When Monty Python's Flying Circus left our screens in the 1970's, it was followed in its wake by numerous alternative comedy programmes attempting to imitate it. Some were quite successful, one of which was the rather topical Not the Nine O' Clock News, which marked the introduction of Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean), Mel Smith (now an underrated director), Griff Rhys-Jones (now infrequently Mel's sidekick) and Pamela Stevenson (now best known as Mrs. Billy Connolly) to the small screen. The most notable feature of this programme was that it seemed not only to provide alternative humour, but was also rather topical in most instances; not the first to be semi-topically humorous but marking a milestone in comedy which saw the active talents of its four stars shine like an awful joke in a Christmas cracker.
Why is this relevant to a review for a game designed by Martin Wallace? Martin Wallace has, in one of his recent designs, brought the traditional flavour of British satire to the boardgame in a way never before imagined. It's bordering on the offensive (which side of the border is debatable), it's quite topical, it's great. In a manner akin to the greats of British satirical comedy, Wallace has taken a break from his usual historical tendencies and instead produced something of hysterical tendencies.
The basic idea of Election USA is to gain popularity in time for the election. This is done through a combination of policies (which gain potential support) and advertising (which turn this potential into actual support in any of the available regions). Policies are won by sacrificing an abstract commodity called "Sincerity", which represents the public face of the politician. In order to gain support for a particular policy a player must sacrifice some of his sincerity. Advertising is bought using a player's own campaign funding; of course only the most effective (i.e.: most expensive) advertising will gain the vote.
As funds are not endless and sincerity limited, players can also opt to improve either during their turn; these fairly essential currencies will almost certainly be helpful should anybody try to blackmail them or should the press get their hands on some juicy gossip. In this game skeletons appear now and again, threatening to expose the candidates to the electorate for what they really are. The effect is they lose votes, lose money or lose face. And quite right too; that'll teach you for starring in that risqué video wearing nothing but a smile.
The game ends in a number of ways; either when any player's popularity reaches its limit, when any player lets loose one scandal too many or when there is nothing left to do. At this point the votes are counted, and any player with a clear majority takes the post of President of the USA. Here's where policy can count again, because in the event of a tie, the balance will be tipped towards the player backing the most policies.
The game components are what should be expected of any game from a major publisher; though Mongoose are in my personal opinion not quite on the same level as many of the larger houses, they have done a fantastic job. The graphics for both the cards and board are fairly basic, but the fun of the satire comes from the written word and in my opinion needs no "cartoonery" to bolster it.
The rules appear as a single sheet; they are fairly well-written but you may have to read them again just to make sure you are doing it right. I can't say for certain who wrote this draft, but I was ever so careful to make sure I didn't suffer the same fate I did with some of the Warfrog titles Martin Wallace has given us. The problem with those titles was always a little ambiguity in the ruleset; something easily overcome here. I didn't find Election USA's ruleset ambiguous in any way but it did lack clarity on minor points. In fact, it was probably only one minor point causing us trouble, for which I reached a logical conclusion—where pawns go when they are removed from the board.
The remaining components, the pawns and markers, are basic plastic Halma pieces and whilst they perform their function amply I was a little disappointed to find them referred to as "cubes" in the rules.
Scratch beneath the humorous surface of a lot of games and there isn't much of a game left. A case in point for me is Nuclear War—I waited such a long time to get it to the table, longing to experience the dark, satirical, genocidal humour of the game. There wasn't much humour there but to top it all there wasn't much game either. I was told that was the point, but if I'd wanted some sort of moral lesson I'd have gone to church and I've heard better jokes at funerals.
That game passed by the wayside, but somehow I don't think Election USA will suffer the same fate. The reason, of course, is that Martin Wallace has left us with a game that will continue to be playable whether the parody remains foremost or not. The game is enhanced by the odd derogatory quip between players about their latest "scandal", but the game will remain despite humour or lack thereof.
The underlying game system is solid, enabling some clever play and rather thematic manipulation. For example, I could be out of the running in the West Coast region; but one of the scoring rules is that two or more players with equal strength in a region cancel each other out (totally!). Using this knowledge, I might pick up advertising which would tempt another player to bid, only to force him to take an equal footing with the leader in that region (thus leaving both players out of the running and me in it—for the time being, at least).
When all is said and done, there is very little to criticise about Election USA; it is quick, light and I would recommend it to anyone with a sense of humour to fill forty-five minutes to an hour or so. Martin Wallace has definitely got my vote with this one!
- Anthony Simons