Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review: Founding Fathers

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. Also, while I am a huge fan of history, even if most of it is much more interesting when reading it through Howard Zinn and I do sort of consider myself a bit of a political wonk. I am also a big Broadway fan, and despite the nerdiness of it, I am a big fan of the musical 1776. In fact, I used to sign all of my letters and emails with "Saltpeter, Charles" just waiting for one person, one day who got the reference and signed their letter in response with "Pins". (And, yes, I know that is about the Declaration of Independence and not the US Constitution)


The Overview:


The artwork on the box cover is subdued, but absolutely gorgeous. 



In Founding Fathers each player controls one of the major framers of the US Constitution trying to gain support from and broker deals with delegates from the various states who have their own agenda in order to eventually ratify articles of the Constitution. The more articles and agendas that you support that pass, the more points that you will get. Ultimately you are vying for a place in history, as whoever has the most points at the end of the game will be considered to be the Father of the Constitution.

The game is listed for 3-5 players, but it does play 2 players without any alterations or changes to the rules. The game lists it's playing time from 1-2 hours and, despite the large range, it is somewhat correct. Depending on the players, article faction and individual plans in each round, voting can take next to no time, or it can be a long, drawn out and tactical process, extending the game closer to the 2 hour mark.

I'll try to explain the rules, but they are a bit complicated to understand in writing until you see them in play and ultimately understand the scoring. However, feel free to skip down to the next section if you do not want a heavy rules overview.

Each player chooses one of the five Planner characters (Madison, Paterson, Sherman, Pinckney and Hamilton--all are exactly the same in power and ability) and starts the game with 3 Influence Markers that match their Planner. These sort of represent the amount of control that you have in the game, as placing them can score you points or endear you to a specific faction during debates. All of the different ways to score are a little tricky to explain until a person has a full grasp of the game, so I'll touch on that at the end. But as the game progresses you will have opportunities to get more Influence Markers. Each player then draws 4 Delegate Cards. They keep 2 and discard 2. This is added to their starting Delegate Card, which matches their Planner and brings their hand up to 3 cards. Each Delegate Card represents a real person at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and also shows which State he represented and which Faction he is aligned with.

There are a total of 12 Articles of the Constitution in the game. Four of the twelve are randomly drawn and placed face up next to the board. These are considered to already be adopted as part of the Virginia Plan and passed, establishing the framework of the Constitution. Now each Article favors one of the four Factions in the game. The Factions represent the real factions that struggled to influence the Constitution to make it benefit their state or their personal belief and agenda. The four Factions are: The Federalists who are opposed to the Anti-Federalists and the Small States which oppose the Large States. Each of the four drawn Articles will favor one of these Factions. Out of the 8 remaining Articles, two will be resolved each round. One is placed in the Assembly room and will be voted on. The other is placed in the Committee Room where a back-room deal will ultimately decide how it is passed. Since each Article favors one Faction, the reverse side of it favors it's opposing Faction. So if the Article in the Assembly Room favors the Federalist Faction and it fails to pass (more on voting later), it is immediately flipped over and passes with the Anti-Federalist Favor instead. Since there are 8 Articles to determine after the first 4 are chosen, and since 2 are resolved each round, that means that the game will only have 4 rounds to it.

Play begins and each player takes one action on his turn. The actions a player can take are as follows:

Declare a Vote: The player may play a Delegate Card from his hand (his Caucus) to vote either for or against the current Article in the Assembly Room. If he has a Delegate from Pennsylvania in his hand, for example, he can place it on either the Yea or Nay side of the vote. This will declare Pennsylvania's vote. If has multiple Delegates from a single state in his hand, he may play them together, so that 2 Delegates from Pennsylvania vote Yea or Nay (though the state of Pennsylvania still only receives one vote on the Article's passing). Playing multiple Delegates for one vote can give the player more points, but also makes a vote harder to override. A player can override a vote on their turn with the Declare Vote action if they play more Delegates of a state than have already declared. For example, if New York has already declared their vote as Nay with one Delegate out on the board, if you have 2 or more Delegates from New York in your hand on your turn, you can lay them down to vote Yea since you outnumber the delegates of the former vote. New York would change their vote to Yea and the New York Delegate who had voted Nay previously would be discarded. A point to remember in determining votes from Delegates: each Delegate placed must obey their Faction bias. This means if an Article up for vote has a Federalist-bias, a Delegate with an Anti-Federalist-bias cannot vote for it, but must vote against it. Also, whenever Delegates declare their vote, the player must place one of their Influence Markers onto the Delegates. Especially early in the game, there will not be many of these. So if the player does not have any in their supply, they may take one from another part of the board and place it on top of the newly laid Delegates. This is important since a player's Influence Markers ultimately score points or win Debates, and casting an important vote may end up hurting the player if his Markers are vital in other areas on the board.

