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Review: Saint Petersburg

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Somewhere in Russia, a man sits atop a horse. Thankfully, he is not glowering, as in other Euro games, nor is he a medieval. No, he is the czar–Czar Peter, Czar and Carpenter, Czar Superstar–and he sets the hopeful tone for the city of Saint Petersburg, about to be built up despite the scarcity of rubles available to its Russian tycoons.

You are one such tycoon. Do you have what it takes to build this great city? Find out below.

How It Works

Saint Petersburg is a card-drafting, tableau-/engine-building game for two to four players. Players compete to score the most points through the acquisition of workers, buildings, nobles, and upgrades.

At the start of the game, each player receives twenty-five rubles and a number of start player tokens (dependent on the number of players), which correspond to the four phases of a round: the worker phase, the building phase, the noble phase, and the trading phase (which we always call “upgrade” since that makes more sense to us). Each phase has a corresponding deck of cards. Two cards for each player from the green worker deck are placed on the first row of the game board, and the game begins.

On a player’s turn, he may do one of three things:

  • Play a card in front of him, either from the display or from his hand, by paying its cost in rubles
  • Take a card from the display into his hand (maximum hand size is three cards)
  • Pass

Playing a card usually costs the straight cost in rubles, but there are a few possible discounts. First, a player receives a one-ruble discount for every card of the same name in his tableau. (For example, if Bill already has three shepherds [cost 5], the next shepherd Bill buys will cost two rubles.) Any card in the bottom row of the display is also discounted by one ruble. There are a few special cards that discount cards of certain colors as well. And all of the upgrade phase cards must replace other cards in a player’s tableau and cost the difference in rubles between the two cards’ costs. A card always costs at least one ruble to play, though (no freebies in Saint Petersburg!).

The game set up for two players. Those gold pieces are the start player markers.

Unlike most other games, passing does not put a player out of the phase for good (unless all other players pass); players may pass and jump in as they want. Also, taking cards into your hand may allow you to play the card later, but each card held in your hand at the end of the game subtracts 5 points from your score.

Once all players in order have passed in a phase, the phase is scored, meaning players receive rubles, points, or both for the corresponding cards in their tableaus. (The exception is that the upgrade phase is never scored.) Play then moves on to the next phase. Cards from the next phase’s deck fill the display to eight total cards, and the player who holds the start player token for that phase begins.

After the upgrade phase, the round ends. Any cards on the bottom row are discarded. All unpurchased cards on the top row move to the bottom row. Players pass their start player tokens to the left, the display is filled to eight total cards with cards from the green worker deck, and play continues.

The game ends at the end of the round whenever one deck runs out of cards. Players score one point for every ten rubles they have. They also score points based on the number of different nobles they’ve collected. Whoever has the most points wins.

One card from each phase. Note how easy the symbols are to interpret: VPs and money, that’s about all you need. Also note the square around the 16 of the fourth card. That indicates that a card is an upgrade.

 @FarmerLenny’s take:

Saint Petersburg, much like Michael Tummelhofer’s other game Stone Age, strikes a good balance between having simple rules and offering interesting decisions. And much like Stone Age, I’m fairly ambivalent toward Saint Petersburg (the game, not the city, of course).

First, what Saint Petersburg has going for it. I love the way the game has scarcity built into it. Starting the game at twenty-five rubles leaves players with a feeling of being strapped, especially through the first few rounds of the game. There really are tough decisions as buying one card will leave a player out of the running for another. Yet if no cards are purchased or taken into the hand in one phase, no new cards come out in the next. It’s this shortage and scarcity that keeps players invested in the game. I love how tense these decisions are.

Special on lumberjacks and shepherds!

Of course, like any engine game worth its salt, the game doesn’t leave you in the straits of scarcity. By the end of the game (at least if you’ve played your cards right), players will feel like high rollers. This sense of reward and accomplishment gives players the sense that what they’ve done has been worth it. Yet the game doesn’t last too much past this initial feeling: by then the decks will run out, which is as it should be. (The game system works best with scarcity.)

I also love how simple and (mostly) intuitive the iconography is for Saint Petersburg. There are only two main symbols: a shield for victory points and a coin for rubles. Yes, there are a few other symbols, but these are easily explained, and most players know at a glance what every card does. This simplicity makes the game super easy to teach.

I like the options that players have to jump in and pass with abandon. To hold cards in their hand to play later or to play them right away. To buy other-colored cards in an off-phase (though cards are only scored in their own phases). To buy broad or to buy deep. Saint Petersburg is a simple game with a pruned decision tree, but it is no less fun for that. Instead, it focuses players on the decisions there are and invests those decisions with greater weight.

A close-up of the start player tokens.

I also like the components. Even though the cards are the small Euro cards, this seems fitting, since the cards–literally and figuratively–stack. If the cards were much larger, the game would take up a lot more table space, and I might not be able to play at home. The gold foil on the cards is a nice touch, as is the (mostly unnecessary) gameboard. And I like the start player tokens for the four phases.

So if I say this about the game, why the ambivalence?

First of all, the game is soulless. Really. I’m usually not one to mind a pasted-on theme, but Saint Petersburg might be the worst offender in this area. There are very few things distinctly “Russian” about it. The game doesn’t evoke any sense of atmosphere, and the artwork (while I like it more than I did at first) is not anything special. There’s really not much reason to connect the name on the cards in Saint Petersburg with anything in the real world: they are props supporting gameplay.

Only eight cards can be available at any given time.

Similarly, because there’s not much of a theme and because the game is based so heavily on scarcity, the game is very calculating. I don’t mind this so much when it moves quickly, but that hasn’t been my experience in any game with three or more players. My wife and I are able to play quickly in the two-player game, but throw another person in the mix, and it slows down considerably. The quick tabulation and tracking of rubles requires players to slow down a bit, which works against what makes the game play well. This isn’t a deal breaker, but it does mean that I’m very careful about suggesting this game in case it gets played in the wrong group.

The game also has a little bit of a samey feel since the cards don’t vary from game to game, and while the order of availability is important, it’s not so important that it changes the gameplay dramatically (as it does, for example, in Ra). Also, Saint Petersburg is a game that players get better at the more they play. Risks are more calculated, and strategies emerge that tend to reward the experienced players. This can make the game a disparate experience among players of different skill levels.

This is a fantastic insert.

All this said, I like Saint Petersburg while I’m playing it, and like it quite a bit. I wouldn’t turn a game down. It’s in the aftermath, when I consider how I spent my time, that I wonder if it was worth it. The game is sound mechanically–there’s no question in my mind about that. It’s also enjoyable in the moment: it’s tense, and I like games of calculation, as long as a game doesn’t get bogged down there. But Saint Petersburg is a game that would be hard to get an American-style gamer on board with (which many of my friends are), and while the game is enjoyable, you might feel a little cold and empty inside when you’re done playing.

Summary

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros

  • Simple to teach
  • Engaging gameplay
  • Scarcity is built in, making the game more intense
  • Snowball effect gives players a sense of accomplishment at the end of the game.

Cons:

  • No real theme to speak of
  • The game feels sterile and calculating
  • The game can get bogged down with more and/or AP-prone players
8.0 Very Good

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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