Saturday, July 28, 2018

Game: Boss Tweed

Very Gangs of New York
Tammany Hall designed by Doug Eckhart, Pandasaurus Games 2012

Let's move on from politics to ... a game about politics!

Provenance: This is the Kickstarted version of the game. I purchased it at North Texas RPG Con as my "Big Buy" of the con (I try to limit myself to one, because I have to lug it back). Brought it out for our Monday Night gaming group.

Review: We've played this game three times, and there are issues. But let me give you the lay of the land before I start complaining:

Tammany Hall is a unit-placement game set in New York City in the mid-19th century. This was the time of the rise of the great urban political machines, and I am a fan of the era, and in particular William Marcy (actually Maegar) Tweed, who was the "Boss" of Tammany Hall and the Democratic Party in post-bellum NYC. The board is lower Manhattan, divided into three districts with numerous wards in each district.

A pool of immigrants shows up at Convent Gardens (this is pre-Ellis Island) - four national groupings - Italian, Irish, German, and English (different colored cubes). You have a hefty number of "Ward Bosses" (meeples) and can put a ward boss and an immigrant cube in a ward, OR put two ward bosses in one or more wards. Easy peasy. If you put an immigrant cube, you get a "favor token" for that immigrant group.

After four turns (years) you have a vote for mayor. You only look at the ward bosses in each ward, since they deliver the votes. No other ward bosses? You get the ward. Other ward bosses in the ward, you square off, secretly adding appropriate favor tokens to the number of ward bosses you have. High score gets the ward. Guy with the most wards (and there are all sorts of tie-breakers) gets to be mayor.

The mayor then hands out the city offices, which allow to gain free favor tokens, lock down wards, or move or remove immigrant tokens. Everyone gets an office, so the trick is to hand out the more powerful ones to people you think you can trust. After four elections (16 turns), the game ends and the high score (VPs awarded after every election) wins.

And that's pretty much it. But after playing it three times, I get the feeling we're doing something wrong. And that's not good. First game we were being polite and learning the rules. Second game we got into a little more deal-making. Third game we tried to dogpile on the leader. None of these worked out that well, and in the last two we had to call time (a two hour playing time is a bit rosy in its estimation).

Part of the problem is that mayor is a very powerful office, long-term. Short-term it sucks - everyone else has something they can do. You just get 3 victory points. But since you have to control a lot of wards to get to be mayor, you have more victory points already. The end result is that the mayor (particularly if you can get re-elected) gets a huge head-start on everyone else. The rich get richer. In each game, we had the first mayor get out front, a second place player at about half points, and the rest in a mob at the bottom.

The idea that it is clear that taking down the mayor is a catch-up feature, but it is very hard to do. Challenging other wards requires effort and resources that might be spent better elsewhere, and leaves both combatants weakened. There is a "scandal" mechanic that can take out enemy ward bosses, but it requires a layout of future victory points and favor chips, and requires you have a good setup in the first place. The ideal form of combat is "Let's you and him fight" - getting two opponents to take each other on while you hold down your own territory.

Dealmaking is also a challenge, in that there is precious little you can actually trade at the time. You can't trade the favor tokens, and there is no rule to punish deal-breakers (other than everyone saying, "Oh, Stan! He broke a deal once! Let's you and him fight!"). And since you have to give out all the offices, you have to give good powers to less-than-responsible people.

The quality of the game components are excellent, the rules are fairly clear, and most of the information you need is repeated on the game board. It has an excellent physical design. Tammany Hall gets good reviews, in particular from those that claim that it will turn players against each other faster than Monopoly, Diplomacy, or Kingmaker. I'm not seeing it. Our group gave it the old college try, but it came up empty. Not a bad game, but not as amazing as I expected. Maybe I should check out its ancestor, El Grande, to see if I'm missing something, or if it is just us.

More later.