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Subject: how to make Gangs of New York: The Board Game rss

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Martin G
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Introduction

I recently wrote a blog post about different types of theme in games. The category of thematic integration that I find most impressive I called “theme as dynamic”:

QWERTYUIOP wrote:
In these games, the game mechanisms may be quite abstracted from the 'real-life' behaviour of the theme. But the dynamics that emerge during game play do have a strong connection to the theme. The game actually makes players feel like they are engaging in the thematic activity presented.


My thesis in this article will be that Tammany Hall is a wonderful example of theme as dynamic, evoking the feel of bare-knuckles New York political machinations with a minimum of mechanical fat.

What types of behaviours should a game that attempts to emulate the “Gangs of New York” era encourage in its players? What sort of skills should it call for? Political skills, not logistical ones, for sure. The game should be about playing the other players, backstabbing and “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

And what historical elements should it include? Here are some extracts from Wikipedia about Tammany Hall in the Boss Tweed era.

Wikipedia wrote:
Tammany Hall’s electoral base lay predominantly with New York’s burgeoning immigrant constituency, which often exchanged political support for Tammany Hall’s patronage. The Tammany Hall "ward boss" served as the local vote gatherer and provider of patronage.

Tammany Hall also served as a social integrator for immigrants by familiarizing them with American society and its political institutions and by helping them become naturalized citizens. Under Tweed's regime, "naturalization committees" were established. These "committees" were made up primarily of Tammany politicians and employees, and their duties consisted of filling out paperwork, providing witnesses, and lending immigrants money for the fees required to become citizens. Judges and other city officials were bribed and otherwise compelled to go along with the workings of these committees. In exchange for all these benefits, immigrants assured Tammany Hall they would vote for their candidates.


Fertile ground for a game here, for sure. One option would be a card-driven game that brings in lots of flavour text and historical events. That would be the “theme as mechanics” approach to the design. But Doug Eckhart chose a different path to bring the theme to life, as I will show.

Summary of gameplay

Tammany Hall has a remarkably spartan rule set. The game comprises 16 ‘years’ in which each player will take a turn, punctuated every 4 years by an ‘election’, the only time at which points can be scored. Each player’s turn is made up of two actions, one of which must be to place a personal ‘ward boss’ marker into one of the city’s 15 wards, and the other which can be either to place a second boss or to take one of the waiting ‘immigrant’ cubes and house it in a ward.

The immigrant cubes come in German (orange), Italian (blue), English (white) and Irish (green) varieties, and are not controlled by a specific player. The advantage of placing one rather than simply adding your own bosses to the board is that you gain a political influence chip of the corresponding immigrant group. Control of the immigrant populations is key to the game - just as it was to Tammany Hall’s control of New York.

The meat of the game is in the election rounds which occur every four years. Each ward is resolved sequentially as an all-pay blind-bid auction. Only players who have ward bosses present can contest a ward, and each is worth one vote. Additional votes can be provided by political influence chips, but only those matching an immigrant nationality present in the ward. So if Ward 7 contains my boss, two of yours, an Italian and a German immigrant cube, then both of us can add as many of our blue or orange chips as we like to our base vote in a sealed fist. The winner leaves one ward boss in place along with the immigrant cubes; all other bosses are removed.

Each ward is resolved in this way, with one VP for the winner and three VP for the player taking most wards, who becomes ‘Mayor’ for the next four years. Importantly, the players now count up how many cubes of each immigrant nationality are present in the wards they won. For each group, the player who controls most is rewarded with three more valuable political influence chips.

That’s almost the whole game! One remaining feature is that after each election, the incoming Mayor must appoint each of the other players to a political office. This gives them a special power for the next term, while the Mayor gets nothing but the victory points and is given the least advantageous spot in turn order to boot. Another is that each player can take a special ‘slander’ action once per term from the second term on. This is the only way that other players’ ward bosses can be removed from the board. And finally, 2VPs are awarded to the player with most unspent political favours for each immigrant group at the end of the game.

Politics

So how does such a tight, almost abstract, set of rules do so much to evoke the thematic setting?

