Tammany Hall Board Game Review


Tammany Hall board game box cover

Year Published: 2007

Players: 3-5

Playing Time: 90 Minutes

Welcome to Tammany Hall, an historical game about Boss Tweed and his reign of terror over New York in the mid-1800s. You play Tweed political analogs trying to bribe and cajole their way to influence among the city’s dominant ethnic groups (Irish, English, German and Italian).

The game plays out over 16 rounds, broken into four eras or terms, each of which maps to an election cycle. There’s a scoring phase after each four-year term, after which players will occupy political offices that give them a special ability in the next term, in addition to the regular actions available on turns.

The game is area control through and through, and involves some “take that” elements in the form of board and piece manipulation that allows you to steal neighborhoods from your rivals. Each neighborhood is won or lost in a blind bid during the scoring phase, using on-board influence markers, and others that players will collect throughout the game that map to the four ethnic groups.

Politics of Power

Tammany Hall is a game that rewards players who lean into its theme. The game encourages deals and negotiations, particularly when the Mayor is choosing which players will get which Offices at the end of a Term.

Want that Police Chief power? You may have to promise not to use it in a particular ward dominated by the Mayor.

This is also a game that rewards the person who gets the most wards (and usually the most points) in a Term with…more points. This is balanced by how powerful each of the other offices is. Other players absolutely have the power to pull back a leader to the pack, up to and including crushing the life from them in subsequent terms. I’ve played several games where players don’t actually want to be the Mayor, because those extra points come at too high a long-term cost.

But everyone has to actually wield their power in ways that balance the game. If you’re one of those players who spreads the “take that” mechanics around equally, so as not to form grudge matches, you’ll be the one kingmaking someone in this game. Tammany Hall needs grudge matches to thrive. It needs table talk to identify who’s winning, and counter-talk to convince people you’re not the one winning, to play as intended.

When these things are present, the game sings. But when players approach it as a purely mechanical experience, you get the kinds of comments that you routinely see on such games, about supposed runaway leaders, lack of balancing, and “whoever does {X} will generally win.” These comments aren’t correct, but they’re correct with groups that don’t meaningfully adopt the premise.

The Spectrum of Area Control Engagement

So this is a mean game. That should be obvious from the section above. In this case, that’s a feature, not a bug. Adjust your interest accordingly.

It also places Tammany Hall on the higher end of the “interaction” spectrum, even within the area control genre, which is known for high interaction.

The closest comparison is likely El Grande, a well-respected area control game from the 90s. El Grande has some combative elements to it, but next to Tammany Hall it can seem downright tame.

In El Grande, up to 3 players can score in a particular region. Viable strategies include glomming onto regions with 1-2 cubes just to soak these points up. And while you’ll be moving each other’s cubes around to retain dominance, everything feels as though you’re doing it because it’s the best thing for you…not because you’re deliberately trying to needle someone else.

By comparison, everything in Tammany Hall feels personal. Because it is. Wards are zero-sum. No sharing points. The loser of the blind bid goes home, tail between their legs. At some point you’ll have to actively point out how many points and influence chips someone has, and implore your fellow players to gang up on them.

The interpersonal side matters as much – or more – here. It’s why Tammany Hall will always have fewer fans than El Grande, but those that it does have will be fervent.

Rules, Depth and Length

One of the more surprising things about Tammany Hall is that, despite its reputation as a somewhat-hairy struggle for dominance, the rules are quite simple to internalize. You can only do one of two things on your turn, plus a couple of optional actions once you’re into Terms 2-4.

The complexity comes from the ways these simple actions can manifest on the board. It’s indicative of many of my favorite games, where your action options seem limited, but the decision space is vast because of the implications of those actions.

So on many turns you’re only placing two Ward Bosses, or a Ward Boss and an immigrant cube. That’s it.

But which wards? How does that shift the balance of power, or solidify your hold on a neighborhood? Will you slander a rival in a later turn in a ward that you just insinuated yourself into, or will they anticipate this maneuver and slander you first, kicking you out?

These mini-struggles multiply until it’s hard to keep them all straight. Clinging to your share of the pie always seems to be on a knife’s edge, and none of it will be certain until the term-ending blind auctions.

It’s heady, deep gameplay, and the depth is intensely psychological. Second-guessing one’s opponent is as useful as optimizing your placements on the board, and winning wards with the minimum investment becomes an interpersonal game of Chicken that few will win consistently.

This also means that the game’s length can be a bit deceptive. Term 1 will fly by, often in as little as 10 minutes. But the game could last 2 hours with a full 5 players and players willing to bargain and negotiate for every inch.

More usually, the game will last its intended 90 minutes, so this isn’t a negative. Rather, it’s in praise of the game’s depth, that it can complicate itself so deliciously from such a simple structure.

Tammany Hall – Conclusions

I adore Tammany Hall. It’s a near-perfect area control experience for me. But it’s also harder to get to the table than something like El Grande (a game I also love) because of everything mentioned above.

But it doesn’t shy away from being what it is, and catering to its admittedly-niche audience. And in doing so, it masterfully brings its theme to life. I frequently compare it to the movie Gangs of New York (a masterpiece of its own) when teaching, because that accurately describes how this game feels to me.

It also shaves off any excess fat in its rules so that its theme is brought gloriously, brutally to life through the simple mechanics. It’s a study in mechanical minimalism, while retaining all kinds of depths, depths that will change each time you play since the personal dynamics will be different.

And if nothing I wrote turned you off from wanting to play, I’d encourage you to hunt down one of its editions. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

For more content, or just to chat, find me on Twitter @BTDungeons, or check out my other reviews and game musings!