interesting. Strewn through the draw deck from which you draw to make up the market are several cards called Comet Cards. If you buy a comet card, you can choose to activate ONE of the FOUR specific victory condition. You cannot claim an unactive victory condition. Also, if there is a victory condition active, it is available for anyone to grab it. This makes the gameplay interesting, before a victory condition is active, you want to aim for something, but you want to keep your options open in case someone activates a victory condition you aren’t prepared for.
This makes for some fascinating ahistorical situations. I have seen, republics rise where kings had previously held sway. I have seen Jihad waged in in England. I have seen improbable pairings of European royalty… I have seen so many weird and absolutely hilarious game-states. My several plays have been a nothing less than a historical farce, a historical comedy.
This is the portion of the review where I steal @Skurvy5's Brian’s Battery Review to discuss some of the merits and demerits of this game.
The components are good. They are not great. This is certainly not deserving of the “deluxe” badge that some have given it. The cards are fine, they are linen finished affairs that are “normally” sized. The included “chess” pieces aren’t big, but I find them nicely shaped and nicely differentiated. The pirate ships are all custom designs. The included money and “busted” discs are all thick plastic disks, they don’t feel all that nice, but they work. The punchboard “banker” boards are nice. The king/republic cards are small squares, but they are nice to when you marry them to a queen. The included board is nice, but superfluous. They did include map cards so that you can play without the board if you so desire. In fact, I did fit all the components for this game, minus the board and rulebooks, into my #Race for the Galaxy box, with the RFTG “insert” and the whole RFTG game inside as well. The way I do this is that I flip the cardboard well upside down making two compartments, one on each side with a cardboard riser in the center separating the two compartments. Pax Ren fits in one of those two compartments, and RFTG in the other. This makes it a whole lot easier to bring to El Salvador. When I move back to the States, I will use the box that Pax Ren came in.
Individual Player "banker board" with money, and player pawns.
Pieces in play.
More Pieces, notice especially the different shapes on the boats.
Box/Storage solution –
The box is too big. It has a plastic “insert” that works ok, but it isn’t great if you like to store your games vertically as I do. There are some small plastic bags if you prefer to use those.
I find the art pleasant. As far as the card art goes, it is mostly period art. The card art is big enough to be distinctive, but small enough to leave room for flavor text and icons. The original art that the game includes is nice. It isn’t jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but it is nice, and fits the theme well. Josefin Strand, the artist, also did a fair amount of art for HF4a and all of the current modules. I am pretty impressed with the scope of her work.
The rulebooks are actually pretty good, except for there are several questions that come up that you can’t really answer with just the rulebooks. Fortunately, BGG and the living rules are pretty good. But it is a bit of a disappointment that there are important things that just seem to be left out. I will also say that I, while I thought the book was mostly fairly clear, I don’t know how it would look to someone who didn’t have any experience with the Pax system. I also feel like I have to mention the famous Eklund footnotes in the rulebooks. There are dozens of footnotes in these books. Eklund does not, ever, ignore a possibility to preach his views on any subject, it doesn’t matter whether he has an educated or a correct opinion on a subject or not, he shares his views on it. I find the footnotes fascinating, even when they are wrong, and they are often wrong. However, Eklund has published some downright dangerous and hurtful theories. And, in many camps, there is even significant question about the morality of buying games from a company where he is a designer developer. Much less buying games that he has designed and written footnotes for. I can’t tell you what decision that you should make. But I do want to encourage you to do some research into Phil Eklund before deciding whether or not to purchase his games. Also, I wish to clearly state that the footnotes are very clearly separate from the rules, and they are easy to just not read if one wishes to go down that path.
Thematic integration +
I feel like this game is fairly thematic, even if the theme is faintly ludicrous. But I do acknowledge that, when it comes to historical games, I do find the theme easier to find, easier to feel, than some people.
There is a huge deck of cards for both the easter and western markets. You play with only a very small, randomly chosen, subset of those cards in any given game. I think that every game you play will be unique. The cards are so unique in their abilities, and even if you somehow managed to get the exact same card subset in some game or another, the order in which they come out makes a huge difference in how the game will feel.
Solo Suitability +/-
There is a solo ruleset included in the game. I have played with it. It works. It is fine. It beat me. But ultimately, I have preferred to play two handed solo. There is some hidden information in this game, but ultimately the gameplay is opaque enough, at least for now, that when I am considering one “player” I see possibilities that I didn’t consider when I was playing the other “player.” If you are ok with playing games like that, then I highly recommend this game for solo play. If you are ok with following fairly complex flowcharts for a quick card game, then I can recommend the official solo rules. One thing about the official solo rules is that they are flowchart style, but they still call upon the solo player to make a fair number of decisions.
Time to play +
This game can be blazing fast. I have played games that were done in 30-40 minutes. For games that encapsulate this amount of history, this amount of “broad-strokes” story, then that is a true feat.
The setup time, for me, is neutral. It takes me about 5-10 minutes to set it up.
This game is brilliant. The gameplay is stunning. Both of the other Pax games I have played ended up in my top ten. I think this one will as well. In fact, I fully expect it to rank higher than the other two Pax games. Say what you want about Phil Eklund’s politics and crazy ideas, he does know how to design games that I enjoy playing, and that brings us to my concluding thoughts.
I have thoroughly enjoyed every Pax game I have tried. The game engine, the beating heart of the game, is hugely enjoyable for me. I love the wild tactical game play. I love the opportunism, I love trying to see openings and capitalize one them, I love the way that wins need to be snatched in a moment. This game certainly doesn’t disappoint on those counts. It is also, simultaneously, the fastest and heaviest of the Pax games I have tried thus far.
Another thing I have loved about every Pax game I have played, up until now, is how most of the pieces on the map are not the players. Here, I may be placing a catholic bishop and a muslim stronghold on the same turn, but they aren't "my" pieces.
In case I haven’t managed to spill the beans yet, I freaking love this game. I think this is probably my favorite of the Pax games so far, and I really don’t see Pax Emancipation or Pax Viking usurping it. In fact, I think it has a decent chance to become my No. 1 of all time. That being said, there are several reasons that keep me from giving this game a general recommendation.
The first reason has to do with Phil Eklund, the designer. I do believe there are serious moral questions one should ask before buying games that support Phil. Whether or not you feel like you can, in good conscience buy games, either designed by him or released by the company for whom he works, is going to depend on your view on various ideas. It is going to depend on how harmful you find his views. It is going to depend on how you see the responsibility of the consumer to regulate things like this. It is going to depend on how well you can separate the art from the artist. These are questions that I think you need to answer, whether or not you are interested in Phil’s games. These are questions that you need to answer when it comes to all sorts of things that you need to buy.
The second reason I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this has to do with the nature of the game. This is a complicated game. This is a game that is very opaque. This is a game full of attacking, of intriguing, of scheming. This is a game where you need to be able to change your plan at a moments notice. This is something that all of the Pax games I have played have in common. Also, I think that this would be a super tough game for someone with no Pax experience to learn. I would still recommend that if you have, even a passing interest, in the Pax system that you check out Pax Pamir 2nd Edition as your first Pax game. Whether or not you like that game, will, I believe, indicate how much you might enjoy the other ones. Add to that that it is the one with the best written rulebook, and the one with the easiest to read game-state, it is by far the easiest to learn.
However, with those caveats out of the way, I really do consider this to be a masterpiece of game design, at least the sort of game design I tend to enjoy. I rank this game a 10/10.