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What's the theme of this game and how is it integrated into the game? What sort of gaming mechanisms does the game use?
The theme of Campaign Trail is straightforward--you're trying to get elected President Of The United States. The game is played on a large paper map of the nation, which makes integrating the theme a snap since it relies heavily upon the Electoral College. The map displays each state's Electoral College votes, which makes it easy for players to remember how much more valuable it is to win votes in California than to win them in, say, Kansas or Georgia. Major cities on the map are represented by red dots, middling-sized cities by blue dots, and smaller cities by white dots. The city-dots are connected by black lines that represent the nation's highways, and you roll two dice and move your campaigning candidates (one token for your presidential candidate and one for your vice presidential candidate) along the highways from city to city garnering votes. You get three votes toward winning a state's Electoral College votes by landing on one of its red cities, you get two votes towards winning that state by landing on one of its blue cities, and you get one vote for landing on a white city.
If you land on a city where an opponent's piece already resides, either player can challenge the other to a debate, which is conducted with a single die roll. The winner gets three votes toward winning that state. If the challenged player refuses the debate, the challenger gets one free vote without rolling dice to earn it.
After the game ends, a tense series of vote total comparisons begins. All players are polled in each state to see who has the most votes there. The winner of each state gets all that state's Electoral College votes added to his total. After figuring out how many Electoral College votes each player has, the player with the lowest total is eliminated. His states are then re-polled, with each of them getting awarded to the 2nd place finisher in that state. After the first "loser's" states have all been re-polled, totals are again checked, and again the player with the lowest total is eliminated from the presidential race. This process continues until there are only two players left. The winner between them wins the election.
That's pretty much the game in a nutshell, but it's a lot more fun than it might sound. There are also event cards which are drawn whenever a player rolls doubles on his movement roll. While they tend to add a lot of fun to the game, they also tend to be its biggest drawback; more on that later.
How many can play this game? How long does a game usually take?
Campaign Trail plays with 2-6 people, the more the merrier. The game gets pretty hairy with more people. With six people fighting for votes in each state, it usually takes fewer votes to win a state, and it's much harder to maintain any leads you might have. Extra people also add extra time to the game, of course.
The length of the game is agreed upon before it starts, getting set at a number of turns. Everyone must get the same number of turns. You can make the game shorter by limiting it to ten turns, but that tends to make it too chaotic. During the "playoffs" after the game ends, states which have a tie for the leader in votes are decided by a "roll-off." Each of the tied players rolls a single die, winner take all. If you play a 10-round game, 0-0 ties happen far too much because there are so many states that nobody had time to visit. I'd recommend a game of no less than 15 turns per player, and probably 20 or 25 turns for four or fewer players. Fortunately, the game lets the players make the determination as to game length. If you've got all day, play a 30-turn game if you like!
How good are the game's components?
In a word, cheap. The map is paper, the pawns are cheap plastic, and the event cards, while thick enough, aren't coated very well. However, none of this bothers gameplay a bit. You don't handle anything extensively but the pawns, so a paper map and cheap-ish cards will last a long time (my copy is almost twenty years old and doing just fine). The only serious component complaint with Campaign Trail involves the colors used for the pawns. Each player gets three pawns in his color, a transparent one for his presidential candidate, an opaque one for his vice presidential candidate, and a translucent one for any extra campaigners who might help him out by stumping for votes on a temporary basis. In most of the colors, it's not hard to tell which pawn is transparent, opaque, or translucent. But there are two shades of green that are extremely hard to tell apart from one another, and the resulting confusion can really screw up a game. If either green player accidentally moves a pawn of the other, it can go unnoticed for several turns until the dark green guy suddenly realizes that one of his pieces is in Oregon and he has no idea how the hell it got there. That might sound silly, but I've seen it throw several games into tense arguments. Your safest bet is to avoid using both shades of green in the same game whenever possible.
Is the game suitable as a "gateway game" for non-gamers (Settlers Of Catan generally being considered the classic gateway game)?
