In Gameological Unplugged, Samantha Nelson looks at trends and new developments in the vast world of tabletop games.
Our ability to call a few hours of vicious competition an “educational experience” has made U.S. elections the subject of board games for decades. But as pundits, politicians, and reporters have said throughout 2016, this has been a historic election year in which all the conventional wisdom has gone out the window and the accepted rules of how Americans pick their leaders have been called into question. Games that simulate the typical strategies for political success can’t explain the nationwide insanity we experienced for the last year, but they can let us reenact historic elections of years past. Even if they do take inspiration from corrupt 19th-century New York City politics and the election that sparked the Civil War (hopefully that’s something we won’t be saying about future 2016-themed games), these five board games are a comforting reminder of the unpleasant political process we’re used to, not whatever this nightmare has been. As a bonus, we found a game that actually does capture some of the lunacy of 2016.
Former U.S. Speaker Of The House Tip O’Neill famously said, “All politics is local.” That was particularly true in the era of Boss Tweed, when control over just a few New York wards could result in enormous wealth and power. In Pandasaurus Games’ Tammany Hall, three to five players vie for control over Manhattan in a series of mayoral elections between 1850 and 1870. You take turns placing cubes representing immigrants from Italy, Germany, Ireland, and England in various areas of the map, along with ward bosses who make sure the locals vote their leader’s way. After every player has taken four turns—representing four years—an election is held and players win wards where they have the most bosses.
Controlling the territory where the majority of a given immigrant group lives gives you chips that represent favor with them, which can be bid to break election ties or spent to spread slander about your opponents and push their bosses out of an area. It’s frustrating that there’s no defense against slander, as players will often just kick bosses out rather than risking ties. We only had one come up while playing, and that was on the final turn of a game where one player’s favor was so dominant that bidding was pointless.
Because the game spans multiple elections, you need to tread carefully when attacking your opponents. The player who wins the most wards each election becomes mayor and doles out positions to their fellow players. Every position besides mayor has a special power, and they’re not created equal. In a three-player game, the most powerful roles, like the council president who can lock up a ward and keep other players from interfering with it until the next election, are likely to only see play long enough for everyone to realize how dangerous they are. But with a full table, you have to try to forge alliances to make sure your interests aren’t too badly wrecked, which produces interesting dynamics. At our table, players spent a lot of time explaining the logic of their moves to make sure everyone they were messing with knew the actions were optimal and not personal.
Hailing from a similar period is Numbskull Games’ Divided Republic. Here, two to four players relive the election that preceded the Civil War. It closely resembles GMT Games’ Twilight Struggle, with players drawing cards from a joint deck of actions and events that can happen many times, as well as specific historic moments that happen only once. These include endorsements that let you take control of a state and attack cards, like a coal shortage that sequesters an opponent to a specific region for a round. Each card also has a numerical value, so if you happen to draw something that only benefits the Southern Democrats while you’re playing a Republican, you can just use it to place that number of cubes on the electoral map.
Influence is fleeting, and control of any given state will shift regularly throughout the game unless you manage to amass double the number of cubes required to take a state and a regional polling card is played. At that point, your power is assured and opponents can’t challenge you there for the rest of the game. Because it’s nearly impossible to know when these cards will come up, especially in a smaller game where you’re going through fewer cards, it’s hard to build a strategy around this until you actually have the polling card in hand. When you do draw one, laying down the necessary extra support in areas you already control telegraphs your plans pretty clearly. Still, given how costly locking down a territory is, opponents might just let it happen while putting their attention elsewhere. But if you don’t lock a state, you run the risk of being hit with one of the many event cards that pulls massive amounts of support out of a territory. Divided Republic is also a good lesson in the importance of electoral math. I felt like I was ahead for most of the game because of the huge number of states I securely controlled, but my opponent’s use of a card to shut me out of the valuable northeastern states on the game’s final turn made things incredibly close.
Before releasing Divided Republic this year, Numbskull Games took on the 1912 presidential election with Bull Moose. Between three to five players each get their own 28-card deck representing the candidates, including Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. While the text on each card is different to correspond with historic events, like Roosevelt being shot, most of their effects are identical. Each round, players are dealt eight cards and choose four as their hand, placing the other four on the top of the deck. One of the keys to success is using the information of what you’re getting next to plot your strategy. Unlike Divided Republic, the areas where you can place cubes representing your voter support are limited to where your player marker is, and most action cards only work if you’re in a specific state or region. You can cash in cards to travel to other states or place cubes in ones you aren’t visiting, but the conversion rate is unimpressive. As a result, the most powerful cards in the game are ones that let you travel without spending actions or quickly move across the country using railroads.
