Board Game Review: The Primary

So you want to be a politician, wade into the swamp and clean things up. After all, unlike every politician before you, you’re the one who is going to actually Get Things Done and remain true to your ideals and values. You’ll represent your constituency and be a shining example of why our nation is great.

You just need to get elected first.

And that’s where things get difficult, and is the theme behind the fun and insightful new board game The Primary, by Matt Quock. I had a chance to play a late stage prototype, which means that you’re not seeing final production cards, art or pieces in my photos. Game play, however, is locked in, and The Primary is really two games in one: A multiplayer competitive game for 2-5 players, and a solo game where you’re competing against an incumbent who has the upper hand in just about every district. I tried out the solo mode…

First off, let’s have a look at the major components, the playing board, a map of the continental United States broken into about 15 regions, delegate tokens, and the various cards:

the primary board game overview

Each map zone either has one or two numbers printed on it; those are the delegates you win if you have the most influence [cubes] in that region when they vote. Each region also has a small number token that indicates voting order. Texas, for example, votes in round 8, while Florida’s early in the primaries in round 4. Regions with only one number – like Washington/Oregon – are known as winner takes all areas: One candidate is going to win all 13 delegates and everyone else is outta luck. Twelve rounds, 8 voting, and by the end the candidate with the most delegates wins!

Along the bottom are the cards that govern play. Leftmost are the “NCC” news cards. Each round a new card is flipped and that affects play that for everyone that round. In the middle is a Candidate card – each player gets a different one, of course – and their stack of Action Cards. Since I was playing solo, the cards on the right corner are the Elect-o-bot that controls the incumbent against which I competed.

Sound complicated? It’s not. In fact, the game’s quick to grasp and understand: Each candidate secretly places four action cards, face down, then they’re revealed and actions take place round-robin, one card at a time. You’re vying to have the most influence in not just the region that’s about to vote, but subsequent regions too (gotta keep your eye on the long game), while running positive ads to gain influence, negative ads to hurt a fellow candidate, rallies, fundraisers, and even taking a bus or plane to move around the country and keep building influence as the game proceeds.

pick a candidate - the primary game

Above are a few example candidates. Chester Freeman gains delegates based on influence in regions when he loses a vote, even if it’s a winner-take-all region. Anna Patel has additional powers related to SuperPAC actions, and Georgia Barnes starts out with additional influence cubes, something that proves a scarce resource as the game proceeds.

Once you have your candidate, then it’s time to consider your Action cards. In a typical game, there are no votes in the first two rounds so that candidates can move around and start gaining influence.

example action cards, the primary board game

Above you can see I was playing candidate Kenneth Walker and have three unallocated influence cubes ready to play. I’ve played Super PAC, Negative Ad and Fundraiser: SuperPAC is generally the easiest way to gain additional influence cubes, but it’s expensive because you might need to play two or three of your four actions in a round to win. Tie and you gain 2, but win and you get a sweet four influence cubes, quite a valuable commodity. Negative ads rather go against my own beliefs with politics, but being able to pull another candidate’s influence from any region on the map? Darn useful. Finally, fundraising lets you gain a single influence cube. If all goes well, I could see +5 influence cubes from the above!

And then there’s the news. Here are three example cards:

the primary news action cards

(note that this is where you can see it’s a prototype; the final cards will have the material properly centered, I’m sure!)

As you can see, each news card changes how action cards are interpreted: Friendly Debate means negative ad cards cost influence to play instead of being free, Long Haul allows you to move two regions with a bus card, and Gerrymandering gives you a bonus of three extra delegates from every region voting this round.

One more stack of cards: The Elect-o-bot 9000. It’s only for solo games, but you can see each card has a set of rules that identifies where the ‘bot moves this round, then what happens once they get there:

the primary card board game - electobot robot

The rightmost card, for example, specifies it’ll move to the region with the smallest margin of victory. If that’s ambiguous, then the region voting next. Still ambiguous? The one worth the most delegates. Then wherever it ends up, it adds two influence cubes. This can be frustrating if it’s a region you’ve been working on dominating for the last few rounds!

Also notice the bottom portion: The game includes a special Elect-o-bot 9000 die that you roll to determine how many SuperPAC cards it matches. This ensures that the solo player doesn’t amass a massive pile of influence cubes and can be quite frustrating when you sacrifice actions to put down your own SuperPAC cards and… don’t win!

So how does it work. In solo mode, you place four action cards, then play two, play the ‘bot, then play the other two of your action cards. Here’s a play I did:

play, counterplay, in the primary board game

With three influence cubes ready to go, I held a rally – which allows me to drop two in the current region – then a SuperPAC (actually two) to gain more influence cubes. Then it was Elect-o-bot’s turn and it moved to the region that was voting first and drop an influence cube in every region adjacent. Then, finally, I ran a positive ad so I could drop another of my influence cubes anywhere I wanted. Finally, I rolled the die and got two-stars, meaning Elect-o-bot counted for 3 SuperPAC cards. Against my two it meant I lost. Frustrating!

End of this round we were going to vote in region 3. Here’s how it stood:

region 3 about to vote, the primary

The votes were cast – 5 blue (4 influence cubes + the pawn, which counts as one) vs 2 red – and the winner declared! Blue gained 13 delegates and red 5. Not too bad. Notice that red’s pawn was already in another region working on gaining influence. Smart operator, that candidate.

Finally, here’s how the board stood with the game just about complete:

the primary board game - end of game

Region 11 (California) was poised to vote, and blue was ahead, 94 delegates to 77 for red (shown along the outer track). As the blue candidate, I was glad to say that while I lost a bunch of delegates in the final round, I still won, with a final tally of 108 to 126. My first action as the winner? Toss the darn ‘bot in jail. Well, maybe not. 🙂

The Primary is a simple, straightforward and surprisingly engaging strategy game that you can play with a wide variety of gamers. It’s easy to understand and play, quick to set up and offers some insight into the inherent tensions of the American political system. Do you run negative ads to hurt a candidate or run a purely positive campaign to gain influence and delegates? Do you focus on the key states and regions, or spread yourself throughout the country? Do you spend tons of time running fundraisers or do you take PAC money and figure out how to remain true to your own values once you’re in office?

The best thing about The Primary is that it proves fun to play regardless of your political views. Republican or Democrat, Libertarian or Freedom Party fan, it’s equally challenging to work within the system and still come out victorious. The art might be a bit simplistic and the solo rules might need a bit of tightening down to eliminate some ambiguity, but Matt’s got a winner on his hands, and this is one you’ll definitely want to back on Kickstarter when you have the chance.

Disclaimer: Matt sent me a prototype copy of this game for the purposes of this review.

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