[Review] Pax Renaissance – A Fine Balance Between Abstraction And Theme

The world is trying to exit from the Dark Ages, will you let it embrace the light brought by Laws and Republics, or stay in the totalitarianism of a few Rulers?

Pax Ren’s Box Cover

Let’s get this sorted from the get-go: at first glance Pax Renaissance doesn’t really look like the engaging game it actually is. Looking at the front box you see a Renaissance guy counting florins, with a couple of ships behind his back which peacefully float along the river. This captures a part of Pax Ren: 2 to 4 Bankers (you, the players) sitting at a table, counting money and talking about trades and the such. But what doesn’t show you is what other mean and foul things those Bankers will unleash on Renaissance cultures from East to West. And to make sure you don’t get me wrong: Pax Ren is an amazing game.

That’s right, as a banker you won’t lead any armies into battle, no blood of enemies to shed by dual-wielding your sword and shield, no venturing to sea to lead a Crusade in holy lands, no beheading Kings with a well-struck hit… right… cause instead you’ll do all of that from behind a desk.

And don’t think this is any less thrilling. By the way, you are playing a game sitting at a table, so why would you mind taking on the roles of somebody else sitting behind a desk? πŸ™‚ Inception jokes aside, Pax Ren allows you to pull the strings of a society exiting form the Dark Ages and entering into the Renaissance, by influencing Kings, by establishing Republics and trade routes, by converting Cities to this or that Theocracy. All of this for your selfish objectives… maybe to see advent of Republics or Kings, or simply making the world flourish with trade. But most of all, having your greedy fingers in the right cake at the end.

Now, if I were to think about something in which Pax Renaissance excels is tying mechanics to its theme. The rules are hard to grasp, many other people have defined this game as opaque, that is: even though you might get a grasp of the rules and the victory conditions, it’s hard to actually understand how to achieve victory – and it’s also difficult to understand how your actions and your opponents’ actions modify anyone’s path to victory. Despite all of that, Pax becomes engaging – to say the least – if you get past the initial barrier.

First of all look at the map. Look at that map – I say – and forget what you know about moving pieces on a map, and how you are supposed to conquer a territory, and from there spread your armies to the next; YES! Anything you know about that type of games must be forgotten! Now!

Now that your head is devoid of preconceptions, see how Pax Ren is clever, much more subtle than the average game. Provided you have the right cards in hand (which thematically means you influenced the right personalities), you may affect any part of the map, and the cool little Chess pieces you see… let me tell you: those pieces on the map are never really yours. Even if you managed to influence King Edward IV of England (thus holding onto the England’s Empire card which corresponds to the Map Region) you are never sure that that cute little Rook on the map ain’t gonna stab you on the back when somebody else uses it for their own objectives… but let’s proceed in order – Pax Ren is glorious, but may hit you really hard if approached randomly.

Let’s start with the Victory conditions. You’ll have a better understanding once you’ve finished reading this (rather longish) review, so I’ll purposefully semplify them a little here. But suffice to say that you may claim Victory (which counts as an action out of the 2 actions each player has each turn) if:

  • You influence more Kings than your opponents (you hold on to more King cards)
  • You influence more Republics than your opponents (you hold on to more Republic cards)
  • You have more Concessions than your opponents
  • You have more Prestige (Symbols shown on your cards) of the Supreme Religion

More on these later.

Victory Cards’ text – not your conventional victory conditions πŸ˜‰

Pax Ren’s map is divided in 10 Map Cards (we’ll call these Regions from now on), that players may attempt to influence (causing Regime Changes to them). Each Map Card is also represented outside the map by an Empire Card; if a player manages to influence a Region, he’ll also pick the corresponding Empire Card which grants a few bonuses. Each Region on the map also shows a few Cities, where the players may place Agents (namely Knights, Rooks, or – on sea borders – Pirates and Pawns) by playing cards from their hand. These Agents may be used to trigger some Social/Politic/Religious disaster onto the selected Region. (’cause that’s what they are, man-made disasters, even though the game calls them One-shots). The card played dictates which Region may be affected, which Agent may be used, and which One-shot may be attempted.

Action cards (see the bottom of the cards): allowing respectively for a Conspiracy in the Papal States, a Peasant Revolt in Portugal and a Reformation (Holy war) anywhere in The West

For example a player may cause a Peasant Revolt on a Region, and if the card played shows a Pawn this would be added as attacker in attempting such revolt (cause here Pawns represent the people, and revolts are what people do – or at least did during the Renaissance). While if a player where to attempt a Conspiracy on another Region, then any Knights or Rooks shown on the card played would add to the attack strength. Since Knights and Rooks here represent the Nobility, only the Nobility joins Conspiracies. Again if a player where to try a Holy War – that may be a Crusade, a Jiad or a Reformation – depending on the color of the Agent – then only the Knights and Rooks of the relevant color would add to his forces. Anytime a player manages to perform a successful One-shot, then there’s a Regime Change on the Region, and the player takes hold of the Empire card (by picking it from the relevant stack) that corresponds to the Region affected by the One-shot.

