Reaping the Rewards: Win the White House in ‘Campaign Trail’

When I first played Campaign Trail as a prototype during its Kickstarter campaign, I immediately fell in love with it. Unfortunately, the prototype was pretty elaborate, and so I was asked to send it along to another reviewer (a not-uncommon practice). In the two years since, it’s been a game my kids have asked to play again more times than I can count. After the normal set of production delays that often beset Kickstarter games, I finally have my very own to-keep copy of the game, and I couldn’t be happier.

What Is Campaign Trail?

Campaign Trail is a game that allows 2-6 players to compete to become the next President of the United States by trying to win the most votes in each state, thus ensuring an Electoral College victory come Election Day.

The game is available in limited quantities directly from Cosmic Wombat Games for $70. Hurry and get yours soon before it sells out.

GeekDad Approved 2019Campaign Trail is GeekDad Approved!

Campaign Trail Components

Note: My review is based on the Deluxe Edition of the game. The only differences between the retail and the deluxe editions are the components, and are noted in the review.

The components in the Deluxe Edition of the game. Image by Rob Huddleston
  • 1 Game Board
  • 129 Action cards
  • 12 Double Sided Candidate Cards
  • 30 Debate Topic Cards
  • 42 Money Cards
  • 63 Solo Play Cards
  • 240 Wooden Voter Tokens
  • 150 3-count Wooden Voter Tokens
  • 6 Wooden Candidate Pawns
  • 3 Turn Order Markers
  • 3 Player Mats
  • 6 Home State Markers
  • 18 Debate Issue Markers
  • 1 Debate Arena
  • 10 Debate City Markers
  • 1 Electoral College Track
  • 51 Electoral Vote Counters
  • 3 Party Reference Books

The components in the game are just stunning. This is, without question, one of the highest-quality games I’ve seen in a very long time.

The Board

The ‘Campaign Trail’ board. Image by Rob Huddleston

It can be tough to represent the entirety of the US on a board while making the individual states as playable spaces. It’s particularly true with the small New England states. Campaign Trail solves this in two ways. First, the board is big: 34 inches by 22½ inches. Then, to solve the small state problem, they broke eight northeastern states–Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland–along with Washington, DC into hexagons to the right of the board. But the layout here is important, because almost every card in the game includes references to states, but by carefully breaking out these states (and DC) into those hexes, the designers made sure they’d always be easy to reference.

Also important to each state is the number of electoral votes it gets, the issues it cares about (used in the advertising action and in debates), how the state is set up initially and how ties are decided, and whether or not candidates can fly there. Fifteen of the states are “ethical” states for the three parties (five each), and that needed to be included as well. But the brilliant design here ensured that every one of those was included on the map, even for the small states, and included in a way that is incredibly easy to reference.

And yet, the map isn’t the only thing on the board. They also left room for a guide across the top of the map to show what the main symbols on the cards represent, and space at the bottom for all of the various decks of cards used throughout the game, along with a space for discards.

Cards

Most of the gameplay is handled by the Action cards, and these show the same careful design as the board, and the same pretty stunning ability to cram a whole lot of information into a small space. I’ll get into this more in the gameplay section, but on their turn, a player can perform one of six actions, but only if they have a card in their hand for that action. No card allows for all six actions.

Example Action Cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

The so-called “support” actions are shown along the left edge of the card is a space to show whether or not travel, fundraising, and registering voters is allowed, and if so, how much for each. For example, the card shown on the left of the above image would allow a player to move up to three states, or raise $60 million, or register 6 new voters. In contrast, the card on right of the image would allow a player to fly to a city with an airport (there are ten of those on the map: Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Baltimore, New York City) or register 11 voters, but not fundraise.

Some more Action cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

“Direct” actions take up the majority of the card. The middle of every card has the map (and note the hexagons along the top right, noting those states represented by break-out areas). Cards that allow for the Advertising action highlight a set of states in orange, and then show a set of corresponding issue icons in the top right corner. The card to the left in the image above would allow a player to advertise on the two issues shown in Alaska, Oregon, Wyoming, Missouri, Illinois, Maine, Maryland and DC. The card on the right shows the Campaign action, allowing a candidate to campaign in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Both of these cards also allow for the Politick action, which is the red text under the map.