I wouldn't recommend Campaign Trail as a "gateway" game for two reasons--length of game can be much longer than most not-all-that-serious-gamers will tolerate. Secondly, the game is far too luck-dependent, and it's not because of the dice. More on that problem a bit later.
Where does the game fall on this scale of difficulty to learn:
1 (play with smaller kids): Candy Land, Checkers, Tic-Tac-Toe
2 (play with bigger kids): Monopoly, Sorry, Risk
3 (easy rules, but often much deeper in strategy): Backgammon, Chess, Go
4 (you "get" the rules by the time you've played it once): Carcassonne, Modern Art, Bohnanza, Robo Rally
5 (takes a couple of games to get the rules down): Settlers Of Catan, Citadels, Medici, San Juan, Vinci
6 (deeper rules and strategy require several games to play well): El Grande, Goa, Traders Of Genoa, Princes Of Florence
7 (fairly heavy on rules and even more so on strategy): History Of The World, Puerto Rico, Wallenstein
8 (actual study and practice required, but worth it): Twilight Imperium (3rd Edition), Civilization, R.A.F.
9 (quit your second job, you don't have time for it!): Die Macher, Carrier
10 (divorce the spouse, forget the kids!): Advanced Squad Leader
I'd call Campaign Trail a 4 on this scale of game-learning difficulty. After playing it once, you've got the rules down pat. Being able to win at it is an entirely different matter, of course, but the rules aren't hard to learn.
Of course, this is a subjective scale based mostly on my own gaming experiences, so use it accordingly. If you would rank these games in a vastly different order than I've listed them above, you probably shouldn't use this scale at all. There are a few games listed here that I've never played; their ratings are based on comments I've read by other BoardGameGeeks.
What is the game's balance between skill and luck? Is a good memory (for items or cards played, bought, or used) a big advantage? Does the game require opponents of similar skill levels in order to be fun?
The skill-to-luck scale is where Campaign Trail is busted. The game's luck factor is far too large. Fortunately, that's a problem that can be fixed without too much difficulty.
The problem isn't with the dice, where lucky movement rolls tend to even out amongst all the players. It's with the event cards. Some of the event cards give you an extra campaigner. For example, one of them gets the United Auto Workers on your side--they'll campaign for you for a certain number of turns (5-10 turns, depending upon which group you draw), and they start doing so in Detroit. The Gray Panthers might stump for you for eight turns starting in Miami. The luck problem is that a player who gets two or three of these extra campaigners will have a huge advantage over an opponent who gets only one or even none. The extra campaigner gives you a third token to move around the map, allowing you to work on collecting votes in three states at once instead of two, or to easily dominate one state by concentrating all three of your campaigners there for a few turns.
Another type of event card that can quickly unbalance a game of Campaign Trail is the event that gives you free airline tickets. Every player starts the game with a small supply of airline tickets. These let you move a campaigner from any red or blue city on the map to any other red or blue city on the map. You don't have to roll for movement, or spend a lot of turns "walking across the map." You just announce that the campaigner in Los Angeles is going to fly to New York on your next turn, and bang! He's there! Of course, the problem is the event cards that give out more of these airline tickets to one player than another. I've seen games where one player can pile up six or eight or ten airline tickets while others never get more than the two tickets they start the game with. Near the end of the game, when every airplane flight a campaigner takes can be enough to win you an important state that's been hotly contested all game long, extra airline tickets are huge. While most players are still rolling dice and "walking" their pieces around the map, a player with lots of airline tickets to burn is flying everywhere and winning individual states with nearly every flight.
