Publisher: Rio Grande Games
Michael Tummelhofer is a pseudonym for the designer Bernd Brunnhofer which is sort of a portmanteau for Michael Bruinsma and Jay Tummelson and Brunnhofer. Other games published by Brunnhofer include Stone Age, another dice allocation game that remains popular even after more than a decade in the market. Regardless of how the designer credits are allocated, I consider Saint Petersburg to be a classic and I am not alone in thinking so. A recent play reminded me of how well Saint Petersburg replicates the tension and angst of decision-making in such a short amount of play time. More gaming bang for your buck I suppose.
The game is almost 20 years old but there is always a constant pull for me to take it down from the shelf. The game is meaty yet fast enough to encourage repeated plays. For those of you uninitiated newbies, Saint Petersburg is a game about money management. Players have a constant shortage of money to purchase buildings, recruit workers or to court nobles. Because money is tight, one must time purchases so that you can score short-term VPs’ by erecting buildings while not forgetting to court nobles for end game scoring. Each round in Saint Petersburg is divided into several phases where workers, buildings, nobles and upgrades are being sold off in that order. At the end of phases 1-3, scoring also occurs where players earn VPs’ or money depending on the cards they own on their tableau. Critically, only the relevant card types are scored in their respective phases. So at the end of the building phase, only buildings are scored. In that way, players purchase cards they require to build an engine for scoring and for income collection. Typically, the worker phase provides income while the building phase provides VPs’. The noble phase has a mixed income-VP scoring each round while also scoring points at the end of the game for each different noble you collect. Finally, the upgrade phase allows you to buy cards to enhance or build over existing worker, building or noble cards in your tableau. There is no scoring in this final phase. The game typically lasts between 5-8 rounds before one of the deck is depleted and the game ends.
Now, for me, part of what makes the game agonizing is where to spend the cold hard cash. The first few rounds are painful as all the cards look great. Obviously, getting a steady income stream going is critical and probably true for all players. So, getting at least 2 workers is a must for the first few rounds. After that, it anyone’s game. Getting a high-VP building early on can earn you massive amount of points throughout the game, but at a high cost. Is it worth it? Courting nobles early on allows a head start in set collection and in end game scoring, but is it worth it to do so early on? Getting upgrades are tough in rounds 1 and 2, but perhaps, I should keep it in my hand waiting to play it, but will it clog my hand? The decisions are never easy and sometimes a wrong one can lead you down a rabbit hole. As the game reaches mid-point, money is slightly less tight, though you are never flushed with cash. Here, you are faced with another dilemma: when should I swap my income engine for victory points? This is a critical because if you do it too early, you may encounter cash flow issues. Do it too late, you may not have time to earn enough VPs’ to win the game. This switch is really dependent not only your own tableau but also the pacing of the game. If players are snapping up purchases early and often, the game may conceivably end after 5-6 rounds when a deck is depleted. In which case, your VP engine might barely be humming before the game is over. Moreover, if you have kept cards in your hand, each card is worth -5VPs’ if left unplayed. You do have some control of the pace, but it is more a collective effort. Keeping an eye on the timing and pace of the game is truly a game changer because one extra round of play may shift the balance enough to crown a new winner.
The game asks that you make judgement calls on the perceived value of purchases and the cost benefit that comes with it. Is the money worth spending at this juncture and what do I lose by not making the purchase now? It is a constant tug of war between deciding on short versus long-term goals. I haven’t encounter a situation where players win outright with just buildings or nobles alone. It is usually a combination of both with perhaps a slight skew in one direction. If everything goes as planned, then your victory must be coupled with deciding when the game should end. Buying that final worker may not help you much, but it could decide if the game ends this round or drags on for another. It is simply delicious.
There have been some complaints about the power of courting nobles and I can see that. This is less of a flaw and more of knowing how powerful the nobles are in the game. The end game scores usually jump for folks that invests in getting the nobles early on. I can see that being a concern when playing with a mixed crowd of newbies and veterans. For folks that know the game, getting your hands on some nobles is important not only for VPs’ but also to deprive others for set collection. To be clear, this IS a flaw even though it is probably an issue with some and not all groups. With so many games out there, most games don’t get a second shot unless they are balanced from the start. It hasn’t bothered me as much since I try to convey the importance of collecting nobles before each game, but I think this remains, perhaps, a weakness for Saint Petersburg.
Be that as it may, I cannot deny the constant desire to play Saint Petersburg. A really large part of my love for the game is due to the length of play and the ease of instruction. An expansion has been published for the game. I typically ignore the expansion except for a few cards meant to patch the original game for balancing purposes. The game is popular enough that it was reprinted recently with brand new art work and a few additions. I have heard great things about the modules in the reprint, but not enough for me to get a copy as the original is more than enough to satisfy. However, if you are new to Saint Petersburg and a fan of light-medium Euros, this is the one to try. I highly doubt you will regret it.
Initial impression: Great!