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Subject: A Basic Saint Petersburg Strategy Guide rss

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Mike Compton
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A Basic Saint Petersburg Strategy Guide

*Note: As of this writing, my online play on BSW has been very minimal with respect to this game - I have mainly played it face2face. Also, in the interest of being fair, I acknowledge that some of the ideas I present here in this post were not mine originally but were, rather, brought up here and there in other posts on BGG and/or by other players I’ve played in face2face games of Saint Petersburg. Some of these ideas I’ve kept close to their original form and some I’ve altered to make them more accurate. Now, here we go.


The Nature of Saint Petersburg

Saint Petersburg is, quite simply, a “return on investment” game. You buy a card with the hope that that card will pay off significantly for you over the long run. The earlier you purchase a card (like, say, a worker), the more rounds it has to pay off for you in the game and the more productive it is.


The “Two” Phases of the Game

There are two main phases of St. Petersburg:

Phase 1: Money potential is worth much more than victory points.
Phase 2: You will shift your focus from acquiring income potential to buying higher priced victory point buildings and a diversity of aristocrats.

These two focuses will determine the importance of the cards on the table at a given time based on which phase of the game you are in. Usually the shift in focus from income to victory points happens at or just past the mid-point of the game.

The early focus on income is critical. You will often hear those new to the game utter this phrase frequently (and rather emotionally) in the second half of the game:

“I don’t have any money!”

This is because they probably blew all their money on early victory points and could have bought much more in victory points during the course of the game if they had invested in more income potential early on.


Concerning Workers:

In the first phase, buy workers and lots of them. Never pass on a worker if you can help it – even the higher priced ones (with the exception of worker upgrades that do not add more money potential). It is more critical to clear out spots for workers by taking cards into your hand than it is to clear out spots for aristocrats because workers tend to cost much less than aristocrats when compared to the money they return.

In the second phase of the game, workers will only be important if they can return more money than they cost before the game ends. (ex. If you know there are two rounds left and there is a ShipBuilder available, it will usually not be a good idea to take it as it would return three rubles per round for two rounds. Spending 7 rubles to acquire an asset that will only return 6 rubles is a net loss of 1. However, if you can upgrade it to a victory point producing worker then that may make it worth it as victory points have become much more important than money in the second phase of the game.)


Concerning Buildings:

Because of the different areas of concern in the two phases of the game, spending lots of early money on high priced victory point buildings tends to be much less effective when compared to investing money in income producing cards (such as more workers, aristocrats, and building upgrades that yield money). Though someone who buys a high-priced building may shoot out in front early on the victory point track, those who invest in better income early will be able to buy more buildings and more types of aristocrats during the course of the game, and eventually catch up and surpass the previous early leader. This is partly due to the fact that, if you have invested heavily in income during the first half of the game, you will more than likely be in a position to buy several big point buildings in the second half of the game while the early big-point-building purchaser will not have nearly as much money in the second half of the game and will have to watch as you acquire more and more buildings and eventually pass him or her up.

In the second phase of the game, you will stop saving money for investing in more income and you will start spending your hard earned money on buildings – and lots of them.


Concerning Aristocrats:

Early aristocrats should be viewed as sources of income rather than sources of victory points. An early aristocrat points upgrade is not as important as an early building upgrade that provides significant income potential (by significant, I mean it provides 3 rubles or more per building phase). Focusing on acquiring a diversity of aristocrats is something that will be reserved primarily for the second phase of the game.

Though you will seek to acquire, if you can, the higher priced aristocrats (such as the Mistress, the Judge, and the Controller) early because of their rarity, you will also seek to get them as a means of establishing income because that is the most important thing to focus on in the beginning. In considering whether to clear out spots for more aristocrats in the first phase of the game, judge such actions in light of whether or not it is worth the risk to acquire the income potential an aristocrat affords you. If you have focused on income successfully in the first phase, you will have the means to more easily buy buildings to clear out spots for more aristocrats in the second phase of the game and you will be able to catch up on your aristocrat diversity.

Because of the rarity of the higher priced aristocrats, making sure that you save enough money to potentially acquire the Mistress (cost 18), the Judge (cost 16), or the Controller (cost 14) before entering an early aristocrat phase is important. Don’t allow yourself to be left with only 17 rubles going into an early aristocrat phase if you are first up for choosing. That would just add insult to injury if the Mistress pops up because it would delay your purchase of it an extra round (assuming you have space in your hand to take it). Give yourself the chance to immediately purchase it as it may mean victory (a purchased Mistress or Judge in the first or second round of the game is extremely hard to beat).