Firstly, the mechanics get out of the way of the players interacting with each other. There is no fiddling with the rulebook or trying to figure out if what you’re trying to do is actually possible. The whole point of the action phases is simply to set the scene for the elections. Each ward boss and immigrant cube you place is about deciding who will fight whom, where, and what they will be fighting over.

The elections themselves are pure game theory. Each player knows how much political influence the others have to spend. But where will they focus their effort? Which ward to they really care about, and which do they hope to use as a distraction tactic, persuading the others to sink unnecessary capital into? There are two ways of ‘winning’ an election in this game. One is by gaining more votes yourself. The other is by persuading your opponent to massively overinvest, and then reaping the rewards elsewhere.

The nature of the auction is absolutely critical to this. Imagine if it was a conventional auction with open bidding and the loser taking back their bid. They would simply take those chips and use them to win somewhere else. The all-pay blind bid ensure that once you’ve decided how much to invest in a ward, it’s gone, win or lose, just like real-life campaigning.

I've seen the game played with more or less explicit negotiation in the election phase. If two players are contesting two wards, they can make a pact to split them with the minimum expenditure of favour chips. But because the wards are resolved one after another, there's a terrible incentive for the player who is supposed to throw the later ward to renege on the deal.

Another important thing to understand about the game is that it is essentially about dividing up a fixed pot of points between the players. In each election, there are 16 VPs available from winning wards (the ward containing the historical Tammany Hall is worth 2VP) and three for being Mayor. Tied wards score zero. There are the four awards for control of the immigrant groups at the game end, and there is 1VP for each unused slander act.

In almost all cases, scoring a point means taking it away from someone else. This isn’t a game where you do better by optimising the efficiency of your actions, but by directly taking points from your rivals. As Boss Tweed himself said “The way to have power, is to take it”.

It also means that players can’t just be concerned with the points they score, but with how the other players carve the rest up. 20 isn’t a winning score if your opponents have 10 and 22. It is if they both have 16. Hey, doesn’t that sound just like a political system with more than two parties? (American readers may be unfamiliar with this concept).

Fortunately, the game gives players the tools not just to pick their own fights, but to start battles between others that will weaken both. For example, consider a ward in which two opponents have a boss, but only Italian immigrant cubes are present. One of the players has one Italian favour chip and five German ones, while the other has five Italians and a German. At the moment, the latter player can put in two Italian chips for a guaranteed and fairly cheap win. But what if I throw a German cube in there? Suddenly they can both spend up to six chips; they will probably both deplete their stash; and in the best case they might even tie and score nothing!

These are the kinds of tactics Tammany Hall is all about.

Controlling the immigrants

The role that the immigrants play in the mechanics of the game is also superbly integrated with the theme. By helping them into the city, the players gain political favour, which can later be spent to gain power. Favour chips are more powerful than ward bosses because, while a boss is stuck in one location, favour is flexible.

The system whereby majority control grants extra favour chips also creates some brilliant emergent dynamics. If I want to control the Italians, say, I may concentrate their population in a couple of key wards that I will fight hard for. Pretty soon, the board develops ghettos and the players start to specialise in one or two nationalities each.

The word ‘gerrymandering’ is nowhere in the rules, but doesn’t it perfectly describe the type of underhand tactic I gave an example of above? If I want to keep control of a ward and I’m up against by a player with large support amongst the Italian community, I’m going to do what I can to keep those Italians out.

It’s this type of emergent behaviour that is in the game but not in the rulebook that makes for a successful ‘theme as dynamics’ design.

I’m also going to make a quick components point here. I think there’s a reason that goes beyond the practical for the ward bosses to be represented by little men and the immigrants by plain old cubes. It makes it easier to think of the bosses as your guys, real people, while the immigrants are just faceless masses, only important to you because of their colour and their location. In my group, it’s hard to play the game without some casual racist terminology thrown in, and I don’t think that’s because we’re bad people.

