I Am Totes a Crook
A game about investigating the President of the United States for obstruction of justice? How far-fetched.
Matthias Cramer’s Watergate is descended from solid pedigree in more ways than one. Most apparently, it fills the shoes of a card-driven wargame — think Twilight Struggle and its many imitators — wherein historical events are abstracted directly onto the same cards that give you action points. Every card is therefore a decision in miniature, just as your hand represents a decision in major. Should you trigger that event now, gain its benefits, and remove it from the game? Or use it for a less powerful but more player-directed action, and hope that its event cycles back through your deck later? If you’ve heard this before, expect to hear it again.
But that’s the thing: this form of card-driven game was once innovative, then thoroughly imitated, and now seems almost expected. Your new game features multi-use cards? That’s wonderful. Now what’s the hook?
In Watergate, the hook is that the entire game is built around the expectation that you can’t win everything. Every round opens with a track piled with multiple markers and evidence tokens, and it’s a rare situation that will see you nabbing a majority of them. Instead, your goal is to be just withholding enough that your opponent fights for every gain, without pulling so hard that you don’t lose focus on the things you need. In other words, it’s a decent approximation of an actual standoff between the most powerful man in the world and the most powerful free press in the world. Documents are released or redacted; public opinion is swayed or set alight; momentum is gathered or faltered. The board, designed to evoke a corkboard with a sprawling conspiracy connected via pushpins and red string, is really just a bonus.
This works precisely because its two sides are not only at odds, but also disparate in how they define success. For the Washington Post, the primary focus is on gathering evidence and connecting it to Nixon, a three-step process that requires securing evidence tokens, carefully pinning them onto the evidence board, and ultimately recruiting two informants who can connect a string of secured evidence from themselves back to Nixon. By contrast, the President himself is preoccupied with public opinion and securing enough momentum to last until the end of his term. Which possibly sounds easier, since it’s effectively a waiting game, but entails securing evidence and potential informants and pinning their “redacted” side in such a way that it obstructs the press’s ability to make those crucial connections.
Not only does it work, it works in subtle ways to evoke the intersecting requirements of both the Press and a crooked President. For example, there are three things being contested at any given time. Evidence, of course, which both sides hope to acquire (or dismiss) relatively often. Beyond that, there are two colored tokens. Red is momentum, and Nixon wins outright if he secures five in total. But the journalists also don’t mind some momentum. Not letting Nixon claim an easy momentum token can hamper him, certainly. But the Press also earns onetime perks from momentum, like extra evidence or un-redacting something on the corkboard. The Washington Post is primarily concerned with evidence and Nixon is obsessed with momentum, but both are encouraged to “reach across the aisle” from time to time.
The last contested piece is the white token, which represents initiative. This one is slightly more abstract, but represents its holder’s ability to spin the story — another type of momentum, one that determines who John Q. Public is currently smitten with. Each round, the player with initiative gets a fifth card. That’s a tremendous advantage. Even more tremendous, they play first, which also means they play last. Expect the initiative token to be roundly contested — and potentially a distraction as the Press player runs story after story in an effort to hold the public’s attention, only for the actual investigation to slip through their fingers.
This isn’t an infinite challenge. There are only twenty cards per side, and you’re likely to see all of them in a single play. Furthermore — and this is more of a blessing than a curse — it’s easy to learn the events in short order. Both the Washington Post and Nixon can swing each informant to their side. Both have gotcha! cards, whether reporters who shut down Nixon’s conspirators or cards that cancel events or completely slam the brakes on the current round. Where the first play feels like anything can happen, the second is familiar. By the fourth, you’ll pretty much know which dirty tricks your opponent has up their sleeve.
But this complaint is little more than a whine for a few reasons. First of all, Watergate only takes half an hour to play. This isn’t some massive card-driven wargame that requires everybody to memorize a thick rulebook with a hundred minor exceptions. Over half of the rulebook is about the Watergate scandal itself, the whos and whys and whats that brought down Nixon’s presidency. When it comes to the rules, everything is straightforward. Not that it’s simple. That’s the other reason the game’s compactness isn’t as much of a limitation as it might first appear. Depending on the order of your draws and the way your opponent handles themselves, the decision space is pleasingly broad. It’s even possible to feint by prodding at evidence you don’t want so that your opponent invests their cards in the wrong thing. Provided they’re even paying attention to what you’re doing.
Either way, there are subtleties to explore. Some evidence tokens result in next round’s momentum token being nudged toward your side of the track. There are three types of evidence to consider, with each card only able to manipulate certain colors, and each color only useful on particular segments of the corkboard. Some events only affect face-up evidence tokens, requiring the Washington Post to first uncover their topic — and risk Nixon responding before they can play the crucial event. There’s enough to dig into, without being so much that it proves even a little bit overwhelming.
We spill a lot of ink in this hobby over the way a game’s mechanisms and themes intersect. Sometimes it’s a fruitless conversation; what works for one person might not work for another. In this case, Matthias Cramer has successfully evoked a game of cat and mouse between investigative reporters and a shady politician. The same information can be a bridge or a wall; the same fickle public can assist or hinder. For such a small game, Watergate manages to punch above its weight and remind us of the essential nature of a free press at the same time.
Put another way, I usually expect that any history lesson crammed into thirty minutes will sacrifice thematic density. Watergate makes for a formidable exception.
A complimentary copy was provided.