Reaping the Rewards: ‘The Primary’

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.

In “Reaping the Rewards,” I take a look at the finished product from a crowdfunding campaign. The Primary raised $17,609 on Kickstarter and now, under a year since the campaign started, it’s in backer’s hands.

What Is The Primary?

The Primary is a game for 1-6 players. 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. It can be purchased for $39.99 directly from Mountaintop Games.

‘The Primary’ in play. Image by Rob Huddleston

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 Samoa 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.

GeekDad Approved 2019The Primary is GeekDad Approved!

The Primary Components

The game includes:

  • 1 Game Board, which is a map of the US divided into 14 regions
  • 5 Player Pawns
  • 5 Scoring Stars
  • 150 Influence Cubes (30 per color)
  • 70 Action Cards (14 per player)
  • 12 Candidate Cards
  • 18 News Cards
  • 17 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 box. Image by Rob Huddleston

One of the reasons why the game was able to go from Kickstarter to finished product so quickly is that it was very well developed by the time the campaign started. Looking over my pictures from the prototype, I can’t find too much that was changed.

The components in the game were all of exceptional quality. 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 do 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.

The finished version does one additional component: scoring stars, which are small wooden stars that players place on the scoring track and move as they earn points.

The full set of Action cards for a player. 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 gameplay, 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.

Close up of the Action cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

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 finished version of the game adds two additional candidates. Most of the candidates had some tweaks in their wording to clarify things, and oddly two of them had their powers swapped. A couple of others had their original power dropped in favor of a new one for game balance.

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. The finished version cleaned up the design a little bit, adding a bottom border and a byline. (The “authors” of these news stories are people who backed the game at the “Press Credential” level.) 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.

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 leftover 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. While it’s easy to ignore this, it’s even easier to mess up during the game and pull cubes from the wrong stack, so I highly recommend this. 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 and one of the Voting tokens. Image by Rob Huddleston

The player who first voted in a Presidential primary 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.

Each round of play contains 4 phases: news, action, vote, and organize.

News Phase

At the start of each round, someone draws the top News card off the deck and reads it aloud. The effect applies to everyone for this entire round. If necessary, the effects of the card are applied in turn order, although most just apply to everyone. The card is placed face up in a discard pile.

Action Phase

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?

If someone has a card that cannot be played, it simply has no effect. For instance, if you miscount and play more Rally cards than you have cubes, you’re out of luck.

The Round Markers. Image by Rob Huddleston

Voting

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 votes (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. If someone ends up as the only candidate in a region with both first and second place delegate awards, they earn all of those votes, so it’s important to pay attention. Players move their stars along the scoring track.

Organize

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 11. 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 solo gameplay.

The Elect-o-Bot cards and custom die. 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.

Setup

First, you need to decide on the level of difficulty, which controls how many influence cubes the Bot gets: 24 for a hard game, 20 for normal, and 16 for easy.

Starting in the region with the most total votes (New England), you roll the custom die, which is a d6 with two sides with one star, two with two stars, one with three stars, and one blank. Place influence cubes for the Bot in that region based on the roll, and then continue doing that for each additional region. If you have cubes left over, you roll again and add additional cubes to each region, starting with the one with the fewest cubes and working up from there. The Bot’s pawn is placed in the region with the most cubes.

Shuffle the Bot cards and place them face-down on the table.

Gameplay

The solo game follows the same four phases as the normal game. Each news card as a section at the bottom that specifies what happens with the Bot in this round.

During the Action phase, you select your 4 Action cards as normal. Then, you play the first two of those cards.

After that, flip over the top Bot card and apply its actions. Each of these cards has a three-step instruction for moving the Bot. Follow step 1, but if it isn’t sufficient to determine where to move, apply step 2, and then step 3 if needed. For example, one card says to move the Bot to the region:

  1. With the smallest margin of victory
  2. Voting next
  3. Worth the most delegates

So, if there is more than one region where you and the Bot have the same margin of victory, you would move it to the region with the smallest margin that is voting next, but if there’s still a tie, then the smallest region voting next that is worth the most delegates. It is possible that these criteria will lead the Bot to its current region, in which case it simply doesn’t move. (Ties count as the smallest margin of victory, by the way.)

Then, you either add or remove Bot influence cubes from the region based on the card. Most cards add 2 or 3 cubes, although one adds only 1, and another adds 4. Likewise, most cards remove either 1 or 0 cubes, but two of them remove 2.

After you have determined the Bot’s movement, you play your final two Action cards.

Finally, if you played any SuperPAC cards, you roll the custom dice and compare the value to the chart at the bottom of the card to determine whether you or the Bot wins the SuperPAC. The Bot does not gain cubes for winning; it only prevents you from getting cubes.

Two Player Variant

An optional rule for a two-player game is to use the Bot to simulate a third player. (Two players alone generally make for a poor game.) Here, you use the custom dice to place cubes just as you do in the Solo game. After that, the Bot does nothing, so you do not play with the Bot’s cards. Instead, in order to win a region, the human players need to have more cubes than both their opponent and the Bot, just as if there were three players. However, when placing cubes using Rally or Positive Ad cards, you can choose to place Bot cubes rather than your own, which you might feel is a better strategy to deny your opponent a region that you can’t win yourself.

Team Variant

Rather than playing a free-for-all, you can team up. Each player still has its own candidate, pawns, cubes, and cards. However, when determining the winner of a region, both teammate’s cubes count towards a team total, which then wins the region.

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 afterward, 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.

The board. Image by Rob Huddleston

As mentioned above, it’s a beautifully designed game. That isn’t unique in games by any measure, but it is rarer than it should be.

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’ve found that the winning strategy is to do a little of both. If you focus too much on the early regions, you stand the risk of being locked out of potentially big votes late in the game. But ignoring early votes can put you in a hole you can’t recover from.)

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. It’s why I’ve selected The Primary as my first GeekDad Approved game of 2019, and hope that I can convince my fellow GeekDads to keep it in the running for Game of the Year.


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

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