• Speak in Debate: There are four Debate Tracks on the board, one for each Faction (Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Small States, Large States). On the player's turn, he may opt to Speak in Debate and discard one or more Delegates with matching Faction icons on them to move up one of the Debate Track. For example, both James McHenry of Maryland and George Clymer of Pennsylvania are Federalists, if I were to discard both of them together as one action, I would move up two spaces on the Federalist Debate Track. The first time you move onto one of the Debate Tracks, you must place one of your Influence Markers onto it to mark your position. Again, this is important since you do not have many of them at the start of the game and if you don't have any in your supply, you may take one elsewhere from the board. Each of the starting Planner Delegate Cards counts as a "wild" card for any of the Factions and can be used to move up any Debate Track. At the end of the round, whoever is highest in each of the Debate Tracks receives a Debate Token matching the Faction for each Debate Track that they are highest in. This will be important for end game scoring.

• Enact an Event: Each Delegate Card lists the Delegate's state and faction affiliations, but also has text listing an effect that is resolved if the card is used as an Event. A player may opt to discard the Delegate Card to enact the event text. Some events are marked as "persistent events" and remain in play until the end of the round. Most events, however, are immediately resolved and applied. Each of the starting Planner Delegate Cards has the event ability to allow the player to gain an additional Influence Marker. Other than those, each event is unique to its Delegate and, like most card events in most games, allow you to "break" one of the normal rules of the game by playing it.

• Snub Delegates: This action simply lets a player discard any number of Delegate Cards from his hand and draw back up to three.



This is what the backs of the cards look like. In the upper left, you see the Faction icon of the Delegate and along the side (and by color), you can see the state they belong to. However, do you not know the specific Delegate or their event ability until it is drawn. 


At the end of a player's turn, he draws his hand back up to three cards. However, he draws these from the Draw Pool. The Draw Pool are three cards laid out face down that the player can choose from to take into his hand. The back of each card shows the Delegate's Faction and State affiliation, but does not show their Event abilities. This means you are not drawing completely blind or random, but have a small group to choose from. For example, you may see that a Delegate from Delaware is out in the Draw Pool and Delaware has not yet voted on the current Article. Or you may see that an Anti-Federalist is ready to be drawn and your opponent has been trying to beat you in the Anti-Federalist Debate Track and you want to make sure that they do not get that card. After the player draws his cards, the Draw Pool is refilled to three again. If your Planner card comes out again after the discard pile is shuffled, it immediately comes into your hand, even if it would bring you to more than 3 cards.



This is one of the Articles in the game. As you can see by the icon in the upper right, this Article favors the Anti-Federalist Faction.



This is the same Article, but showing the reverse side of it. By the actions of the players in the game, it can flip to this side when it is passed and it will then favor the Federalist Faction. The red circle around the Faction icon means that this is not the historical way it passed. All Articles come out initially "historical side up". 



Players continue to take turns until the round ends. A round ends when an Article in the Assembly Room either receives 7 Yea votes and it passes with a bias towards the Faction that is displayed on it. Or, if it receives 6 Nay votes the Article is flipped over to its reverse side and is passed favoring the opposing Faction's bias. The reason for the 7 vs. 6 for the Yeas and Nays is because Rhode Island opposed the Convention and did not attend, so there were only 12 states represented at the Convention. Seven Yea votes are required for a majority to pass, while only 6 Nay votes will tie the Assembly and the Article will not pass as it stands (and is therefore flipped and passed).

