Tammany Hall: a Swarm of Political Locusts

By Andrew Joyce


This review is a summary of an audio review by Get on Board. Feel free to click here for the full audio review (from episode #9) ›
The first time I played Tammany Hall, it was a disaster.

One couple played as a team so we could cram everyone into the game. One person never got off their phone. One person got screwed by first-player rotation, as we got the rule wrong. I hadn’t learned the rules, so we learned straight from the rulebook (that one’s on me!) It was a disaster.

After that experience, we left the game alone for four months. The box sat on my shelf, brooding as only a fat cat New York City mob boss can do. I even sold it, only to have the transaction fall through! I began to see Boss Tweed’s face in my nightmares. Finally, I tried a second time with a better group, and we had a great time. All at once, I realized that I was quite a big fan of Tammany Hall.

Some don’t like the board, but I think the look of the game is rather nifty.

Overview

In Tammany Hall, you’re placing mob bosses (who influence districts) and immigrants (who live in the districts you’re trying to influence). For settling immigrants, you’ll win political favor, which you can cash in during elections. You earn a point for each district you control on the board, and in a game that can be won with 25 points, every district counts! Just like real life, the mob boss with the most points wins.

The Magic

Though both are historic, not sure why this is Castle Garden and not Ellis Island…

Let’s talk about the magic of this game, and boy, is there a lot! First, Tammany Hall is the purest distillation of the area control mechanic that I’ve ever played. Each player only places 32 pieces onto the board, so you can’t ‘flood’ districts and force your control over them. No, Tammany Hall is a much cagier experience: a lot depends on how you approach the game with your opponents, and negotiation is critical to success.

Secondly, Tammany Hall offers a negotiation experience that’s unmatched by any other game I’ve played. This game really does so much with so little – a lot of what you’re doing depends on what the other players are doing, and if you’re colluding with them, competing with them, or trying to steamroll them altogether!

The game starts out deceptively breezy, but everything slows down after the first election. You’ll realize that one of the players has walked out with 6 districts, and rocketed ahead on the points track. More importantly, you’ll realize that its in your power to stop him. Just like that, the metagame around the table comes to life, as the forging of deals commences.

These beat-up political favor chips are how you will swing elections in your favor.

This, of course, is the third magic element of Tammany Hall. Being the leader is hard, and 2 or 3 players will take on that mantle throughout the game, only to fall back down again. It’s up to you – you canny, cheeky sleaze, you – to time your ascent so that you are rising to the top, absolutely stuffed with territories at the very last election, when your opponents realize that it’s too late, you’ve sneaked into the lead at the last minute, and all their bickering and fighting has only served to push you to the top. Tammany Hall is so bash-the-leader that the winner is usually the person with a silver tongue who can escape the most unscathed.

The Tragic

If you didn’t see the red flags in the paragraphs above, let me now spell them out for you! This game is not for everyone! The backstabbing and negotiation stretched out over two hours will turn many people away. If that’s you, feel free to close this review and never think of it again.

Thus, Tammany Hall can be rather fragile. Because this experience won’t suit everyone, it’s easy for a poor player selection to drag the experience down (as I learned in my first play of it). It’s even easy for the length of the game to cause you all to suffer, as you inch towards the finish line well over the two-hour mark. It really all depends on your players, but doesn’t any good game?

Tammany Hall is my favorite game that I can only stomach once every three or four months. And I’m fine with that. Every time I pull it out, I carefully select my opponents, and I know that we’ll all be able to handle the political jockeying. Every time I pull it out, I’m simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted by the negotiations that make up the heart of this game. Every time I pull it out, I remember why I keep this on my shelf. Tammany Hall is a brinkmanship game like no other that I’ve found.

The purple and yellow gangs square off for control of Tammany Hall, worth a hefty 2VP!

Here’s a story to wrap things up: I’m playing with three friends: Stephen, Josh, and Jon. Jon takes a commanding lead after the first election, and he’s elected mayor twice (Being elected mayor gives you a huge boost of three victory points). We enter the fourth term with Jon a clear favorite.

I’m in second place, though I’m quite far behind. So I say, “We can’t let him get away with this!” And Josh and Stephen nod their heads, because it’s clear that Jon will win if “we” don’t do something. So we place our bosses and our immigrants throughout the fourth term, and Stephen and Josh both agree not to attack each other and to throw everything they’ve got at Jon. And they do…and I stay quiet. I lock down a few key districts and avoid Jon altogether.

When the final election comes, Stephen and Josh keep Jon from getting many points, but their own districts are battlefields, and they only score a few points each. Meanwhile, I’ve tidied up four or five different districts, and I waltz through the minefield nearly unscathed, scoring huge bonuses for all my saved-up political favor and the final mayor bonus. In the end, I beat Jon by one point.

So that’s a great story, but what makes it truly great is that Jon was screaming at them the entire time, “Don’t you see? He’s playing you! He’s going to win!” And I did. And after we’d counted the points, Jon was vindicated in righteous loss, and Josh and Stephen looked at each other and said, “He was playing us. He did win!”

That, my friend, is why Tammany Hall is a great experience. You will be forced to engage with your opponents, and wring favors, alliances, and concessions out of them. You will all descend on lower Manhattan like a swarm of political locusts…and only one of you will still be standing at the end of it all.

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