Tammany Hall (2nd edition)
Publisher: Pandasaurus Games
Designer: Doug Eckhart
Number of Players: 3-5
Play Time: 60-90 minutes
Release Date: February 2013
Where to get it: CoolStuffInc or Amazon.com
A few years ago when I first started to get heavy into board games I scoured sites like BoardGameGeek.com constantly for information on games and read up a lot on lists and things trying to figure out what games I was interested in. I remember Tammany Hall (first published by StrataMax Games in 2007) being one of these “grail” games, one that had a limited print run and seemingly only people who had been to certain important conventions or paid a tidy sum to the former owned. I did not know enough about it for it to be a grail game for me, but what I did hear was that the game had a lot of positive reviews and respect. Back then, I was quite susceptible to “hype”, that magic force of group-think where excitement builds about a game and makes a lot of people buy it or at least want it. I mention hype because ever since then Tammany Hall has seemed like some legendary game that I will probably never play and certainly never own, it’s renown was such that I just let it belong to that class of games like Magic Realm and Merchants of Venus (pre-reprint) that I will never own and probably never play because of their rarity.
And then, lo, there was a reprint. Thanks to Kickstarter and Pandasaurus Games, Tammany Hall has seen a second printing. The campaign succeeded on June 16th, 2012 with $151,483 pledged. Suddenly thousands of new copies of the game were going to appear in the world, and I would get one. I, like many other people, am a bit cautious with Kickstarter. That is why this was my first ever Kickstarter pledge, and only one of two that I have made to-date. I backed the project mainly because the game had already been published, already had critical acclaim, and I figured this would be a rare chance to own this game without paying a premium. As a bonus, the stretch goals included upgraded components, which is always nice. So…is it all it was cracked up to be?
Tammany Hall is a game about political manipulation of immigrant populations in lower Manhattan during the “Boss Tweed” era, roughly 1860s. William “Boss” Tweed was a politician and businessman who was eventually imprisoned for all kinds of schemes involving corruption and money. So, in this game each player is likewise a manipulator, one who is looking to use their influence with various immigrants living in Manhattan to affect votes in the various wards that the area is broken up into. The player who wins the most wards gets to be mayor, and then gets to bestow offices on the other players. In the end, the player with the most victory points wins, and then you can smoke a cigar and wear a top hat.
Victory points are tight in this game. Being elected mayor gets you a nice three-point bonus, but you also need to win lots of wards as each ward you win nets you one point (the ward where Tammany Hall is located gets you 2 points). At the end of the game, you get two points if you have the most favor chips of one immigrant group, so there are eight possible points there as there are four groups. In my first game of this I think the winning score was in the mid-teens, so that means that even one point is worth fighting for. The game is played over the course of four terms, each of which consists of four years. Each year is one round of the game where each player takes one action. The actions are very easy: either you place two of your ward boss pawns on the board or you place one immigrant cube from Castle Garden (where available immigrant cubes are placed) and one ward boss. If you place an immigrant cube, you get to take a favor chip of that group’s color. Favor chips are used at the end of the term when there is an election, and are bid secretly in addition to your ward boss pawns to decide who wins a ward. In addition to the mayoral election at the end of the term, each player will be determined an immigrant leader if the wards they control have more of one of the four immigrant groups than any other player. Immigrant leaders get three favor chips of the group they represent.
There are a few special things players can do during the course of the game, and these take place only after the first term and before and after a player’s main action respectively: public office special ability and slander. After the first election of the game, a mayor will be determined and this player will get to hand out roles to the other players as he sees fit. This game allows negotiation, deal-making, promises, all that good stuff, and so attempting to butter up the new mayor for a beneficial position is definitely in the spirit of the game. Before a player takes his or her main action he can use his office position, which can be locking down a ward so nothing can change in it (Council President), moving an immigrant cube from one ward to an adjacent ward (Precinct Chairman), removing a cube (Chief of Police), or taking a favor chip of one immigrant group (Deputy Mayor). After the main action, a player can perform a slander action. Basically, you use one of your three slander chips to remove a ward boss from a ward you also have a ward boss in, and then possibly another from an adjacent ward if you’ve got lots of favor chips.
