Tabletop Kickstarter Alert: ‘The Primary’

Gaming Kickstarter Reviews Tabletop Games

As most people are I’m sure aware, the Presidential election system in the US requires that candidates first run in and win series of primaries before they can go on to compete for the actual prize in the general election. In The Primary, players get to take on the role of a candidate seeking to gather up the most delegates and become a nominee for president.

What Is The Primary?

The Primary is a game for 1-6 players currently seeking backing on Kickstarter. A pledge of $35 will get you a copy of the game. It takes about an hour to play. The box says that the game is for ages 14 and up, but I suspect that’s because of the small pieces. There’s nothing inappropriate in the game, and younger players who are familiar with deeper strategy games will surely not have any problem with it.

Playing ‘The Primary’. Image by Olen Sanders, used with permission

The game leaves out most of the true complexity of the presidential primary system. Rather than dealing with all 50 states (plus DC and Guam and American Somoa and Puerto Rico), the game groups the map into 14 regions. And it (thankfully) completely ignores caucuses.

The game is also entirely non-political, which, I know, seems odd for a game about politics. But the game doesn’t have players deal with political issues, nor do you play as a candidate from any one political party. The first time I played, I was with a very politically diverse group, including players from opposite ends of the spectrum, and we all had fun.

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The Primary Components

The game includes:

  • 1 Game Board, which is a map of the US divided into 14 regions
  • 5 Player Pawns
  • 150 Influence Cubes (30 per color)
  • 70 Action Cards (14 per player)
  • 12 Candidate Cards
  • 18 News Cards
  • 18 Round Tokens
  • 3 Voting Markers
  • 1 First Player Token
  • 18 Bot Cards for the Solo Variant
  • 1 Custom Die for the Solo Variant
Everything in the (prototype) box for ‘The Primary’. Image by Rob Huddleston

The components in the game were all of exceptional quality, which really surprised me given that I was only playing with a prototype. The board is very nicely drawn, with the regions clearly delimited both by thick borders but also by easily distinguishable colors. The possible delegates to be won in each region are in nice big numbers. Because the game doesn’t care about individual states, the state borders are on the map, but it isn’t cluttered by unnecessary details like state names or cities. There is also a scoring track along the outside edge, and a reminder of the steps to be performed each turn.

The pawns are standard game pawns, and the influence cubes are those little plastic cubes you’ve seen in tons of other games. While neither of these components particularly stand out, neither to they distract in any way from the game. And the cubes are just the right size to be able to stack a ton of them in the smaller but possibly hotly-contested regions.

A sample of the player action cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

What really surprised me in the prototype was the cards. They are already high-quality, thick, plastic coated cards, which gave me a much better feel for playing the game than I normally expect with a prototype. But more than that, the artwork on the cards is fantastic.

A set of the player action cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

Each player has an identical set of 14 Action Cards: 3 Fundraiser, 3 Rally, 1 Positive Ad, 1 Negative Ad, 1 Plane, 1 Bus, and 4 Super PAC. These cards make up the bulk of game play, and they represent a spot where poor design could have sunk the game. But thankfully, the design of this game is so well thought out that this potential killer turns out to be an asset instead. Unlike a lot of games, you’re never going to confuse one card with another, because each type is clearly different from the others in 4 aspects: each has a distinct color, icon, artwork, and title. As with every other element in the game, the art on the cards is very nice and, unlike in so many other political games, not at all snarky. The power of each card is also clearly spelled out on the card, and while I understand the desire of a lot of game developers to add “flavor” text, the designers here understood that while flavor text can help expand on a game’s theme, it also adds unnecessary clutter to the cards, so they left it off. I think that was the right choice.

The candidates. Image by Rob Huddleston

The candidate cards are likewise beautiful. Each states the candidate’s name and picture (which aren’t at all important to the game), the number of starting influence tokens, and the candidate’s special ability. Again, the simplicity of the card and the lack of any other fluff meant that we as players were much less likely to forget to use our candidate’s ability than in a lot of other games.

