Meet the Contributors

Receive the latest posts directly to your inbox every week!

Sign Up Now

Politically Themed Games

Review Corner Writers

Posted by Review Corner Writers on Nov 1, 2016


It’s election season here in these United States and…well, it is what it is. Just in time for the tragi-comic horror story with political overtones that was the past year of campaigning to come to its inevitable conclusion, I tasked our team of Review Corner writers to present us with their favorite games with political subject matter, themes or gameplay. Surprisingly, no one chose Diplomacy, but then again Diplomacy sucks so maybe that’s why. There’s plenty of other games that didn’t make the cut here, ranging from the Avalon Hill classic Republic of Rome to modern masterpiece Twilight Struggle to the venerable (and out of print) Teutonic masterpiece Die Macher.

Political subject matter is fertile ground for games because there is built-in intrigue, drama, interaction and high stakes. There are opportunities for alliances, betrayals, cooperation, lying, selfishness, opportunism and bad language- just like running for president circa 2016. So here are our picks for some of the best political games out there. I promise these will still be fun in whatever America we wake up in on November 9th!

Michael Barnes
Review Corner Editor-in-Chief


Michael:

Cosmic Encounter is the best game ever designed, and one of the reasons is because of how it forces players to be political. Sure, it’s not about elections, tariffs, trade agreements, filibustering, gerrymandering or anything like that but every game develops these highly conditional alliances of convenience that you must exploit to get ahead. But the next round, your allies might become your enemies. Every turn, you’ve got to draw an Edict card that tells you where you must attack. Doesn’t matter if you were BFFs with the Orange system aliens last turn and everyone got a colony out of it. The next turn, you might be negotiating with four or five other players to get them on your side and not on his side. I love that you can’t establish lasting partnerships not only because it doesn’t really suit the goals of the game, but also because the game tells you that you can’t. Backstabbing is in the rules. It’s like an episode of House of Cards or something, but with blobby, iridescent aliens that whine or steal things.


Charlie:

13 Days is a great little game that's throwing punches way above its weight class. It's a small box design that's extraordinarily satisfying to play. The fact that it clocks in at such a low price point while offering a very solid experience is quite remarkable.

This is definitely a historical game grounded in the political intrigue and brinksmanship of the Cold War. It's a unified presentation of a mechanical and thematic distillation of Twilight Struggle, the most popular card driven wargame ever designed. It has its own suite of clever twists though as players wrestle with its unique twist on handling Defcon and fighting for area control. It packs in all of the drama of its influence while keeping things relatively tight and always offering a close fought sobering experience.


Nate:

Are you so sick of election season that you're ready for a one-party system? Kremlin might be the game for you. The players jockey for position within the Communist party in Soviet Russia, with the ultimate goal of being the party leader and waving during the October Parade. Do that three times and you win, but it's easier said than done. There's an arcane system of succession and different powers to every position in the party, and you never know who really controls which party member. Not only that, but party members are always aging, getting sick and being forced to take time off to get better. Hopefully that won't happen when someone wants to send your candidate to Siberia...

Kremlin is an old-fashioned game in many ways, with lots of little rules and strange interactions. But it's also one of the sharpest pieces of board game satire out there, a big finger in the eye of the USSR straight from the 1980s. It's also hilariously unpredictable. Every action has unforeseen consequences, and it is a game of shocking reversals and comeuppances. For those who are sick of politics, Kremlin's theme is clear: it's all nonsense, and only the crooked succeed.


Pete:

What would a game about politics be if it didn't feature genocide on a global, catastrophic scale, right? Well, Tomorrow delivers both in spades, since the concept of the game is to save the overburdened planet by wiping out opposing populations by the billions through politics, backroom dealing, and ever-popular biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. While the game is clearly aimed at satirizing politics and environmental activism, it can be a little disconcerting knowing that you're literally simulating a culling of human life on an unprecedented, biblical scale. That's one of the main reasons that this game works so well; it forces players to squirm and cheer in equal parts while they deliver such hits as "Heavy Spore Anthrax" and "Plutoxin 7". Sure, you can keep reminding yourself that unless almost everyone dies, everyone ~will~ die, but there's still a measure of moral handwringing going on as you play.

If you can see past the bleak setting and horrific themes, what you will find is a very well-designed game about politicking and retaliatory posturing. With asymmetric player abilities and a very smart action system, Tomorrow will certainly make you think long and hard about what your short-term and long-term goals are every turn. It's certainly not so much a game about developing and executing a grand strategy as much as it is a game of doing what seems best at the moment. Perhaps that's why I like the game so much - it's an inhuman setting and a very human theme: worrying about tomorrow, tomorrow, and doing what will keep you alive right that moment, right that moment. If nothing else, it will certainly lead to some great follow on conversation....if there's anyone left on the planet to talk to.