There are a few extra places you can spend your resources in Bull Moose, such as seeking the endorsements of newspapers and senators that give you an extra boost at the end of the game. You can also attack your opponents, but that gives them a pool of extra support they can place right before the election. If you distribute your hate equally among foes, the cost is small compared with the gains you can make from mudslinging. The game also does a great job at evoking the tensions of election night by not awarding states based on simple majority. You only win outright if you have twice as many cubes as your closest opponent. Pluralities are settled by randomly drawing a representative from the present cubes to be the deciding vote. Watching the scores narrow as the tightest races in the biggest states were decided was a pretty exhilarating way to end a session.
I really wanted to include GMT Games’ 1960: The Making Of The President, but unfortunately, the game is out of print, and new copies aren’t due until next year. So instead of exploring the contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, we’ll head into the modern era with Z-Man Games’ Campaign Manager 2008. This two-player game distills the contest between Barack Obama and John McCain into a fight for a set of battleground states, each with their own political leanings and key demographics for the politicians to woo.
Players draft 15 of 45 possible cards to frame their candidate’s strategy. McCain tends to be stronger on defense, while Obama favors economic-minded voters, but both are equally capable of winning over the various demographic groups. For instance, McCain can win college graduates by pushing Teach For America, while Obama gathers them to his banner by giving a commencement speech at Wesleyan. Those cards are incredibly powerful if the right states are in play. Other cards come with the cost of going negative, forcing players to roll on a table that can give aid to their opponent. In one of the few differences beyond flavor in the decks, Obama’s optimistic campaign has a card that forces McCain to roll twice in order to attack him, while McCain has the ability to avoid the negative effects altogether.
Unfortunately, the small decks mean it doesn’t take long to figure out what strategy your opponent favors, and at that point, the game starts to drag. The best strategy is often to do nothing on your turn except draw so you can build up a hand that’ll let you take a few states in rapid succession. There are only four states in play at any given time, and every time a new one hits the board, you play an event card that affects its starting positions or negatively affects one or both candidates. That results in fierce competition between players for control of the media, which can help spin events in your advantage by letting you apply the effects to any state instead of defaulting to the new one—a fairly cynical view of the political process.
Victory Point Games’ Swing States 2012 is a solitary game meant to appeal to the most serious political wonks. While all the other games on this list largely focus on a candidate’s popularity, Swing States 2012 also takes into consideration a host of other factors, like fundraising, debate prep, opposition research, and the use of surrogates. You play as the campaign manager, setting the schedule for when and where your candidates go, whether they’re actively campaigning or relying on advertising, and how to spend your war chest. Each round, an event like a key court decision influences the state of the election and can shift your power in a region or start a scandal that causes your support to plummet. Some cards represent presidential or vice presidential debates on the horizon, giving you time to prepare by taking actions that will improve your odds on a die roll. After all, performance is often based on a mix of luck and work.
Doing well will earn you extra cash you can spend on travel, ads, or damage control. At the end of the game, you pull out a separate board that shows the electoral map and see how you fared. If that’s not complicated enough, there’s a mini-game where you can come up with the perfect ticket. Options go beyond Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to offer the possibilities that Marco Rubio might have run or Obama might not have sought reelection, changing the odds accordingly. There are even rules for making your own candidates, with suggestions for turning the likes of Rachel Maddow into a Democratic presidential contender.
All of these are nuanced, strategic games, but 2016’s election is different. The games that embody it best are about embracing the absurdity of the race between Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton. Cards Against Humanity released 15-card expansion packs devoted to both candidates and donated the money to Clinton’s campaign, and several other companies have created similar joke-based games.
But considering that some of the campaign’s most bizarre moments have happened on debate stages, it’s The Contender that proves the most emblematic. It puts one player in the role of moderator who picks a topic card, representing issues like climate change and violent crime. The other players must debate by playing three argument cards from their five-card hand. The goal is to make things flow, so you’re encouraged to improvise a bit before or after each card’s text to make it relevant. You can play multiple cards at once or hold some back as rebuttals. Each of these arguments is based on a quote from a presidential candidate (though not necessarily from their debate performances). Some quotes are simplified and condensed, some have key words removed so they can fit the game’s many topics, and others are offered verbatim, such as Jeb Bush’s sad urging of his audience to “please clap.”
The game was first released last year, but its creators launched a substantial 2016 expansion after the primary season and have been putting out smaller add-ons based on the actual debates so that no one would be deprived the joy of playing cards like “such a nasty woman” and “we have some bad hombres here.” Awkwardly enough, some of these later releases have included cards that would have been better suited to the game’s Politically Incorrect edition, which features candidates cursing and talking about sex scandals. That’s just the state of this election. At least it’ll be over soon.
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