The News cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

The News cards were some of the nicest components. These are played once per round and change an element of the rules for that round. The stated effect of the card is in nice big wording on the text (and I’d like to point out here that the designers clearly understand typography as well, which is a refreshing change from the vast majority of games on the market). But the cards are also laid out as if you were looking at a news app on a tablet, which is a nice thematic touch that again works without detracting from the game. Quite a bit of thought and playtesting also went into the news cards, as we found that they almost always had a significant impact on what was happening. Twice, we drew cards that would not have affected what was going on in the round, and in both cases the card was written to deal with that scenario so that it still applied.

How to Play The Primary

To set up the game, place the board in the middle of the table. For the first game or two, place the 1, 2, 5, and 9 round markers on the “non-voting round” indicator on the board, and then shuffle the rest of the markers and randomly place one, number side up, on each region. Shuffle the News cards and place them face-down next to the board. Give each player a pawn and a matching set of influence cubes.

Shuffle the Candidate cards and deal two to each player. They should look at them and pick one, returning the extra to the box along with any left over Candidate cards. As with most games with special power cards, I found it easier to just tell players to select one at random on their first play, since they won’t really know how to fully utilize the power. Once everyone knows the game, you can give some thought as to whom you want to play, as the power will definitely impact your game strategy. The Candidate Card shows the number of influence cubes each player starts with, so they take those from their bank and place them on the card. The rules recommend keeping the rest of the cubes in the zip-loc bag to avoid confusing the cubes that are available for play and those that aren’t. We didn’t do that the first time and wish we had. Each player is given a set of Action Cards. Each set is identical.

Each player places one of their influence cubes on the 0 spot on the scoring track.

The starting player token. Image by Rob Huddleston

The player who first voted in the Presidential election goes first. This first player takes the First Player token, and then places their pawn and two influence cubes from their bank in a starting region. Again, first time players will pick semi-randomly, but more experienced players will likely want to look at the round markers and go with a region that votes early. Two or more players can start in the same region, although there’s strategy involved in that decision as well.

Finally, one of the three Round Markers is placed on the number 1 Round Token. The other two are kept to the side, as there are 4 rounds where two regions vote, and one round where a third region votes.

To play, someone draws the top News card off the deck and reads it aloud. The effect applies to everyone for this entire round.

Then, all players select four cards from their Action Deck that they want to play this round and place them face down in front of them, from left to right in the order they want to play them. Then, the first player flips over their left-most card and does whatever it says to do. The player to their left does the same, and so on around the table until everyone has played all four cards.

I really enjoyed this “programming” mechanic, as it meant that you not only had to plan pretty far in advance, but also you had to try to anticipate what others were doing. If you’re competing for a region, is that other player going to hold a bunch of rallies and drop a lot of influence into the space, and so you need to do the same, or will running a negative ad (which allows you to remove someone else’s cube) be enough? Oh, and before you run all of those rallies, do you have enough cubes to play, or do you need to pause and do some fundraising (which gives you additional cubes)? Each deck also includes 4 Super PAC cards which give you four cubes (standard fundraising only gives you two), but only if you play more Super PAC cards than everyone else. You get 2 cubes if you tie, but if you lose you don’t get anything and have essentially wasted portions of that round, so is it worth the risk?

The round markers (foreground) and voting markers (background). Image by Rob Huddleston

Once everyone has played all four cards, you check to see if this is a voting round. If it is (meaning one or more Voting Markers are out on the map), then you look at the region or regions that are voting and count up the influence cubes. The player with the most cubes wins that region and gets the number of delegates (points) marked on the board. Some regions award delegates for second place as well, so if that’s the case then the second place player gets those points. In the case of a tie, the total number of delegates available for first and, if applicable, second place are combined and split evenly (rounding down) between the players. Players move their cubes along the scoring track.

