What is it? Players have received their parties nomination for President of the United States and will now be running their campaign against their opponents. The game features area control/area majority as players move and place cubes across the United States, signifying their parties voters in the state and thus their control of the electoral college. There is also card management as that is the focal action each turn and each player will have a power unique to their character.
Are you registered to vote in the United States? If unsure/no, check this website.
Will this review be unbiased and impartial regarding American politics? Nah.
How thematic is it? I think Campaign Trail can be incredibly thematic but it entirely depends on the players. If you go into this game with the idea of just min/maxing your cube placement, this game will be a dry card-playing cube-pusher. There’s nothing wrong with playing this way; I still find Campaign Trail to be an inviting and interesting game when I try to just do my best. There’s no real difference in playing any of the political parties and this is more of a euro game than a simulation. If you play into the nominee that you draw and have some fun with it though, the game becomes very thematic and much more enjoyable in my opinion. This is like a meatier Betrayal at House on the Hill. Roleplaying a southern drawl as you try to push military spending in the southeast as the Republican candidate always causes some laughs (well, less now that most red leadership has failed, betrayed and made a mockery of the people of the United States. Fuck em).
Is it easy to play? Campaign Trail looks incredibly intimidating. There is a large board, multiple icons and some cards absolutely packed with information. However, I don’t think the actual mechanics of the game are difficult. I would put this in that mid-weight level and say it is slightly more complex than a game like Viticulture: Essential Edition, but not too much. The complications will come from stringing your actions together over a cycle and navigating the risk/reward of keeping/playing a valuable card that impacts both the current board state and the debates.
So what do you do exactly? Each turn, the active player will play a card from their hand and choose an action associated with their card. Each card is different and will offer players multiple options; not only for the immediate turn but also for later during the debates. Players will try to gain the majority of voters in states to sway the electoral college. The game is incredibly dynamic and the lead will change hands several times over the course of play.
Are there any variants? Yes. Players have two choices: play with Dirty Politics or without. Dirty Politics introduce additional cards to the game that allow players six additional options that directly impact their opponents. Without the cards, players are influencing the states themselves and while players are planning around their opponents, they’re not directly targeting them. Dirty Politics changes this and makes the game have a much more direct conflict route to deal with voters. The inclusion of these cards will make the game run longer (as there are more cards) and will make the game more cutthroat. We personally prefer to use the Dirty Politics cards with each play as we like that sort of game and we find them balanced as they don’t contribute to debates. They can and will hurt players; especially when you find the bulk of your money swiped by an opponent. The game plays perfectly well without them as well so don’t think they’re needed to make the game balanced. Campaign Trail feels like two different experiences playing with/without Dirty Politics. We have some groups that it is a must include and others that we leave the cards in the box. Dirty Politics is set more in the realm of mudslinging and the attack ads world of political rivalry as opposed to the being in debt to possible foreign powers, mocking a mentally impaired man, paying off porn stars, suppressing voter turnout amount minorities, sterilizing immigrants, being friends with suspected pedophiles, filibustering or white supremacy alliances so it won’t really compare to what current politics is like.
How are the components? I have the deluxe edition so I can only speak on that. The components are amazing. The artwork is vibrant and easy to read and the cards, including the symbols, help speed the game along once players get used to everything they’re looking at. I’m always amazed at the level of information provided by the cards and how clean they are to read. The deluxe edition features meeples in place of cubes but either would be fine and honestly? I might prefer cubes as you’re moving voters so often that standing the meeples up takes valuable seconds that add up over the course of a game. Most of our games just have meeples plopped down on the states. Besides these components, the game also features an electoral college board that is visually stunning but can be a pain (more on this in a bit).
How much real estate does this game take up? A lot. This board will take up ample space on your table regardless of what player count you play at. Not only is the board large, the electoral college boards will take up a sizable portion of your table. You’ll probably pay more property tax on this board game than some of our elected officials do on their real estate holdings.
What about player count? Campaign Trail supports one to six players BUT if you’re playing with four or more, there will be teams instead of everyone being their own party. What this means is that in a four-player game, the Republican party will have a President and Vice President and vice versa for the Democratic Party. At five-players, there will be three parties and one player will need to play both the President and VP for their party. As far as to what player count is the best? I think this works well as a two- and three-player game. I like the idea of teams much more than I like the actual playing of them for one simple reason: it makes the game long. Bouncing ideas between teammates and trying to maximize the strength of your cards takes doubly long as you’re passing information back and forth. I wish instead of being forced to team up, the game incorporated more party choices; mostly just to see what a true multi-party platform would look like in a ‘simulation’. coughEXPANSIONIDEAcough
Can it be played solo? Yes it can. The game features an AI deck of cards that mimic another player on the board. I won’t say it’s the best AI I’ve ever used and it will involve a lot of board maintenance by the solo player. I liked it as a solo game but it’s not necessarily something that I’ll play again solo as it just feels better with other players around.
