Pax Porfiriana Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2012
Playing Time: 120 Minutes
Let’s play a game. No, not Pax Porfiriana. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Imagine you’re a game designer. For some in my audience, you won’t have to imagine. Now someone tells you that you have to create a deeply thematic historical game covering the ebbs and flows of The Porfirian Peace, a hairy, complicated period in Mexico’s history. Many could accomplish this task, though it would undoubtedly be told with sweepingly large arrays of mechanics to simulate the various forces at work.
Now imagine you’re told you only have ~200 standard-size cards, some wooden cubes and money chips with which to design your thematic game.
If you’ve played Pax Porfiriana (Pax Por, for short), you know this is possible. But if you hadn’t played the game beforehand, and said you could complete this task, I’d probably suspect you to be a liar.
I like to do this thought experiment with games, and I’m not joking when I say that out of every game I’ve ever played, I think Pax Por would be the toughest to design from scratch, given only its premise and components. That alone doesn’t mean it’s good, but I think it’s worth appreciating as a study in tight game design. But moving on…
Pax Games and Their Traits
An online acquaintance welcomed me to “a new world” when I was introduced to Pax Porfiriana, which was also the first Pax game I ever played (I’ve since played others, which I hope to cover in future reviews). While I’m not always a fan of how hobby gamers throw ever-narrower fences around themselves in certain genre subsets, this particular welcome seemed appropriate.
Pax games are separate from their peers. Hardcore devotees might claim they don’t have direct peers. That’s too bold a statement for my taste, but they’re certainly distinct.
Let’s back up, though. What makes a Pax game, well, a Pax game? The list below is not comprehensive, but is my best estimation of commonalities.
- An open market (generally of cards) full of possibilities for various strategies and tactics.
- Active manipulation of the efforts of everyone at the table, not just your own. This manipulation could also include manipulating the external circumstances common to all players, which have downstream effects on individual strategies.
- A focus on a specific period of history, theming the game around historical events, figures and areas of influence (military, commerce, politics, etc.). Often this includes a mix of real history and “what if” history. In Pax Transhumanity, for example, it’s speculative but vaguely plausible science fiction. In Pax Porfiriana, the game could end as it happened in history, with a violent revolution overthrowing Porfirio Diaz, or in another scenario that never played out but potentially could have.
Again, not comprehensive, but it’s a basis from which to begin discussing the game.
I should also mention that this is the first game I’ve ever reviewed where the majority of my plays have been online. Take that however you will from a reviewing perspective, but I’m personally starting to come to terms with the fact that not everything I play and enjoy will see table time in my life, despite gaming 1-2 times per week. There are simply too many games in the world to do them all in-person justice. I do own a physical copy, but it’s a tough pull due to its specific appeal.
That said, I’ve played quite a bit of Pax Por in its online form, and a couple times in-person, so I have plenty to say on it.
History as Playground
Brighter minds than I have commented on the historical trappings of the Pax games, as well as the oft-discussed footnotes that accompany them in many games. While I appreciate strong historical themes, I’m not a history buff, nor someone whose enjoyment of gaming is filtered through the prism of historical interpretation.
So to go too in-depth on these elements would be to invite corrections from those far more versed than I. Insofar as the game is able to strongly evoke an idiom through gameplay, I am satisfied. And here, it certainly does strongly evoke a particular tone. But more on that later.
Pax Porfiriana – The Premise
The dictator Porfirio Diaz holds power in Mexico, and you play as an influential hacendado who is angling to be Mexico’s next dominant figure.
There are technically something like 9 possible actions you can take, but the heart of the thing is buying and deploying cards from a central market into a personal tableau. But nothing is strictly “personal” in the game. Want to assassinate a rival’s business partner? It’s possible. Want to send your troops into that ranch over there and extort it for protection money? Done. Want to build a donkey path to your rival’s gun shop, to make it easier to glom off its success? Sure, why not. Want to oppress your own enterprises, then liberate them, thus granting yourself precious favor with the people, while conveniently ignoring the fact that they only needed liberating because of your cruelty? Have at it. Want to stoke outrage in the people across dozens of turns, then convince Teddy Roosevelt that the US needs to intervene and annex Mexico? Some games will end this way.