When a round ends, each section of the board is resolved in order:

First, the players Resolve the Assembly Room. This is where the voting has caused the end of the round. If there are 7 Yea votes, the Article passes with its current bias. If there are 6 Nay votes, the Article is flipped over and passed with the opposing bias. Any player who has an Influence Marker on Delegates on the winning side of the vote gets 2 points for each Delegate that matches the Article's Faction and 1 point for each Delegate that has any other symbol. So, if you have an Influence Markers on Federalist Delegate and a Large State Delegate on the winning side of a Federalist Article, then you would receive 3 points (2 for the Federalist Delegate and 1 for the other Delegate). All Influence Markers on the winning side are then reclaimed by their respective player. Any Influence Markers on Delegates on the losing side are immediately moved to the Committee Room and will be resolved next.

Secondly, the players Resolve the Committee Room. Whichever player has the most Influence Markers in the Committee Room scores points equal to the number of Influence Markers that they have in the Committee Room and then reclaims his Influence Markers (all other players leave their Influence Markers in the Committee Room to possibly score with next round). That player then has the option of letting the Article in the Committee Room either pass with its current Faction-bias or flip it to its opposing Faction-bias and pass it that way. If there is a tie in the Committee Room or there are no Influence Markers in it, the Article passes as is with no option to flip it given to anyone.

Third, the players Resolve the Debates. Whoever leads on each Debate Track receives a Faction Token for that Debate Track. These are important for the end of game scoring. If two or more players are tied on a Debate Track, no one receives the Token for that Faction. All Influence Markers on the Debate Track are then reclaimed.

Players then discard and persistent effect Events in play and then draw the next two Articles and place the first one in the Assembly Room and the next one in the Committee room and continue play. If there are no Articles left to be placed, then the game ends and the final bonus scoring takes place.

Whoever has the most Faction Tokens for each Faction (won in the Debates) gets bonus points. The number of bonus points received is based upon the number of resolved Articles that match each Faction. Whichever Faction has the most passed Articles of their bias is worth 5 points. Whichever player has the most Faction Tokens of that Faction receives those five points. The second most is worth 4, the third most is worth 3 and the fourth most is worth 2. Each of these point totals is claimed by the respective player who has the most matching Faction Tokens. For example, if 5 Federalist Articles passed, 4 Large State Articles passed, 2 Small State Articles passed and 1 Anti-Federalist Article passed, then whichever player had the most Federalist Tokens would receive 5 points, whoever had the most Large State Tokens would get 4 points, whoever had the most Small State Tokens would get 3 points and whoever had the most Anti-Federalist Tokens would get 2 points. If there is a tie, points are awarded evenly between those tied.

The player at the end of the game with the most points wins and is considered the Father of the Constitution.


The Theme:

Whenever you have a game where you are matching symbols on cards to symbols on the board or otherwise, you run the risk of abstracting the theme as the mechanics become more obvious and apparent. However, I really think that there is little abstraction in Founding Fathers' theme.

Influence Markers represent how much political clout you have at the moment. And while you may first place one on New Hampshire when you lead them to vote, you may pull that marker up from them and place it later on New York as they cast their vote. This easily represents the fact that you cannot hold as close favor with one state's delegates as you are busy appeasing another state's delegates. The matching of cards and symbols makes complete sense in the context of this game and every Delegate's event power is completely historic and ties in strongly to the flavor and theme of the game.

When you get more players playing, you'll be making deals with the other players and trying to appease them just enough that you still feel like you've still got enough from the deal. Just like real politics.

The only bit that I do not particularly like as far as the feel and theme of the game is that the Planners (each of the 5 Delegates you play) do not have any agenda. It makes complete sense to me that they do not have a Faction-bias and are considered "wild", as they want the Constitution to pass and that is most important to them and have no problems crossing over Faction lines to make a deal. I can even rationalize out why a Planner would influence one state to vote Yea on an Article and another state to vote Nay, since the losing side ends up in Committee for the next Article, it is strategic planning. But it just seems a bit odd to me that each player is basically fighting one another over fame. The reason why you may be playing both sides of a vote or both sides of a Faction is merely to get more points. The Constitution in Founding Fathers will pass regardless. The real US Constitution was a much more fragile thing. I almost wish that the game had a little more cooperative feel to it, where if the players did not broker the right deals, some things may not pass or some states would simply walk out of the Convention altogether. This ultimately is a very, very minor quibble is a game that is so rich with historic theme. However, I do have to say that I feel like I am vying for a place in history when playing it rather than desperately trying to ensure that this experimental house of cards does not fall from any signs of imbalance.


