Reviewed by Herb Levy

(Victory Point Games, 1 player, ages 12 and up, about 40 minutes; $29.95)


It seems that every four years, timed to coincide with the real life election for President of the United States, election games miraculously appear, some good, some bad, some too horrible to be named. This election year runs true to form. Most election games (and I am tempted to say all) portray all of the states of the union to be “in play”, that is, the games give each candidate a realistic shot at capturing the electoral votes of every state. However, the reality of the last several years is that many states have “calcified”. For better or worse, most states will vote either Republican (the so-called “red” states) or Democratic (“blue” states) no matter what. As a result, election outcomes ride on what happens in a handful of the 50 states, states without a strong allegiance to either party, that can go either Democratic or Republican. These “swing states” are the focus for Swing States 2012 as, to win, a player needs to capture enough votes from these states to capture the White House.

Swing States 2012, designed by Wes Erni and Ben Madison, comes in a ziplock bag which holds a sheet of thick die-cut counters, two (almost sub-atomic sized) six sided dice (borrow a “real” pair of dice from some other game is our recommendation), several decks of cards, a play aid sheet (which doubles as a map of the United States) and a two-sided game board (the side used depending on whether you are playing the Democratic or Republican candidates for office) which is where most of the action takes place. Unlike nearly all other election games which are geared for two (or more) players, this is a solo game. So, already, the player is confronted with a decision. He must decide which party he wishes to control: Republicans or Democrats. You also need to build several card decks.swingstates2012front

The 16 Opposition Research cards are shuffled and placed face down to form the Opposition Research Deck. The 29 Inter-News Daily Headline Cards are shuffled, 12 counted out (the rest removed from play) and added to the 7 American Politics Headline cards to make a 20 card Event Deck. The 10 Campaign Watch cards are shuffled and placed face down to form the Reserve Deck.

The game board is similar to a bar graph with the bars representing five regions (South, North, Midwest, West and Border) and the player’s five two-sided Regional Strategy Markers are placed, Campaign side face up, in the boxes in each region framed by dashes. You then choose where you will hold your party’s convention and flip the Strategy Marker of that region to its, other, Advertising side. Your two-sided (USED and Available) Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominee markers are now placed (USED side up) in the same region. You begin with $2 and mark it on the Campaign Finances track on your player mat. Your War Chest begins at 0. Now the campaigning moves into gear.

The first phase of play is the Ready Phase which concerns your nominee markers. President and VP markers may be moved (MUST be moved if on their USED side) to a new location. At the end of this phase, any USED markers are flipped to their “Available” side. Now, the top card of the Event deck is flipped.

Event cards have multiple effects. Most of them will add money to your campaign. They may also reveal a headline and what the impact on the election of that headline can be. This impact is denoted by symbols including green triangles (raising your positives in a region and moving your marker up), red triangles (lowering positives in a region and moving your marker down), orange triangles (which may raise or lower positives depending on whether or not you “own” the economy and, by definition, the party in power “owns” the economy). Events can also move the opposition candidates to a region and even trigger a scandal!

Positive effects raise your Regional Strategy Markers in the appropriate regions while negatives lower them but if your Strategy Marker is in Campaign mode, you can try to deflect negative consequences via a die roll. Rolls of 6 are always successful; rolls of 1 always fail. But if you don’t roll a natural 6 or 1, your apply modifiers if possible (a scandal marker in that region, for example, reduces you roll by 1). If you VP nominee is in that region, you can roll two dice and pick either number. If the number rolled is equal to or greater than the number on your marker, you have avoided the negatives and your marker doesn’t move. There is a possible exception though. Opposition markers depict certain dice rolls. If there is one in that particular regions and your unmodified roll matches one of those numbers, you automatically fail! (If you have rolled an odd number, regardless of modifiers, you MUST flip your marker to its Advertising side.)

Several cards in the Event deck will trigger debates. A drawn debate Event card indicates that a debate is coming. Events on the card are not immediately resolved. Instead, the card remains face up on the Event deck with two cards from the RESERVE deck placed face down on top of it. That new top card is now revealed and resolved. On the following turn, however, before the remaining Event card is turned over, the player must decide if he will prepare his candidate for the upcoming debate.

Debate preparation is a simple action. During the Ready phase, a player may move his Presidential or VP nominee token to the Debate Preparation Box on his mat. You may opt for full or partial preparation. In either case, as long as the marker is there, it may not be moved or used in any other way until after the debate. Debate performance is critical because the that is the major way to get money for your campaign.

