With the Canadian federal election today it seems like an opportune moment to do some capsule reviews of the slew of political games that have been released this year. And by slew I mean six. Which is a lot, when you consider just how small this genre is.
I’m not talking about negotiation games in general, or joke games like Trump Roast, or games where politics have been pasted onto existing mechanics to make a point, like Guess Who Colluded. I’m talking about games whose central theme is grounded in real-life political events and whose mechanics go to serving that theme.
A good political game succeeds if people who play it end up wanting to learn more about the subject. That means it doesn’t necessarily have to be a detailed simulation in and of itself, but it does need to provide an immersive experience at whatever level it’s aiming at. And if there’s a section at the back of the rulebook that provides more detailed context and analysis, so much the better. So while my list is roughly in order of weight, that definitely does not mean it’s also in order of quality.
Iron Curtain is listed on BGG as being published in 2017, but turned up at my FLGS this year. Like Watergate (see below) and many other modern political games, it draws inspiration from Twilight Struggle. It promises a TS-lite experience in under an hour, and unlike other pretenders to that throne such as 13 Minutes and (ugh) Twilight Squabble I think it delivers super-well on that. It’s a tense two-round game which manages to incorporate multi-use cards, bluffing, threats on multiple fronts, and even a geographic sense of global reach with only 18 cards and a few cubes. Yes, it’s very light on the history end, but as a distillation of TS’s gameplay into the smallest possible space I don’t think it can be beat.
Revolution of 1828: So, wait, this is a Stefan Feld game? For two players? With a (somewhat obscure) historical theme? Yes, yes it is. Fans of Macao or Castles of Burgundy will probably not be interested. But anyone with a passion for American politics (especially those looking for historical precedents to today’s morass) should probably check this out. It’s a six-way tug-of-war over three rounds as each player drafts tokens from the central board, giving them electoral support in different regions or triggering special effects. And for you mud-slingers, there are plenty of opportunities to “go low” for short-term political advantage–but be prepared for the inevitable backlash from the press. My one beef is the special action tokens, which lack icons and force you to continually hunt through the rulebook for what they mean. But the extensive historical notes in the back of the rulebook more than make up for it in my mind.
Watergate: Unsurprisingly a spurt of Watergate-themed games got released at the time (1973-4) but then there was nothing for 35 years until this beauty by Mattias Cramer (Glen More, Rococo). His genius stroke was to make the Washington Post player’s victory contingent on linking Nixon to at least two out of six available accomplices by gaining and placing evidence tiles on a central display that resembles a conspiracy theorist’s bulletin board. This connections mechanic forces the Nixon player to play defence with the evidence tiles even as they keep up the pressure of political momentum. Totally thematic and totally engrossing. Watergate also provides a ton of background info in the rulebook, so it behooves all who are interested to check this game out, especially in this era when Watergate has unfortunately again returned to the spotlight.
Pax Pamir (2nd ed) is a from-the-ground-up retooling of the first edition, released to acclaim in 2015. Its theme is unique: the Great Game of Afghanian politics in the mid-19th century whereby Great Britain and Russia jostled for position in this most treacherous land. (There’s a reason Alexander the Great was the last person who can be said to truly have conquered Afghanistan.) Each player takes the role of an Afghan leader trying to strike a balance between foreign and local support. Some prefer the original edition rules, but I will vouch for the much more cogent and streamlined Second Edition ruleset which keeps 90% of the original but makes the whole package easier to teach and get into. The production values are top-notch, but as in Tapestry this results in a very high pricetag which will turn many away from it. Perhaps in a couple of years you’ll be able to find discount copies in the secondary market. Or you could just bite the bullet and buy it.
Founding Fathers does not refer to the Christian Leonhard/Jason Matthews game from 2010 which is about the writing of the US Constitution (also worth checking out, of course!) but to the self-published (via Game Crafter) epic game of American politics from 1787 to 1861. Designer Rick Heli was inspired by the classic Republic of Rome by Avalon Hill. Even though FF originally came out in 2007 I’m adding it to the list because of the 2019 Civil War & Gilded Age expansion which brings things forward to 1917. The game’s ambition and reach are huge; every turn represents a presidential term, culminating in the next election. Each player represents not one person but a cabal of politicians who may have different political leanings. Whoever owns the current President gets to decide which laws are passed, and nominates other politicians (who may or may not also be owned by them) to Cabinet, where they get various perks and powers. Tons of negotiation, tons of flavour–and it needs tons of table-space and time. Founding Fathers could underpin an entire course in American history. Plus it has a flawed-but-playable solo mode!
Gandhi is the latest in GMT’s COIN Series, which I am a big fan of but I know others are not. I love how original designer Volko Ruhnke morphed some of the ideas around Twilight Struggle into a multiplayer, bot-enabled system and used it to tackle such a diverse set of situations, from the Columbian Civil War to England under the Romans to Cuba 1959. Gandhi sets itself apart from the series in three ways: (1) it comes from amateur designer Bruce Mansfield, who brought it to GMT and worked with Ruhnke to adapt it to the COIN system; (2) two of the factions depend on non-violent means to bring about their objectives, which makes the game play out quite differently; and (3) the bot system moves completely away from what can be a messy system of flowcharts to a much more easy to use yet still powerful card-driven Automa. Anyone who wants to know more about the birth and complexity of modern India should try this game.
There’s one game I wanted to include on this list which has just come out and I am waiting for it to be delivered: Mapmaker: The Gerrymandering Game. The title speaks for itself and though I cannot personally vouch for it the reviews on BGG are quite positive and I think it fits my definition of a good political game.
I wish my list included at least one Canadian-themed game. But while there are plenty of great political games out there about Cold War and American politics–and four of the six games below fall under that heading–the same cannot be said about Canadian politics. If any of you know of one please leave it in the comments, because I’d love to know about it.
Thanks to Renegade Games for providing a review copy of Revolution of 1828 for this article.