Just all of this would be pretty thematic: Pawns only join Peasant Revolts, Nobles (Knights and Rooks) join Conspiracies and Holy Wars, and to add to the explanation, any Knights or Rooks on the map being targeted, defend form any One-shots; after all who’s going to stop Revolts, Conspiracies and Holy Wars from happening, if not the Nobility? Other than that any Pirates token that happen to navigate the sea near the affected region is (almost) always going to participate in the battle, joining the attackers. While any ships navigating those same seas will join Peasant Revolts if the ship happens to be of your color: in this case the ship represents man labour that joins your for your cause.

After counting how many pieces attack and how many defend, the attacker eliminates the pieces one by one. If anything is left from the attack, the One-shot is successful and the player just caused a Regime Change, which always rewards with the Empire Card corrisponding to that Region – drawing it from the Empires Deck, or taking it from another player. Other than that, anytime you gain an Empire card you are allowed to drop a tiny little cube onto a sea region bordering the Region you influenced: this represents a Concession – aka the ship we talked earlier – which, in addition to be used for Peasant Revolts, will grant you money when a Trade Route is triggered.

I guess now is a good time to talk about Trade Routes – it’ll be quick, trust me. As an action, the players may start the East (black) or West trade route (White) – you see, those cute arrows traversing the map. The player will follow it from the starting City to the end of the route, and distributing money from the bank, to the players who hold on to Concessions on the sea borders along the path.

To go back to killing and conquering, when you play a card from hand, you may decide to not unleash the One-shot but “peacefully” drop the Agents onto the targeted Map Card, either to a vacant location (for free), or onto a busy location (by paying 1 Coin). In the latter case you are Repressing the token previously present on that location, and that token goes on the Empire Card corresponding to that Region, whoever has it. And moving – say – a Knight on another Player’s Empire card (thus repressing it) means that the Knight (Nobility) is now unhappy. And guess what? It will join any future Conspiracy One-shot on the attacker ‘s side. Similarly Pawns will join Peasant Revolts; but both Nobility and Pawns will not join Holy Wars – cause they are concerned about the politics, not the religious affairs. All of this, even if very convoluted, is pretty thematic.

Empire Cards. A King, a Republic, and a Republic with repressed Nobility Tokens.

Now, remember when I said what’s on the map is never truly yours? To elaborate, let me tell to you that you can even cause a Regime Change to a Region that you currently own (aka you have that Region’s Empire Card), simply by playing another One-shot on that Region. This is called Strawman Regime Change (which thematically represents convincing the people you are attacking, that somebody else fomented that attack – while it was you, actually), and it’s one of the few ways to turn a Kingdom into a Republic. If you manage to do so, then you’ll flip your Empire card to its Republic side, having different characteristics.

At this point I must actually go one step back and clarify how Holy Wars work, cause they are slightly different from the other offensive One-shots (Peasant Revolt, Conspiracy), since you have to take notice of the Color of the Tokens attacking or defending. Here all the Tokens with color matching the type of Holy War you are starting (White for Cristian Crusades, Black for Jiads, Red for Reformations) will join your side – irrespective of the fact that they are Pawns, Knights, Rooks or Pirates – while the other colors’ Tokens on the Map (called Heretic) will defend against the Holy War. And the rule of thumb here (namely The Bloody Rule) is that you can’t start a Holy War if there’s no Heretic to kill. In case a Holy War is successful, the Region is flipped to the other side, which will show a Theocracy, now dominant on that Region.

A (red) Reformation is under way – here you’ll have to be careful about the Color of the Tokens in play – IMG courtesy by BGG user: The Innocent

Ok I see you are sweating a bit here. Can this be so much convoluted? Yes it can. And we have just scratched the surface. There are many other things that you can do in this game, and they are all so pertinent with the theme. But this time I will not indulge too much into technical explanations.

Suffice to say that players will purchase cards from a face up market area. These cards have Eastern or Western philosophies; meaning that they will mostly influence East/West Regions respectively. Furthermore, once played from your hand, you will lay those cards either on the left (East) or right (West) side of your Character card (which is laid in front of you at the start of the game). Other than the powerful One-shots, these cards also show other icons which represent Ops (or actions) that you can execute. You may trigger all of these Ops at once by activating all the Western or Eastern cards. These Ops allows for quite a few actions (so many that they are divided into categories: Political, Religious, Economic and Military) and their effects range from taxing other player’s concessions, attacking other Regions from a Region you currently influence, starting votes, beheading (killing) other player’s cards, and moving Inquisitors around (another kind of Agent that’s used to silence cards thus disabling any Ops on those cards).

The same cards we saw earlier (now see the central part) – once they’ve been played, their Ops (Inquisitor, Vote, Corsair, Commerce) become available to the player to be executed.

In the end Pax Ren plays quickly (30-40 min for a two player game, +30-40 min for each additional player). It provides an engaging experience for those who like the theme, and even if you won’t feel like a conqueror or a Noble leading its armies, the experience is compelling and just that abstract to let you impersonate with the banker you are supposed to represent. Get past the initial rules barrier and a bit of learning curve, and Pax Ren will reward you. The game excels with and plays very well with 2 players.

The world is trying to exit from the Dark Ages, will you let it embrace the light brought by Laws and Republics, or stay in the totalitarianism of a few Rulers?

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