Looking Lovely in Tweed: A Review of Tammany Hall

In Tammany Hall, published by Pandasaurus Games, each player plays a rather vindictive cog in the political machinations of New York City in the 1850s – a time of growth, increasing immigrant populations and corruption. In order to succeed you will need to “help” newly arriving immigrants to “settle” into communities (while ousting others) and thus guaranteeing future political favors from them. These favors will help you gain influence into one of the numerous wards represented on the map.

This is not an easy task. Your options are simple but it will require lies, alliances, back-stabbing, fore-sight and a willingness to walk over anyone who gets in your way. You will send your muscle – ward bosses (meeples with bowler hats!) – into Manhattan to help secure votes and rally the immigrant populations there.

You will slander political opponents and use the offices you may already hold to sway the districts in your favor. The road to Tammany is paved with deceit, my friends, it is paved with dirty, filthy deceit…and immigrants…but mostly deceit.

Basics

  • Designer: Doug Eckhart
  • Year Released: 2007
  • Category: Political, Territory Building, Immigration Reform
  • Game Mechanic: Area Control/Area Influence, Orphan Manipulating, Auction/Bidding
  • Number of Players: 3-5
  • Playing Time: 90 minutes

How do I play?

tammany_board
Artwork by Peter Dennis (also known for work on Brass, London, and A Few Acres of Snow).

The board is broken into fifteen wards divided into three areas. During the initial set-up the board is populated with cubes representing different immigrants – color-coded by country of origin (Irish, English, Italian and German). These are your resources (as horrible as that sounds) and the political capital they represent is your currency. This is the crux of this game – people are used, discarded and manipulated by the players in order to win elections – you know, just like real life. Players may be squeamish about this element but you are, in essence, manipulating immigrants when they are their most vulnerable (just off the boat) and catering their favor in order to secure your base of power in choice districts. Every turn you have the option of doing two things

  • Gather one immigrant cube and place it, along with a ward boss, in a district.
  • Place two ward bosses in a district.

The game is played in a series of 16 years (four terms of four years each) with an election every fourth year where player vie and bid for control over the districts. Before that happens though, they need to pave their way into political power and high local office. So within each year the player turns go as thus.

  1. Castle Garden. If no immigrants then the player populates it with some fresh cattle er…people.
  2. City Office. If you already had an election then players hold offices. Use those offices’ powers now.
  3. Place Pieces. Either two immigrant cubes, a ward boss and an immigrant cube, or two ward bosses.
  4. Slander! Burn those bridges people! By slandering you are able to remove ward bosses from districts.
  5. Once everyone has rustled, bustled and hustled, it is the end of the year. If it the end of a term then we hold an “election.”

The Election

Thomas Nast cartoons for each office.
Thomas Nast cartoons for each office.

Hopefully for the four years leading into the election you’ve been strategically accumulating political favor tokens for each of the immigrant populations you’ve placed into districts. Because here is where the hoof really hits the cobble. There will be a blind bid for each of the districts. If you have a presence (ward boss) in a district then you will be bidding for control of that district.

For each district, the concerned parties will survey the district for immigrant populations who owe favors (in the form of correspondingly colored political favor tokens). Each ward boss will count as an automatic vote in your direction. Then you count up how many possible political favor tokens you have for the immigrants currently residing in the district. For example, if you have 20 political favor tokens for Germans (orange cubes) and there is at least one orange cube in that district then you can use all 20 tokens if you wish.

Once your survey is complete, you move your hands with the tokens under the table and determine how many tokens you wish to bid for that district. You could bid the whole bunch or you could bid nothing. On the count of three everyone reveals there bids and tally the results. The winner takes the district and the corresponding victory point. The loser removes his ward bosses in disgrace. All tokens bidded are removed into the supply. This continues for all active districts.

The player who wins the most wards becomes Mayor for the next four years and provides choice offices and powers to other players in the game. These powers can be used during the next term. The players then count up the number of each immigrant group in the wards they control. The players with a majority of an immigrant population, becomes an “immigrant leader” and gain additional political favors tokens.

How do I win?