Always acquire the rare aristocrats first if you can for two reasons:
1. They provide more income potential than the cheaper aristocrats.
2. They make obtaining aristocrat diversity much easier in the second phase of the game.

If you have the rarer aristocrats already (a.k.a. the Mistress, the Judge, and the Controller) obtaining a diversity in the second phase will be easy because there are plenty of Authors, Administrators, Warehouse Managers and Secretaries in the deck. If you find yourself hoping for the higher priced aristocrats later on in the game, then the odds are not necessarily in your favor that you will acquire them.

Because of the importance of income early on, it is folly to upgrade a money producing aristocrat to a victory point producing aristocrat until you are into the second phase of the game. At that point, it becomes very important to switch to victory points.


Concerning the Observatory:

The Observatory’s importance and its use changes based on the number of players and when it is acquired in the game.


The Observatory in a Two-Player Game:

If you are playing a two player game, and the observatory comes out early (i.e. the first phase), you would seek to acquire it simply as a means of obtaining an economic advantage over your opponent. This is because clearing out spots for aristocrats is a lot easier with two players when compared to a game involving three or four players. Using an early observatory on aristocrats is a waste with two players because you will probably be able to acquire those same aristocrats during the course of the game anyway – even if you hadn’t acquired the observatory. Rather, an early observatory’s main use will be to acquire additional workers so you can build a superior early economy. During the second phase of a two player game, you may use the observatory to fish for aristocrat upgrades or you may even upgrade the observatory to a better victory point building instead. The main point here is to not get so fixated on using the observatory for aristocrats because that is not always the supposed “best use” for it - especially in a two player game.

If the observatory comes out late (i.e. in the second phase) in a two player game, you may acquire it if you have significantly fallen behind in aristocrats or if you believe there is enough reward potential in searching through the upgrade stack for aristocrat diversity. If there is not enough reward potential in upgrades and you already have a hefty diversity of aristocrats, you may even consider passing on it as the Market is one ruble cheaper and offers the same amount of victory points.


The Observatory in a Three-Player Game:

An early Observatory is still best used for acquiring workers in the first phase of the game in a three-player game. If you see that you can already acquire an aristocrat in the upcoming aristocrat phase, and you are still in the overall first phase of the game, use the observatory for extra workers instead of more aristocrats. However, with three players, it is harder to directly clear out spots for aristocrats for yourself. Thus, catching up in aristocrats if you have fallen behind early is much harder in a three player game when compared to a two player game. So, if comfortably obtaining aristocrats early on becomes a problem, you may use the observatory here and there to obtain an aristocrat if you see that you may be left out in an upcoming aristocrat round. Nevertheless, remember that your focus in the first phase of the game is income potential.

In the second phase of a three-player game, you will seek more aristocrats mostly for the sake of obtaining upgradable duplicate cards and you may occasionally fish for aristocrats upgrades. However, if you have a robust diversity of aristocrats, you are heavy on building points in the building phase, and you are relatively “in the mix” points-wise with the other players, don’t be above upgrading that observatory for more victory points in the remaining few buildings phases of the game. It is a more sure path to victory points than hoping that you “strike gold” with an observed aristocrat upgrade.


The Observatory in a Four-Player Game:

You will still use it for workers early if you can still acquire aristocrats comfortably in the early rounds. However, the more players there are, the more important aristocrats and aristocrat diversity becomes and the harder it is to clear out spots for aristocrats. Thus, as you add more players to the game, the Observatory becomes more important and it’s use for aristocrats over workers becomes more necessary.


Concerning the Pub:

Because of the focus on money at the beginning of the game, pumping money into an early Pub is a waste. The Pub is best suited for use in the final few rounds of the game when your hard earned income potential is being put to work for victory points through building acquisitions and victory point aristocrat upgrades. At that time, you will be able to really get use out of your Pub because you will have the money to do so. Your early money needs to be invested so your larger amounts of later money will earn you more points.


Concerning the Warehouse:

The warehouse is mainly useful if it is acquired early on in and in games where there are three or four players. It’s use is somewhat limited in a two player game and its effectiveness is severely lessened if it is acquired late in a game regardless of the number of players. It needs use over several rounds to really work effectively for you. Don’t be above upgrading the warehouse in the second phase of the game. Also, don’t let the warehouse make you comfortable with over-stretching your resources. You will have to buy all of those cards you take into your hand before the game is over if you don't want negative points. Don’t get too greedy and bite off more than you can chew.


