Cosmic Wombat games has grown to become one of my favorite small publishers this year. After getting a chance to play Stones of Fate and Expedite they gained my interest as a maker of solid strategy games that require a bit of intelligence to play. Their newest game, Campaign Trail, looks to continue their trend of creating easy to learn games with surprising depth of strategy. Let's see if they succeed yet again in this review!
In Campaign Trail you and up to 5 other players take on the roles of Presidential hopefuls in a battle to win the most electoral votes up for grabs in a highly competitive race. The game has an interesting team concept that depends on the amount of players. The winning strategies can vary wildly based on how players are grouped. For instance in a 2 or 3 player game players take on the roles of Presidential candidates in the Democratic, Independant, or Republican parties and the game play is a fairly straightforward campaign where there is no teamwork involved and players are free to tackle whatever concern presses them at that moment. In higher player counts, however, a Vice Presidential candidate is added to the teams, a change that requires a lot more open communication of strategy and adds a way deeper level to the game where there are fewer surprises to steal electoral votes away and decisions need to be much more shrewd and calculated to be successful.
What’s surprising is how well this type of play scales. There is never a party that has too much of an advantage over another at any of these player counts, which is very unusual. In fact in many of the playthroughs the Independent Party, a party that is put at a serious disadvantage in many other political games, managed to secure the election.
This is a testament to what I feel is the games strongest feature, balance. It is very rare that I ever get to play a perfectly balanced game, especially from a kickstarter project. In each playthrough every game was a very closely contested race with many changes in the lead. There was not a single moment where anyone felt left out and if someone seemed like they were running away with the lead they would quickly learn just how simply that lead could be taken away by a smart move in a key state. Just about every game we played was decided by a tense and hard fought last turn that had everyone at the table excited by the outcome, win or lose. Moments like this are a stunning success in game design and show how much hard work went into making this game not only a good time to play but an excellent experience that can be the source of lively discussion even after all the pieces are cleaned up.
The gameplay of Campaign Trail was also surprisingly easy to learn. Most times I need to read through a rulebook at least twice to fully internalize everything that’s going on so that I can teach it to others. This game just needed one go through to get it all down. Everything was organized very clearly and concisely in a simple to read manual along with a nice reference guide for all of the special abilities in the game. For a game with this much complexity that is no small feat and is another feather in the cap for this game.
There are a few mechanics at work in this game that make it gel very nicely and recreate the feel of a heated political race. The first is a standard of most election based games and that is a territory control aspect. To win a state for your party you need to have a majority of registered voters, represented by colored cubes, in the states you wish to win. These voters can be placed in a wide variety of ways, which brings us to the excellent action selection mechanic at work in Campaign Trail.
The method of taking actions in Campaign Trail are an interesting mixture of luck and strategy. Each turn players will draw a hand of up to five cards. Each card has a wide variety of uses and making good use of them is critical to winning the election. Cards can be used to Travel to different states, Gain more money for your war chest, Register Voters, Advertise, Campaign, or perform special effects that can potentially have lasting effects on the game. Despite a card having a variety of all of these choices on them a candidate can only choose one action to use and discard that card, never to be used again. This results in a lot of agonizing decisions since at any given moment there are multiple needs that need to be taken care of. It requires a good deal of thought to figure out what you need to do each turn in the short term to put you in good position for a victory.
The final mechanic that I also really enjoy in this game is the asymmetrical play aspect it provides. Each player gets to choose a candidate card that gives them a special strength or weakness that they can use in the game. You may end up with a Master Orator that can sway the masses in a debate, a member of a wealthy and powerful family with endless finances, or an honest candidate with no skeletons in the closet that can’t have her character assaulted but in turn can not run smear campaigns on her competitors. Each of these cards add another layer of depth and will give you strong advantages that will guide you towards an ideal avenue of victory in a game. This is very important since it is easy to spread yourself thin across all of the possible methods to win a game instead of focusing on a few methods that work well for you. The designer also made these candidate cards double sided to represent both male and female candidates. This keeps the game inclusive to males and females alike which is something that I would like to see more of in the gaming community and in politics.
The components in this game are hard to judge based on the preview copy that I received. However judging by the good quality of their prototype and the company’s commitment to making a tight well made game lead me to believe that they are not going to cheap out on this aspect of game design. I am confident that the final product will be made of good sturdy materials that will hold up to many plays. Further contact with the publishers have confirmed this. I have also been assured by them that they will have some exciting stretch goals to include some unique components that will improve the already high game quality even further.