Playing time? Games take around forty-five minutes a player. If you get good with a dedicated player or two, games can be shortened but not by too much. There’s just too much record keeping and board manipulation to cut out too much time. Team games have always taken longer in my opinion (probably sixty minutes a player). We have cut the deck to remove additional cards at random if we want to play a quicker game and we haven’t noticed any real difference when this is done. Set-up will be a large burden as well. Even when we got good at the game, set-up is configured based on player count and party so you’ll need to follow the rulebook.
How much randomness is present in the game? The cards players will draw to form their hand are shuffled and randomized before each game. Players will be able to choose a card from their hand to play but when drawing a new card, there’s no way to guarantee that the new card will fill the need the player has.
How interactive is the game? Very, if including the Dirty Politics variant (as mentioned earlier). If not, everything is indirect in nature but still competitive. While you’re not directly swaying voters from a state, you’re very much treating that state as a battleground.
Is there much downtime? In a two-player game, turns happen pretty quickly. As the actions are on the card, players can assist one another with finding the states, grabbing money or shuffling cubes around and while this stays true at higher player counts, there’s only so much non-active players can do. In a three- or more player game, players will find downtime plentiful but even with everyone being on top of their game, turns will still take some effort due to record keeping. Players will also struggle to plan too far in advance as one players action can impact multiple states which changes what a player will want to do for their turn.
Does winning feel satisfying? Yes. Seeing the tug of war battle that is the electoral college is incredibly satisfying and coming out on top feels rewarding, especially when you can capture one of the larger states and swing the election in a large way.
Does the same strategy work each game? Not really. The variable player powers help keep players from doing the same thing regardless of character and if you choose to ignore your power, you’re in for a bad time. The card draws also impact the way you play the game. Simple statistics tells players that if they aim for the top twelve states, they’ll have enough votes to win the election but just because you want to target them doesn’t mean the cards let you.
Is this a good gateway game? No. It has a lot of iconography, a lot of record keeping and a long play time. While new players could easily learn this game, I wouldn’t surprise anyone coming over for a game night with this game. This is definitely one that is mentioned ahead of time so that players are aware (mostly due to play time).
Can you lose on the first turn? No.
Is there a possibility of a runaway winner or kingmaking? Players will always be able to do something and more importantly, I think the game allows players several avenues to catch up. There have been a few games where I felt I was getting blown out of the water only to come back and completely outdo my opponent…and vice versa. I’ve felt like I’ve had the election in my hand only to have someone perform incredibly well in the debates (for example) and trounce me. Players could decide to do something akin to kingmaking but in my experience, that hasn’t been the case since the game caps the amount of opposing parties at three and there’s no way to directly benefit another player.
Is there player elimination? No.
What should I know before my first game? Don’t ignore the debates. The debates can really pad the voters for a candidate that prepares for them. Most debates are somewhat equal tug of wars but if a player neglects the debates, the opposition can clean up. In addition, while many players will think that putting more voters on the board is the answer, sometimes it’s cheaper and more efficient to remove your opposing voters instead. The best offense may in fact be a good defense.
What sucks about this game that you haven’t spoken about yet? There are two aspects of Campaign Trail that I dread each time we play and while it doesn’t keep us from playing, we have settled on other games instead in the past just to avoid them. First is the maintenance. Every turn you will be doing some action and typically it involves moving cubes onto (or off) the board. This isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things but it does tie directly into my second and larger issue: Majority. Having to adjust the electoral college board each and every time is tiring and it is hard to find the states over and over again. I hate the electoral college tracker. I want to love it; it’s colorful and thematic and perfectly illustrates the gap between the parties but the record keeping is exhausting and frustrating. Finding New Mexico in the sea of shapes and colors is not worth it. I would love an app or something for this aspect of the game.
The Kickstarter, which I was a backer of, was also a negative experience due to the inexperience of the designers. Since the launch of the game, they have signed with Grey Fox studios and one of the designers has mentioned that a reprinting and possible expansion are on there way; possibly by the end of 2020 (but this was mentioned well before COVID so there may be delays). While I did end up getting the product I pledged for, it was a frustrating experience that I would be remiss to not mention. This frustration did not sour me on the game however and this is the risk people take with Kickstarters.
Do you recommend this game? Yes. I love games that revolve around the political system and Campaign Trail is a great mid-weight look at the campaign “cycle”. The color design and iconography make the game stand out and easy to process once familiar with the logos. There is a nice give and take dynamic with each play and while the game isn’t perfect, the shortcomings don’t keep me from having a fun experience each time this covers my entire table end to end.
Lastly, please remember to vote! This is mostly aimed toward my American audience at the moment but it’s important for everyone. Use your democratic privilege to cast your ballot.