The third type of event cards that can quickly unbalance a game is the Endorsement Card. The endorsement event card will name some Political Action Committee or special interest group, and that group will campaign for you and hand you free votes in a number of states. There are usually five or more states listed on the card. None of them will shovel a huge amount of votes at you, but a couple of votes in New Mexico from one of these cards just might be all the action New Mexico sees in the whole game! The best example of this is the United Mine Workers, an endorsement card that hands you free votes in states involved in coal mining--Pennsylvania, Kentucky, etc. This card gives you five votes in West Virginia. As a result, nobody I play this game with will even bother to visit West Virginia. They just assume this card is going to show up sooner or later and hand the state to someone on a silver platter, so it's not worth the trouble of actually visiting the state with any of your tokens.
There are lots of each of the above types of event cards, but an event card is only drawn when a player rolls doubles on his movement roll. That's where the luck comes in--if you roll doubles a lot more than anyone else, your chances of winning the game skyrocket. In a game that can take a couple of hours to play, that's a bad thing. As I said earlier, however, the problem can be fixed rather easily. You just need to ration out the event cards, giving each player an equal "hand" of them. Let a player choose to draw an event card instead of rolling the dice and taking his normal move. That way, he risks something when drawing an event card--losing a turn. Dealing event cards out like this would also add another level of strategy to the game--do you use them early, or save them for later? And deciding how to use your airline tickets is a lot tougher when you know that everyone else has the same number of them that you do! In fact, players might want to avoid using them, because using your airline ticket first allows the other players a chance to react to your move. After all, if you're the first player to fly somewhere, you're down one airline ticket to everyone else.
As for rewarding a player with a good memory, Campaign Trail does that in a sense. If you're good at mentally tracking who the leader is in each state, or at least the important ones with lots of Electoral College votes, you'll do well. That's tough to do because the vote totals change so often, but sometimes you can get a pretty good feel for who's doing well where. And while the game doesn't actually require opponents of similar skill levels, it can be easily screwed up by idiots. If the bonehead at the table who doesn't pay attention to the game when it's not his turn gets in your way too much, he can often take you down with him. Of course, I suppose that's true in just about any board game, isn't it?
Does the game have much player interaction?
Campaign Trail is excellent for player interaction, with opponents constantly fighting over individual states in hopes of winning their Electoral College votes. The map strategy is a blast to watch. It's especially satisfying to tour the South unopposed, picking up easy votes because your three opponents all refuse to tear themselves away from the dogfight they've gotten themselves into over New York and Ohio. While they're all hovering in the Northeast, all afraid to wander too far from the region, you're mopping up the South in preparation for kicking all of their butts. And of course, there are the debates. In a close race for a state, two foes might be running into each other on a regular basis, each hoping to win a couple of debates in a row so he can take a big lead and discourage the debate loser into fighting with him over Illinois or California.
Does the game have good replay value?
Given the nature of the game, you might not expect a lot of replay value, but you'd be wrong. There are so many different strategies for winning in this game that it has loads of replay value. Do you fight for California because it has so many Electoral College votes? Or would all the time you spend campaigning there with your Vice Presidential candidate be time better spent having that same candidate trying to pick up four smaller states that might add up to be worth significantly more than California? Can you win by sweeping the South if it means getting few Northern states? Can you win by spending all your time in the top eight or ten states and ignoring the rest? Such questions, along with the variables thrown in by event cards and unpredictable opponents, can make Campaign Trail a fascinating exercise. It's also a darned good game for teaching folks about the Electoral College process, how it works, and why some states get so much press coverage during election years.
There's another way of increasing the game's replay value exponentially: go on the internet and find a site that shows Electoral College maps for past elections. Use the Electoral College votes listed on those maps to "replay" any election you like! For example, if you can find the Electoral College map for 1948, you'll be amazed at how differently the Electoral College looked back then. The vote totals will shift dramatically in several states, showing you how the nation's population has shifted towards the southwest and away from the "Rust Belt." Find out if you can make that Dewey Wins! headline come true!
What's the strategic heart of this game?
