Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Tuesday 1 March 2016

The US Election Game I

Like clockwork, the US Presidential Election rolls around every four years and with it, come a slew of US Presidential Election themed board and card games. Although strangely, they really only seem to appear in years where is the chance of switching from one party to the other, so Republican to Democrat or vice versa. So Z-Man Games’ 1960: The Making of the President was released in 2007 and followed by Campaign Manager 2008 in 2008. 2016 is no different with a half a Super Pac’s worth of games with a presidential theme coming our way in the run up to the US Election in November, most of them funded through popularity and pledges, just like the US Election itself. Of course, these games are funded via Kickstarter rather than through the ballot box. 

The first of these is The Contender: The Game of Presidential Debate. Funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign and published by The Contender, this is a social or party game in the mode of Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity. So it works by one player posing a question from a card to the other players, who will use their answer cards to supply answers to the questioning player who will select what he thinks is the most suitable answer from these cards. The person who played the selected card wins that round. Then the next player gets to pose the question whilst everyone else provides the answers, and so on. Play continues one of the players has won an agreed number of rounds.

Designed to be played by three or more players, aged eleven and older, The Contender uses this same mechanic, but with an extra twist that comes from its theme, that of US Presidential Debates. In The Contender, the game is played with Topic cards rather than question cards and Argument cards rather than answer cards. The player setting each Topic is the Moderator and the players making the Arguments are the Candidates. The Contender comes with forty Topic cards and some five hundred Argument cards. Each Topic card has a subject and a question intended to be read aloud to the Candidates, for example, ‘Guns – Candidate, the debate over the Second Amendment has only grown louder in the last five years. As president, do you intend to pull the trigger or dump ammo on the right to bear arms?’ or ‘Police Brutality – Candidate, law enforcement has come under fire as viral videos of alleged police misconduct make headlines. Do you believe our boys in blue are seeing red, or is the current outrage white-washing a complex issue?’ All of the Topic cards deal with contentious subjects.

The Argument cards are slightly more complex. They are divided into three types—Attack, Distract, Fact. Each gives a short phrase that can be used as an Argument and the source from which it is drawn. So the ‘You’re a national embarrassment.’ is from the Bill Clinton quote, “We can’t have any more instances like what happened when Mr. Bush went to Japan and the Japanese prime minister said he felt sympathy for our country.”; the Distract card, ‘I would like to be the first to say…’ is based on Jimmy Carter’s “Tonight I would like to be the first to say a few words about this most special office, the presidency of the United States.”; and the Fact card, ‘I’ve had actual responsibility’ is based on the Sarah Palin quote, “I guess a small-time mayor is sort of like a community organizer, except that you have actual responsibilities.”

At the start of the game each Candidate receives five Argument cards and the person with the most presidential hair is the first Moderator and poses the first Topic. Then going round the table each Candidate can respond with one, two, or three Argument cards. A Candidate does not have to play all three cards at once, but can choose to hold some for use later in the round, typically as a response to another another Candidate’s Argument. Once a Candidate has played three Argument cards though, his contribution towards the debate about the Topic card is over for that round.

For example, Dave, Debbie, and Louise are playing The Contender and it is Louise’s turn to be the Moderator. She turns to the others and says, “Christmas. Candidate, over 50 percent of the voters who describe themselves as Christian claim there is a culture war on Christmas. Do you believe the reason for the season is under fire? Or should those concerned realize there’s more than one way to deck the halls?”

Dave’s opening statement is, “I will not rest until all Americans have Christmas.” (Fact) to which Debbie responds, “Are you taking crazy pills?” (Attack) and “I will not support this boondoggle.” (Attack). Dave looks over at Debbie and raising his eyebrows, says, “Suck it up.” (Attack) “We have to strengthen Christmas.” (Fact). Debbie gets in one last comment, “You can’t even spell Christmas.” At which point each Candidate has played his or her three Argument cards and it is up to the Moderator to decide upon the winner, at least for this topic. Louise decides that Dave has made the most cogent argument and awards him the Topic card as a victory point.

At the end of each round, each Candidate draws back up to five Argument cards and the next player in turn becomes the Moderator. Play continues like this until the Candidate with most Topic cards wins. Or at least this is how I think that The Contender is played. The problem is not the basic structure of the game, but rather the use of the Argument cards. Does each Candidate read them out verbatim or can he adapt them? Neither is suggested. Nor is the use of the Attack, Distract, or Fact cards explained. The lack of an explanation does leave the rules open to interpretation, but coming up with your own explanation or interpretation should not really be much of an issue.

Physically, The Contender comes in the same style of box as Cards Against Humanity, but has an obviously American theming in terms of its graphical design. The cards themselves are sturdy enough, easy to read, and the quotes on the Argument cards are interesting to read.

In addition to its underwritten rules, the other issue with The Contender is its subject matter. The players have to be interested enough in the process of the US Presidential Election to want to play this game. Firstly, this makes it of limited interest outside of the USA; secondly, it makes it of limited interest to a younger audience—especially the suggested age of eleven plus; and thirdly, whilst the subjects presented on the Topic cards are rude or adult in nature, they are potentially controversial in nature. There may be some Topic cards that the Candidates do not want to debate. Whatever the players’ attitudes towards the subject on the Topic cards, The Contender is best played with an older audience and with more than just three players unless you want to play out the final US Presidential Debates.

Now despite its underwritten rules, The Contender is nicely themed game that does a bit more with the traditional Apples to Apples, using the Attack, Distract, and Fact Argument cards to help Candidates build their arguments in each round. There is also plenty of scope for the players to roleplay too, taking on a particular stance for one Topic, switching to another for the next Topic, and so on, whether playing it straight or for comedic effect. Ultimately, The Contender: The Game of Presidential Debate is a solidly themed party game that gets you ready for all of the hoopla of the US Presidential Elections.

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