The game Tammany Hall is set in a time where, unlike today, politicians were corrupt and made unsavory deals to greedily benefit their own self interest. 3 to 5 players will spend about 2 hours manipulating the political machine to pack the right voters into the right wards to give them the most power.
The game is organized into years. Each year each player gets one turn. On your turn, you have to deploy a ward boss into any ward. Putting a boss into a ward means you will be participating in the election in that ward.
You then have a choice to either put out another boss, or bring immigrant population into the city. There are four immigrant nationalities, each represented by color coded cubes. You bring the cube of your choice into the ward of your choice. You’re only allowed to bring in one immigrant. If you bring in another, that second one would be an illegal immigrant.
A benefit of bringing in immigrant population is that you also get to collect a matching influence token. So for example, I could place a boss in ward 9, and put a German cube in ward 4, and I would collect a German influence disk.
Every 4 years there is an election. In a predetermined sequence, the election in each ward will be resolved. Each boss you have there counts as one vote. Players then secretly and simultaneously (“closed fist” style) commit influence tokens. Each influence token also counts as one vote. The most votes wins the ward. Committed influence tokens are discarded regardless of election outcome. You can only bid influence that matches the ward’s immigrant population. So for example I may have a crapload of English influence, but if there no English immigrants in the ward, it won’t do me any good. If there are Irish and German immigrants, then the Irish and/or German influence tokens would be biddable.
So you’re bringing immigrants into the city, gaining influence among them for doing so, and exerting that influence come election time.
Elections have consequences. Each ward won is worth one victory point. Whoever won the most wards in an election cycle is the mayor. Being the mayor is worth an additional three points. The mayor then doles out titles and their accompanying privileges to each opponent to use during the next four years.
Also, after the election, there is a check to see who has dominance among each immigrant group. For each group, whoever has the most cubes under their control gets a bonus 3 influence for that immigrant nationality. So if the wards I won have more English cubes than anyone else, I’ll get 3 extra English influence.
One of the things that really appealed to me about Tammany Hall was the setting.
I have no problem with elves battling orcs, but it’s nice to play something off the beaten path. I also greatly appreciate the Thomas Nast artwork that helps set the tone.
Each turn you will have an interesting choice on where to place your boss. When placing a boss, you have to evaluate what immigrants are in a ward, and your level of influence among them compared to your opponents. So if you have tons of Irish influence, it may be an easy choice to go where the Irish are. If you have little to no English influence, you might avoid a fight with the player with tons of English influence. But those are the easy examples. Your choice is going to be much more complex as there will be multiple immigrant nationalities in a ward, multiple opponents, and each opponent will have multiple strengths and weaknesses among the immigrant populations.
Winning an election doesn’t come easy. You have to scrape and claw and fight to win each one. Each election in each ward is an important decision point. You’re going to have to bid influence in the contested wards. Bids are secret and simultaneous.
Often there will be times where you know you can spend a certain amount of influence to lock down the win. You may be tempted to bid that amount and go for the sure thing. But your opponent knows you might go for the sure thing. And your opponent may not want to waste influence and just bid zero. And since you know your opponent is thinking that, maybe you can get away with bidding less than the lock down amount. But your opponent might suspect you of low bidding, and might risk bidding it all to sneak in a surprise win. It’s the classic dilemma of outguessing your opponent.
You also have to manage your influence across multiple elections. You can blow it all and guarantee one election, but it won’t leave you with enough to win the other elections. And you need to win a lot of elections across a lot of wards to win this game.
The game is billed as balls to the wall backstabbing politics. However, in my experience the diplomacy element of the game did not match the promoted expectations. And it’s not like my group is averse to in-game politics and overt interaction. Direct interaction and dialogue is right in our wheelhouse. In Sparticus, Mob Ties, and Zoneplex we do all kinds of wheeling, dealing, and conversation. But in Tammany Hall the attempts at negotiation were only moderately frequent. I’m sure this varies from group to group, but I was surprised it wasn’t so high for an otherwise negotiation inclined group such as mine.
The game structure never requires players to negotiate. It’s just suggested by the rules. If all it takes to make a game a negotiation game is just to have the rules say “hey guys, you should try to cut a lot of deals”, then any game can magically become a negotiation game. Even Puerto Rico could become a negotiation game if it was tacked on by the rules and adopted by the group: “If you pick craftsman I promise not to pick captain”, or “If you leave me the last corn plantation I won’t buy up the warehouse”.
