Most people have heard of the infamous Watergate scandal that took down a president and tested the power of democracy in the 1970s. It’s had a lasting impact on the American psyche to this day, causing the press to label most scandals with the suffix “gate,” a tag that immediately brings to mind shady backroom dealings and nefarious deeds. Four decades later, Watergate from Capstone Games brings the real-life events to the tabletop arena, with one player taking on the role of Tricky Dick himself as they try to conceal their shady dealings, and the other player acting as the press trying to expose the scandal. The only question is, will this game be as remembered as well as the scandal that adorns its cover?
The Evidence is all there
The win condition for Watergate is different depending on which side you play. Richard Nixon’s goals are to serve out his second term by capturing 5 momentum tokens. The “Press” player must uncover evidence, discover informants, and link two of them to the 37th president before he’s able to finish out his term in office. At the beginning of the game, each player decides which role they want to take on and receives a deck of action/event cards for that role. Each player draws a certain number of cards based on an initiative card that is placed by the side of the board. This direction this card is pointed changes throughout the game giving the player who has the current initiative extra cards at the beginning of each round and making them the start player for the tOn the side of the board there is a research track consisting of numbers 0-5 for each player. This tug-of-war style track is where the majority of the action is going to take place for the game. This track is seeded at the start of every round with a white initiative token, a red momentum token, and three pieces of various colored evidence that the Nixon player draws from a bag, examines, and then places face down at the 0 space of the track.
Starting with the player who has initiative, players then take turns playing cards back and forth until all cards from their hand have been played. Each card offers several actions and a player can only use one of those actions when the card is played. When you play a card you can use the value at the top to move specific types of evidence, the momentum token, or the initiative token on the research track towards your side 1-4 spaces. If the media player chooses to try and move a piece of face down evidence they must ask Nixon if their color of evidence is on the track, if it is, it’s revealed and moved towards them.
Instead of using a card for movement you can decide to do the action on the card. These actions represent famous events, conspirators, or journalists from the Watergate scandal, and can be extremely powerful when used at the right moments. These can do various things such as moving multiple items on the research track, removing items from the research track or the evidence board, blocking cards played by your opponent, or adding or removing informants from the board. While powerful, many of these event cards are removed from the game after being played.
After the players are out of cards in their hands play proceeds to the evaluation phase. Here all evidence still on the 0 space is returned to the bag, then players are awarded the evidence tokens that remain on their side of the track. The player who currently has initiative then begins to “pin” the evidence gained this round to the board. The media player attempts to make a three-way connection linking two of the revealed informant to Nixon in the middle of the board. Meanwhile, Nixon is trying to obscure evidence and block the media’s progress putting his evidence face down on the board, causing paths to Nixon to become blacked out.
Play continues in this way until Nixon serves his second term by gaining 5 momentum tokens, in which case he immediately wins the game, or the media player wins by making a successful connection to Nixon and two informants and busting the scandal wide open!
Definitely not a Crook
Watergate hits the perfect sweet spot for me when it comes to two-player games. The asymmetrical goals and powers combined with lightning-quick gameplay make it a game you can set up and play multiple times in a row and will still want to replay. While the theme may initially give some players cold sweats, reminding them of much bigger political games like Twilight Struggle, this is a game with a simple ruleset that is easy to learn. I’d feel confident in teaching it to just about anyone even if the theme doesn’t interest them.
The graphic design is also thematic and well done. The cards all have nice photographs of different locations and conspirators form the real scandal and the evidence tokens are thick and feel like they’ll last a long time. The best part is the board itself. It’s designed to look like an old school cork board with pins and wires running from Nixon in the center to the informant spaces on the edges, giving players a very real feeling of trying to uncover a conspiracy.
While the bulk of the game is simply playing cards, it’s the decisions you make with those cards that give the game a nice amount of tension. If you’re playing as the media, should you move evidence to make the connection you need or should you take momentum away from Nixon? As Nixon, you need those momentum tokens to win the game, but the media player might have some crucial pieces of evidence on their side of the track; if you only focus on the momentum of your campaign you might lose if you let the press uncover too much evidence. Maybe you have a card with a powerful action that could flip the whole turn around, but if you play it you have to trash it for the remainder of the game. It’s an intense brain burner and an exercise in risk/asset management.
I recommend playing the same side for multiple games so you can learn the intricacies of your cards. If you play with the same person multiple times you get to know their strategies as well, so you can try to keep one step ahead of them. Then if you get bored playing one role you can take on the opposite role, giving you a whole new deck of cards to learn. As with any game, it is hard to figure out a strategy the first time you play unless you want to take the time to read through and try to memorize every card in the decks. To make sure the first play isn’t soured, when you are teaching the game I’d highly recommend giving new players a heads up that there are some really strong powers that can end the round immediately or allow a player to get trashed cards back. I think Watergate is going to have a lot of gamers chanting “Four more years! Four more years!”
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AKA “The Board Game Mole”
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