Reviewed by Herb Levy
WATERGATE (Capstone Games/Frosted Games, 2 players, ages 12 and up, 30-60 minutes; $35)
In the June heat of 1972, in the midst of a presidential election as Richard Nixon sought a second term as President, there was a break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters with five men arrested. These arrests proved to be the tip of the iceberg and reporters from the Washington Post began to dig into what was behind the break-in. Their investigation uncovered one of the greatest scandals in the history of the United States, leading to the first resignation of a President. All of this because of a burglary at the hotel that ever since has had its name linked to scandal: Watergate.
In this new 2 player Matthias Cramer design, one player assumes the role of a newspaper editor; the other, the role of the Nixon administration (aka Nixon). Each player takes their own set of 20 cards (which becomes their individual draw decks) plus a Momentum card. The board looks like something seen on television crime shows: a suspect (in this case, President Nixon), linked by lines (sort of a hexagonal beehive) and colored sections (blue, green and yellow) to 7 potential informants found on the edges of the board. A pool of those 7 informants is put off board while all of the evidence tiles (blue, green and yellow – and some dual colored) are tossed into the supplied (but rather thin) bag. A research track is also found on the board with a 0 at its center and 1 to 5 steps leading towards both players. A white Initiative marker and a red Momentum marker are placed at 0.
Game play begins with the Nixon player drawing 3 evidence tiles from the bag and placing them, face down, on the 0 spot on the research track. (Nixon may look at them but the Editor may not.), each player drawing either 4 or 5 cards from their deck. (The player with Initiative – at the beginning, that is Nixon – draws the 5.)
Each card in the game has two parts to it: a “value” and an “action”. On a turn, a player MUST play one card from his/her hand, invoking either its value or action. The value part of the card show as number (from 1 to 4) and a color evidence token. If using the number, a player may move the Initiative OR the Momentum marker that many spaces towards them. If dealing with evidence, the Nixon player may move an evidence token that matches the color of the token shown on the card towards him (and flips over the moved token). If the Editor is trying to uncover evidence, then the Editor must state a color he is looking for. If that color is there, that token flips and advances towards him/her. If not, then that value must be applied to either the Initiative or Momentum token. If, at any time, a token reaches space 5 on any player’s board, that token is gained by that player immediately! (No more “tug of war” for it occurs.) The Action part of the card works a little differently.
Three types of Actions are found in the decks: Events, Conspirators (Nixon’s deck only) and Journalists (Editor’s deck only). Events are one-shot deals; once used they are removed from the game. Events, for example, will place potential informants on the board. When played by the Editor, they go face up and are available to be used to link evidence to Nixon; when played by Nixon, they go face down to stymie the investigation. (The major source of the Watergate investigation, Deep Throat, is represented by a card that will put a face down informant back into the pool so the Editor gets another chance at mining this potential link.) Other Events can shift the position of Initiative, Momentum and Evidence tokens. Conspirators and Journalist can also shift tokens and, in some cases, block the play of the other player. Once all cards have been played, the research track is consulted.
Any evidence token still at 0 is removed from the track and returned to the bag. The player with the Initiative token on his/her side receives the Initiative (and the 5 card draw) for the following turn. (If at 0, then whoever did NOT have Initiative that round gets it now.) The red Momentum token goes to the player it is closest to and is placed on that player’s Momentum card. (If still at 0, it is removed from play.) The Initiative and a new Momentum token are put at 0 for the next round. Now the evidence begins to pile up.
Any Evidence tile on the Editor’s side of the research track is now placed, face up, on the board in a matching colored space. The goal is to link the central space of Nixon to any TWO of the informants found on the board’s perimeter. Do that and the Editor wins! But every Evidence tile on the Nixon side of the research track is also placed on the board in a matching colored space – except it is placed FACE DOWN! A face down tile BLOCKS any potential connection that runs through it. This is why filling up the Momentum card is important for the Editor. When the Editor gets 3 (and then 4 and then 5) Momentum tokens, they can place new evidence, even flip over a turned down tile! But this is also critical for Nixon. If Nixon gets a fifth Momentum token, Nixon WINS!
The struggle, for each side, is a tough one. It is not easy to take down a President – nor should it be. This makes the Editor’s search for evidence that much harder. It is critical that the Editor get as many potential informants onto the board as soon as possible. Nixon will try to do the same thing but putting those informants in a face down position makes it next to impossible to connect the informant to the center of the board. (While it is possible to remove a flipped over informant, it is not easy and Nixon can also achieve Victory if he can get all the informants on the board face down OR arrange evidence so that active informants are blocked from making any connections to the center space.)
Watergate uses the dual nature card concept where each card has a built in choice to play it one way or another. This duality in political themed games is not new, having been used in games such as Twilight Struggle (Spring 2006 Gamers Alliance Report) and, in more American-centric examples, The Making of the President 1960 (with a Nixon tie-in, featured in the Fall 2017 GA Report) and at least as far back as the classic presidential election game originally published by 3M in the 1960s: Mr. President. Here, if the value part is used, the card can be recycled but, in most cases as in some (but not all) of these predecessors, if the Event part is used, it is gone!
As in real life, Watergate is filled with tension as the tug of war over Momentum, Initiative and Evidence is unrelenting. The game also manages to convey the feel of the actual events well. (There is a section of the rules offering a succinct history of the Watergate Scandal and the important figures involved that helps bring the game to life, an excellent vehicle for conveying the history for those of us too young to remember. )
The upheaval that was the Watergate scandal shook the foundation of the United States. The twists and turns, the power struggles, were unlike anything that had come before, as evidence was uncovered, culminating in the resignation of a President. The game Watergate captures that time and its suspense as players, for better or worse, follow the trail of evidence to its conclusion. But as far as the game is concerned, the evidence is in: Watergate is a winner! – – – – – – Herb Levy
Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.
Other Fall 2019 GA Report articles