For a debate, the Opposition marker is moved to the Holding Box (if it is elsewhere in the playing area) and you roll the dice. If it’s a Presidential debate, you roll one die. If you did partial preparation, you roll 2 dice and if you are fully prepared, you roll 3 dice. The highest number rolled is the amount of money added to the campaign. The VP debate is handled a little differently. For the VP debate, 2 dice are rolled and the LOWER number is the amount received in money for the campaign. With partial preparation, only one die is rolled, with full prep, two dice are rolled but you get the HIGHER number in campaign cash. With Event cards (and debates) resolved, the player can put his money to work by taking actions.swingstates2012pcs

There are plenty of possible actions, all useful but (most) actions cost money. You may advertise in a region where your marker is in Advertising mode (for $1) by rolling a die. A number greater than the “Resistance Value” (shown prominently on your Regional Marker) moves your marker up one space. Fail and it stays where it is. For $1, you can flip a Regional Marker from one side to the other. For another $1, you can move your President or VP marker to another region (to use its die roll modifying abilities). There are other options available but the most expensive are Conducting Opposition Research and Fundraising.

Your Presidential or VP nominee may move to Campaign Headquarters and buy the top card of the Opposition Research deck for $2. This is, in effect, a blind draw. These cards may or may not be helpful to you. (Some, for example, remove opposing candidates from an area thereby increasing the odds for your action in a region to be successful). Or you can spend $2 for Fund Raising which allows you to move your War Chest marker one space ahead to significantly increase the amount of money available for use in a future turn. But if money is tight, you can always take out a loan for $1. Loans are repaid by having either Nominee’s marker at Campaign Headquarters and spending $1. (You can never have more than one loan at a time). It is also good to remember that you cannot save money from turn to turn. No more than $1 may be left on your Campaign Financing Track at the end of the turn.

When the last Event card has been played, the game is in the “Home Stretch”. Remaining cards in the Reserve Deck are shuffled and played as though they were Event cards. At this point in the game, money becomes even tighter since Reserve cards do not adds money to your campaign coffers. This is when the importance of your War Chest becomes paramount and the difference between being able to drive home your campaign to victory or flail helplessly as the election slips away from you. When the deck of cards have been gone through, it is now Election Night and it’s time to see how successful your campaign has been.

You win all the states that are below your Strategy Marker In each Region, States above your marker go to the Opposition. If you marker in on a state’s space (or if your marker is in Advertising mode, the states above and below your marker too), are “up for grabs”. These “toss up” states are resolved through a single modified (including +1 if the state is your base color [red or blue], -1 if it’s the color of the Opposition etc.) die roll. A result of 1, 2 or 3 means you lose that state; 4, 5 or 6 and the state is yours. (The 1 always fails and 6 always wins rule, however, is still in effect.) With the winner in all states determined, electoral votes are totaled.

When the game began, both Democrats and Republicans had “guaranteed” votes. Since to be president, you need a total of 270 (or more) electoral votes, you need 169 more votes if you are Republican or 95 more votes if you are Democrat to add to your already “guaranteed” amount, to win the game, If you’ve met or exceeded your required number, you are victorious. Otherwise, the Opposition has won control of the White House for the next four years.

Swing States 2012 allows for a basic game where generic candidates go head to head but it also provides a host of candidate cards of real, current, politicos and contenders for the Presidency. All of the big names are there: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and more so you can construct you own “dream ticket” if you like. Add a plus for prescience to the designers for including Paul Ryan so players can construct the actual 2012 Republican ticket of Romney-Ryan if so desired. Other election variants are offered as well.

The game recognizes today’s political realities: states seemingly irrevocably committed to one party or the other, swing states being pivotal in the election, money and funding being critical, scandal, the power of debates – all contributing to the game’s sense of reality. Capturing all these nuances results in a lot of icons being used: triangles in different colors, circles in different colors, lightning bolts etc. Also, some of the concepts are a little counter-intuitive. For example, you tend to think of campaigning as an aggressive action but here Campaign mode is defensive, a counterbalance to Advertising which IS offense. Digesting all of this can require several plays. Fortunately, the rulebook covers everything (with examples) and the play mat also serves as a valuable play aid clearly listing what Presidential and VP nominees can do and where they can do it as well as listing (and concisely explaining) available actions and their costs. This saves a lot of time in minimizing rulebook consults during play. Graphics are good particularly the use of a bar graph type of game board that vividly captures the rise and fall of campaign fortunes. Planning the campaign is also challenging since all Event cards are not used in a game. As a result, it is impossible to know for sure what is coming and insures that games have variety. The heavy reliance on die rolling can be a little frustrating as you can easily blame the loss of a state on bad luck but even that simulates the power of unforeseen circumstances that can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat or turn a win into a loss in the blink of an eye.

Swing States 2012 is a full bodied foray into the power politics of presidential elections. Every turn offers decisions to make and sudden events can require changes in plans that can be costly in time and money. Playing against the game system can be tough. It is, in fact, like most presidential elections: hard hitting, challenging, demanding and unpredictable – all of which makes for a first rate election game.- – – – Herb Levy


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