Pax Renaissance - A Creativity Quest Review

Pax Renaissance - A Creativity Quest Review

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MattDPMattDP   June 26, 2017  
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One of the most famous magic items in Dungeons and Dragons is the bag of holding. On the outside, a small cloth bag. On the inside, a pocket dimension capable of storing huge amounts of stuff. Pax Renaissance is the closest real-world equivalent that we have. On the outside, a small box, no bigger than a couple of packs of playing cards. On the inside, one of the densest, biggest games we've seen this decade.

Your first clue comes from the rulebook, which is uncommonly thick for such a small box and printed in tiny font. It explains that players take the role of Renaissance era financiers, pulling political strings to make things happen. Each game re-tells the whole history of the Renaissance over 1-2 hours and can end in various ways, including a retreat into feudalism. The key to this is that there are several victory conditions, and players can choose to unlock one or more of them during the game. It then proceeds to deluge you in a forceful flood of complex minutiae, the like of which I've never seen before.

This is the third in the Pax series, but the first I've played. So I can't comment on whether prior experience helps you understand what the game throws at you. All I can say is that the first game is likely to take a lot longer than the stated time, and will feel like you're drowning in ludical treacle. Eklund games are typically simulations and have tended to draw on hard, factual concepts like evolution and space flight. The Pax games, by contrast, are history games. Yet you can see the attempt to cram incredible detail into the game, to try and make it into as much of a simulation as possible, at every turn. From the complexity of the rules to the dense historical flavour text on every card, it tries as hard as it can to convince you of its thesis.

Renaissance-era games are nothing new. Most posit that the key drivers of the era were either military or economic. Pax Renaissance's thesis takes a step back from these and says that what pushed the politics of the era was simple self-interest. The desire of the burgeoning middle and upper-middle classes to become rich through trade. In doing so it introduces a flood of novel ideas, from the tiny hand size to the way you slowly build and repeatedly re-use cards in your tableau. Although full of invention it does, of course, draw on previous Pax titles.

Play proceeds by players acquiring and playing cards. Many have a one-shot effect but then end up in the player's tableau. At first, play is likely to revolve around securing income from the two trade routes on the map, one running east and the other west. There are various ways to do this. These range from cashing in on the flow of goods as they pass to pulling political strings which change the geography of the flow itself. 

Trade is just the tip of the historical iceberg on offer, however. The east-west dichotomy pervades the game. Its card-based map is divided into east and west sections, which start out Islamic and Catholic respectively. There are chess-like pieces on the map, representing nobility and armed forces, their colour indicating their religion. It's far harder to influence these pieces directly than it is trade, but the payoff can be much more spectacular. Rather than lining your pocket with a few Florins, you might set in motion the chain of events that lead to the Reformation. Or perhaps a peasant rebellion, a new crusade, another spurt of life for the Roman empire. 

All these things - and more - are possible. It's a staggering, overwhelming, interlocking of systems. You can almost imagine the butterfly off the board, flapping its wings and starting to build a hurricane over Europe. Except you and your fellow players are the butterflies. And together your actions have the potential to change history. The scope of the game is almost as immense as the rulebook.

Interaction is at the heart of what makes the game fascinating. Your scope for individual actions each turn are very limited. So you've got to use them to full effect, launching your own schemes while trying to counter those of your opponents. As the game develops, you'll begin to see ways you might secure one or more of those victory conditions, all of which start locked. In an ideal world you'll beguile another player into actually unlocking one and making it a valid route to win. But maybe you'll have to do it yourself. Some are easier than others and they, of course, will be chased by more players. So there's a whole layer in merely choosing which to go for. 

On the other hand, the price of entry is enormous. After devoting considerable effort to learning and teaching and playing enough for a review, there are still many aspects of the rules hard to ingest and remember. It seems almost impossible anyone could internalise enough to get the game down to the promised hour's play time. Even if you could, the options on offer can be overwhelming. So much so that I've seen several winners profess bafflement as to how, exactly they managed to get there.

There's also a question mark over the game's historical foundation. I'm no detailed student of history, but it doesn't seem hard to look back and imagine how merchants and bankers influenced kings and queens. How they might have influenced religious thinkers like Martin Luther seems a far bigger stretch. Yet that's what the game wants you to believe. To the point where the mercantile houses of Italy could have turned all Europe into part of the Ottoman Caliphate in their pursuit of profit.

Regardless of how you feel about the history, there's little doubt that Pax Renaissance is an absorbing game and an incredible achievement. To have a game of such vast scope is astonishing in itself, let alone to fit it into such a tiny package. Yet the looks belie the beast within. This is not the sort of small box game you just pick off your shelf and play. It demands too much effort to learn and play and play effectively. If you have enough hours to dedicate to it, it feels like it will reward your effort handsomely. But as ever with games like this, the question is the same: do you really want one game for one group that you could potentially play forever? Be careful what you wish for.

Posted: 26 Jun 2017 05:39 by Bojack #250428
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The thing is, I find most of the time the "theme" and stuff he adds as detail doesnt *really* add anything to the game. Pax Porf was a clever game with multiple winning conditions interlocking via the different card categories, and yes, the theme was "cool" and interesting but it didnt really drive anything in the game, it could equally well have been an abstract euro card game with colours and Icons instead o the graphical hotch potch he Went with in order to convey the idea he was trying to simulate that historical idea. If anything the graphical design just got in the way of what was actually a pretty simple idea, cards plop out with different game ending conditions, based on the different kinds of cards you have in front of you, and with a resourcey Money Engine helping you along. His rulebooks, living or otherwise, are shit. I still Think High Frontier is the only one of his games where the theme means anything, or shows through in the actual game, and thus justifies all the extraneous detail
Posted: 26 Jun 2017 06:04 by Bojack #250430
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but he's still great, and unique and should keep doing what he does,
Posted: 26 Jun 2017 09:15 by Msample #250431
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Eklund is one of only a handful of designers to be in my auto buy category.

I think his rulebooks are getting better, but his games are always so unique that parsing his ideas into a rulebook is never going to be easy.
Posted: 26 Jun 2017 09:35 by Shellhead #250432
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Pax Renaissance lacks a creative name. It feels like it was named by a focus group of eurogamers.
Posted: 26 Jun 2017 09:38 by Legomancer #250433
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There's also a question mark over the game's historical foundation. I'm no detailed student of history, but it doesn't seem hard to look back and imagine how merchants and bankers influenced kings and queens. How they might have influenced religious thinkers like Martin Luther seems a far bigger stretch. Yet that's what the game wants you to believe. To the point where the mercantile houses of Italy could have turned all Europe into part of the Ottoman Caliphate in their pursuit of profit.

Eklund is a devotee of Rand, and thus capitalists are the prime movers of all that is worth moving. To suggest that anything worthwhile could happen without capitalism is anathema. People I know who have degrees in medieval history have told me that his working hypotheses here are pretty unsupportable.

Still, it wouldn't be the first Eklund game in which I have to ignore his dopey agenda and just play it.
Posted: 26 Jun 2017 11:09 by JEM #250441
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Given the importance of the movable type press in the distribution of Luther's 95 theses, it's not a huge stretch to imagine shadowy financiers assisting in the usage of such technology to promote an agenda that aligns with their own. I don't think games like this suggest that someone showed up at Luther's monastery with a bag full of cash to pay him to troll the pope, it's more abstract than that. And I don't think that the sinister hands of finance have ever been far from the levers of power, historically.
Posted: 26 Jun 2017 17:12 by Unicron #250463
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After two plays, I thought it was more of a bag of devouring.
Posted: 26 Jun 2017 17:31 by DukeofChutney #250464
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Nice review Matt. I agree that it is a little far fetched, but i think that is part of the appeal. I've found hitting the 1 hour mark not to difficult but i've played the pervious two games.
Posted: 28 Jun 2017 14:57 by Gary Sax #250566
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Incidentally, Pax Renaissance is in stock but its card expansion is gone. Phil has no timeline for reprinting it. So if anyone wants to move their decent shape copy w/expansion, PM me, I'll give you the same I'd give for a new copy w/expansion.
Posted: 28 Jun 2017 17:01 by Msample #250573
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Gary Sax wrote:
Incidentally, Pax Renaissance is in stock but its card expansion is gone. Phil has no timeline for reprinting it. So if anyone wants to move their decent shape copy w/expansion, PM me, I'll give you the same I'd give for a new copy w/expansion.

