Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"Saint Petersburg" by Rio Grande Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 9/18/05)

When I was a child, my family inherited a see-saw. My parents placed it outside our home, right next to the drive-way. All the little kids in my family were thrilled.

Prior to the see-saw, we had played on the trunk of a mesquite tree that had grown sideways before growing toward the sky. The excitement for the see-saw, you see, was well merited.

This see-saw was huge, at least a few feet longer than the normal ones. It was faded red, the paint chipping and cracking all over it, but did we go high. Again and again, we pushed the limits of the see-saw, bouncing sometimes if our partner hit the ground too hard. The see-saw felt like a limo compared to the tree.

Like all good times, though, it had to come to an end. One day, my cousin David and I were playing on that overly long see-saw. To picture it just right, let your mind’s eye go up and down with mine.

David told me that he was going to jump off while I was at the see-saw’s peak. Naturally, I said that I was going to jump off before him. For a few moments, we continued to go up and down.

We didn’t know it at the time, but by threatening to jump off the see-saw, we were about to undermine the very principle that made playing on the see-saw fun: balance.

Balance ruled everything from our toys to our nutrition. More than anything, balance came into play during our games of Monopoly. How else can you play a game for a full day and not finish?

Of course, you don’t have to be on the edge of a see-saw to know what I’m talking about. Well-balanced games make you feel like you’ve got a decent shot at victory, no matter how good or bad a player you are. And of all the games I’ve played recently, none have nailed this as successfully as Saint Petersburg.

Designed by Michael Tummelhofer and distributed by Rio Grande Games, Saint Petersburg is a simple yet thoroughly enjoyable economy-based game. Its two major components are money and points, and like the see-saw, players must find a fine balance between the two to win.

Set in Russia during the early 18th century, Saint Petersburg mimics the historical development made in Russia by Czar Peter the Great. Two to four players compete to build the city and fill it with powerful aristocrats, buildings, and manual laborers, all represented by cards. Certain cards award points, and the player with the most points at the end wins.

Game play is divided into rounds, which consist of four phases: laborer, building, aristocrat, and wild card. During each phase, up to eight cards are laid out for players to buy. Once all players pass, the phase ends, and bonuses on already-purchased cards are awarded to their respective owners.

To win, a player must set up a well-balanced economy of laborers (which earn money), buildings (which earn points), and aristocrats (which earn both money and points). A player must carefully invest his or her money to yield higher returns than those of his or her opponents.

The game is highly contagious, and though there are a variety of special rules and cards, the basic instructions are magically simple. By the end of a session, I can see how early moves have had profound repercussions throughout the game. My record of wins vs. losses has had just as many ups as downs, and I’m still learning the intricacies of the game’s balance.

Speaking of balancing acts, I suppose you’re still wondering about the see-saw, my cousin David, and our precarious position. Twenty years have passed, mind you. I’m a different person now. I help old ladies cross the street and rescue birds with broken wings. I make sure not to step on any ants. But on that one day, my better judgment had thumbed a ride to Vegas.

I jumped off the see-saw.

I could go on about the aftermath of that terrible decision, but I’ll sum it up like this. My cousin David and I continued to play together, only we opted for Monopoly full-time instead of the see-saw and he had to start rolling the dice with his left hand.

It was an altogether balanced decision.

Cost: $27.95
Players: 2 to 4
Age: 10 and up
Time to play: 60 to 75 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 10
Additional Comments: A thoroughly satisfying strategy game. Play on-line as well at the German gaming site: www.brettspielwelt.de.


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