A couple of months ago, I found myself unusually obsessed with Martin Scorcese’s 2002 picture Gangs of New York. Without going all Roger Ebert on everyone, the Barnes capsule review is that 50% of the film is absolutely amazing and could be one of the Great American Films, the other 50% is either awkward, sloppy, or Cameron Diaz is on the screen. But then you’ve got Daniel Day-Lewis towering over the entire thing in one of his routine outstanding performances. Getting into this film, with all of its incredible pants and hats, drew my eye toward a couple of games that have themes and settings from the same time and place as the film, a late 19th century Manhattan undergoing rapid change under the forces of immigration, old world rivalries transplanted to the nascent metropolis, and back-room politics rife with corruption. One is Tammany Hall, first published in 2007 and designed by Doug Eckart. The other is Five Points, a 2013 issue from Mayfair Games designed by Andreas Steading.
I was going to do a review of both of these games to see how they stacked up against each other, but to be quite honest it wasn’t a fair fight. There’s no way in Hell’s Kitchen that I’d recommend Five Points over Tammany Hall, even though it’s exquisitely billed as a “Game of Very Raw Politics”. Tammany Hall is one of those really outstanding Eurogame designs that understands the value of keeping things extremely simple but allowing players to actually play rather than enacting processes and then determining who was the most efficient at doing so in the final tabulation. Both games are El Grande-descended area control designs and there are some rough similarities in terms of how the games depict local elections, the “rolled up sleeves and fisticuffs” politicking of the time, and the immigration issue.
What’s more interesting to me in comparing these two designs is looking at how each generate a sense of theme and setting- and why one succeeds spectacularly while the other languishes like a middling design warmed over from Essen 2002. The key to Tammany’s success isn’t necessarily that its rules are better or more descriptive of Five Points politics, it’s that the player is more directly involved in generating the narrative through negotiation, bickering, and other interactions that are all almost entirely above the table. There’s a touch more detail in Tammany Hall as well, which Five Points is sorely lacking despite its period production design and nomenclature like “rabble” used to describe your wooden cubes.
In Tammany Hall, a player has to manage not only controlling regions to win votes to become the “boss” of each, but they also have to carefully control their influence among four different immigrant groups. Currying the favor of an immigrant group can be crucial, since they grant you favor tokens that you can use to swing a vote or to slander your opponents. This tends to generate a lot of competition and table talk among players, maybe even moreso than controlling areas. It works almost like an Acquire-style speculation game, with players becoming heavily invested (and favored) by the Irish, Italians, Germans, or English. This also drives collusion between players, with Irish-heavy players often teaming up against those backed by the Italians and so forth. Further, at the end of each round a Mayor is elected that gets to grant special ability tiles to each player at their discretion- which can be used to aid allies, foster alliances of convenience, or to keep a player from accessing a particular advantage.
All of the above means that the game is far more engaging and interactive than you might expect given that it is essentially a count-the-cubes title. The narrative that develops is one of shifting allegiances, political invasions, and a checks-and-balances sense of policing that occurs around the table. Signficantly, the rules do not describe any of this interaction. It is all the responsibility of the player to create it from the raw material provided by the designer.
It wouldn’t be fair to state that Five Points doesn’t feature any of this, because to some extent it does. It does some of the same things that El Grande does to create friction. You can move and remove other player’s cubes as they jockey to control neighborhoods and win elections. There are special buildings in some neighborhoods that grant you a special ability, which can be an advantage or an offensive action. There is also a kind of off-board majorities contest (read: auction) where you can commit your “rabble” to winning ability tiles. There is definitely interaction, but it’s hardly what I’d call “very raw politics”. More like “very standard area control”.
The chief difference is that Tammany Hall generates its tension, viciousness, and cutthroat atmosphere through what the players actually do- the rules do not attempt to create it with processes and proscribed points of conflict. There are some important nods to theme and setting in Five Points, like how local elections affect and reward nearby neighborhoods, but most of its content is identified by pictures and nomenclature than by meaningful thematic context.
Which is kind of ironic, because Tammany Hall isn’t the most specific game out there and on paper it could be a medieval town with rival guilds or whatever vying for patronage and political control. However, there’s another important distinction. Tammany Hall takes place on an old fashioned map of Manhattan, so there is a sense of place that is absolutely crucial to selling the theme. You become a power-brokering boss looking down over the city in this game. Five Points, on the other hand, completely abstracts the Greatest City in the World into “neighborhood” tiles with no sense of historicity, proximity or specificity. I think this is a tremendous design mistake, to make a game about New York City that doesn’t show the players a picture of New York City.
Both games are really around the same complexity level, with Five Points possibly being a little shorter even though Tammany Hall is more direct. Neither game at this level of detail, abstraction, and rules complexity is going to act as a Boss Tweed simulator, but it’s very clear that Tammany Hall is more successful at communicating its subject matter by combining player agency, just enough specificity, and a sense of geography to get the players invested in the ersatz historical narrative.
Getting into more nebulous and subjective territory, there’s kind of a strange national distinction between the games. Tammany Hall feels very much like an English design- very straightforward, simple in design, with just a couple of layers of complexity. Five Points is very Germanic, which means that it is more driven by process, structured conflict, and an emphasis on board position or situation rather than the hazier, more fluid above-the-board style of play.
Yet both are ultimately cube-pushing area control games that aren’t fundamentally all that much different, at least on the surface. The differences here illuminate two very different approaches to conveying theme and setting that I think are meaningful and worth examining. There is the Five Points approach, which applies the theme almost completely at an executive level despite some logical connections between mechanic, rule, and player action. Then there is the Tammany Hall method which feels much more like the designer set out to make a game about this very specific historical time and geographic place using simple (but layered) mechanics to give the player a framework to create the atmosphere for themselves.