Balance

Tammany Hall is not a typical balanced Euro. It’s fine with players being kicked while they’re down. If you get behind on favour chips, you become an easy mark and you’ll have to work hard to get back in it. The game relies almost entirely on the players to rein back a runaway leader and if they don’t conspire to do this, the leader will just become more powerful. I think these dynamics too are pretty strongly theme-inspired.

The one mechanical rather than player-driven catch-the-leader mechanic is the powerful roles which the Mayor has to assign to the other players. The Deputy Mayor gets one bonus political favour chip each year; the Council President can ‘lock down’ two wards preventing bosses or immigrants being added or removed; the Chief of Police can kick out immigrant cubes; and the Precinct Chair can relocate them.

Not only are these roles reasonably thematic on a mechanical level, they also present the Mayor with the delicious dilemma of how to give his opponents the powers they can make the least effective use of, or at least the ones they will use to hurt others rather than him. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, indeed.

Summary

I hope this essay has demonstrated how the very simple mechanical structure of Tammany Hall generates dynamics that are strongly congruent with its theme. I also hope that, by describing those dynamics, it has given you some idea of whether you would enjoy the game.

Tammany Hall is not for everyone. I love it, but it leaves me stressed out and drained, and for some that may be a complete turn-off. There is almost no randomness in the game to blame for your defeat, and in order to win, you must incentivise the other players to conspire in that victory by fighting each other and not you. It’s a balancing act that is as much psychology as it is gameplay, and if you can get through a game without swearing gratuitously, you’re a better man than I am.
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Tim Seitz
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This is a good discussion, but I disagree with this statement:
Quote:
One option would be a card-driven game that brings in lots of flavour text and historical events. That would be the “theme as mechanics” approach to the design.

I would ascribe that more as "theme as flavor text", rather than mechanics.

My own term for what you described in Tammany Hall is "themanics". The theme and mechanics are intertwined, and it feels like you're doing what you'd expect an actor in the game would do. In TH, you're helping immigrants get placed into positions (that favor you) which gathers influence. You're working the neighborhoods for votes with your bosses, and you're sliming your opponents in the press. Come election time, you can count the votes and attempt to cash in your influence for more votes, but that doesn't guarantee the election.

Triggering events through cardplay--unless they were "sliming" events--doesn't make me feel like a politician.
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Martin G
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I think we're on the same page Tim. What I'm calling 'theme as dynamics' is exactly about feeling like you're part of the theme, whereas my 'theme as mechanics' is more about the mechanics attempting to actually simulate real-world events.

Quote:
In this category, the game mechanics correspond directly to thematic equivalents and taken to an extreme, the games become near-simulations. This is the type of game that inspires arguments about whether the mechanisms accurately represent the situation in question, and which could not be easily ported to a different setting.
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Peter Asimakis
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Martin,

Well written and a very enjoyable read.
Now to waiting for my new copy to arrive and to put this baby through it's paces.

PLB.
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John Sizemore
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I couldn't agree more with your conclusion. Tammany Hall is exactly what I want in a thematic game. I don't know of any other that manages to pack so much "feel" into such a simple ruleset.
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Adam Taylor
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Quote:


it’s hard to play the game without some casual racist terminology thrown in, and I don’t think that’s because we’re bad people.



I'm on the fence there.

I do agree though that the game creates exactly the kind of backstabbing and dirty dealing that are representative of the historical situation with incredibly simple rules and no clunky flavour text.

Looking at many of my favourite games they tend towards the theme-as-dynamic mould. The definitions are very interestingly observed.
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James Honeyfield
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Great review. I like the new critcal focus you're championing.

I can't imagine I'd be any good at all at Tammany Hall it sounds brutal, I bet a win at this is extremely staisfying. How group dependent is it? And has it featured at LoB yet?
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Martin G
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SuperSize wrote:
How group dependent is it? And has it featured at LoB yet?

Pretty highly group-dependent. As I said, it's not for everyone, and it won't work well for a group who are unhappy with a strong metagame.

All my plays of it have been at LoB. My favourite was the one where five of us sat down to play and then realised we came from the exact five nationalities represented in the game
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