Learning the Game:

The rulebook is a 20 page 8.5" x 11" well illustrated booklet, although a full half of those pages are history and facts about the Delegates and, while fascinating, are not necessary to understand how the game is played. The game can be a bit daunting to understand until you play through it. Some of the scoring (such as the Debate Tokens and the bonus points at the end) is difficult to fully grasp until you really have a sense of the full game. I would suggest that in teaching the game, you play one round with everyone's cards face up and go through to show the players how each part works. The strategy of having influence on the losing side of a vote in order to affect the Committee Room is one that most players don't get until the first round is played and they witness it. Once Debate Tokens are distributed, players can physically see and (hopefully) see how having the most of one kind gives points based on the Factions of the Articles passed.


The Components:


This is the gorgeous map of the game.



Each player has a reference card for his Planner Delegate that he starts with. 




A few of the Delegate Cards. 




Influence Markers for the five Planners in the game. 




Sample game in progress. 



The game is absolutely beautiful and the components are all fully functional. The Articles are on a thick cardboard, so they can be easily moved around and flipped as needed. The Influence Markers are a thick block of wood and work perfectly well. In fact, it was a good choice over smaller discs. I think that discs might more easily be missed on the board, but there is no mistaking where one of the block Influence Markers is now.

The choice of colors for the Planners Influence Markers and scoring markers is a little odd. Not being color blind, I do not specifically know if the colors blend or not. But the game definitely bucks the traditional colors of a five player game and instead goes with White, Grey, Blue, Purple and Pink.

Finally, the only complaint that I would have with the components is that the cardstock of the cards is a little thin. I'm not really a fan of sleeving cards, so cardstock is a bit more of an issue to me than some gamers. The cardstock is not terrible, per se, but it is not great either and definitely falls a little short behind everything else that is so well produced (though my wife has complained that not all of the scoring marker discs are uniform in size). I do, however, wonder how well the stock would hold up under many plays.


Playing the Game:

The game is definitely a tight and tense play. From your first move, you need to be planning towards the endgame if you want to maximize points from the bonus points you get in the Debates. In fact, the scoring is so deep and subtle, that it will probably take a few games before you can really grasp the consequences of it. For example, I may focus on the Debate Track, which is fine, but ultimately meaningless if the votes in the Assembly Room do not go my way and I win on Debates where the Factions are not well represented in the final Constitution. Similarly, I can focus on passing Articles and getting points from being on the winning side, only to be blind-sided by another player at the end scoring as they add up all of their bonus points from the Faction Markers they got from Debates. And all of this isn't even including the subtlety of trying to lose a vote in order to get points in the Committee Room and flip the Article to the side the benefits you the most.

Even if the subtle complexities take a while to fully grasp, the game is still an enjoyable trip along that path. However, experienced players will no doubt have a huge advantage over new players. This isn't just because the of a better grasp of scoring (though that is a factor), but because a foreknowledge of certain cards can be huge since you have a Draw Pool of three to choose from. You may not know what the specific Delegate and his corresponding event is, but you do get to see the state and faction of each card. For example, Luther Martin's ability is a persistent event that stop everyone from being able to use the Speak in Debate action for the rest of the round. Martin is an Anti-Federalist from Maryland, and I can use my reference chart to see that there are only 2 Anti-Federalists from Maryland. That being the case, if I want that event in my hand and I see there is an Anti-Federalist from Maryland in the Draw Pool, I know to grab it and I have a 50-50 chance of getting it. This ability also helps to narrow down what other players may be holding in their hands since you can see the backs of their cards.

This isn't a problem with the game overall, but it definitely does make it a bit more challenging for newer players against veterans. However, it also helps me to ready myself for when my wife is about to massacre me in points with Benjamin Franklin's ability, so the crushing blow is tempered just a bit.