In all four of the images of cards above, you’ll also notice a grey tab at the top with issue icons. These show how that card will be used in the debates. Also, to the left of that tab is a small grey image of the state and its abbreviation. This is called the card’s “reference” state, which is used in initial setup and by certain Politick cards.

Again, it’s worth spending a moment on the design of the cards. Everything about the design is so beautifully thought-out, from the clear distinctions of the colors to the various abilities and the associations of those abilities to the map. The fact that the cards themselves are oversized helps (they are about 4¾ by 2¼ inches), but even still, only careful, thoughtful design could make these succeed.

Candidate Cards

Two of the Candidate cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

The 12 candidate cards allow the players to decide who they will be in the campaign. Each candidate includes strengths and weaknesses, along with a starting pool of money and voters. Every card includes art for both a male and a female candidate, and is extremely ethnically diverse.

Debate Topic Cards and Debate Issue Markers

A few of the debate topic cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

The two debates in the game focus on a set of pre-defined issues, which are grouped into 6 categories of 3 issues each. The game includes 30 Debate Topic cards, representing every possible combination of those issues on both the top and bottom lines. The issues are represented on the cards not only by an icon, but also a shape, making it very easy to determine which group of issues you need to care about.

The Issue Markers. The Deluxe edition wooden tokens are on top, and the matching retail edition cardboard ones are below. Image by Rob Huddleston

The Issue Markers follow this pattern, showing the icon and cut into the appropriate shape. They are all sized to perfectly fit the images on the cards. The Deluxe edition includes wooden tokens for the issue markers, while the retail edition has cardboard tokens (which are also included with Deluxe).

Money Cards

Money! Image by Rob Huddleston

The money is the game is represented by these cards, which come in $10 million and $20 million denominations. There are only 42 of these cards total, but we have yet to play a game where we come anywhere close to running out of either.

Wooden Voter Tokens

Voters are represented on the board by these tokens. In the Deluxe editions, they are meeple-shaped, while the voters in the retail edition are cubes and hexes. This is one element where the Deluxe edition obviously does not also include the retail edition’s pieces, so I can’t provide a picture of the cubes.

The voter meeples. Image by Rob Huddleston

The meeples come in two sizes. A tiny meeple represents a single voter, while a normal-sized meeple counts as three, to help keep the board a bit less cluttered as the game goes on. They come in the three colors representing the three parties in the game.

One of the meeple storage containers included in the Deluxe edition. Image by Rob Huddleston

The Deluxe edition also included an element that honestly took me by surprise: plastic cases for the meeples. They aren’t custom designed for the game, but they’re great for not only storing the game but also keeping all of those tiny pieces from scattering everywhere during game play.

One more thing: there are way more voter tokens than you’re likely to need, so you never have to worry about running out. You could honestly play with just the single voter versions and not swap out to the threes and probably be OK, but even as big as the board is it’ll get crowded doing that.

Candidate Pawns

Candidate pawns in the Deluxe edition. Image by Rob Huddleston

The Deluxe edition includes 6 custom candidate pawns: three Presidents and three VPs. I’m not sure why the Presidential candidates are raising their hands, but it does make it easy to spot these on the board.

The retail edition swaps these custom pawns out for more traditional pawn-shaped pieces, but they are still wood.

Turn-Order and Debate City Markers

The Turn Order tokens (top) and Debate City markers (bottom). Image by Rob Huddleston

These components are the same in both editions: extra-thick cardboard markers. The turn-order pieces align with slots on the far right edge of the board to provide a reminder of the current turn order. The Debate City markers show the ten cities in the game, two of which are randomly selected to be the sites of the debates. Another subtle but nice design choice: the city markers are color-coded by the region the city is in.

Home State Markers

Home State markers from the Deluxe edition (top) and retail edition (bottom). Image by Rob Huddleston

The game includes six markers to denote candidates’ home states, which impacts several important elements in the game. The retail edition has small cardboard tokens, and the Deluxe replaces these with bigger wooden pieces.

