Monday, June 15, 2009

Review: Road to the White House

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I am also a bit of a political wonk in my free time and there are a couple of wonk blogs that rival the number of visits per day that Boardgamegeek gets from me. In fact, that is probably the only reason why I played, let alone reviewed, this game. It is for wonks. If you are not one, do not waste your time on this review. You won’t like the game. But if you are a bit of a wonk, read on.


The Overview:

Road to the White House is an election simulation game for 2-6 players, though the game suggests 3 or more for a better game experience. The simulation is supposed to represent the American election process, starting with one political party’s primary campaign. The game then offers rules to continue with the general election with a system of determining who will be the Vice President and the other opponents taking new character to play as the opposing party, but due to the length of the game (a generous minimum of at least 4 hours); I highly doubt that many would essentially play two back-to-back sessions of the game. Because most of what is presented in the game is about the primary race (and consider that is all that I’ve played so far), that is the focus of the review.

The game spans 20 weeks (or turns). At the end of that time, the Party’s Convention begins and popular votes of each player are counted with the highest winning that state’s amount of electoral votes, which differ in amount from state to state. The winner is whoever reaches 270 or more electoral votes. If no one has reached that amount after the first counting, the candidate with the fewest electoral votes concedes and the electoral votes of each state that he or she had won are given to whoever had the next highest total in the state. In this respect, it is closer to representing an Australian election than a US Primary, but there is a variant that lets you play closer to the US primary process.

Turns are set in player order, with each player resolving all of their actions before moving onto the next player. Turns are broken into two halves and during the first part, a player can do any or all of the following in any order:

*A candidate can spend money from their campaign’s War Chest to do a number of things from purchasing advertising to polling to purchasing dirty tricks to play against other candidates.
*Candidates then can choose to hold a fundraiser to add to their war chest funds, but it candidate cannot do anything else that turn.
*A candidate can opt to start a surrogate to help their campaign. Surrogates are additional pawns that enter the board and help add votes or fundraise for the candidate. They essentially represent the candidate’s spouse or a public figure working for the campaign.
*Candidates can also start organizations, which cost money to fund, but kind of act like state PACs in the sense that they can create multipliers for votes gained in the states purchased in.

Next, a candidate rolls one die for each pawn they have in play (the Candidate and each of their surrogates). The dice are 8-sided dice, but are numbered 1-4 twice on them. For each 1 rolled, an event card is drawn and followed. Then, the player assigns one of the die results to each pawn and can move them based on the number on the die face. The number assigned to each pawn determines what flight routes are available from each city. Finally, votes are counted and recorded for each pawn. Votes gained are determined by the city size the pawn is in, but can be modified by a candidate’s charisma bonus, your candidate’s position on certain issues that are out, multipliers from organizations, etc. The number of votes gained in each state is tallied and recorded on a score sheet that is hidden from the other players.

Throughout the game, different issues will be at the forefront of the media attention. Players can try to bring up issues or change them, but usually they are altered and controlled by the random event cards that come up. Issues can help or hurt a character depending on their position on the issue. For example, if Abortion becomes the active issue and you have a Pro-Life rating for your candidate, you gain varying amounts of bonus votes for stops in Alabama, Utah, Alaska, Idaho, Iowa, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, as well as a chance of gaining money in your War Chest from donations and a surrogate working for you (Pro-Life supporters). However, if your candidate has a Pro-Life rating, you can gain varying amounts of bonus votes for stops in D.C., Oregon, California, Maryland and Washington, as well as possibly gaining a surrogate to campaign for you (Pro-Choice supporters). The timeliness of issues coming up can make or break a campaign in certain states.

Event cards, when drawn and resolved, can also boost or crush campaigns as they represent "real world" activities occurring and how they affect the race. Many times, they will simply bring up a new issue. Sometimes they will be a chance to gain money for your War Chest (such as when "Defense Companies Back Candidate" comes into play, each candidate rolls 1 die and adds the result to their Pro-Defense Rating. Whoever has the highest result gains $6). Sometimes, onetime events occur that can make a drastic impact depending on if you have a position on a particular issue (for example, the "Sports Hero Killed with Saturday-Night Special" headline card gives all candidates with an Anti-Gun rating a huge boost to the votes of the state that they are in and a lesser boost to any bordering states as the candidate seizes the headlines to promote themselves. However, a candidate with a Pro-Gun rating loses a large amount in the state they are in and in the bordering states as the media grills them on their position related to the current headlines).

