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Politics as Usual


Politic games are a hit and miss with me. Either they are too complicated and mathematical (think: Road to the Whitehouse) or too politically charged with no game behind them (Campaign Secrets). Politics as Usual(One Small Step, Inc., 2005 - Dan Verssen) attempts to skirt the area between these two extremes. Using recent American politicians, like Bush, Nader, and Clinton, the game makes fun of all politicians fairly equally, while essentially being an auction game.

Despite slightly sketchy rules and a possible runaway leader problem, Politics as Usual is actually quite fun. The first game I played we were a little confused, but after a closer examination of the rules, my subsequent games went much better. There are a lot of laughs as players roleplay up their actions; but even without these, it's still a decent game. There may be too much luck and character imbalance for some people, but for me, it's one of the few political games I've played that acts as both a filler and has thought behind it.

Each player takes one of eight Presidential candidates: Republican (G.W. Bush, A. Schwartzeneger, R. Reagan), Democrat (H. Clinton, B. Clinton, or J. Kerry), or Independent (R. Nader, H. R. Perot). Each candidate comes with one to four "favor" tokens and has a special ability. A pile of issue cards is shuffled and placed face down on the table, after four of them are randomly removed from the game. Another pile of campaign cards is shuffled, with seven dealt to each player, and the remaining forming a deck. One player is chosen to go first and becomes the "Speaker".

In each round, the Speaker flips over the top card of the Issue Deck. Each issue is worth one to five votes (sometimes negative), and may have a special ability associated with it (i.e. Education states the "the winner draws two extra cards"). The Speaker may decide to "sidestep" the issue by discarding the indicated number of cards from their hand (zero, one or two), placing the issue at the bottom of the deck and drawing the next issue card. Once the Speaker is satisfied with the current issue, the round begins, with the Speaker starting and play proceeding clockwise.

On a player's turn, they can either play a card or pass. There are three different types of cards:
- Momentum (blue) cards: These cards can be played face up in front of any candidate. Each card has a polling number (from one to seven) and a special ability. The card can be played for its number OR ability, not both.
- Slander cards (red): These cards are played against opponents (or even one's own candidate occasionally), doing some kind of nasty deed. (i.e. "Discard one of another player's Momentum cards", or "Target must Freeze three cards".) If a card is even "frozen", it is turned face down and is out of the round; but the player gets it returned to their hand at the end of the round.
- Edge (green) cards: These cards produce some kind of effect, and many of them can cancel or redirect a slander card played by an opponent.
Players continue the round until all players have passed consecutively. Players may make deals with one another, betray one another, etc. Players may give favor tokens to the other players as part of a deal. Favor tokens do nothing for the originating player; but if received from another player, count as a vote towards the end of the game. Once all players have passed, they compare their polling points, and the player with the highest wins the issue, taking it and placing it behind their candidate. In case of a tie, the player closest to the Speaker wins (except if G. Bush is involved - his special ability allows him to win all ties.) All players draw two cards from the deck with the winner drawing three.

The "advanced" rules (required in my opinion) give bonuses to players depending on their party affiliation. If a player plays a momentum card that has the corresponding background of their party, they get two extra polling points. If an issue card enters play that has their political affiliation, then they draw two additional cards.

Once the last issue is resolved, players add up their votes on the issues they've won, plus any favor chips they've received from opponents. The player with the most votes is the winner of the game!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: The favor chips in the game are small poker style chips, in red white and blue colors, and stack easily on each other. The cards have excellent satirical artwork on them, making everyone look equally foolish. The background of the different political parties is not only a different color, but also has different symbols, making them easy to distinguish one from another. The cards are decent quality and rattle around in the long, thin box - an inset would have been nice.

2.) Rules: The rulebook is eight pages long and isn't very clear in all situations. It took me a while to figure out momentum cards could be played on components, that a player could pass and still play, and other niggly details. Yes, after comparing different sections of the rules together - I figured it out. But it could have been laid out better. Still, once I got past this murkiness, I was able to explain the game to others fairly easily, and it's not a difficult game at all to play.

3.) Advanced Rules: I really like the additional strategy that the advanced rules add to the game. Now players have a wider variety of options in their hand - some cards are worth more, simply because they are the same political affiliation as that card. Republicans get more out of Fund Raisers, independents out of Mass Mailings, and Democrats out of Celebrity Support. There are also some optional rules, allowing a player to run a no-name candidate, or the landslide rule (a player automatically wins if they get 10 more votes than any other player). The landslide rule should always be played with, I think. Coming back from behind ten votes is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible with the remaining issue cards. So why continue to play the game? One of the problems with the game I saw also in High Society, in which a player can possibly know about halfway through the game that they have no chance in winning. In High Society, that is countered with a clever rule. There's no counter for it in Politics as Usual, and some players may not wish to play through the last several issues if they don't have a chance.

4.) Negotiation: Negotiation, however, can prevent any one player from getting too far ahead. In the games I've played players seem to initially align with the other candidates of the same party (theme, I guess?); but depending on who is winning, the players quickly change their allegiances. If a player helps/doesn't help a player at certain points in the game, that can invite reprisals. Players can threaten other players with slander cards or sweet talk them with their favor chips. Either way, there is often a lot of wheeling and dealing going on.

5.) Luck: All of this negotiation can offset the luck of the draw, but not as much as some people might like. A player can draw great cards and simply be in a very good condition. Fortunately, many of the "Edge" cards can take down the most powerful of other cards, so luck doesn't give too big of an advantage.

6.) Know when to hold 'em: One of the cool features of the game is that a player simply cannot win every issue. Since players draw at most three cards each round - if they spend more than that, they will eventually run out of cards. This makes hoarding a viable option and allows players to wait until a more important issue comes along. And just how many cards are you willing to spend to win (or quite possibly lose) an issue? The only problem I have with this mechanic is that there is one card that allows players to switch hands - negating any hoarding strategies. Therefore, I personally remove this card from the deck - it's just not worth playing.

7.) Characters: The characters have special abilities that tend to be a bit negative. (i.e. George Bush wins ties, Perot has deep pockets, Kerry flip flops, etc.) As long as everyone in the game has a good attitude and plays with almost a satirical bend, the game goes great. Politics as Usual is NOT trying to make a political statement; those who are searching for a hidden message won't find it here. The characters' special abilities do not seem to all be equal - Reagan's ability to draw a card any time a slander card is played against him seems to be very powerful - but none of them are game-breaking (at least, in my experience).

8.) Fun Factor: If all players can take the theme in the lightness that it was intended, then the game will go over well. In the games I've played, people role-played their character, even slipping into the caricatures often portrayed of these people. Issues bounce around like hot potatoes; and it's a fun, light game, taking about 45 minutes.

If you're looking for a satirical political game that's fun, then Politics as Usual is a good bet. It's not an accurate depiction of the presidential race, but neither is it trying to do so. It's simply an auction game with negotiation and "screwage" factors thrown in. Without the theme, the game would still be a decent, fairly light game. With the theme, it's a lot of fun. Yes the rules are ambiguous in places, and bad luck and negotiation can hurt players at times. But it's fun.

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"

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