Debate Arena

The Debate Arena. Image by Rob Huddleston

The debates happen on their own board, separate from the main map. This is made up of a central, circular piece and then “legs” that come off that piece for each party. It’s modular like this since players can play with either two or three parties. As with all of the other components, it’s made of nice, thick cardboard and a bit oversized, making it easy to move things around as the debate occurs (see the game play section for how this works).

Electoral College Track and Vote Counters

When I reviewed the prototype, the Electoral College Track was both the game’s coolest and most annoying feature. Thankfully, the annoying part was completely solved during production, so now it’s just the game’s coolest component.

The Electoral College scoring track, shown above the board. Image by Rob Huddleston

Lots of games have some way to keep track of the score, but here, the score isn’t abstracted. Winning the Presidency is a simple matter of gaining the most Electoral College votes. Lots of games might have tried some kind of scoring track along the edge of the board, but with this game, that would have become unwieldy and confusing, since most states have different numbers of votes, and the control of the states switches as the game progresses. There’s no question that constantly having to add and subtract seemingly arbitrary vote totals as the game went on from a traditional scoring track would make the game 100% less fun.

The EC track close-up showing its construction. Image by Rob Huddleston

The solution that Cosmic Wombat came up with is simply brilliant. Their Electoral College Scoring Track is a four-piece component with grooves for each of the three parties. The prototype had this as a folding thing, which never laid completely flat and kind of messed everything up, but by breaking it into separate pieces and then making it out of ¼-inch cardboard, all of those problems are gone. It fits together perfectly, lays completely flat, and allows the vote counters to smoothly move along it.

Several of the state counters, showing their relative scale. Image by Rob Huddleston

Those vote counters are the other brilliant component. Each state has its own counter (and they even thoughtfully included duplicates for some of the easy-to-lose smaller states), but each state’s counter is scaled to its number of votes. So, Delaware, which has 3 votes, is exactly half the size of Arkansas, which has six. Florida and New York are the same size, since they each have 29 votes, while Texas is nine votes longer. California and its 55 votes is precisely 11 times longer than West Virginia with 5.

The EC track with a state in it, showing how they fit together. Image by Rob Huddleston

These are made from the same heavy cardboard as other components, which ensures that they are slightly taller than the track into which they fit on the Electoral College Track, making it extremely easy to pick up even the smallest of them and move them as needed during the game.

This track provides a great visual indicator of how each party is doing during the game. And, in a close game, it’s provides for a fun, tension-filled endgame as whichever team is going last flips states and the track gradually shifts until they are either ahead and win or done with their turn and still behind.

Rules and Reference Books

The rules for the game are well-written and descriptive and provide examples for most of the complicated elements in gameplay. They also provide five different colored callouts to define terms, offer clarifications, provide tips, give reminders, and show examples.

The three-player setup as shown in one of the guidebooks. Image by Rob Huddleston

The game also includes 3 party reference books. These provide a quick reference for the various icons on the cards, a chart that shows, state-by-state, how many votes it has, which party wins tiebreakers, which region it is in, what issues it cares about, whether or not it has a city, and whether or not it’s ethically-minded. Following that is a breakdown of the debate issues, showing exactly which states care about that issue, which makes resolving the outcomes of the debate very easy. Then, there’s another map that shows the regions, cities, and ethically-minded states in a different format from the charts. Finally, there are a set of pages that show the setup for a 3-party game, and a 2-party game using any of the three possible party combinations (Dem-Rep, Dem-Lib, Lib-Rep). These guides mean that once you’ve read through the rules, you can put the rulebook away as everything you might need as a reference is in the smaller book.

Special Additional Deluxe Components

Finally, the Deluxe edition includes two more components that are not included in the retail version.

The Republican player boards. Image by Rob Huddleston

Player Mats: These oversized mats provide a place for the player to put all of their stuff: their player card, their money, and their registered voters. Like the candidate cards, they are double-sided with art for both male and female candidates. The VP mat only has a place for the candidate card since both players share a pool of money and voters.

Coasters: While I suspect that these were mostly included to take up some additional space on the punchboards, the Deluxe edition does include two branded cardboard coasters. One is blue with the Democratic logo on one side and yellow with the Libertarian logo on the other (and, in playing the game, I learned that Libertarians really are represented by a porcupine), while the other is red with the Republican logo on one side and green with a turtle on the other, which I’m guessing is the Green Party, but it doesn’t have any other role in the game other than to be the reverse side of the Republican coaster.