There is also a system where candidates in the same state (or the same states with a candidate’s surrogates) can challenge them to a debate on the current active issues where the winner gains votes and the loser loses votes. Usually this only occurs when a candidate knows that he can defeat the opponent in the debate, though one can decline to debate (losing votes for declining, but possibly less than he would for losing the debate itself).

These actions repeat themselves for 20 turns, representing 20 weeks of the primary campaign. And, yes, this is an older game. Back in 1992, primary election campaigns didn’t last for a year and a half.


The Theme:

This is a political simulation game. There really aren’t any game mechanics for back-room deals or making agreements with other players, so it is not political in that sense. However, the theme is US politics and campaigning and it covers that very well. The theme carries through well with the characters and with the event headlines mirroring realistic events. The only thing that is a little silly about the theme of the game is their choice for character names with some of the pre-generated candidates. I can sort of take playing real life parody characters, such as the businessman, Donald Grump, or the US Marine, Rollie South. But I sort of flinch a little bit when names like Congressman Tre Hugger or Congressman Ivan Pinkowski come up. Still, I understand what they were doing, but it is an odd choice when nothing else in the game is silly or parody. But that is a superficial complaint on theme.


Learning the Game:

The learning curve of this game is a little high. The instruction book consists of twenty-two 5.5" x 8.5" pages. It’s not the best written rulebook out there, but it does kind of fall into place after one play. However, that one long play will be delayed even longer from constant rules checks. Players need to record their own votes throughout the game on score sheets and need to refer to their candidate sheets to cross-reference their position on the issues, then look up in another book what all of their candidate’s bonuses are in which states. There is a lot to learn and it helps if the players are rather math-friendly. And this is not even mentioning the crazy means of marking which issues have come out in what manner. If you are afraid of math and charts, ignore this game.


The Components:

Here is where the game falls apart. The board is an 18" x 22" map of the United States with cities in play marked with a small black dot with their value in votes marked on them. The base of each pawn is easily 10 - 15 times the size of the city dots. To represent where your candidate is, you are supposed to place their pawn on the black dot. This works alright, unless you want to go to areas with more population density. Sitting a candidate’s pawn on Philadelphia also covers Camden, Lancaster and Wilmington. It gets even worse if those areas are battleground areas on an issue and you have two or three candidates and all of them are cluttered on one city, or worse on two or three and you cannot be sure who is where.

Also, the game comes with 8 sets of pawns, but barely enough stickers to put on 6 sets. In fact, there is only enough to put stickers on one side of each pawn to cover the 6 sets. Issues are marked with small white chips that you place stickers printed with the issue names on them. The stickers do not stick well, though I am willing to cut a bit of slack since the game was printed in 1992, so the sticker sheet is 17 years old.

Each candidate comes with a candidate reference card, which summarizes his positions and issue standings as well as other pertinent information, but not all of it that you need. The rest of the information is on a character sheet in a printed book that gets passed around as each player references it constantly.

The vote tally sheet works well enough, but is nothing spectacular and it would be nice if more information was printed on it (such as listing the cost to create an organization for each state). Still, I’m never a fan of sheets you need to use (and dispose of) in a game. It seems wasteful, and, of course, depletes a limited game resource. But with all of the math and information in this game, there is no way around using something like this.


Playing the Game:

If you are not a political wonk, you will hate this game. In fact, I wonder why you’ve gotten this far in the review of a 17 year old, lesser known politics game. I am speaking to the political junkies who like gaming when I say, despite the desperate need for polish; this game has a lot of potential.

I say potential because, even though I have really enjoyed the games I have played, I understand the flaws in the game itself. It is long. VERY long. This can get rather tedious. My suggestion would be to choose a number of turns and just play to that. Halving the number of turns to 10 is sufficient and still leaves you with a long game, but one where at least you are not rushed to hit as much as you would like. It loses some of its "realism" in that manner, but it may make it easier to swallow if you are not willing to devote that much time to it.

There are some interesting mechanics in the game which simplify real campaign events, but in a feasible game mechanics way. Such as, when you decide to poll, you can pick a number of states whose electoral vote value is 100 or less and each player must tell you exactly how many popular votes they have in each of the states. You then have to reveal what you have, but as the one conducting the poll, you can lie and add up to 30 or remove up to 30 points in what you tell them. Events are interesting, varied and feel real enough. However, you will find that you may end up with some interested reaction to the headlines. In our last game, two of us cheered when the headline revealed that "Nerve Gas Leak Kills Thousands" because it hurt the other candidates who lost votes because of their positions on Defense Rating. An odd thing to cheer for, but in the context of the game, you’ll find yourself cheering for certain atrocities that help your positions and hurt your opponents.

