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Who's The Boss? A Review of Tammany Hall

John Moller
United States
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Over the weekend I had a chance to play Tammany Hall (designed by Doug Eckhart and published by StrataMax Games.) This is actually something I’ve wanted to do since Origins 2010. Like most people in the world I do not own a copy of the game. I will probably never own a copy of the game and I’ve got to come to terms with that.

Don’t mistake my never owning the game for me not liking the game. I’ve liked it since I first saw it, but I didn’t buy it then. It has become scarce, rare, hard to find, and very expensive since then. Yes, several of those words mean the same thing, I’m just driving the point home. I was completely and utterly shocked to see the game walk into the game night. I was happier than a pig in slop that I had the chance to play it.

Tammany Hall is much more about area control than anything. Someone said it was worker placement, and a case can be made for that, but your workers aren’t doing anything more than controlling the area. …So, I choose the former over the latter.

Basically the game plays over 4 terms (rounds) and each term consists of 4 years (turns.) During each year you get to place 1 Boss and 1 immigrant or 2 bosses in one of the wards on the board. You can split what you play and there are no restrictions on where you can place things other than your future choices.

The bosses you place will come from your personal stock, but the immigrants will come from a limited supply available to everyone playing the game. Placing a boss gains you one point of control in each ward. Immigrants give you no control, but they gain you one political favor chip of their color (play an orange/German immigrant and you get an orange political favor chip.) These chips become important in contested wards.

After 4 years, you tally up the scores by seeing who controls what. Some wards will be contested, and this is where the political favor chips come into play. Each player with a boss in a contested ward can bid chips from their personal stock to increase their influence in the ward to gain control. Players can only use chips that match at least one of the immigrants in that ward (you can’t use an orange political favor chip unless there’s an orange/German immigrant in that ward.) Bidding is secret, but knowing how many chips you have available is not.

This voting stuff is where the game really lives. Everything you do, each placement of boss or immigrant is leading up to those moments between the terms. Do not ever lose sight of that.

Once you get past the first election cycle, the player who has scored the most points during that term becomes the mayor. This gives that player another three points and the right to give each other player an office in their government, one of four roles with special abilities. These new roles also affect the turn order. The mayor goes first and has no special ability, so it’s somewhat painful to be the mayor, but those 3 points can really be key to moving your forward.

In the game I played, only two players became the mayor (myself one and another player twice.) Those two player finished first and second. Being Mayor is tough, but you may have to bite the bullet and do it to win the game.

I’m not going to get too deeply into each of the other roles. I had an opportunity to be two of them and both of them were beneficial to me. They altered my strategy for the term I held those offices. I can definitely see how they keep the game from stagnating. If you play with the same group often enough and you see patterns in a player’s behavior that makes a role more beneficial to them, you’re going to try to avoid giving them that role. There’s a social balance.

Another aspect of the game I liked (and whether it’s actually part of the game or not is up for debate,) but there was some wheeling and dealing. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a talker. You put me in a situation and I’m going to social my way out if it by any means necessary. I saw that start to happen later in the game. The politics of the players came into the game and we started making deals with each other. “I won’t put my guy there if you don’t contest me here…” We had a few of those chats. I almost agreed to a deal knowing full well that I was going to break the deal for the sake of the game, but chose to decline the deal but leverage it to bluff and empty an opponent’s hand of political favor chips. I lost nothing in that deal, and I gained very little in the end due to a misconception about end game scoring…but it was still beautiful.

There was a major problem with the game, it took nearly 3 hours. I was able to see that really isn’t the normal case. I don’t think this game would have lasted more than 1 hour if it were not for there being two brand new players. One of those new players spent a little more time planning his moves, in my opinions, which I think would lever out with future plays. The game had been billed to me as 45 minutes and I think 45-60 minutes is reasonable for what it is.

A friend of mind who observed the game claimed that none of us seemed to be having fun. I disagree with that assessment. I was having a good time. There was drama and strategy, player interaction and even some fun. We laughed and joked and had tense moments. That says to me that we had a good game. …and a good time.

Honestly, Tammany Hall is a rare gem. I’m hoping I get to play it again. It really is just the type of game I like. It has a finite turn structure and is based primarily on choice and player action. There is very little randomness about the game. You’re not playing a system, you’re not playing the cards, you are playing each other. That’s a game to me. Give me a battlefield over which to match wits with my opponents. Tammany Hall does all of that and it does it well.

My understanding of the situation is that the game had a very limited print run since it was self published/published by a very small independent. After selling out of their second print run, which took a long time, they have decided to not reprint the game at this time. They are looking for a reputable publisher to pick it up. I’m certain they have shopped it to Mayfair and I will scratch my head as to why Mayfair hasn’t picked it up. This game is in their wheel house. It would be perfect in their line-up and not just because of how the game looks (which was an intentional move to look like a Martin Wallace game.) The game looks beautiful but it’s also very much like a prestige game in game-play and components.

Well….components need a little updating. There are brown and purple pawns in the game which are far too similar to each other in color. Even in the best of light we were having issues determining the differences. I also took slight issue with the coloring on the board, the colors from ward to ward need a little more contrast or differentiation. I can understand trying to be historically accurate, but with the exception of 5 wards, all the rest hold the same value but the swing in size from ward to ward is phenomenal. Some of the busiest wards, along the “coast,” are the smallest. The board really does look beautiful, and it’s very functional Everything someone needs to play the game is on the board, but…the most important parts of it are just a bit confusing, oddly sized and ultimately detrimental to the play experience.

Having said all that, I loved it and I want to play it again. I’m smart enough to know that a game is not made by it’s board. A game is made by the way it’s played and the players who play it. Tammany Hall was a great experience and it’s a game I want to visit again. Plus… I’d really like to win the game once and just gloat a little…”Who’s the Boss???? ”
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