In the absence of a game mechanic that directly necessitates players to come to an accord (as exemplified by Rex, Spartacus, Mob Ties, Cosmic Encounter, or Zoneplex), the interactive deliberation is going to groupthink dependent. There is nothing inherent with the mechanics of Tammany Hall that makes this a negotiation game. Except for the fact that it is promoted as such. This will surely vary based on the personality makeup of your group, but I would advise you to expect only a moderate amount of interaction out of this game.
The politics of failure have failed. We need to make them work again.
Upon hearing about Tammany Hall, one of the things that intrigued me was that if you are mayor, you got to assign roles to other players. The idea of picking powers for your opponents was intriguing. One of the legacies of Boss Tweed is the vast cronyism and awarding positions in exchange for favors. For a game pushed as a deal making machine, this seemed like it had a lot of potential for very interesting decisions and negotiation.
All of the roles are powerful. All of them can be very useful. They’re largely balanced. Maybe a little too balanced. Most of the roles grant you ways to shape the board. This can be done to help yourself, or hurt others.
As mayor, I’ve never found the decision to assign roles to be interesting. In a five player game (which has been most of my experience), all of the roles must be distributed. That means you can’t stop one of the powers from making an appearance. No matter who I give the roles to, all the roles will be out there in my enemy’s hands to destroy me. This lessens the motivation to make underhanded deals when giving out the roles.
As a receiver of a role, I never cared too much about what I was assigned. No matter what I’m going to get a powerful ability, so there’s no sense in exchanging a favor in order to get one. I have little motivation to scheme with the mayor in exchange for a role, since even if I don’t I’m going to get something good.
Don’t misunderstand – role assignment isn’t a negative play experience, but it is a missed opportunity. Every player will get one of the powers. And since they all have merit, there’s little incentive to make promises in order to get a particular title. This was a far less interesting decision than I anticipated.
By and large I have a favorable opinion of Tammany Hall. The critiques thus far are relatively negligible. There is still one major problem. At least it’s a problem for one or two of the players. There isn’t a runaway leader problem. However, there is a fallaway loser problem. Without fail, in every session I’ve played thus far there is a player or two so far behind that their situation becomes hopeless.
After the first election, if you don’t have dominance among any of the immigrant groups, you don’t stand much of a chance. All players that did have dominance are going to collect lots of influence tokens. These influence tokens are going to help them win elections. The rich will get richer.
We nearly always play 5 players. There are only 4 immigrant groups in which to gain dominance. Even though ties are possible and common, it’s easy for one player to fall through the cracks and not gain immigrant dominance. And then that player gets to go through the motions so as to not ruin the session for those that are actually in contention.
As a young boy I always dreamed of being a baseball. But tonight I say we must move forward, not backward, upward, not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.
Most of the wards are identical, and are only differentiated by the immigrants and players occupying them. As the contending players are looking for wards to conquer, the main consideration is to find ones that are winnable with the least effort. The ones that are easily winnable are the few wards the fallaway losers control, since this is where points can be gained for minimal expenditure of influence. The poor get poorer.
So making sure you have dominance with at least one immigrant group is super important to stay competitive. You would think the solution is simply to make it a priority to ensure you have dominance. But it’s difficult to keep track of where you stand towards getting immigrant dominance. Immigrants are coming out or moving around nearly every turn. So it’s a very dynamic metric. It’s a lot of work to recount every cube in every territory. I want to use my mental energy on making decisions, not information gathering. Making decisions is fun, information gathering is work. Even if you bog the game down doing all that work keeping track of immigrant dominance of 4 immigrant types and 5 players in 15 wards, you can’t always control the outcome of every election.
So no matter how mentally challenging the decisions may be, no matter how rich the dialogue, and no matter how cool the setting may be, there’s a significant chance one or two players at each session simply aren’t going to have a lot of fun.
Admittedly the vast majority of my plays has been with 5 players. Perhaps this isn’t a problem with smaller crowds. Maybe your group won’t have this problem. But the fallaway loser problem has manifested itself in every single session I’ve been in.
Even with the mismatch between expectations and what the game actually offers, and even with the risk of playing through a hopeless session of cube pushing, Tammany Hall still has plenty of interesting decisions. It’s competitive and challenging, and in an appealing setting. For these reasons I’ll keep coming back to the filthy streets of Tammany Hall.
But don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos.