51st State Master Set Review - Which Is Better, The Chicken Or The Egg?

Once upon a time there was a card game called 51st State. Then came a revised version called Imperial Settlers. Then there was a card game called 51st State. . . wait, what? This was a confusing release for me. I had not played 51st State before but I own Imperial Settlers and enjoy it, though it's losing a little bit of its initial buzz for me mainly because it takes a while to play with more than 2 players sometimes. So to hear that the original was being re-released was unexpected. Surely you can't have two games so similar on the market? What does one offer that the other doesn't?

The new edition is a Master Set, containing cards from two expansions that have previously been included, though no major mechanic changes. You can select one of the two expansions to shuffle into the base set cards and that's pretty much it. Doesn't sound like a "Master Set" per say, at least not when compared to other games that have used that title such as Summoner Wars. Best find out what the story is and see where it all began by heading to Fallout 4, errr I mean The 51st State!

Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek 
Publisher: Portal Games
Age: 14+
Players: 1-4
Time: 60-90 min
RRP: £39.99

Everything You Know Is Gone, Now There Is Only Chaos

"Quoted From BoardGameGeek - 51st State"

The world you know no longer exists. There is no government. No army. No civilisation. The United States has collapsed, and now thirty years after the war started, new powers finally try to take control over the ruined country, try to establish a new order, try to control others and create a new country, a new state: the 51st State.
51st State is a card game in which players control one of four powers trying to build a new country. Players put new locations into play, hire leaders, and send people to work in buildings to gain resources and new skills. To do this, every card in 51st State can be used in three different ways:
  • Raze a location to gain many resources once.
  • Deal with this location to gain one resource every turn.
  • Build the location so that you can use its skill each turn.
51st State: Master Set marks the rebirth of the 51st State line, with this set containing 88 cards from the original base game, and 50 cards each from both the New Era and Winter expansions; one of these expansions can be mixed with the cards of the base game, but not both at the same time. The entire set has been rebalanced to offer a cohesive experience no matter which expansion you choose to use.

What A Day! What A Lovely Day!

Yeah, yeah I had to get a reference in somewhere! The theme that 51st State is based on is what you would expect from a post-apocalyptic world, think a cross between Mad Max and Fallout 4. This is represented very nicely within the artwork on the cards, which on the whole is pretty decent. Whether you prefer the gritty nature of 51st State's look to the cartoon-y brightness of Imperial Settlers is down to your own personal preference. I like both, but I get a lot of feedback from players that they prefer 51st State overall - cartoon artwork isn't as popular it seems these days, explains why Automania never caught much buzz if you've seen the cover to that one.

There is a fair amount of tokens and pieces to go with all the cards in the box, however it's still way bigger than it needs to be. I used a Hobbycraft box to hold all the tokens and even with the boards and cards there's a wasteland of space still with no special insert to speak of. Perhaps it's keeping with the post-apocalyptic theme? Quality wise though it's very good. All the boards are nice and thick and the resource tokens in particular are really cool wooden sculpts(gears, guns, gas cans, etc). You almost want to take them out of 51st State and plug them into another game, I'm sure there's plenty of contenders.

For the cards, there's a lot of cool artwork present, but it doesn't lose functionality. All the text is clear and easy to read and you'll probably figure out all the iconography without even checking the rule book. It's not the best rule book I've seen and one glaring "paragraph placement" error was spotted, but 51st State is simple enough that it shouldn't hold you back. I did require a bit of FAQ searching for some of the solo rules though.

My Options Are Clear To Me

51st State uses a mechanic I really like, being multi-use cards and it's done to a good degree here. Each card has 3 separate uses and each one is a decent option. On top of that you don't just have to build a location, you could develop an old one gaining some victory points in the process. Therefore you do have a lot of choice in how you play, although variety can suffer a little as I'll emphasise on later. Also don't just pick a specialisation and go with it because you don't know what cards you will draw, though I'm glad they incorporated drafting into the draw phase, it adds to the healthy number of choices you have to make during the game's progression.

The biggest difference to Imperial Settlers are the contact/distance tokens. In Settlers you didn't have to acquire a secondary resource to build locations or make deals, you just needed the car and primary resources. But here before you can even make deals or build locations you have to acquire tokens to do so and this adds an extra element of resource gathering to the game. Raze tokens exist too but then Settlers had swords so that's essentially the same thing. It is however an extra chain to keep track off making life quite fiddly at times as you try to construct your engine efficiently working out how much of everything you need to pull off a good turn.

