David Frum

05.04.13

Tammany Hall: the Game Where You Play as a New York City Ward Boss

Imagine a game where opponents identify immigrant groups, earn political favors from them by helping them to settle in their new county, and then translate that political capital into votes on election day.

A description of modern day immigration reform? Nope. This is the premise of the board game Tammany Hall (recently re-published by Pandasaurus Games.)

Tammany Hall casts you in the role of a 19th century New York politician who seeks to use the city’s growing immigrant population to achieve political supremacy. (The game is focused on the city from around 1850 till 1870). The game captures the aesthetics of the era effectively with the game board being a wonderful S.A. Mitchell map of New York City and by using classic Thomas Nast cartoons to illustrate the various city offices.

Tammany Hall simulates the power struggle between aspiring New York City politicians but not the actual mechanisms of how the real Tammany Hall functioned or how William M. Tweed (aka “Boss” Tweed) came to dominate New York City. It is a game about turning areas of control into power. So you get the feel for being a powerful ward boss without getting bogged into the specifics of what that would have required.

Tammany Hall is one of those “simple to play, hard to master” game. In each turn you only have a few available actions. There are cubes on the map representing different immigrants. Every turn you place down ward bosses to control wards. In addition, you have the option to bring in some immigrants from Castle Gardens, settle them in New York City, and gain their political favor. Throughout the game, you can help Irish, English, German, and Italians settle.

The “political favor” you accumulate is represented by tokens. Once every four years you will be bidding these political favors in contested ward elections. Win the most wards and you become Mayor for the next four years (there are four elections in the game). If you control enough wards with a majority of an immigrant population, you will become an “immigrant leader” and gain additional political favors from that group.

What is most striking about the game is how it is focused on a single theme: the acquisition of power. Immigrants are just resources to be shuffled around the map and used for the collection political favor. It is not an entirely accidental choice that immigrants are represented on the map as simple cubes while ward bosses (the tokens which express your will on the board) are actual people with bowler hats.

In the games that I have played so far, fellow players (myself included) have also shown a remarkably casual disregard for the plight of the immigrant cubes. One recent game had players trying to wait as long as possible to avoid bringing a single German immigrant cube into New York City since doing so would benefit the player who was in the lead. Once that cube finally arrived it didn’t stay for long because the player who had been appointed to be Chief of Police used his powers to “arrest” and deport that cube away.

The game encourages specialization-and by extension-immigrant conflict, there are only four turns before each election so players have a short window in which to maximize their position. In this environment, it makes sense that you will want to pick one immigrant group to champion. Later in the game you will use the large amount of political capital you have gained with that group to support expanding your reach into other wards. In many elections wards that had traditionally been dominated by one group switch hands as just a few immigrants with a huge amount of political backing muscle in.

Tammany Hall is a game that simulated the dynamics of politics without having to get into the details. A more complicated game may require you as a ward boss to decide which wards receive which sort of patronage, and give you a limited amount of favors to dole out, which in turn could be calculated to determine what chance you have of getting immigrants to vote for you, and so on and so forth.

The game is less about the actual historical realities of how the real Tammany Hall worked, and more about what it feels like to control voters and build up a political machine. In the game the immigrant cubes and political favor chips are collected all for the goal of “victory points”. It's like Settlers of Catan, but with political machines.

The game accurately depicts power and competition, but does little to simulate the actual corruption which defined this era. While one can assume that the “victory points” that players accumulate actually represent the personal wealth players are gaining from taking control of the city, it is not the same as inflating the cost of a government contract or enriching yourself off government funds.

Tammany Hall does what it sets out to do really well, athough it does leave out some accuracy in exchange for smooth gameplay and deep strategy. The game declares on the box that “the way to have power, is to take it”, but I wish it did more to explore why power was sought. I suspect that the answer was not to just accumulate victory points.