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[Review] St. Petersburg

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tomvasel
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Well, the International Gamers Awards for 2004 have just been announced, and St. Petersburg (Rio Grande Games - 2004, Michael Tummelhofer) has won the general strategy award. As usual, this award (as with all awards) has kicked up debate all over the internet on the merits as to whether it should have won; who should have won, etc. If one game award matches my pick for the year, I count myself lucky; and this year Ticket to Ride won the Spiel des Jahres. My pick for the IGA would have been Goa, but I do understand the immense popularity of St. Petersburg. When I was Origins, people were playing it everywhere; I see session reports for it all over the internet, and the praises ring out loud.

I do believe, however, that the game is a “shooting star”, much as Transamerica or other games that had huge bursts in popularity and have now reduced to merely a “good” game. That’s not to detract too much from St. Petersburg; it’s a fine game but not “great.” My biggest problem with it is that the strategy becomes all too apparent, and one almost feels like a calculating AI of a computer, mentally computing the best move to take at each point. I would have been a bigger detractor of the game, but after a two-player game, I saw more value in it. I am more prone to enjoying analytical games in a two-player setting; and as a math teacher, I enjoy the mental math one has the option of doing in the game.

The theme of the game involves players being involved in the building of the great city of St. Petersburg. Four decks of cards (green workers, blue buildings, orange aristocrats, and multi-color trading cards) are shuffled and placed down in piles on their respective spots on the game board. Each player takes two tokens of one color - one placed in front of themselves to denote what color they are, and the other placed at the zero space on the scoring track that winds it way around the board. Piles of ruble notes are sorted into five denominations (1, 2, 5, 10, & 20), and twenty-five are given to each player. (Money is kept secret in the game). Four starting player cards are shuffled and dealt to the players (who may get more than one card, depending on number of players), and revealed. Each player discards the card and takes the token that is shown on the card (chair, dome, profile, and square - or whatever they are). One player places cards (amount determined by number of players) from the first deck (the worker’s deck), and places them in top row (of two rows - each with eight spaces.) The first round of the game then begins.

Each round is composed of four phases, in the following order: (worker, building, aristocrat, and trading card). Each phase is made up of three parts: actions, scoring (except the trading card phase), and new cards. In the action phase, the player who has the starting token that matches the one shown on the back of the deck of cards goes first, and play proceeds clockwise around the table. The player may do one of four things:
- Buy a card from the table for the price shown in the top left-hand corner of the card. The card is then placed in front of that player in their play area. If the player already has one or more of that card (for example, they are buying a Author, and already have two Authors), they may deduct one from the price for each card they already have but must always pay at least one ruble. Some cards also lower the prices of buying future cards. Trading cards are treated differently than other cards, as they replace previous cards that the player has. Green trading cards (workers) can only replace workers with a similar icon in their top left corner (there are five different icons). Buildings and aristocrats can replace any card of their type, except other trading cards. The cost to play a trading card is the difference between the trading card’s cost and the card it is replacing. If the difference is zero or negative, the player must still pay at least one ruble.
- Add a card to their hand from the table. This costs nothing, and the player has a maximum hand limit of three cards.
- Play a card from their hand, paying the full price, and placing it face up in their play area.
- Pass. If all four players pass in a row, this part of the round ends.

After all players have passed, scoring occurs, but only the cards that match the current phase. For example, workers only earn money during the worker phase, not the aristocrat phase. Cards either give the player money, points, or both. After all players have scored, the scoring markers have moved, and the money has been distributed, new cards are added. The new cards come from the next stack of cards and are added until there are eight total cards on the board, placing them in the upper card row. After the trading card phase, all cards in the top row are moved to the bottom row, and all cards that are in the bottom row are discarded. Cards in the bottom row cost one ruble less in the next round. Players also give their start marker(s) to the player on their left, and the next round begins with the worker cards. When one of the four decks is completely exhausted, the current round is finished, and final scoring occurs. Each player gets one point for every ten rubles they have, and points for the total amount of different aristocrats they have (1-1, 2-3, 3-6, 4-10, 5-15, 6-21, 7-28, 8-36, 9-45, 10+-55). The player with the most points is the winner! There are a few other rules, such as some of the cards having special abilities (increasing hand size, trading rubles for points, etc.)

