Review: Tammany Hall – Greatly Deserving its Reprint
Reproduced with permission from Giant Fire Breathing Robot
Dishonesty, slander, and pandering. Each is the love-child of a politician in his campaign for the office. And, in Tammany Hall, you too can slander your friends! Tammany Hall is sometimes referred to as a “Grail” game. It is a wonderful, enjoyable, and unique experience set in nineteenth century New York politics, but only 500 copies were ever produced. And, of those, only a handful made it to the States.
However, Pandasaurus Games has announced that it will be publishing a new edition of the game through Kickstarter. And, since I’m one of the lucky few who secured a copy of Tammany Hall, I thought it was time to give this great design some much needed exposure.
The Basics. In Tammany Hall, the players compete to win votes in various precincts represented on the board. The game accommodates up to five players. In a five player game, the whole board is open from the beginning. With fewer players, the board slowly opens up a bit at a time so that the area remains small and the players are still forced to interact.
And, in the style of Boss Tweed, the best way to get votes is to establish your political machine and to befriend local immigrant populations. Identity politics is everything for Tammany Hall. The game is played over sixteen rounds (years) with an election for Mayor held every four rounds. Each round, the player must place a political “boss” in a precinct, and then can either place a second boss in the same or different precinct or can shepherd in an immigrant into New York.
Bringing in a new immigrant cube allows you to change the dynamic of the precincts. If you are in good with the Irish, for example, you might start moving Irish into a German neighborhood in the hope of changing the demographics in your favor. And, for bringing that immigrant in to the city, you get a political favor chip of that immigrant type. This represents the good will you have earned in that community.
When election time comes, the players go through the races precinct by precinct. Players have one vote for every “boss” in the precinct. But, if they have favor chips that match an immigrant population in the precinct, they can use those for extra votes. Basically a “get out the vote” effort. Players then secretly decide how many favors they want to call in on that particular precinct. The one with the most total votes (counting bosses and favors) gets to keep their boss there and gets one point and one vote. The loser takes back his boss and both players lose any used favor chips.
The winner gets three points and is crowned Mayor for the next four years. They get to go first (though going first is a disadvantage in Tammany Hall since it allows other players the last actions before a vote). But, more importantly, they get to assign the city’s other roles.
The Deputy Mayor takes a free favor chip each turn. The Police Chief escorts an immigrant cube off of the board entirely. The Council President can lock up a ward, preventing any further influence in it. The Precinct Chairmen can redistrict slightly and move an immigrant from one precinct to another. The Mayor gets no special action.
Finally, any political game worth its salt would allow you to slander your opponents. And Tammany Hall is worth any preservative substance. Players are allowed three slanders over the course of the game. They can use them to kick an opponent’s boss out of a precinct and, when conditions are right, the rumors may spread to a neighboring precinct as well. This is especially effective when used just prior to an election.
The Feel. Tammany Hall is a rough and tumble area majority game. One of the unique and interesting aspects of the game is that the relative power each player has in the game is very fluid. One player may have a certain precinct locked up one year, only to find his immigrant base depleted, or a new immigrant group with strong ties to another player moving in.
As a political area majority game, it can be played with or without table talk. My preference, generally, is without. A lack of alliances and syndicates is best. But, it certainly supports temporary alliances and gentleman’s agreements to attack the leader.
While Tammany Hall doesn’t have a “catch up” mechanism per se, it can be absolutely brutal to the player with the most points. The Mayor will generally be the point leader and he will have to play the next four rounds without any special powers. And, because he goes first, that means it is difficult for him to make opportune plays. In the final year before an election, the Mayor will make his move and then watch as his opponents slander him, move away his immigrant power base, and otherwise erode his ability to perform well in the next election.
One of the most intriguing aspects is the Mayor’s duty to assign the other players to the special posts. The Mayor must choose those jobs that will benefit his opponents least. And, those same opponents will use those effects to the maximum extent possible to narrow the gap between themselves and the mayor. This can lead to interesting, tense discussions as well as plenty of broken agreements and shattered alliances.
Tammany Hall typically takes about half a play or so to really see how the immigrants impact elections. It’s actually a fabulous system as moving even a single cube of a favored group can suddenly make a safe precinct heavily contested. The game is full of tactical slander and long term strategy to take over and become the biggest party boss in New York. And, with an election every four turns, players have little precious time between scoring rounds to accomplish their goals.
Components: 2 of 5. This score relates to my version of Tammany Hall by Stratamax games. The Pandasaurus version has promised unspecified improvements. All of the pieces are wooden bits, discs, and cubes. So it’s pretty much your standard euro fare. But, the score gets knocked because of the color choice. The board colors are not distinct enough and, while it evokes the feel of a government map, it doesn’t help gameplay. Also, the player colors are red, yellow, brown, black, and purple. But the purple and brown are so dark that it is easy to confuse them with black, especially in low light. The color choice is really a drag on an otherwise good quality set.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. No cards, no dice. Everything is totally player driven in this game. As such, strategy and decision is key. There is some minimal luck, though. Available immigrants are drawn randomly from the bag. So, if you are in good with the Italians and suddenly the draw produces only Irish, German, and English, you may be in a spot of trouble. Such instances, though, are exceedingly rare. And, in one of the few benefits to going first, you can nab up a needed population, or place the one an opponent needs far form where he needs it.
Mechanics: 5 0f 5. Rather than provide depth by allowing players a cornucopia of possible actions, Tammany Hall sticks with just two. Whether to usher an immigrant into New York or play a second boss, and whether to use one of your limited slander chips. That’s it. Yet, the design of the game is such that from these few actions, the players have a whole bevy of choices, options, and strategies to attempt. This is especially pronounced as immigrant populations change over the course of the game. Its easy for a player to find himself challenged in new precincts, or through manipulation, far more dominant in others.
Replayability: 3.5 of 5. The random immigrant draws mean that the game will never play the same twice. Beyond that, though, the play is so varied and in depth that you will find yourself in unfamiliar territory in each game. In a way, it is a little bit like playing Go (at the amateur level). The game has a ton of variety, not because of exceeding randomness or variable set ups, but because the player choices all lead down unique paths that would be very difficult to duplicate game to game.
Spite: 4 of 5. While I wouldn’t necessarily call Tammany Hall a “take that” game, there is a high spite quotient. The slander chips are pure spite that can eliminate opponents’ bosses from a precinct. This can effectively end their bid in an area or cost them a turn to replace the boss. Additionally, the manipulation of immigrant populations can dramatically alter the competitiveness of a certain area.
Overall: 4.5 of 5. Tammany Hall is one of the most mechanically brilliant games that I’ve played where deep strategy springs from a small choice set. But, beyond that, the game is just fun. It’s a great area majority/control game that provides just the right level of both indirect (through immigrants) and direct (through placement and slander) competition. Tammany Hall is one of just a few games that I am always eager to play.