Keeping To The Same Basic Formula 

At first glance you think that there's a ton of cards available once you throw in an expansion. And certainly by quantity that's the case. However, the abilities on the cards don't seem particularly varied when you have a browse through. Production locations are essentially "make X each round", fairly generic, nothing unexpected though.

But even with the special locations you see a lot of repeating themes spring up. In my first game I play tested as a solo experience I encountered no less than 5 cards over the course of the game that all said "convert 1 worker + X + Y + Z into points". Literally the only minor differences were whether you could do it once or twice in a round and which resources you used. Feature locations suffer from a similar issue where a lot of cards are about storing resources over to the next round. Imperial Settlers has some issues like this (and some other games, cough Blood Rage), but there's certainly been some improvement with the expansion packs and the faction buildings all felt very different.

So all of a sudden the repetition sets in pretty fast as no matter how many cards you draw, you keep seeing similar stuff to what you did before. And this is with an expansion thrown in right off the bat, it gets even worse with the base game. Couple this with the lack of any meaningful variety in the factions themselves. The only difference with each one is a colour and one type of resource that you only get one off at the start of the game. The impact that has on how you play is minor at best. One faction might make slightly more developments than another, another will raze slightly more than another. But if this is what others are calling "asymmetric" in today's gaming world, they're setting the bar very low and should give Netrunner a try some day.

I also feel the term "Master Set" is misrepresented here. You get the base game and two expansions, but given that you will not be able to tell the difference between expansion cards and base cards, you might as well always play with one expansion included and there's no reason why these cards wouldn't be suitable for inclusion in a base set anyway. If I released 51st State, all these cards would have been included in a base game to begin with.

Time Is Never Short In A Wasteland

One problem I have with Imperial Settlers is the time length when you take it above two players. With 3, it's manageable, just brushing that line, but at 4 it's just too long and overstays its welcome and it gets worse with Analysis Paralysis players who are common when you consider just how many different aspects you have to keep track of, it can get pretty fiddly at times hence never use this or Imperial Settlers as a gateway game EVER!

Unfortunately the same problem occurs here in 51st State. I would say it's marginally quicker, but you'll barely notice. This will play in the same amount of time for 2, 3 or 4 players and have the same issues with 4 as it's brother. And this doesn't even include set up and take down. When you add an expansion in you have to do a really good long shuffle to mix up the cards and then when you take down, if you want to change expansions or remove one, you have to spend ages separating out all the cards, glancing at the incredibly small print of the expansion name on the card - surely a large colourful symbol would have been better.

Verdict On 51st State

On its own 51st State is a reasonable game. It's not difficult to learn, has a healthy amount of back and forth take-that among players, has good artwork and has enough depth to keep it interesting without burning any brain cells.

However the huge elephant in the room is Imperial Settlers and it's impossible to rate this game without taking this into account. The 51st State came first and gives us a good template, but Imperial Settlers then took over and improved on the template. There are some subtle differences such as the use of contact/distance tokens and the fact that anything can be razed no matter what, but these games are so alike you have zero reason to have both in your collection and I personally give the nod to Imperial Settlers.

51st State is not a bad game though when you consider it alone. It plays smoothly with a small number of players, gives you lots of options, the artwork is solid (and for some may be more appealing than the cartoon style of Settlers), components are excellent and I would say it's probably easier for players to get used to the mechanics. But a lack of good variety in the card abilities coupled with its older cloned brother being that little bit more enjoyable just makes it redundant for me. Personally I say, pick the theme you like best, consider your likeness for asymmetric gameplay and then go with that.

If you are interested in this game you can find a copy at your friendly local gaming store - http://www.findyourgamestore.co.uk/


You prefer the artwork choice of gritty post apocalyptic compared to cartoon civilisations.

You want an engine building game that doesn't get too complex with figuring out combos.

You want a simpler version of Imperial Settlers - despite being alike I think this is easier to teach.


You were hoping for something different than Imperial Settlers.

You want a wide variety of card abilities - a lot of them feel rehashed and repeated.

You want unique starting factions with special abilities - everyone is the same here.