How to Play Campaign Trail

The Goal

The goal of the game is straight-forward: be the player (or party) with the most Electoral Votes at the end of the game. It’s worth noting that in real US politics, a candidate must get 270 Electoral votes to win or things get complicated. That bit of the Constitution is ignored here, so in the three-party game, it’s possible to win with a plurality rather than a majority of the votes.

Setup

The game requires a bit of time to set up. Place the board on the table, along with the Electoral College Scoring Track and Debate Arena (although the latter isn’t needed until about a third of the way through the game, so it can be set aside initially). Shuffle the candidate cards and deal two to each player. The players then select one of the cards to be their candidate, and the remainder are returned to the box. Each candidate has strengths and weaknesses. When playing the first time, it’s probably best to semi-randomly select a candidate, but once you have the game figured out you can take those strengths and weaknesses into account in formulating your initial playing strategy. (The rules do have a suggested set of candidates to play in your first few games.)

The board setup and ready to go. Image by Rob Huddleston.

Place two voter tokens in each state based on what’s indicated for that state. If playing with 2 or 4 players, you only distribute the blue (Democrat) and red (Republican) tokens. If playing with 3, 5, or 6 players, also distribute the yellow (Libertarian) tokens. The board can help here: in each state, there’s a ribbon showing either a blue, red, or yellow star, indicating the initial control of that state. However, each banner also has a second star, which is used to determine ties (more on that later) but also provides a quick fallback for the 2 or 4 player setup. Thus, there’s no need to dig through the rulebook just to get started, which I particularly liked. However, the Party Reference Books also provide maps of the various setup options, if you’d prefer to follow that as a diagram.

The EC Scoring Track at the start of the game. Image by Rob Huddleston.

Once the tokens have been placed, you set up the Electoral College Scoring Track. Here again you can refer to the board or the reference book for a guide to get the states assigned properly at the beginning of the game. The game has been nicely balanced so that the parties start out roughly equal.

Players are given a number of starting registered voters and money based on icons on their candidate card.

Oregon, home to the Democratic presidential nominee. Image by Rob Huddleston.

The Action Cards are then shuffled and five are dealt to each player. The remaining cards are divided into three roughly equal stakes and placed on the three spaces for them on the board. The players then look at their hand of cards and, based on the reference state (the small grey state at the top of the card), determine their home or starting state. They place their candidate pawn, home state indicator, and two additional voters in that state. And right here, in the setup, is the first key strategic decision: do you choose as your home state a state your party already controls, and then strengthen that control with those two additional voters, or do you choose a state the other party controls, which then brings you to a tie in that state? Or, do you position yourself geographically, ready to quickly move into an important area to start campaigning? (In order to help balance the game, and biggest and smallest states are excluded as reference states, so no one can have their home state in California, Texas, or any state with fewer than 7 votes.)

Randomly draw two of the cities from the City tokens and place one on each of the Debate spots on the board. Then, randomly draw two of the Debate Topic cards and place them on the board in their spots. Put the rest of the city tokens and city cards in the box as they will not be used in the game.

Take the six debate topic tokens that match the icons on the first Debate topic space and place them on the card. Put the rest of the tokens–including the ones needed for the second debate–next to the Debate arena.

The rulebook includes a handy reference for setup based on the number of players. Image by Rob Huddleston.

The 4 and 6 player games are played in teams, one for each party (Democrat and Republican in the 4-player, Democrat, Republican, and Libertarian in the 6-player). The two players on the team decide amongst themselves who will be the presidential candidate and who will be the running mate, but there’s no real difference in gameplay between the two. In a 5-player game, one player assumes both roles for the Libertarian party and basically gets two consecutive turns each round. In a 2- and 3-player game, there are no running mates. According to the rules, the starting player is the one who most recently voted for something.

Gameplay

The game is played in a series of rounds, with each party taking a turn each round. Thus, in the team games, both players on the team take a turn one after another. They are free to determine the turn order within the party, and can change from one round to the next. Teammates are free to collaborate and share a pool of money and voters, but their cards are their own and cannot be freely shared. However, if both candidates happen to be in the same region on their turn, they can do a one-for-one exchange of up to three cards in their hands.