Concerning the Carpenter Workshop and the Gold Smelter:

These two cards should be viewed in terms of the potential income they provide. What I mean by this is that having a one ruble discount is the same thing as having an extra ruble with no discount when purchasing a building or an aristocrat. So, view these discount cards as income producing cards. The earlier they are purchased the better. Nevertheless, keep in mind that a card that produces three rubles on a phase over several rounds will be worth more than a card that provides a one ruble discount every so often. So, when given the choice, choose whichever card on the table will give you the most economic advantage in the first phase and the most victory points in the second phase. If it happens to be either of these upgrade cards then great. Otherwise, take better cards.


Concerning the Mariinskij-Theater:

This is the building upgrade that produces a number of rubles during the building phase equal to the number of aristocrat cards you have. It costs ten which is expensive compared to its payoff. Usually, you won’t have enough aristocrats on the board to allow this card to pay off effectively until you are near the second phase of the game – thus, there are usually better buys on the table.


One Important Exception:

Winning in Saint Petersburg by focusing heavily on income in the first half of the game and then spending lots of money in the second half of the game is dependent on the game lasting a certain length of rounds. Usually this is not a problem and, thus, the income-first-points-later strategy tends to be the best from game to game. However, a severely shortened game of Saint Petersburg provides an exception to this tendency in that it favors an early points building purchaser over someone who is focusing on income in the beginning of the game. All of that early amassed income potential in the first phase of the game needs a good number of rounds in the second phase to really pay off so that the income-focuser can catch up to and surpass the early victory-point-building-purchaser. If the buildings run out very quickly, then a big early points building may have provided enough early points to create a lead that prevent the early-income-focuser from catching up before the game ends.

Usually, this exception only occurs if most of the players are focusing on large buildings early. This is because just one person focusing heavily on buildings early in a game of three or four players will not be enough of a threat. That person simply won’t have enough income on their own to significantly deplete the building card deck and shorten the game enough to compensate for their lack of income focus in the beginning. However, if you notice that at least two of the other players are going with lots of buildings early, you may have to adapt and follow suit because the game is probably going to end much quicker and you will need the points to compete.

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Paul Harrington
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compman wrote:
One Important Exception:

Usually this is not a problem and, thus, the income-first-points-later strategy tends to be the best from game to game. However, a severely shortened game of Saint Petersburg provides an exception to this tendency in that it favors an early points building purchaser over someone who is focusing on income in the beginning of the game. ...

Usually, this exception only occurs if most of the players are focusing on large buildings early.


Good overall article - I agree with most of what was said but have to disagree with how the short game happens based on my experiences on BSW. (By the way, you should play more on BSW; it sounds like you will play 4 players and I have a hard time finding a game with 4 players as most of BSW's players want to play 2.) I almost always play 4, so my comments are directly applicable to 4 player games.

In my opinion, the 4 player game is a struggle between those who want the game to end "early" in 5 rounds (as they frequently do when I am playing), and those who want the game to last the normal 6 rounds. Somebody once said the average 4 player St Pete game was 5.8 rounds. I find that when there are players actively trying to shorten the game, that 5 round games, which seem quite short, are at least as common as 6-round games. If both Misha and I are in the game, the game will rarely be longer than 5 rounds.

Players wanting to end the game early are: the player with the early Mistress (because others won't have time to catch up to the 3 extra VP per turn), players with pubs (schenke), players with more victory points, players behind in the income race, and to a lesser extent, a player who has a poor turn order in the 6th turn.

A player who has a lot of little-valued red cards (for example, a '4', a '7', a '10' and one of the really cheap upgrades) would also want to end the game early since has will get a disproportionately high number of bonus VP's for aristocrats for the amount of money spent on them.

A player holding an observatory should go to great lengths to try to extend the game, as he is the one most helped by more turns. He may even go as far as to not open a spot up for a red card for himself since he can observe one anyway.

Other players wanting a longer game are: those with a lot of income, those with multiple high-valued red cards (needing turns to get the low ones), and to a lesser extent, somebody who would be first in blue cards on the 6th round with a pub still in the deck.

There may be other reasons to want to end or extend the game. Now that we know who wants to end the game, how do they go about it?

Most games end because the blue deck runs out because people light on green cards like ants on cracker crumbs. If you want the game to end early, make more blue cards come up. If you're going to buy a discounted blue card, buy it in the green phase. Putting something in your hand in the green phase helps reduce the turn count too. Also, close decisions on whether to buy a green card should be resolved in favor of buying it if you want the game to end early, and not buying it otherwise (which seems counter-intuitive because it will pay off once less if the game ends early.) If you want the game to end THIS round, usually you suck the other players into buying green cards, and then take enough blue cards into your hand to exhaust the blue deck.

