I mentioned to a friend of mine that I was going to review Swing States 2012, the new solo election game from Victory Point Games, and he remarked that if we weren’t already eye-deep in election season, he might be interested in playing it. But the thought of digging into anything to do with the current US Presidential election made him feel a little queasy. I can’t say I blame him, but when you strip away the endless attack adds, distorted facts, and general cynicism, it’s plain that elections are perfect fodder for games. Swing States 2012 is the first to my knowledge, however, that makes it a purely solitaire experience.
I have a complex relationship with solitaire games. As the father of two young children, I frequently am unable to get away for game night, so a solitaire game makes sense. Usually, it’s just a game that has a solid single-player option. Agricola was the first one I experienced, but Mage Knight and Arkham Horror also have solo versions. In every case, I have found solo versions to be more trouble than they’re worth, especially when the game is fairly complex. When you are the only player, then by necessity you have to do all the hard work of keeping a game working. If the turn structure has too many steps, either you bog down or skip something important. It’s not uncommon for me to forget to fill up the action spaces in solo Agricola, for example. And in the end, a solo game that lasts more than 45 minutes is probably too long for me to sit there by myself when I could be spending time with my family. But Victory Point specializes in solitaire games, and they do them well. Swing States manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of solo games. Not only that, but I think it might be one of the best games I’ve played about US elections.
There are 25 states in play for the 2012 election. These are divided into five columns, roughly sorted by region. You have a counter on each column that shows how well you’re doing in that region. At the top of each column are states that lean towards your opponent, and the bottom of the column are states in which you are stronger. Everything below your counter goes to you on election day, so your job is to get as high as you can in all the regions. This is done through a combination of event cards and advertising. Advertising is a little tricky, because while it can raise you up, it makes you more vulnerable to attacks. You can protect a lead by going into “campaign mode,” but that’s more of a defensive move, and not a good way to build a lead. Most movement up and down the columns is done through rolling a die to beat a number on the counter. The event cards will drop lots of modifiers, like a good or bad economy, a scandal, or perhaps an opposing candidate. When you get to the end of the cards, you see what states you took, which ones went to your opponent, and which ones are considered “toss-ups.” The final act is to roll for each of the toss-ups to resolve who will get those votes. Victory depends on which party you’re playing as, but a certain threshold will give you the White House.
It would be generous to call this a simulation. There’s plenty of theme and flavor, but a lot of aspects are heavily abstracted to make for a simpler game. In a couple cases, I find this a little disappointing. For example, there are always three presidential debates and one vice-presidential. The function of a debate is to perform well and attract contributions. More money for your campaign is always good, but preparing for elections doesn’t have a lot of impact on how you do in different regions, which is too bad. Overall though, there are a lot of smart choices. I find the system of columns tied to regions and support to be brilliant. There’s a lot of info and nuance that has to be captured, and it does so admirably. A column that has to move in one direction but cannot, spills into a neighboring column. This is called a “landslide” when it helps you and a “fiasco” when it doesn’t. Not only does it add some urgency to low regions, but it acts as a mercy rule when you bottom out or max out on all the columns. That is, if everything is in landslide or everything is in fiasco, then the game ends automatically and you get a good old-fashioned 1964-style butt-whoopin’.
The result is actually pretty great. I’ve seen all sorts of different outcomes, from a couple of embarrassing defeats, to a comfortable victory. My game last night looked dire, but I was able to pull back in and keep it close. Were it not for a couple of errant toss-ups, I may have won, but I did better than I thought. You can come back from a lot, and you can be taken down in a hurry. That heavy swing is something I like to see in a game. And once you grasp the wobbly instructions, the game really clips along. Most of my games have been about an hour, but it’s never felt that long. In a couple cases, I actually didn’t realize so much time had passed. I still have that unfortunate tendency to accidentally skip steps, but I think that might just be my caffeinated nerves.
The best thing about Swing States is the amount of variety in the box. You’ll always play without a few of the events, so those change every time. The experience shifts a lot between being a Democrat or a Republican, since they have support in different places. And if you really want to get specific, you can build your own ticket with real candidates. I myself ran a Romney-Ryan ticket against an Obama-Biden one, and lost narrowly. There are a lot of the candidates in the box, especially from the Republican party. You don’t even have to play with President Obama. If you like, you can create that Kucinich-Cuomo ticket you’ve always dreamed of. Unfortunately, while I like the detail of putting actual people in the game, I find this part to be a little underwhelming. The opposing ticket drags you down in a couple regions, so in spite of a couple special character powers, I think it might be more of a “hard mode” than the full game experience. But there’s a lot of explore there anyway, and that’s cool.
Swing States 2012 is one of VPG’s Gold Banner titles. These are games that have a higher production value than normal Victory Point fare, and the step up in quality is very noticeable. While there are still paper playing mats, the counters are now thick and laser-cut. The feel more like wood than cardboard, and they are among the nicest counters I’ve ever seen. The cards too have moved away from little business-sized cards to a more comfortable poker-size. It even comes in a box! It’s still nothing on par with Fantasy Flight, but it’s a big step up, and it looks great.
I can’t say I have a lot of experience in US Election games. Aside from this one, I’ve only really played Campaign Manager 2008 and 1960. But I will say that I enjoyed Swing States more than either of those games. It’s much more experiential and narrative. There are a lot of choices to be made but there are no sure things. Just like a real election, there are a lot of things outside your control. And it allows for some great stories, even if you’re the only one there to enjoy them. You might be sick of the real election, but Swing States is a great way to enjoy it without having to turn on your TV.
Swing States 2012 is available from the Victory Point Games website.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.