On each turn, the player can choose one of up to six actions: Travel, Fundraising, Register Voters, Advertise, Campaign, or Politick. As was noted in the Components section, the actions available to the player are determined by icons on their cards, and not all actions are available on all cards.

Support Actions

The three actions listed on the left side of the card are Support Actions.

Georgia mid-game. Home to two candidates and hard-fought. Image by Rob Huddleston.

Travelling is the simplest of actions: you simply move your candidate a number of spaces (each state is a space) as indicated by the card you’re playing. Some cards allow you to fly to a city, letting you move across the country quickly. Fundraising is likewise easy—simply discard the card and collect the amount indicated. Registering voters is similar, requiring that you discard the card and collect the voters (meaning to take voter meeples out of the supply and place them in front of you (or on your Player Mat if you’re using the Deluxe edition.)

Direct Actions

The other three actions are called “direct” actions.

With this many registered voters ready to go and a big warchest, the candidate can probably perform any action on this turn. Image by Rob Huddleston.

Advertising costs money—$20M per issue—but can be very effective over time. Advertising allows you to place a small number of voters in many states at once. The cards indicate a number of issues (icons) that are available for advertising, and the states in which those ads are run. After paying the money and discarding the card, you can place one voter from those you have registered into each state that matches the icon.

Campaigning is somewhat similar. It costs more, but lets you place more voters into concentrated groups of states. The cards indicate the states into which you can campaign. After paying a fee of $60M, you can place up to six voters into those states, to be distributed however you see fit. The catch is that you can only campaign if your candidate is in one of the states involved, which requires travel.

The final available action is Politick. This involves playing a card and doing what the card says in Red. Events may allow you to gain more votes or to launch an attack on your opponent. Most of the events are one-time things, but some are permanent—the card stays in front of you for the remainder of the game.

Dirty Politics

The Action deck contains a set of Dirty Politic cards that allow you to “go negative.” These aren’t required and can be removed from play if desired.

The Dirty Politics cards follow the same format as the regular Action Cards, but contain a different set of actions.

Instead of Travel, these cards has Voter Suppression. The candidate playing this moves their pawn as normal, but when they arrive in the state they remove voters from the other party equal to the number shown on the cube.

The Flip Contributors (FC) action allows you to take the indicated amount of money from your opponent. The Sway Minds (SM) action lets you convince voters to switch their registration, which in game terms means that you force your opponent to discard the indicated number of voters from their registered voter pool, while you gain the same number of new registered voters.

The “direct” actions on the Dirty Politics cards do more damage but hurt your campaign as well. Taking the place of Advertising is the Mudslinging action, whereby you remove your opponent’s voters from the indicated states, but you “pay” for this by removing 2 of your own voters from your party’s “ethically minded” states per issue on which you wish to mudsling.

Instead of campaigning, Dirty Politics lets you run a Smear Campaign, which allows you to remove voters from the board. But, in order to do this, your candidate must be in one of the indicated states, and you must remove 4 voters from your “ethically-minded” states. If you’re willing to pay that cost, you can then remove up to 8 voters (from any party) from the indicated states.

Finally, there are Dirty Tricks, which take the place of the Politick action, and like with Politick, you simply read the text on the card and do what it says.

Debates

The first debate will be in Denver on Domestic Affairs and National Security. Image by Rob Huddleston.

The game is played in three rounds, representing August, September, and October. A round ends when all of the Action cards from that month have been drawn. After August and September, debates occur; after October, the game ends.

This is the most abstract part of the game, but I felt it worked given the context. To begin the debate, all of the candidates involved move (for free) to the city the debate is being held in. This is actually a somewhat important element in the game. When we played, my candidate was basically trapped in California because I could not for the life of me draw a card with an airplane icon, and I didn’t want to waste a bunch of turns slowly taking a bus across the country. But then the debate occurred, and it happened to take place in New York (remember, the cities in which the debates happen are random but pre-determined at setup). Being able to move to New York set me up to move to the midwest and campaign in the final few turns, which is how we ended up winning.