Drew:

Old-style politics is front and center in Tammany Hall. Set in the heyday of the 19th century New York political machine, the players will carefully shepherd in new immigrant groups and gain their favor. Those favors can then be used to secure votes in the various precincts and turn the election in your favor. But politics is a dirty game. Not only do you maneuver through the various precincts, deploying party officials to rustle up votes, but you'll also slander your opponents - causing them to lose support in areas where they've built up support.

And, like all good political games, it is rife with graft. Every four years, an election is held and the winner gets to be mayor. But the mayor then doles out special positions to the other party members - the opposing players. Each position comes with a special ability allowing you to redraw district lines, kick out certain groups, and otherwise ensure that the Mayor won't be reelected to a second term. If you want bare-knuckle political maneuvering, then Tammany Hall is the right choice.


Raf:

“Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.” Few games illustrate this quote better than the GMT's COIN system, and few games do a better job of illuminating the tangled web of politics and war than A Distant Plain. This is not a wargame that simulates fighting, it's a wargame that simulates conflict. There is more to the modern morass that is America's War on Terror than soldiers shooting terrorists. Governments and Factions fight to control the population and earn the support of the people, two very different and often opposing things. A Distant Plain captures this by weaving together faction goals in a system that forces begrudging cooperation and a tactical detante. Warlords engage in terror at the behest of the Taliban in the South while trading presence in Government Strongholds for the Coalition ignoring the proliferation of poppy fields in the North.

There's something powerful about playing a game set in a modern conflict. The names of the provinces will resonated with almost anyone in the post-9/11 world and it's both chilling and illuminating to take control of Taliban and cheer for their victory. It's a game first and foremost, but it's one that has the potential to stick with you long after you're done playing. Sabotaging major roads and executing the Insurgent interpretation of the card titled "Seal Team 6" constantly forces you to reflect on current events. It would be impressive if that's all the game did, but the play itself is just as compelling. Alliances shift, promises are ignored, and tactics bleed into strategy over the course of a few hours. If you've never played a wargame, A Distant Plain isn't the easiest game to slip into. It's worth it.


Teri:

If you've ever had dreams of being President of all of humanity with the power to deport (into space) enemies of the state (or your political career) there's a game for you.

The world of Battlestar Galactica is imbued with the fear of an enemy who lives among us (who may or may not be productive members of society and/or violent and indiscriminate terrorists/murderers) and as President, you have the awesome responsibility to suss them out and send them back to where they came from. The game of politics is a semi-cooperative one, just like this game, and loose alliances and whispered suspicion imbue every decision. Despite this, gameplay doesn't feel pedantic with the perpetual threat of imminent danger for the players and is a great deal of fun, particularly for fans of the show.

Sure, this fictional universe had a female political insider (with too many secrets) run for President against a charismatic (though often self-serving) populist leader playing off of the fear and weariness of the disenfranchised. Yes, it is a dystopian vision where acts of terrorism are all too common. And it's hard to not see how this game can show us how divisions and mistrust have the potential to do serious harm to all involved, but inaction can be just as dangerous. Thankfully, it's a all make-believe, and even if the world feels all-too-real, the game can be finished in a single evening gaming session, unlike this election that has seemed far too long.


Kyle:

People think of Reiner Knizia's classic as an abstract civilization game, and that's only partially true. It also has elements of wargames, area control games, and even a smattering of politics. The game's very best feature lies in its depiction of internal political struggles within an empire. Players who wish to take over another nation from within can connive and manipulate through cutting off key areas of support, plunking down their own leader to raise up rebels in support of their coup, and then secretly bid further support to complete the dastardly backstabbing maneuver.

It's an excellent approximation of a military or political coup, taking into account bases of power and all the secret dealings that go on therein. And all this is encapsulated in very few rules that generates one of the greatest gaming experiences ever designed.


Craig:

Not happy with the presidential choices? Take matters into your own hands, and control the country's destiny! I'm talking, of course, about the fictional Republica de los Bananas, where 2-6 would be dictators duke it out to find the path to prosperity. Their own, not their peoples'. And avoid the firing squad. For themselves, not their people.

Eerie how familiar this sounds, and how relevant a game originally created in the 70s and recently reprinted by AEG might be one of the most relevant titles in 2016 America. Not to mention, the most fun. What's better than creating a budget, being mostly truthful about how it's being distributed to the other members of your cabinet, and then trying to sneak your slightly-inflated share into your Swiss bank account before one of your underlings arranges for you to meet with a tragic accident? Maybe the coup that follows your assassination, where students, factory workers, la policia, and the army, just to name a few factions, take to the streets in a chaotic struggle that's more about maneuver and self-preservation than about who has the most bullets, because in the end the only winners are the players who don't end up standing in front of a factory wall with a bandana and a cigarette.

If you're tired of trying to end political corruption and would just be content to have a bigger share of it, Junta's the game for you.


Comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.

click here to log in