The game board looks very sharp. It is pretty large and allows you to see each state clearly and gives you enough room to stack up all of your voters without obstructing any key information. All of the text is very clear and easy to read from any part of the table. All of these things are good and standard for a board game but what Cosmic Wombat does that is not standard board game fare really makes this game cool.
The four piece, gigantic sliding scoring track does an amazing job of immersing players into the theme of Campaign Trail. Each party has a grooved row on the scoring track that they can place cardboard chits representing the number of electoral votes for each state snugly into this track when they are acquired. These chits are easy to move and switch between players so that gameplay can remain fast paced and not bogged down by having to keep constant track of numbers. The person with the longest score track is obviously in the lead and it is very easy to determine which states you will want to take from your opponents to cripple them the most. This is by far my favorite component in this game. It is attractive, useful, convenient, and really makes you feel like you are a part of a political rally watching the ticker on a giant screen reporting results to you as you await the reporting of all the districts votes.
Another cool part of the board is the War Chest Dial Mat. This part of the board allows players to track their finances by using an easy to turn two tiered dial system. Instead of bogging down play by having to keep track of a lot of fake money, possibly between multiple people, everyone can clearly see what funds are available to all players. It only requires a simple twist of the dial to add or remove funds and since everyone can see what’s going on the potential of having a cheating banker is strongly diminished.
The theme of this game is probably Campaign Trails only possible drawback. Playing a game with a political theme can be a scary proposition. Many people like to steer away from political discussion with friends and family mainly because of the potential for arguments. However this game does an excellent job of staying away from controversy where it can and does a great job at softening the blow of things that could stir up controversy.
For instance, even though all players are representing real United States political parties there is absolutely no reference to their stance on issues. States are marked with different icons representing topics that are important to them, while many of them are very controversial such as gun control, immigration, and reproductive rights, not once during the game does anyone have to take a stance on them. You merely have to state that you are “advertising” or “debating” about the issue, nothing more. This helps to deflect tension away from the subject and keep the focus on the game and the competition to get the most votes. Not on the issues.
Depending on your reasons for playing this game I would caution against playing this with people who are quick to anger about even the slightest mention of political views. Try to remind people that this is just a game and that it has no impact on real life and you will have a great time. You may even find yourselves chuckling a bit if the Independants manage to win win Texas and California or the Republicans win the entire North East, that’s when you learn that the game is about having fun, not being an election simulator.
This game will launch on Kickstarter in mid September with a goal of $37,500, a reasonable expectation for a game of this size. The minimum pledge tier to get a copy of this game will be at $49 which is a pretty good deal for what you get. This game is expected to retail for $65 so I would suggest backing this product as opposed to waiting for it to potentially arrive in stores.
There will also be some enticing premium pledge tiers for those looking to get a little more out of their game. Cosmic Wombat is offering a $75 pledge level to not only get a copy of Campaign Trail but also a copy of their last game, Stones of Fate. I purchased a copy of Stones of Fate at Gen Con this year and can personally attest to it’s greatness as a quick, clever, and fun strategy game. This is a solid reward tier if you are interested in seeing what else this great young company has to offer.
They will also have some interesting tiers that will allow you to personalize the game. For $64 dollars you will be able to get the name of your own Super PAC printed on a card. If you are interested in seeing “Paid for by Citizens United for the Protection and Domestication of Interstellar Marsupials” in a board game, this is your chance.
For $125 you can create one of the candidate cards. Your idea for a name and backstory as well as an artists depiction of the candidate’s appearance will be put into the game for all to see.
I wholeheartedly recommend backing this game when it comes to Kickstarter in September! The game is great fun to play for people who enjoy highly competitive games where everyone has a chance to win. It is tremendously easy to learn since most people have at least some idea of how the election process works. The theme may seem a bit dry at first and it may cause people to balk at playing this but once play begins the game really shines and is easy to get wrapped up in. The price point is fair and is definitely worth it for acquiring an excellent game that has a lot of replay value.
To back this project on Kickstarter go to: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cosmicwombatgames/441255236?token=64c2d5d7
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Caveat: All images in this review are from a preproduction review copy of Campaign Trail and are not indicative of final production values. This copy was provided free of charge to the reviewer in exchange for an honest and unbiased review of the game. No financial recompense was offered or accepted in exchange for positive or negative reviews.