If this is a four, five, or six player game, the first debate is between Vice Presidential candidates, and the second is between the Presidential candidates. This is literally the only point in the game where there is any difference at all between being the Presidential or the VP candidate.

Take the six debate topic tokens off of the appropriate debate card and place them in the middle of the debate arena. Have the rest of the topic tokens close by.

In turn order, each player involved in the debate will play one card from their hand. The only part of the card they are paying attention to at this point is the grey tab at the top with the debate icons. It’s important to note, however, that you have to use the cards in your hand at the time the debate occurs. So, hand management matters here. As the debate nears (the number of cards left in the Action deck is public knowledge), you need to start making sure you keep cards that will help you in the debate, rather than playing them in your turn.

Initially, candidates can only play a card that has at least one icon matching one of the debate topics. When they play the card, they move the token with the matching icon one space on the debate track towards their side. So, the first player in the debate will move tokens down their track. Subsequent players, however, may end up moving those tokens back towards the center.

As the debate progresses, additional topics will almost certainly be introduced thanks to the combinations of icons on the cards. These so-called “rabbit trails” are why you need the rest of the icons nearby, because once a new topic is introduced, it’s added to the Arena and starts being played just like any other topic.

This debate went very well for the Democrats. In fact, it was the turning point in the game. Image by Rob Huddleston

The debate lasts for three rounds. Once it is over, parties see how the voters reacted, which means that they get new voters on the board. To determine this, each party looks at their part of the debate track, which is divided into sections marked 1, 2, 3 and 4. Each topic in their “1” section is worth 1 voter in each state that cares about that topic. Each topic in the “2” section is worth 2 voters, and so on. Candidates take undecided voters–voters from their stock–and place them in the appropriate states. They can reference the board for this, but most likely by this point in the game there will be lots of meeples in the way, so it is usually easier to use the Reference Guide for this.

As a final step in the debate, players involved draw cards to bring their hands back up to five, and then play progresses from there. Note that your candidate pawn will remain in the debate city until you play a travel card. You get a free ride to the debate, but not from it. If this was the first debate, you now place the appropriate topic icons on the second debate card.

Scoring

The scoring at a glance. Image by Rob Huddleston

Every time control of a state flips—any time one party gets more voters (cubes) on a state than another party—that state’s scoring token is moved to the appropriate track, and the remaining states are pushed down to fill the space. This way, you can always tell at a glance how everyone is doing. States will flip due to advertising, campaigning, or politicking in the state, or following the debate. In lots of cases, certain states will flip multiple times.

Game End

Despite losing California and New York, the Dems managed to grab a bunch of states on their last turn and win the game. Image by Rob Huddleston

The game ends after all of the cards have been played from the October stack, at which point Election Day occurs. The party with the most votes wins after all players have completed their turns wins.

Solo Play

Campaign Trail includes the components and rules necessary to play a solo or a fully-cooperative 2-player variant.

Components

The Registration Track and Solo cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

The Solo variant uses 63 special Solo Play cards and a Register Track, which is made from the back side of the Debate Tracks.

Game Play

This variant can be played by a solo player versus either one or two AIs, or by two players cooperatively versus one or two AIs.

Setup is mostly the same as in the regular game, except that the variant does not include any debates, so none of the setup around the Debate Arena and debate topics is used. Also, the entire Action deck is shuffled and placed in a single stack on the October space on the board. The Solo deck is shuffled, and then 40 cards are dealt into a single stack on the August space if playing against one AI, or two 30 card stacks are dealt with one each placed in the August and September spaces.

Set up the register track by placing the three pieces together and then placing 12 voters of the AI’s color on the track, with 3 voters in each of the first four spaces. If playing against 2 AIs, do this for both parties. (There’s a very subtle dashed line that divides the track in half.)

The AI goes first by the player drawing the top card in the August stack. The Solo cards have a Register action and then either an Advertise or Campaign action.

First, the register component is evaluated. If the AI has all of the spaces shown on the card already filled with voters, then it takes the other action on the card. If it does not have those spaces filled, then voters are added to the track to match the diagram, and the AI’s turn ends.