You’re concurrently having to further your own plans, protect those plans, and undercut the plans of others. It’s diabolical, but intriguing.
There are four Victory Point (VP) types, each in short supply. When “Topple” cards appear throughout the game, you can overthrow Diaz in one of four ways, related to your strength in a particular VP type. If you make it through all four Topples without a winner, the richest among you wins. Timing things to be able to overthrow Diaz is no small task, and a lot can go wrong even if you have a commanding lead in one or more VP types.
“Yes, but…” Game Design
The game is unrepentantly brutal at times. I do see some silver lining in this, though, and it relates to the title of this section. When a bad thing happens, sometimes it’s just bad. But other times, there’s another side to the coin that will either assuage the blow for the victim of an action, or give pause to someone before simply attacking a rival.
I’m going to make a game comparison here, and it’s going to seem strange. But I’ll explain myself…Pax Por reminds me of Keyflower.
Keyflower has far less combative window dressing. An elevator pitch for the game might make it sound like a pastoral engine-builder Euro. And there’s some of that, granted. But the heart of the game, to me, is the often contentious bidding mechanics, and how everyone’s tableau can be used by everyone else (not unlike Pax Por). So I could play a meeple on your tableau, but I’m giving you that meeple to use in subsequent rounds. It’s a “Yes, but…” philosophy of game design, where very little is only good or only bad.
So the key in both is to identify those times where the benefits to you outweigh whatever benefit it may confer on another.
In Pax Porfiriana, this might mean erasing someone’s enterprise from the game, but simultaneously awarding them one of the game’s prestige (victory) points. Or you have the opportunity to deny someone from getting a crucial card in the market, but it will require purchasing it and won’t help you nearly as much. But if it prevents a victory and allows you to angle for a different victory type later on, it may be part of a smart long-term gameplan.
The most devious of actions will find ways around this “Yes, but…” formula. Sure, I just awarded Suzy an Outrage point (one of the victory point types) after sacking her tableau, but she wasn’t going for an Outrage win, and it also makes it harder for Tom over there to get his Outrage points high enough to win. It’s a win/win…for you, that is.
That example starts to get at the depth inherent in the game. For clarity, despite some “Yes, but…” elements, the game’s more punitive actions still hold plenty of venom. But it allows for a spectrum of actions that range from mildly helpful or damaging to wildly helpful or damaging, and each has unique considerations.
Density of Information and Interconnectedness
I don’t think I’ve ever seen such density of information on cards. There are numerous interlinking sub-systems in the game, and everything is represented somehow on the cards. It’s intimidating to learn, but efficient in its use of space, text, and iconography.
It’s not necessarily pretty or immediately intuitive, mind you, but the understanding of why it’s presented this way will occur after enough plays. And the reason is that everything is immediately discernible about a card at a glance, which is a necessity due to the number of subsystems in play.
I generally like games that I can call streamlined, and while I think Pax Por does an admirable job of information presentation, I wouldn’t call it a streamlined game. It’s too complex for that.
However, the compliment that I can wholeheartedly extend to it is that each of those subsystems feels absolutely crucial to the whole. Everything matters. So none of the complexity feels superfluous or extraneous.
The Winding Path to Leadership
Plenty of games have “multiple paths to victory” but this praise is often hollow. In practice, one player is probably just winning a lot of the time, and even if you’re technically going for a different strategy, past a certain point, there’s nothing to be done about it.
There are no sure things in Pax Por until it’s definitively over. This is refreshing. Because, for example, one player might have ALL the Command points, and could easily get a Command victory when a Topple card comes up. But once it does, they’ll need to ensure that they can alter the Regime (one of the game’s interlocking systems) to Martial Law, which will allow for a Command victory.
