Published on March 30th, 2015 | by Luke Turpeinen0
To Form a More Perfect Union
A review of Democracy by Mark Rein-Hagen
As soon as I saw Mark Rein-Hagen’s name on the box, I knew I had to play Democracy. Together with Jonathon Tweet (D&D 3E, 13th Age) Mark created the tabletop RPG Ars Magica before producing his most famous work: Vampire the Masquerade. At some point there was a falling out with White Wolf and Mark left, later selling his shares when the company was bought out by video game makers CCP. During this time he’s been out of the table top spotlight, until the launch of the Democracy Kickstarter campaign.
Democracy itself is a bit different than other games that we play. It’s ostensibly an auction game with “economy of action” gatekeeping mechanics placed around the rules. On the surface you just have to get more of your cubes into various spaces on the board which, if you have more cubes than anyone else there, gives you the ability to either get more cubes or more currency (in this game called political capital). Simple right?
Expect Democracy isn’t just what it is on the surface. Just like our government has protocols and systems that are nowhere to be found in the official rules (the Constitution) because of the way we’ve organized our parties, the way the media reports on the doings of the government, national tradition and many other reasons. There are theoretically two main political parties in the US but in reality they are large coalition parties without explicit representation of all the smaller factions vying for control. Democracy is a game that explores that underbelly of government.
This is definitely a game you want to play with 4 or 5 players, no matter what the box says. Three players makes the game way too lopsided, four players makes the two parties really balanced and cut throat and five players makes for the perfect mix of stability and upset.
The issue that you’re balancing is the inevitability of the two party system in a democracy not specifically built to subvert it. Here’s a video that explains it much better than I ever could. Democracy knows this and uses it to the game’s advantage. The rules tell you how to put the pieces on the board, but the real power play is making alliances with your other players. If there is a three-way battle for control over the Media, for instance, two players can form a coalition in that space. That means that they add their cubes together there for purposes of taking control. But only one person can get the power card, so they have to choose between them who it will be.
Throughout the game players will also be voting on bills going to congress, those bills always give cubes to someone and take cubes away from someone- if the bill is passed. Sometimes the bills are focused on sniping at certain political parties (ie specific players) and other times they snipe certain parts of the political system (ie the President, Activists) which are power cards you get for controlling certain areas of the board.
Some of these bills are “Order” laws that regulate or clamp down on crime, while others are “Unrest” laws that seek to promote personal liberty or change to the establishment. If more Unrest laws are passed than Order laws, at the end of the game all points accumulated before final scoring are dumped, and only end game scoring counts.
The game automatically drives player conflict because while the Liberty faction sees eye-to-eye with the Change and Tradition parties when it comes time to pass laws, it is always the opponent of Regulate. But Tradition and Regulate gain the most from Order bills, so it’s in their best interest to gain a lot of points early- while the Change and Liberty cards gain more from Unrest, so they don’t have to worry about their in-game score as much.
Most of what makes this game fun for me is playing as Liberty, allying with Tradition for most of the game, then at the end switching to a hard ally with Change to push Unrest and upset all of the Order parties’ winnings. Democracy is a great game to play with friends, but it’s also an educational activity and I would not hesitate to donate several copies to local schools. Not only is it fun, it’s a wonderful tool for examining how it feels to actually run the cogs of a political machine from the comfort of your dining room table.
A Voice from the Regulate Party
“All for one and one for all.”
As a two-time opponent to Luke’s freedom-loving Liberty party, I felt it necessary to add my two cents to our review of Democracy. From the perspective of the Regulate party, Democracy is a very different game. Their party values align with having a strong community and a respect for federal authority and process. Naturally, the Regulate Party looks to control the Bureaucracy which is a powerful institution of control and order if used effectively. The Bureaucracy ability, Red Tape, allows the player to instill a turn order when the Promotions phase begins. I learned too late of the importance of this ability. By forcing everyone else to promote their supporters before your turn, a player can see where opponents are moving their supporters before committing any of their own.
I am a competitive gamer but I tend to play cautiously and avoid direct conflict in games. I often follow a strategy where I avoid the most fought after territories or spaces and look to win by alternative avenues. This ‘playing from the shadows’ technique doesn’t tend to work well in games with shifting alliances and other mechanics in semi-cooperative games; and Democracy is no exception. There can be up to 5 players each fighting for their own ideals- many of which overlap with ideals of the other players.
Even though Democracy’s gameplay wasn’t as intuitive or as fun for me as I would have hoped, I appreciate the casual simulation of political struggle and drive put into a board game format. Democracy is a complex game of opportunity. To win, players must make tenuous alliances with their opponents and must be ever vigilant and aggressive when implementing their power and voice. Between voting, promoting and nominating, there are multiple ways to work together and work against each other in game. Part of the struggle in learning Democracy is understanding just how your actions will affect you and the other players. I was definitely more comfortable with my decisions after a couple playthroughs.