It can get so cold in the city for these poor ward bosses...
It can get so cold in the city for these poor ward bosses…

Manipulation and accumulation of victory points for winning districts. Each won district is worth 1 victory point. Tammany Hall is worth 2. If you become mayor (by having the most districts in your control) you get an additional 3 victory points.

But really, you win by dealing, lying to and deceiving your friends. During the bidding phase you should be needling each player into overbidding and thus losing influence especially if this allows you an advantage for a future election. You should curry favor with the potential mayor in order to get a better office and then screw ’em in the end. During the first three years you populate districts with immigrant groups “loyal” to you. Later, during the election, you will use that political capital to gain control of wards. It only takes one cube with plenty of political clout to turn an election in a ward even when controlled by one group.

Use slander selectively (as you do get a bonus at the end of the game for not using any of your three slander tokens) and always utilize your powers of office. You have a very limited time to build your power base before and election so pick your districts carefully (a few actually give you a bonus for victory).

What was confusing?

Nothing! I love this game because of its simplicity, elegance, ease of rules and the scope of decision space generated from very few player actions. I love this game and will willingly teach, play or demo this game at the drop of a bowler hat.

What did you [dis]like?

Things are getting hot in here...
Things are getting hot in here…

This game is a tense, frantic scramble for as much power and territory you can handle. But room is limited and the prime motivator of conflict is a lack of room to spread out. You need to spread into opposing territories in order to set your political influence and power. Because that is what this game is about – power. Simple, pure, unadulterated by morals, “people represented by cubes os we don’t think about the fact we are abusing the masses” power. This isn’t skim milk, baby. This is putting the entire cow in a blender and gulping it down with the souls of orphan children. The mechanics are simple to afford you more time spent plotting and twisting your imaginary mustache, you devious bastard.

I love it! This feel is accentuated by the flawless design of the board. The map is derived from an S.A. Mitchell map of the era and the Thomas Nast caricatures are perfect for the political offices. There is no gloss on this game. It knows what it is and revels in it!

While we are on the board. I am completely enamored with a game that is able to, in a comprehensive and coherent manner, have every rule in the game explained on the board. I can explain and teach every part of this game without referencing the rule book once. That is wonderful design.

There is also a wonderful catch-up mechanic for people who may be grabbing that mayor spot too often. The mayor gets points but no political power. The player awarded mayor must then provide all her competitors with offices which do provide some additional abilities, meaning the mayor must hold on to that position solely with their wits

Likes:

  • Amazing design
  • Simplicity of play
  • Board has rules
  • It is evil. Gloriously evil (and in only 90 minutes!)

Dislikes:

  • Need the right group to play.
  • Detached from some basic human feeling.
  • Direct Competition
  • Prone to King-making/Jump-on-the-leader

Would you rather…

Would you rather play Tammany Hall or Game of Thrones: The Board Game?

The feeling of selfish abandon and well planned power gluttony is similar in both games but, I must say, even the Lannisters would squelch at some of the actions taken when playing the Game of Tammany. However, when all is said and done, Game of Thrones is a more detailed, rich and immersive experience. It is much easier to table Tammany and play it in an hour than getting 6 friends willing to commit to a four hour Game of Thrones. This game scratches that itch for me in a third the time.

Would you rather play Tammany Hall or Five Points?

The themes are similar but while Tammany evokes the feeling of manipulating constituents in a rather abstract fashion, Five Points has more of the feel of being a ward boss (the flunkies of Tammany) and busting heads. They pair together like butter and jam. To choose between them would be like picking which child you love more.

….(psst…Tammany).

Would you rather play Tammany Hall or watch Gangs of New York?

OK. Listen. It is not fair to have that box cover with a riot in the background and then not follow through in the game with some violence. When I picked it up I expected riots, gangs roving the street of 1850s New York. Top hats, crazy pants and meat cleavers. What I got instead was a damned good game…but I am still bitter about it.

Closing verse

Controlling or controlled?
The game of Tammany holds many secrets.
But not nearly as many as those held
Within the eyes of your opponent.

You may look bad in plaid,
But this one looks lovely in Tweed.

 

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