If it had enough voters already, then it will take the other action. Both the Campaign and the Advertise actions are essentially the same, and are really only differentiated because some of the player’s cards might trigger on Advertise or Campaign actions. In either case, you look at the card and place a number of voters as shown directly below the “A” or the “C” in the indicated states. However, voters will only be placed in states where the AI is either behind or leading by less than the threshold–the number shown on each state.

Example Solo cards. Image by Rob Huddleston

So for example, in the card on the left shown above, the Advertise action will only be taken if the AI already has 12 or more voters. If the Advertise action does occur, then one voter (there is only one cube shown below the “A”) will be added to Colorado, but only if the AI is losing the state or leading by less than 4 votes. One voter will be to Pennsylvania if the AI is ahead by less than 5 votes, and so on.

Play continues until the AI draws its last card, at which point the human player gets one last turn and the game ends.

Why You Should Play Campaign Trail

As a political junkie (I worked in politics for about eight years during and after college) and a board gamer, I’ve looked at a bunch of campaign games over the years. Too often, they either relied far too heavily on luck, were just kind of silly, or both.

But Campaign Trails is one of the exceptions. It manages to really capture the feel of a campaign, with hard-fought battles in key states (but you’re still going to completely ignore Hawaii or Alaska, just like a real candidate) and a ton of really great strategy. A few of the elements of the game, particularly the issues and the debates, are abstracted quite a bit, but still make some sort of sense. The alignment of the issues to the states is well thought-out and matches the political realities of modern America, and while the debate doesn’t feel at all like a debate, the format in the game makes it quick and easy to get through and the end result—swaying voters based on issues—matches the goals of real debates.

What really sets Campaign Trail apart, not only from other political games but also a lot of games on the market in general, is the design. The score tracker is particularly cool and impressive. The very idea of tracking the score by these tokens, each one carefully scaled to represent the size of each state, is rather brilliant and by far one of the most elegant ways I’ve seen to track the scores in a game.

As an added bonus, the game provides tons of teachable moments, from providing a cool way to explain the Electoral College to talking about why issues are regional to examining the role that money plays in our electoral system.

Two notes worth mentioning:

First, the game can be pretty long. The box says 2 hours, but the games we’ve played have been north of 3. I don’t mind long games at all, and this one even kept the interest of my teenagers, so I don’t think the length is a negative in this case.

Second, Campaign Trail is much less abstract about the application of its theme than a lot of other political games. One team in the game will be Republicans, and the other Democrats. (And, in 3, 5 and 6 player games, someone will play Libertarians.) The intial setup of the game is based on the reality of what the US political map looks like today–Democrats start out controlling the West Coast and the upper East Coast, while Republicans start with the southern and middle parts of the country. There are a few liberties taken when adding in the third party to balance the game out, but overall it’s a pretty realistic map. The debate issues are real, if big-picture, issues like gender equality, military spending, and reproductive rights, and the states that care about these issues in the game pretty much align with reality.

The game leaves real politics aside once you get into it. In modern US politics, Democrats have a pretty decisive hold on California, and Republicans aren’t likely to lose control of Alabama or Mississippi or Louisiana anytime soon. But in the game, those advantages vanish very quickly–when we played, my wife and daughter were the Republicans but won both California and New York. And the issues are very abstract: when you play them in the debate, you’re really only playing cards with icons that match icons on the pieces on the board, and you definitely aren’t being asked to take positions on them. In other words, you play a card that says that your side made some kind of point about reproductive rights, but there’s no card that says which side of the reproductive rights issue you took.

I bring this up because of course politics can be incredibly divisive, and game night is supposed to be the opposite of that. If I had a group of friends who was forever arguing about politics, though, I still wouldn’t hesitate to bring this game to the table, because I think the only thing that would happen is that we wouldn’t have to spend any time deciding who was going to play which party. Besides maybe making the occasional joke about how the “wrong” side just won a particular state, the mechanics of the game will make it so that you will be able to leave the politics aside and just enjoy the game.

Campaign Trail is easily one of my all-time favorite games, and an easy call to nominate for GeekDad-Approved status. It’s a game that, despite its length, I know will get played again and again in my family, and one I definitely recommend checking out.


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

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