9th Nov 2023 - Tammany Hall

by RobinFri, 10 Nov

I was able to make it after all this week, and was very lucky to get a space on Tammany Hall. An older and fairly obscure game, it's the kind I really like: just a board and some wooden pieces, the rules are quite simple; but hiding beneath the low complexity score is a super little area-control game thick with player-interaction.

You'll have come across mob games like Bootleggers and (presumably?) Speakeasy. Tammany Hall covers the period leading up to that, in late 19th-century New York. Community organisers seek to galvanise the swelling immigrant communities to further their own dubious interests as political "bosses".

It's a richly thematic game. The more you help a community to grow in a district, the more that community will back you in local elections. The more they back you, the more you want to help them, to build your political powerbase. So although as political bosses we start off unaffiliated, you end up supporting one or two of the immigrant communities - against each other and your rival bosses.

Early in the game, having drawn last place in turn order, I naturally fell in with the newly-arrived Italian community. Andrew, who went first, went after the established Irish vote downtown, and they rewarded him by electing him the first mayor. Paul and I came to a cosy agreement in the southern wards, which allowed us to overthrow Andrew and each take our own turn as mayor. On mine, however, I made the mistake of appointing David as chief of police; and with his German support he duly went round locking up all the Italians in the northern districts. This campaign of persecution, combined with Michel's work to kick the Irish out of Tammany Hall, saw us effectively polarised into two groups: Andrew and me vying for the Irish and Italian support; and Michel, David and Paul all scrapping over the English and German votes.

The game has very few mechanics: but the main one, moving people from the immigration centre into a ward and gaining influence in that ward and with that group, works really well. It propagates the theme of immigrant communities combining with cynical politicians to scramble to the top in a struggling, densely-packed city. Other than that, the elected mayor gives out offices with special powers (eg. chief of police) to the other players each term, which both acts as a powerful catch-up mechanism and introduces all sorts of weird - but thematically plausible - ways for the game to play out. And all these individual powers seem very well-balanced, despite having wildly different effects. And then there's the punitive ties - if two players tie an election, they both lose. That never actually transpired in this game, though it lurked as a constant jeopardy over every vote.

So, predictably, we were all very close on the scoring track going into the final round. But then from each of the two super-factions, one boss rose to the top - me from the Irish/Italian group and Michel from the English/German. Maybe we were helped by being the only two who'd played the game before? But I think this really came from our positions in the turn order: we were each just before our rivals in our respective factions, so we had the chance to starve our rivals of their preferred immigrants to support. Like everything in this game, turn order had its ups and downs - though in this instance I think going immediately before someone helped.

I would really recommend this game, and hopefully Michel will bring it again soon. The only randomness to it is the drawing of different "immigrant" cubes out of a bag into the immigration centre, but still there's potential for so much variation in games. I could play it many times and still not know the best way to win. Like all the best games, it depends on who you're playing against, and how they play against you.

Other games at the club this week were Apiary again, Arborea, Earth and - unusually on a Thursday - an 18xx game: 1848, which finished around the same time we did, in well under 4 hours.