Preview of Pax Pamir 2nd Edition
Last year, I came across a game that turned me inside out. It challenged me to rethink what I appreciate in a board game and why I even play them at all. It proved difficult to learn and frustrated me in some of its execution. But it was also incredibly smart and tense. So when I heard that designer Cole Wehrle had decided to revisit his first design and was looking for feedback on the 2nd edition I was more than interested to check it out.
This is a preview based on prototype components. Expect the production quality to be better when then the final product is delivered. Make sure to view the video overview below to get a sense of the game.
One of the difficulties I had with the original was coming to grips with the win condition. It could be difficult to parse the game state and figure out where everyone stood in terms of victory. Sure I have a lot of tribes on the board, but are we in the right regime and do I have enough influence in the right faction to win? The end of the game could come with surprising swiftness and every time a topple card was revealed from the market deck there was a pause in action as everyone took the time to take a mental tally of who was in what position. It could lend itself to some incredibly tense moments where timing was critical. One wrong move could mean defeat, but one strong move could mean glorious victory. The downside was an anticlimactic ending stemming from a player who didn't realize the game was at a critical moment. It was a double edged Khyber knife.
The new edition smooths things out a bit. Victory is decoupled from the 4 modes that flavor the game and is now based on the strength of the coalition or the strength of the individual players. When a Dominance card comes out, it's now an easy glance at the coalition tracks to see how many points will be scored. Yes, victory points. It's a big shift in the way Pax Pamir plays and feels. It's no longer a matter of life and death when a Dominance card comes out. Immediate victory can still be triggered, but it isn't the default. If you can't win, you can still claw your way closer to first place with a chance to compete in future rounds. Yes, some of the tension of a sudden death-like victory is lost but I think the tradeoff is worth it. The clarity now present allows other facets of the game to shine even brighter.
I don't want to get mired in comparing and contrasting every change and nuance from first edition to the new, but I will note that most of the changes have been made for the sake of clarity. Whether it's the rejiggered end game condition or the new board (no more card based map!) or the beautifully redesigned cards, everything is just easier to read. That allows me to spend more of my focus on other areas of the game. There is a lot of information being displayed at once in a game of Pax Pamir. There are a dozen cards available in the market at any given time along with multiple cards in play with their own actions and abilities. Knowing what is possible and what is potentially possible can mean the difference between winning and losing. Anything that helps bring information to the forefront is a positive in my book.
Though I've only had an opportunity to handle a prototype version, I was very impressed with the card layout and especially the new artwork. As I understand it, the designer hit upon a vast trove of historical artwork from the period and it works perfectly here. It's graphic qualities make the artwork easy to appreciate on a card while also retaining the seriousness appropriate to the subject matter.
It's now much easier to see when a faction is dominant
I was initially drawn to Pax Pamir for it's subject matter. One of the major regions depicted in the game is the birthplace of my father and still home to much of my family. There's a tickle of delight that washes over me whenever I see a card with someone that shares my name or looks like an uncle considering how rarely this part of the world is depicted in board games. But it was the representation of overlapping political influences and power dynamics that kept me coming back for more. In Pax Pamir, you are but an agent in a larger conflict. Sure there will be long lasting ramifications to the eventual winner of the greater war, but you're more concerned with the survival of your followers. If that means switching allegiances, so be it. Principles, allegiance, and ideology won't do you much good after you've been crushed under the boot of an invading army. It's the untold story of the people on the ground.
Many board games depict you as the hero or someone of note in charge of your own destiny. Your success and failures are entirely in your own hand save for the other players at the table. In Pax Pamir your success is highly dependant on the success of the British, Russian, and Afghan coalitions. Yes, you have agency. To a point. Allegiance to a certain coalition only matters so far as a means victory. Things get complicated when multiple players pledge allegiance to the same coalition. Who will divert resources towards furthering the greater cause of the coalition and who will focus and currying their favor? Will the other players swoop into not wanting to feel left out or will the join the fold of a rival coalition expecting yours to implode? Having the board reset after dominance checks can be jarring, but it allows for more political movement. In the first edition, it would often be painful to abandon your allegiance to one of the super powers after having devoted so many resources to them. Perhaps it was the sunken cost fallacy that kept us from switching, but it was an uncommon occurrence in our games. Now, having the map and tableus reset, it's much less of an ordeal to mix things up a little. This mean means new allegiances, new alliances, new enemies. All good things.
Spies have also seen a improvement in fluidity. They can still move around the table as usual, a silent stalker ready to strike if you have the movement to spare. Now, they are deployed to any card in any players tableau that matches their region. It makes thematic sense and ramps up the tension. When a Persian spy shows up in the market and the fate of your Persian tribes rests on a single Persia card on your board, you'd better do whatever it takes to make sure they don't fall into the wrong hands. Does this mean paying someone off and hoping they're true to their word? Maybe it means going tax crazy and drain their resources so they can't afford it in the first place? Picking up a spy can now be a defensive maneuver, hiding ing in your hand until threatened and springing your trap at just the right moment. Espionage just got a lot more fierce.
I can't say that whether or not this new edition is better than the first. First of all, I've only played the new edition a handful of times, but I think it will come down to matter of preference. It's definitely more approachable and easier to understand. Having a tenuous grasp on the gamestate certainly lent an air authenticity to the experience of shifting allegiances and shaky partnerships in the first edition. And, while I do miss the tension provided by the sudden death endings, it's not completely devoid of it in this new incarnation. Both games are wicked in their depiction of power and smart with their use of versatile card play. For newcomers to the series it's an easy recommend. One of the best board games I've played will become available in a more approachable package. For first edition owners trying to decide whether to pledge it may just come down to a matter of taste. Taste is highly personal and subjective and I'm not sure what I can say to convince you one way or the other. But what I can say is that I've already made my pledge.