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: The game comes in a very nicely done package. The cards are all of superb quality, are small, but come in bright, cheerful colors. I especially liked the abundance of gold ink on the cards; it was a nice touch that is rarely seen in games. The artwork on the cards is okay, although the folks looked rather stilted, lifeless, and ugly. I’m still not absolutely sure what the symbols stand for, but they were certainly different enough that everyone knew who had what. The money was decent quality paper, but I’m still a big fan of cards or tokens being used for money. Everything fit snugly inside a fairly small, sturdy box. The board looked very nice and clean cut - the scoring track was 100 spaces even - which should be a requirement for all games.

2.) Rules: There are eight pages of rules, which were formatted fairly well; although most things were mentioned only once and not necessarily where you thought, so in our first game I had to read a good portion of the rulebook to find the rules I needed. Still, the game is easy to teach - at least the rules. A two-player game plays much differently than a four-player game, and almost should be taught differently.

3.) Theme: A quick comment on the theming of the game - I thought that it was off in the aristocrat deck. Sure, the buildings and the workers seemed liked the titles and pictures meshed with the rewards and scoring, but I couldn’t figure out the aristocrats. A secretary was worth more than a warehouse manager, who was worth more than a chamber maid, who was worth more than the pope? This is a minor quibble, but it just seemed quite odd.

4.) Required strategy: The rules suggest a few tips which are frankly, not tips, but required to have a viable chance to win the game - such as buying as many workers possible in the beginning of the game, saving money for the excellent trading cards, and not ignoring aristocrats cards. If new players don’t get these things driven into their heads, they might not do them; and they WILL lose the game as a result. The game definitely has a learning curve, albeit it’s a quick one.

5.) Computer: I really think that a computer AI could easily be programmed to play the game well. I found myself sitting there, analyzing the cards, figuring out the ratio of cost vs. reward for each card, the length of time left in the game, etc. This is fun for me to a degree, but gives me the feeling that there is really only one correct move to make at any given time. Since the options are not too great, the ability to find this “perfect” move seems fairly feasible to find; and I think the game may suffer from this in the long run.

6.) Minority and Fun Factor: Some of the folk I played this with really enjoyed it, and a huge factor on the internet also did. I myself didn’t dislike my experiences playing it, and I’ll gladly play it again. But to call the game great, when classics such as Maharaja and Goa are around does those fantastic games a disservice. St. Petersburg is fun but doesn’t offer the sweeping strategy choices I hoped for.

There are already a good many articles on the internet detailing strategy for the game, and although I normally try to avoid those kind of writings, I can imagine that most of them are remarkably similar. St. Petersburg is a fun, engaging game, especially two player game, as it scales remarkably well. Many folk really enjoy the game, much more so than I. My question is, “Will they like the game so much in a year or more?” I think not; as St. Petersburg is good game, just not excellent.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

P.S. Search the internet for information on the game’s designer. If you know much about the German board gaming scene, the results may amuse you.

Scurra
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Re: [Review] St. Petersburg

TomVasel wrote:

5.) Computer: I really think that a computer AI could easily be programmed to play the game well.

And, as people may already know, there's a terrific one to be found here:
http://www.westpark-gamers.de/index.html?/sp_pc.html
which does indeed play the game exceptionally well.

I think I agree regarding it being a "shooting star" - but I'm also glad to have another "transition" game for people who are ready to move on from Settlers and Carcassonne but perhaps aren't willing to invest the time in PR, PoF or other more heavyweight games. IMO this is a perfect intermediate title for that slot.

sedjtroll
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[Review] St. Petersburg

I saw St Petersburg on BSW last night, and looked up the rules on BGG. Played a game with a guy nice enough to walk me through it.