The only other thing that strikes me as odd is that of the 12 Articles that come into play in the game, 3 come out Small State-biased and 3 come out Large State-biased, but 4 come out Federalist-biased and only 2 come out Anti-Federalist-biased. Now, ultimately this does not give any one player an advantage, since every player starts non-biased in Faction. However, since the game starts with 4 Articles passed, there is greater chance that every game will begin with more Federalist Articles already passed, giving favor to that Faction. Again, each player is then free to vie for control of whichever Factions they wish, but I am just curious as to why this was set up like this. I would think that since the end Constitution in the game is most likely not an exact replica anyhow, why you would not randomly choose the Faction-bias of each of the first four Articles which start the game. This ultimately does not detract from the game in the least or give anyone any advantage, but I am curious. Is it because there were more Federalist Delegates?


Scalability:

The game is listed for 3-5 players, but it plays fine with 2 players with no rule changes. This is a game with a lot of long-term planning and decisions to be made, however, so five-players can lead to a lot of downtime, especially for groups that have players who suffer from analysis paralysis. However, smaller groups minimize some of the wheeling and dealing that can be made throughout the game. There is no card trading or anything like that which occurs, but you may see that another player is holding New Hampshire which has yet to vote in Assembly. You could offer to place a card and remove your Influence Marker from a Debate Track you are battling with that player over if he will cast New Hampshire's vote for either Yea or Nay, whichever benefits you more.

However, even without the backdoor politicking with other players, the game scales well. In fact, I like having more influence over what is happening on the board and dealing with longer downtimes, so for me I think my sweet spot is three to four players. Two players is fine, but you miss the dynamics of having more than one rival. Five just reduces what you effect on the board while adding more downtime.


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. The more she likes a game, the more likely (and often) we will play it. Unfortunately, despite my wife being the first person to reply to my emails by signing her name "Pins, Jessica", she is not really a fan of Founding Fathers. I wouldn't say that she hates the game, but she will not ever suggest it and it is low on her list of "my" games that she will agree to play with me after I've built up enough gaming capital by playing "her" games.

Her feelings have nothing to do with her not getting the game. She has won every game that she has played through calculated planning, plotting and just a hint of luck combined with an uncanny ability to get a lot of Influence Markers early, lay a lot of votes and successfully draw the Benjamin Franklin card into her hand. Seriously, I'm nearing the point where I will draw every single Federalist Pennsylvanian from the Draw Pool to keep him out of her hands, as she has proven dangerous with him.

But ultimately, she's not a fan of the game. It is a little disappointing because I really enjoy the game and would like to see it hit the table more than her opinion will probably dictate.


The Pros:

*A very complex game with a lot of subtle long-term strategies that need to be considered.
*Beautiful components and board.
*Great and interesting historical information within the rules and the game itself.
*Tense and tight with many different ways to try to get points.
*Very deep game.
*Scales well.
*A political game that does not have fake coffee cup rings on the component artwork.
*An excellent history lesson. The rulebook and cards are an interesting rules beyond just determining the mechanics.
*It's fun being a cool, cool considerate man.


The Cons:

*Card stock is passable, but on the flimsy side.
*Five players results in a bit too much downtime and too little working the board.
*Subtle complexities gives new players a disproportionate disadvantage over veterans.
*Theme seems to be about obtaining personal glory in the process and less about trying to manage a fragile compromise to bring all of the states on board, since each Article will pass regardless.
*There are a few minor instances of mechanics detracting from theme, such as being regarded as both the best Federalist and the best Anti-Federalist debater in a round.


Overall:

Founding Fathers is an excellent, challenging historically based game. It does a fair job of masking game mechanics into simulating the politicking and manipulating of Delegates to get them to do what you want. The game is excellently produced and is absolutely stunning to look at with only a slightly weak card stock being the closest thing to a complaint on the components. The game scales well, but does ultimately have a sweet spot and multiple plays will be required to fully grasp the subtle scale of working points in the game. Even if the game feels less about the fragility of the Constitutional Convention and more like trying to gain recognition, it is an excitingly tense strategy game that has many different approaches to how to gain points. The history is rich and lush and incredibly fascinating to read and it helps to build into the entire gaming experience.


8.5/10