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ELECTION USA

[In kicking off our 19th year, we’re pleased to welcome a new voice to our pages but no stranger to the gaming scene: Ben Baldanza.

Ben has been playing and collecting games since playing card games with his family as a child. Ben plays regularly with gamers in the Washington, DC area, and also teaches introductory board game classes through local adult education programs in the Northern Virginia area. He also is a regular contributor of reviews and articles for Counter Magazine. Ben’s wife, Marcia, is also an avid gamer and as a school principal has found innovative and productive ways to bring board games into the school curriculum.

In keeping up with the times and the upcoming 2004 US Presidential election, Ben has turned his eye to a new election game: Election USA.]

(Mongoose Publishing, 3-4 players, ages 12 and up, 30-60 minutes; $24.95)

 

Oh, to be a Republican! In Election USA, designed by Martin Wallace (whose most recent release, Princes of the Renaissance, appeared in the Winter 2004 GA REPORT), each player is a Republican fighting for his party’s Presidential nomination. There is no special purpose to this theme, other than it allows for more fun and cynicism in the flavorful text on the cards. The game is about getting the most votes in six different geographic regions of the US, and you get those votes by advertising effectively. Of course, effective advertising requires both relevant policy positions and money.electionusa

The board shows the US divided into six regions, and each region shows its victory point value for first, second, and third majority position at game end. The game is played using a deck of special cards, and on most turns a player will put one of 10 face-up cards into play. The face-up cards are lined up around the board, and any one can be chosen on a turn. There are three primary card types in the game:

“Policy Cards” trigger an auction for the right to bring pawns from a reserve into play. These pawns can then hopefully later be placed onto the board using Advertising Cards. Policy Cards are won using a once-around auction for “Sincerity Points”. Like other Wallace games, there are two currencies in Election USA : money and sincerity. Everyone starts with a little of each.
“Advertising Cards” trigger an “in-the-fist” auction using money. Usually both the high and second high bidder win the right to place pawns into the area designated by the advertising card. Of course, these pawns must be available from either the initial stock or from those won with the Policy Cards.

“Fund Raising Cards” raise money, usually one amount to the player who takes the card and a smaller amount to everyone else.

After a card is chosen and played, it is replaced from the draw deck. This can bring a few more card types into play. If a “Journalist Card” is drawn, the player who drew it must immediately pay some sincerity points or take a “Skeleton Card”. If they pay the fee, the card is passed to the next player who must make the same choice. “Blackmail Cards” are like Journalist Cards, except that the bribe paid is with money instead of sincerity. The “Skeleton Card” taken if the bounty is not paid usually requires the removal of pawns from the board or other payments but a few are directly helpful too.other feature of Martin Wallace games is multiple end conditions and Election USA can end in one of three ways: someone places all of their pawns, someone takes their fourth Skeleton Card (most common), or the card deck runs out. When scoring happens, a critical feature comes into play: within each area, all tied numbers of pawns are removed before the scoring! So, if green and red have each played four pawns into one region, and yellow has only one, all the green and red pawns are removed before the scoring and yellow will take first place in that region.electionUSAboard

The game has some very nice features. The card play is quick, and the flavorful text on the cards makes for good fun and helps give the game its tongue-in-cheek attitude. The two different auction mechanisms, for both Policy and Advertising cards, are clever. The once-around sincerity bid for Policies is really a bit more: the start player makes the first and the last bid. So, when you take a Policy card, you can be assured of winning it if you have enough sincerity relative to everyone else and are willing to spend it. Since sincerity is tracked on a public table, bids for Policy cards can be quite strategic. The Advertising cards are bid in-the-fist with money, but the maximum bid is seven. Also, most Advertising cards allow both the first and second high players to place pawns – more to the winner, of course. But, you must bid at least three in order to place the higher number. These two constraints make for some certainty – pick the card, bid seven, and you’re sure to win – but more often results in a tough decision since money is always tight (another Wallace trademark).

Money is earned using the Fund Raising cards; players can try to gain sincerity instead of choosing one of the 10 face-up cards. To do this, they draw a card from the deck and add sincerity equal to the number on the card which will range from 0-3. In a cruel twist, if a Journalist or Blackmail card is drawn, it must be resolved. So it is possible that in an attempt to gain sincerity, you gain little or none yet will be forced to pay sincerity else take a Skeleton card. The Skeleton cards offer a very subtle strategy, too. Typically the cards require the removal of previously placed pawns. But, this can at times be helpful by breaking a tie and ensuring that the remaining pawns actually score before removal. The “tied removal” feature of the scoring adds a lot of strategy, including which Advertising cards to select and how to bid (you may want your opponent to win to force a tie). Selecting the cards is also not formulaic: money is always good, but taking Advertising as described or when some other players have no pawns can also be crucial, as can taking Policies when you have a defined sincerity advantage.

The game can break down in a few ways. Money is tight, so typically Fund Raising cards are taken as soon as they appear. If there is a dry spot and people have been generous in their bids, the other auctions can be predetermined. The limit on bidding adds some strategy but also can feel futile since the win can be assured. The satirical text makes the game fun in the first few plays, but after that the game must stand on its strategic merit and in this way, it is worth a few plays but won’t offer much replayability.

Overall, this is a nice “middleweight” offering from Martin Wallace and Mongoose and perfectly fitting for its release time. The game will force you to think, but it’s no brain-burner, and more often you’ll just wish you had a little more money or a better card selection. Given that this comes from a publisher not known for this kind of strategy game and comes quietly from an otherwise celebrated designer, Election USA is a nice find and a great end to a gaming evening. – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Ben Baldanza


 

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