As you can see, my discussion has nothing to do with buying lots of big buildings early; I have never seen that play a role.

Another factor that enters into a short game is the zealous opening of spaces for red cards in round 1 and for green cards coming up in round 2. Let's say the player first in nobles opens up a fifth spot for himself to get a second red card. All five red cards will go; and probably all five upgrades will too. Naturally all five green cards will go next time and if the player to be second in greens has money and a hand space, he may very well make it 6 greens on Round 2. So, exactly the opposite of what you implied happens: if there are some huge buildings up in round 1, people don't want to be saddled with them, but if there are a lot of markets and customs houses, people don't mind taking them to open up spaces for red cards and green cards.

In fact, if two of your opponents get an observatory on the first round, you shoud seriously consider playing to shorten the game. In a 5-turn game, they probably will not make up for the 6 rubles they spent on their observatory. Of course, it's a good idea to have a lot of good cards come up anyway, since this will choke an observatory holder who simply can't afford everything, but ending the game early is an added bonus.

Of course, it should be noted that some blue cards are going away at the end of the upgrade phase because they're on the discount rack now. If you need to take a blue card to open up a space for yourself, favor one that's going away if you want a longer game; and favor one that isn't going away if you want a shorter game.
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Mike Compton
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Excellent analysis.

In discussing large buildings, I was trying to make a point about how blowing early money on a really expensive, early, points only, building can only help a person if the game ends really quickly and the end game aristocrat scoring isn't high enough to allow someone playing from a "long game" mentality to catch up to the lead that such a building creates. In other words, such an extreme strategy's only hope is an extremely short game. I agree with you about how, if the game is going to be a short game, it's the deck of building cards that will tend to deplete first. Buying an early large building, however, creates a situation where shortening the game must be done by other players because an early large building purchase ties up so much early money that the player who bought it is not in a position to really help the game end quickly by buying a critical mass of cards (at least not for a while - and by then it's probably too late).

In making my point about an early large building purchase, my article may have portrayed such a strategy as potentially having some validity for winning. To be sure, I have never seen (to my recollection) someone who bought a large, first round building like the Theater (cost 20) or the Academy (cost 23) actually win - regardless of how short the game was. To clarify, I have, on the other hand, seen the short game work if several people are buying up large amounts of early buildings - not necessarily large buildings. (This is especially true if several players start piling up Markets and/or Customs Houses for progressively higher discounts in the first few rounds.) A shorter game leads to a greater significance for early points earned from larger amounts of early building purchases because a person focusing on money and not on buildings in the first half of a shortened game may find themselves finally ready to use a fist full of cash but at a point where the game is going to end before they can take full advantage of their economic situation.
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I have problems getting the full set of aristocrats in 2-player games. Any particular strategy for that? I seem to always get 7 or 8 and lose out due to this.
Also, the top-level aristocrats are really expensive. Should I keep them in hand until the last round?
I also have problems with whether to get the czarina. It's not really worth the money as the only time one can afford it is when the game is finishing and it does not generate money.
 
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Mike Compton
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Try to buy the higher priced basic (not necessarily upgrade) aristocrats as early in the game as possible. If you are able to buy a Mistress of Ceremonies, Judge, or - to a lesser extent - the Controller in the first or second round you have a significant advantage. Don't wait to get them out if you can help it.

The same thing, however, does not apply to the aristocrat upgrades. In the beginning of the game, an upgrade like the Builder is valuable because of the money he can generate for you. Near the end of the game, the aristocrate upgrades that produce points become more valuable because you have already established an income source for yourself.
 
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Jerry Wang
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compman wrote:

Concerning the Warehouse:

The warehouse is mainly useful if it is acquired early on in and in games where there are three or four players. It’s use is somewhat limited in a two player game and its effectiveness is severely lessened if it is acquired late in a game regardless of the number of players. It needs use over several rounds to really work effectively for you. Don’t be above upgrading the warehouse in the second phase of the game. Also, don’t let the warehouse make you comfortable with over-stretching your resources. You will have to buy all of those cards you take into your hand before the game is over if you don't want negative points. Don’t get too greedy and bite off more than you can chew.


Excellent article. I just have a slight disagreement with your comments concerning the Warehouse.

I find the extra hand slot in the two-player game to be extremely powerful. First, the ability to manipulate slots is greater when there are fewer players. Second, players tend to have higher income in the mid- and late-game of a 2er. That means that they are in better position to use all four of the cards taken into hand (as well as the additional slot openings resulting from taking more cards into hand).
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