If they’re unable to do so, their mountain of Command points means nothing. And every other player realizes this, so there will be no surprise victory.
So the strategy becomes twofold: One, gain the resources and influence necessary to win. And two, manipulate the game state to where that influence can prove decisive. Achieving both is never easy. It also means that sometimes you’re simply on the defensive. But this can be preferable to having the bullseye on your back at times.
And because even someone starved for prestige points can angle for a Gold victory (in case none of the Topples succeed), it avoids those classic problems like runaway leaders or feeling helpless with half the game left to play.
Pax Por is categorically NOT great for all gamers or gamer types. Some examples:
- It’s a bear to teach and learn. I suspect many who will greatly enjoy the game won’t realize their enjoyment until they’re a few plays in. So if you don’t get any single game to the table that often, give this one a pass. It’s better as you sink deeply into it.
- There’s the aforementioned fact that it’s often unforgiving and cutthroat. This is a bonus for me, but will actively turn off many. It also means anyone learning the game will take more lumps than usual (“Wait, what do you mean that newspaper headline put my forces at war with one another?!”), so you have to set expectations in this area.
- Long-term plans are possible, but round-to-round considerations dominate most of the game, so it’s more tactical than strategic. To state it differently, it’s a very open system, so you’re never able to plan your actions in a vacuum. You can absolutely build a base of revenue and influence through your play, but fans of engine-builders may be frustrated by the fact that what you build rarely stays intact throughout the game.
I don’t want to pretend that this is a great game for a broad audience. It almost certainly isn’t. What it is, however, is great for a specific audience, and that’s something I can say about many of my favorite games.
Player Count Considerations
The game’s Board Game Geek page says it’s best at 4P, and I won’t argue with that overall assessment. But I see pros and cons to every player count.
At 4-5, time between turns can bloat, and keeping track of all your possibilities across all tableaus can be intimidating in ways that slow down proceedings. By game’s end, it can be staggering, and not always in a good way. Even regular Pax Por players will miss things. These player counts are also the most reactionary. There’s no telling what the market or your tableau’s state will be by the next time it comes around to you. You can still plan ahead, but I see more opportunity for long-term planning at lower player counts.
I don’t have as much 3P experience, but I could foresee some kingmaking issues, unless all players are careful about wielding their influence equally against all rivals. Alternatively, that dynamic heightens the drama of some actions, which may be a plus.
2P will have the most coherence between turns. It’s easier to plan in advance with only 3 actions between your turns, rather than as many as 12 in a 5P game. There’s also an immediacy to the 1-v-1 format that I think lends itself to the theme quite nicely. It’s like having a gun duel at high noon in front of the saloon.
But some of the game’s more oblique strategies aren’t as available at 2P, like the one I mentioned earlier where you “help” one player in order to harm another far more. That stuff is fun. Everything is more direct in 2P, which loses some tactical nuance.
The good news is, the experience doesn’t change too much at any player count, and it’s good at all of them.
Pax Porfiriana – Conclusions
I mentioned at the beginning that I have mostly played this online. That fact acts as a further endorsement of Pax Por, because I’m generally not a fan of online gaming compared to in-person gaming. I enjoy it, for clarity, but it loses a little bit compared to playing a physical copy.
So the fact that I regularly play and greatly enjoy Pax Por in this format speaks highly of its even higher potential at a physical table (if I could only get it played in-person more often).
I do think Pax Por will be polarizing for many gamers. “Cutthroat” isn’t a descriptor that lends itself to broad audiences. But I’m on record in several reviews as saying I love polarizing games that are created for a specific audience. Even if I’m not in a particular game’s target audience, the games that produce extremes of one type or another will be among many gamers’ favorites, even if they lack mass appeal.
I think Pax Por falls into that category: it’s a very specific theme and period of history that isn’t well-trodden in games, and will frustrate many who attempt to crack its depths. But for those who enjoy the premise—either mechanical, historical, or both—it’s a great, bloody romp.