Step one: avoid prolonged dogfights. I've seen more players take themselves right out of the game because they would not give up their pit bull's grip on California for anything. They'll end the game with 75 votes collected in California and less than 10 in any other state. Invariably, such players win California and are eliminated from the game in the first round of scoring because they've won absolutely nothing else. Another big area for dogfights is the Ohio-New York-Pennsylvania-New Jersey area. The routes on the map make it easy to keep circling through these states, and once you find out that another opponent (or even two!) is doing the same thing, it can be a very hard cycle to break.
Step two: encourage prolonged dogfights amongst your opponents. You can play so many mind games in Campaign Trail with skillful table talk that it can become an art form. Just keep asking the two guys in California for constant updates on their dogfight. The guy who's behind will get nervous and stick like glue, and the guy leading him will be too scared to vacate California without him! A good strategy is to encourage dogfights in all the obvious hotspots (CA, TX, NY) while you wander around mopping up most of the states that give you around ten votes each--Tennessee, Virginia, Oregon, Indiana, Maryland, etc.
The end-game strategy is to figure out who you think is going to be the first player eliminated when the scoring starts. You want to finish 2nd to that guy in the states he wins, because when he gets eliminated, the states he won will get redistributed, going to the player who finished 2nd in each state. Conversely, you don't want to waste time finishing 2nd to the perceived leader, because he'll never be eliminated so that your 2nd place standing in Illinois will move the state from his column to yours. If you can get good at knowing who's in the strongest and weakest positions after each round, you'll do pretty well at this game.
The to-the-point critique of this game: if you address the luck problem that the event cards cause, this is a great game to play. The rules are fairly simple, but the strategy on where you go to do your campaigning can get very deep very quickly. And replaying "old" elections as I've suggested can add a lot more fun to your campaigning as well. However, if you play the event cards as laid out in the rules, your Campaign Trail games will often go to the slob who is lucky enough to roll doubles a few extra times….
Excellent review, Dick! I agree that the luck factor was way too high due to the cards, and I've revised the deck considerably to mitigate this. There is still a lot of luck in our games, but it's not nearly as drastic as it once was.
One of the rules we've adopted is that when doubles are rolled, the player can either draw a card or double his President's popular votes for that turn. This adds a good deal of strategy to the game, and helps make your President even more important that your Vice-president.
I've also put the latest electoral votes on my map so that we're current in that regard, and I've changed the game in a few other ways as well. Too bad we're not local; we could get together and play it!
As one of the designers of the game, I appreciated the review. Some good ideas for a game revision. I disagree somewhat on the luck factor being all bad. I get your point, but (1) there is a lot of luck in politics and endorsements and (2) volunteers do make a difference, and (3) you learn a lot about the demographics and political action groups that influence elections. But I'm sure we will be thinking about your comments. Thanks for them, and thanks for playing our game.
I am actually a little surprised this game doesn't have wider following.
The end game scoring is quite brilliant, IMO. The multi-level elimination design is something that adds layers of strategy to this game, forcing good players to keep a close eye on scoring 2nd and 3rd place in areas as the game progresses.
Now the game certainly isn't for everyone. I play with 3 people who love it, and know at least 2 who hate it. So it seems to be a polarizing game.
The main criticism seems to be that the random cards can really screw you over or give a player a huge advantage. I suppose in some cases a single player could get lucky. If that's really a concern, you can lengthen the game, since a longer game will diminish the variability of card draws. If it really bothers you, remove some of the cards, or play without them entirely.
Personally they don't bother me... this is an election. Sometimes things completely outside your control happen.
One other thing: if you play this game, play it fast. Roll the die, and instantly the next player should roll and players move their pieces concurrently. There should be almost zero downtime. It should be a crazy frenzied experience to keep things interesting. I could imagine that if people took turns one at a time it could seem slow and dull. Playing fast is key to making this game special.
Anyway, this is a really good election simulation IMO and people into frenzied speed type games should give this a go.
Playing it fast & furious is the key to the fun, in my opinion. You'll find the pace picks up as the time winds down, just like in real politics. Our own rule is that as soon as player 1 rolls the dice, player 2 should roll and begin looking at movement options.