Published on September 16th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen0
Hot On the Campaign Trail
Campaign Trail is Now on Kickstarter
Ah, America’s favorite national past time: politics. The Presidential election is the epitome of American culture. What happens when you mix regionalism, clashing ideologies, millions of advertising dollars, team sports, game theory, and a 24 hour news cycle? The media sensation of the year!
Campaign Trail captures the race for the presidency very well, by embracing the election process as an area control game. Campaign Trail is very accessible in terms of rules- if you know how the United States electoral college works (and which states are worth more “points”) then you already know 90% of what you need to play this game.
I would heartily recommend Campaign Trail for anyone with an interest in politics, or anyone looking to learn or teach how the presidential election process works in the United States. This would be a great game for schools, or a game to get a student you know. Campaign Trail’s rules are simple and straight forward, but the strategies you need to use in order to win present a real challenge.
All the world’s a game, and we, merely players
Campaign Trail is a great representation of game systems in politics, and being able to point to the game and say “this is how government actually works” is a tool for good. Giving people an understanding of which states are more important to sway in order to win gives context to a lot of the talk you get from the media. The more context you have for the information you get, the better you’ll be about processing that data, and the more informed your decisions will be.
I find that knowing basic politics makes jumping into Campaign Trail for the first time very approachable. When Nicole and I played a team game with friends, I made sure to outline the typical “big state” strategy. Campaign Trail has mechanics that directly address the big state strategy (“power states”) but it doesn’t outline the general strategy in the rule book. Some talk of real world strategies based on electoral college votes wouldn’t go amiss.
The basic run down is that California and Texas are the states worth the most “points”, and after that players need to worry about Florida, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania. To win, you need 270 electoral college votes. California alone is worth 55, Texas is 38, Florida and New York are both 29 and Illinois and Pennsylvania are both 20. Those states by themselves are 191 points, so it makes sense to go after those areas when you can.
Though the politically savvy might have a leg up at first, Campaign Trail is actually easy to learn and pick up by those new to both politics and board games. Each turn you play a card from your hand, choosing one of the actions represented and completing it. There are six total action types, but any given card has a max of four actions listed on it.
After you do your action, you draw a card. That’s it! You can plan your turn during your opponent’s turn so the game goes very quickly, even during a four player team match. Though if you’re playing teams, I’d recommend enforcing some sort of limit on planning between partners. Some above-the-board strategizing is okay, but this can spiral into taking really long turns.
These action types represent all the actions a candidate might possibly need to implement during their campaign: Advertising, Campaigning, Fundraising, Registering Voters or Travelling (there is also a grab bag “special power” action). Because not all actions are represented on every card, some cards are much more valuable than others. Analysis paralysis gamers, beware- there are a lot of available options on your turn.
The actions roughly break down into: move, get influence cubes from the bank, get money from the bank, spend money to place influence cubes on the board (two different ways), and a grab bag special power action. The two ways to put your influence cubes on the board are Campaigning (put them near where your meeple is located) or Advertising (put them on every state that shares a certain issue).
Donkeys, Elephants and Eagles, Oh My
Three “factions” are represented in game: Democrats (blue cubes), Republicans (red cubes) and Independents (white cubes). In a 2 player game, it’s Democrats vs Republicans. A 3 player games adds the Independents to the mix. In a 4 or 6 player game, players will form teams to represent the different factions.
Campaign Trail feels slightly different across all the different modes of play. We found enough players to play the 2, 3 and 4 player versions of Campaign Trail and each mode had its own pros and cons. I personally preferred the 3 player format, and found the addition of the Independents to the game greatly enhanced the experience.
Having the Independents in play changes traditional assumptions about which party wins certain states. This had the effect of making it harder for me to predict problem spots on the board, and so I found the set up to be more interesting. However, due to needing to be a balanced game, I found that this largely negates any accuracy to party lines that the actual process has.
Debate and Conquer
The basics of politics is simplified by having states hold a single important issue, except for the more populous states which have 2-3 issues. The way the issues are distributed is purely based off of mechanical considerations, and doesn’t necessarily map to reality in a meaningful way. The themes used in the issues were relevant though, and at some point mechanical issues have to be addressed.
That’s why I tell myself I can’t get irritated that California shares a region with Alaska but not Arizona, Nevada or Oregon. But Alaska doesn’t share a region with Washington, even though one of our major trade routes as a port region is the supply chain to/from Alaska, and… I could go on, but like I said, it doesn’t matter to the game.
The game is divided into three large phases. At the end of the first 2 phases there will be a debate. The debate portion of the game is very simple and really tests how well you remembered to keep cards in hand that had the issues needed for the debate.
Just as in real life, unless you have the slick-talking candidate who ignores the topics, the debate section is very underwhelming. Thankfully, most other candidates are in the same boat. It is impossible to know which of the 8 topics up for debate your opponent will play and if you can follow their action or not.
A Balanced Political System?
I have to say that after three games of Campaign Trail, I haven’t come across much imbalance. When you’re first starting out there might be a huge swing in one direction, but by the time the last card hits, it’s always been close. Upsets can and do happen, and the final turn of the game encourages those kinds of victories.
Campaign Trail is a fun, fast paced, light game with a lot of replay value. It plays from 2 – 6 people and is incredibly accessible and well balanced. The genre appeals to me, and I love that people could learn to see the political process in a different way from playing it.