A Rounded Approach to Privilege
During my plays of the game, it seemed that the office of mayor typically passed around because the winner of a previous term’s election tended to get dogpiled on a bit. That three points is a pretty big gain, especially in addition to the points from winning wards. So, it seemed not very advantageous to be the first player elected mayor, since you were likely to get beat up on and never recover! In a three-player game, I was elected mayor in the final term after another player had been mayor for two terms and was on the receiving end of opposition from myself and one other, but I only won because I ended up getting the eight bonus points from having the most chips in all four immigrant colors. This was something the other players might have worked to prevent but it was our first game.
Another lesson learned is that the mayor must be careful about which offices he gives out for his term, as the other players will most likely use them to undermine his hold on Manhattan. Also, after getting three points for being mayor, the role is useless. There is an interesting balance mechanism where the election winner is suddenly left with no special ability when everyone else has one, and this makes for some interesting interactions.
When I started learning the game and teaching myself the rules, I thought it would be a slow-moving, somewhat ponderous game of intrigue and whatnot, with long struggles over territory. I was quite a ways off, this game moves very quickly! We were astonished at just how rapidly the term came to an end and a new election was being held, it really kept the tension up moving at such a fast pace. The downside to this being that your hold on a ward is often very tenuous, but it seems perfectly thematic. You feel like you really need to figure out where you are going to battle and try to get your presence felt there. Each turn you are trying to figure out what your election strategy will be: will you concentrate ward bosses here and then feint over here? Will you try to use your favor chips to win this ward even though you only have one ward boss there, and then build up immigrant population and ward bosses next term? There are lots of strategic decisions to make.
English, Irish, Romulan, Who Cares?
Tammany Hall feels a lot like the classic area control game El Grande, in that you have little cubes and you are trying to control spaces on the board before a scoring round. One of the big differences here is that no player controls one of the cube colors (representing immigrant populations), instead each player maneuvers to have the most influence they can with all groups or to focus on a few and try to place those groups they have lots of influence with in the most advantageous positions. For instance, a player might have a stack of favor chips with the Italian population, but Italians start out with zero cubes on the board (the other three groups begin on the board, one cube per ward). So, through taking cubes from the Castle Garden area, which are drawn randomly from a bag and placed there whenever that spot is empty or a new term begins, that player can put them in spots that he wants to win in the election because as long as he has at least one ward boss in that ward he will have a chance to bid his favor tokens to add to his vote. When he does, his large bank of favor tokens with the Italian population will help him out a lot.
The bidding with favor tokens definitely adds a good twist to the game. Someone can have a weak showing all term with ward bosses, but as long as they have lots of favor tokens with an immigrant group that is in a ward, watch out! The table talk starts to turn toward musing on who has power with which group: “Ed you’ve got a lot of influence with the Germans…but keep them out of Tammany Hall!” The degree to which negotiation and backstabbing will be a part of your game depends on the people at your table. In one game I encouraged it a bit by promising not to hinder one player who would likely be the next mayor, as long as they gave me the position I wanted next term. It worked, and the other players watched as I took a favor chip each year to add to my stack, for two terms!
Tammany Hall did turn out to be a good game after all. I enjoyed that it moved quickly and was pretty easy to understand. This is one of those games where the concept is easy but the decisions that you make each turn are difficult, and the long-term strategy has to be managed. With three to four players, each player has the possibility of focusing on one immigrant group, but with five players (the maximum) each person is going to have a tougher time getting the favor chips or immigrant cubes they want in the right places. Negotiation is purely up to the table, as it is not necessary at all to play the game through. The game can feel a bit dry, as the maneuvering of cubes and the expenditure of chips does not really evoke the feel of 1860s Manhattan, but at times you do feel like a big shot Boss Tweed trying to manipulate popular opinion for your gain. Overall, I think Tammany Hall is a good game to have in your collection; it’s fast (as long as players aren’t over-thinking it), a bit chaotic, strategic, tactical, and there are laughs and surprises to be had in each game. It’s not a “Euro”-style game, but it’s not “Ameritrash” either, it’s some nice mix of the two. Throw in the upgraded components and you have a game worth owning.