At first glance I like it. I think it may fall into the same boat as San Juan though- OK on BSW but not worth a purchase. Too driven by Luck of the Draw once the novelty wears off.

Those are my initial thoughts on it. Anyone agree? Disagree?

- Seth

Scurra
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[Review] St. Petersburg

One thing that interests me is that there seems to be an entertaining split between those who like San Juan and those who like St.P - and sometimes you think that 'never the twain shall meet'...

The SJ fans accuse St.P of being merely a "mechanical progression" - once the game has started, your moves are often automatically dictated to you.
Meanwhile, the St.P fans accuse SJ of being a complete "luck-fest" - if you get the good cards, you win.

Neither argument is entirely true but I must confess that they are amusing to watch.

I probably prefer St.P, but that's mostly because it is a much more flexible game; you can try out all sorts of variants (changing scoring, changing draw rules) and there is more control in it than appears on the surface.
(That's not to diss SJ, btw, which is a perfectly constructed game and one in which the more skilled player will win more often than a "luck-fest" would suggest.)
It certainly isn't dependent upon luck of the draw. But a lot of the strategy is not at all apparent in what should be a lighter-weight game (as is the case with SJ, but at least there people have some PR experience to fall back on), and it's a game that can be won or lost almost on the very first couple of actions (let alone rounds - or even turns!)

sedjtroll
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[Review] St. Petersburg

Scurra wrote:
(That's not to diss SJ, btw

Why not? SJ deserves it...

Wait, are we talking about Steve Jackson? Or San Juan? Well, either way...

But seriously, so far I'm still enjoying StP (not Stone Temple Pilots, they only have like 1 good song. And it's been a VERY long time since I've enjoyed a Swords to Plowshears- I'm referring to Saint Petersburg!)

I played 2 games tonight, and in the second I finallykept up with my opponent in income and number of different Aristocrats and therefore my extra VPs off buildings or whatever made me win :)

I still suspect that I'll like the game a little less once i get the hang of it, and if I go buy it I'm sure I'll regret it- but that's mostly because people I know don't play games. As a BSW game though it's great (for the time being).

Joe_Huber
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Joined: 12/31/1969
[Review] St. Petersburg

Seth asks:

sedjtroll wrote:
At first glance I like it. I think it may fall into the same boat as San Juan though- OK on BSW but not worth a purchase. Too driven by Luck of the Draw once the novelty wears off.

Those are my initial thoughts on it. Anyone agree? Disagree?

Luck plays a roll, but I think it's a minor one - with equally matched player it can make the difference, but there are enough differentiations in players as to make luck a minor factor. I think it's very telling that some people win against the AI ~25% of the time, while others win ~50% of the time or more. Having played way too many times against the AI and 28 times live, I'm still learning.

FWIW, I enjoy San Juan, but it's not a favorite and I prefer Tom Lehmann's version.

Joe

Zambo
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Joined: 12/31/1969
[Review] St. Petersburg

My take on StP vs. San Juan:

I'd rather not play StP in person any more. Too much going on with calculating, money & change, totalling up victory points, etc. which really detracts from the gameplay (for me). Now on BSW, I'll play this any time. 2-player is best (luck is reduced to a certain degree) and it plays fast, once you know what you're doing (10 minutes for a 2-player game is standard for me now). However, I still enjoy playing 3 and 4 player games on BSW...because the game changes when you have different numbers of people. And I find the decisions to make a little bit tougher with 3 and 4 players than when I'm playing a 2-player.

I enjoy San Juan, too...but it's almost the reverse of StP; I'd rather play with 3 or 4 players than with 2. With 2, it seems as though there's more luck to be had, and also more difficult decisions to be made (probably making the 2 player game better, due to the difficulty in decision-making).

But you can chalk me up to one of those that enjoys both!

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