This is part of what makes the game enjoyable though, playing your reaction to world events and trying to shape the issues to keep the most influence. In one of our first games, Defense and the Space Race kept swapping out between the active issues for the first 8 weeks of the campaign. The issues would not change, as two candidates who had rankings in those issues used their influence to keep them up there and events brought them back as soon as they left. Why National Defense and the Space Race were so important that it kept the publics usually short attention span was a mystery. So we just assumed that a week before the primaries began, earth was attacked by aliens, thus keeping those issues so relevant.

However, if playing off of those situations and joking about how whatever world tragedy has aided your campaign doesn’t work for you, the game will seem much more tedious.

Also, there is a variant that makes the primary campaign system in the game run more like a real US primary. As the game stands, it is as if all of the states have their primaries on one day. This variant has states tallying their votes at different times, but I do not suggest it. Although more true to the US system, it also results in players realizing that they have no chance to make up ground and dropping out much earlier, just like real US primaries. It’s better to keep everyone in the game, especially because if someone realizes that they have no chance early and drops out, they may have another three and a half hours to kill before everyone else is finished. This is not to mention the unreasonable amount of record keeping that would have to be done to play the game in this manner.


Scalability:

The game plays 2-6, but does not recommend it with just 2 players. I agree. I don’t think it would be engaging enough. I’ve played with 3 and 4 players. Three players gave a fair amount of involvement and variety, and an acceptable amount of downtime. Four players gave a much better and engaging amount of variety and involvement, but the downtime dragged on much more with just one more player. I could not see it working well with 5 or 6 players. Judging by the increase in play time from 3 to 4 players, I would imagine that 6 or 6 players could easily press the game play time to upwards of 6 or 7 hours.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. That being said, out of the four of us in our core gaming group, three of us are political junkies... but she is not one of them. Still, politics intrigues her enough to tolerate the game, and the mechanics and "story" that is created by the world events and issues made it somewhat fun for her. But the play time is just too long for someone not that interested in the political system. She’s willing to play again, but wants a LOT of time in between plays. I’m sure that her willingness to play again is because of my fondness for politics and the game though. She would not shed a tear if I never pulled it off the shelf again. I also know that if I do play it with her again, I will have to butter her up by playing a lot of games of Pandemic either before or after to make it up to her. Also, if we do play again, I think we will cut the time down to 10 turns instead of 20.


The Pros:

*Very interesting political simulation that uses real world events to change the issues at hand in a believable manner (think about the real world event of the US economic crisis and how it affected the McCain campaign).
*A lot of interesting mechanics that form a functional representation of what they are supposed to be.
*The randomness works. Sure, campaigns can be ruined by a badly timed event card, but that is realistic in the political world where you have no control over the world events that shape and direct the people’s focus.
*There is no set path; each candidate is free to try to win the race with whatever strategy they choose.


The Cons:

*Abysmal components.
*Terrible map and board to determine where candidates and surrogates are.
*Very long.
*Very limited appeal to theme.
*Poorly constructed reference materials.
*The sheer amount to track and the math involved easily can turn off many players.


Overall:

This is not an easy game to rank. I am very biased by the subject matter of the game and, truth be told, it does a fair job at simulating it. However, the game is sorely under-polished. With some refining of components, the board, reference materials and some mechanics, I could see this easily being in my top 3 games. But, as it stands, it is a dirty and flawed gem that still shines brightly, but only when held up to the light in a certain way.

I’ve enjoyed the games of it that I’ve played, as have those I’ve played with. Those who enjoy politics are much more into it than those only peripherally interested in politics. But part of the reason why the game was enjoyable to any of us, is that it created a social atmosphere where we talked about what was going on and joked about it. If we played it dry without joking and bullshitting about the events and how the retired US General candidate was hoping for a nuclear war to boost his poll numbers, then it would be an exercise in tedium.

The game needs the right group with the right interest. Do not even consider playing this unless you are fairly certain that you have them both. It was the right mix for me and most of my group. Otherwise, I would not feel so compelled to write about a 17 year old game.


For Wonks and Political Junkies: 7.5/10
For Everyone Else: 4/10

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