All of the influence cubes from the regions that voted are returned to the banks. Players pick up their Action Cards and return them to their hands. Flip over the round marker to the checkmark side to show that that round is over, and move the Voting Marker to the next round. If necessary, place additional Voting Markers on the board.

The game ends after Round 12. Final votes are tallied, and the player with the most votes wins. In the case of a tie, the player with the most remaining influence cubes on their card wins.

Solo Variant

As someone who frequently had troubles finding people to play games with, I’m always a bit curious about solo variants, so I was happy to see The Primary include the rules and parts for the variant in the prototype.

The Electo-o-bot cards for the solo variant. Image by Rob Huddleston

The scenario in the variant is that you are now running against an incumbent, who starts with a considerable advantage (the level of difficulty of the variant can be adjusted by setting just how big that initial advantage is) and is controlled by the Electo-o-bot 9000, a deck of cards that moves the opposing piece and places influence cubes for it.

The first time I tried to solo variant, I won. Huge. So much, in fact, that I wondered if the variant was broken. So I tried again. And then again, and again. Those extra attempts were because I lost the second game about as badly as I had won the first, and then I lost the third and the fourth, albeit closer. I stopped at that point because I had other things to do, but I could have easily continued playing.

So no, the solo rules aren’t broken. In fact, I sort of suspect I might have played that first time incorrectly. There is, of course, an element of luck, as there always is with solo games. But this time the luck didn’t feel random or uneven. Rather, it felt nicely in line with the theme, because I really didn’t know what my opponent was trying to do. I just had to play my game and hope that it wouldn’t suddenly appear in the region I was trying to sneak out a victory in and screw that up. (Spoiler alert: it almost always did just that.)

Why You Should Play The Primary?

I’ll freely admit to being a political junkie. I follow politics very closely, and in fact my first career was in politics–throughout college and then the first seven years afterwards, I worked on campaigns and was even a lobbyist for a time. So this game was very much in my wheelhouse. But, when I first pulled this game out, one of my friends groaned and said, “ugh, I hate politics.” However, by the end, he was saying how he enjoyed the game every bit as much as I did.

In fact, I was a bit surprised at just how much I did like the game. But, in thinking it over, there are some things about The Primary that make it clear why I was likely to enjoy it.

Playing the game. Image by Olen Sanders, used with permission

As mentioned above, it’s a beautifully designed game. That isn’t unique in games by any measure, but it is certainly rare in prototypes. While I certainly can and have reviewed and liked games where the prototype wasn’t as nice as this one, the fact that it is so well designed helps a lot. (Also, it being so close to complete gives me a lot of hope that they’ll be able to stay on track post-Kickstarter and deliver close to the planned date.)

It’s got a lot of deep strategy. Having to plan out four moves at a time was a challenge, but also, everyone knows from the start the order of the voting rounds. So, do you get in there and compete for those early votes, or do you let your opponents beat each other up and plan ahead, dropping cubes in regions with late rounds in the hopes that they’ll forget about them? I did this when we played, quietly dropping two cubes very early in the game in Virginia, which didn’t vote until round 12, mostly because I was just passing through there on my way south. To my surprise, no one else ever got over there, so I ended up walking away with its 12 votes having only invested those two cubes.

There’s also the fact that, as I mentioned above, the game is completely non-political. A lot of the other campaign games I’ve played still delve into politics, having mechanics dealing with current events and the like. But The Primary is, in the end, an area control game with a political theme. So it’s definitely safe to play with friends and family with whom you might disagree on the issues.

There’s a very high level of player interaction. Not only are you competing for regions, but you can also play Negative Ads to remove their cubes and compete for the most Super PAC cards in a round.

And as I mentioned above, the solo variant is also a ton of fun. So much so that I had to force myself to stop playing it.

In the end, I’d highly recommend to any board game fans–not just the ones who like politics–that they back The Primary. I know that it’ll be finding its way to our table quite a lot, and can’t wait to see the final version.

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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.

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