Its funny, I thought PAX REN would be more popular than BIOS GENESIS or PAX PAMIR yet the other two seem to see more play and the former is getting reprinted. Glad I snagged my expansion copies when I did .
Posted: 28 Jun 2017 19:18 by Gary Sax #250579
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I did one of those "add both to cart, naw wait till next paycheck" things two weeks ago and now I'm regretting it.
Posted: 28 Jun 2017 21:05 by Not Sure #250590
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I batch ordered the Pax Pamir expansion, Pax Ren, and the Pax Ren expansion (which was of course printed simultaneously with the game) a while ago.

This sort of thing is exactly why. It happened with the Pax Pamir expansion too, selling out before the game. I think he hasn't quite optimized the number of expansions to print, and I think it's a lot higher ratio than typical game studios.

I also coughed up for the tiny Pax Ren expansion from the BGG store.

I wouldn't call Eklund an auto-buy for me, but I like the Pax games at least. I probably cannot disagree more with his politics, but I'm a grown-up who can separate art from personality. The perceived value of the game is enough to make my invisible hand reach for my fiat money wallet.
Posted: 28 Jun 2017 23:12 by Msample #250593
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Not Sure wrote:
I batch ordered the Pax Pamir expansion, Pax Ren, and the Pax Ren expansion (which was of course printed simultaneously with the game) a while ago.

This sort of thing is exactly why. It happened with the Pax Pamir expansion too, selling out before the game. I think he hasn't quite optimized the number of expansions to print, and I think it's a lot higher ratio than typical game studios.

I also coughed up for the tiny Pax Ren expansion from the BGG store.

I wouldn't call Eklund an auto-buy for me, but I like the Pax games at least. I probably cannot disagree more with his politics, but I'm a grown-up who can separate art from personality. The perceived value of the game is enough to make my invisible hand reach for my fiat money wallet.

Fuck BGG and their exclusive promos. I skip 'em.
Posted: 28 Jun 2017 23:35 by Gary Sax #250594
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Yeah, I'm a bit salty about not ordering it when I could.
Posted: 29 Jun 2017 12:37 by Almalik #250622
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Found a copy of the expansion a week and a half ago in a tiny online UK shop's website, fingers crossed it gets here.
Posted: 29 Jun 2017 12:40 by Gary Sax #250623
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Lucky dog!
Posted: 29 Jun 2017 13:24 by Msample #250626
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Gary Sax wrote:
Yeah, I'm a bit salty about not ordering it when I could.

There's a base game on the BGG marketplace:
boardgamegeek.com/geekmarket/product/1209316

The expansion seems harder to find.

I'll poke around and see if anyone has seen it in an FLGS. It didn't sell out too long ago, some still may be on store shelves.

Edit: the base game is still available direct from Sierra Madre. I've bought from them direct multiple times, very reliable and postage isn't too bad considering the distance. No joy on the expansion. A couple of friends with well stocked FLGS had no luck either. Probably a long shot, but The Compleat Strategist in NYC and The Sentry Box in Calgary are two of the biggest stores I've seen in terms of selection. Their websites are total shite, so its possible they might have it in stock.

Just found this :
www.google.com/shopping/product/15878167...WCVT4KHZjQBk8Q2SsIFw

One place has it for $32.

The expansion already appears to be approaching stupid price status unfortunately.
Posted: 29 Jun 2017 16:32 by Not Sure #250632
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Msample wrote:
Fuck BGG and their exclusive promos. I skip 'em.

Yeah, they're stupid, but I buy them for the games I really like. In this case they had the Argent promo pack and the Pax Ren five-card expansion at the same time, so I sent them a few bucks. Figure it's just insurance if I ever really need money enough to sell games off the shelf. I think I've bought three or four total over the years, because my hoarder instinct isn't that strong.

Only a very specific type of shiny will do.
Posted: 29 Jun 2017 16:38 by Not Sure #250633
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Oh, and I'd second buying direct from Sierra Madre. Despite shipping from Germany, the rates are pretty reasonable. Most of my Sierra Madre stuff was purchased direct. It's not Amazon Prime, but it shows up.
Posted: 29 Jun 2017 17:45 by Erik Twice #250637
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I'm very intriguied by this, but I'm not sure if it's a shelf toad in the making :/
Posted: 29 Jun 2017 17:55 by Gary Sax #250638
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Yeah, Pax Ren base is everywhere. It's just expansion that ran out of stock, which is a bummer.

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