The beginning of the 1970s was a tumultuous time. The Vietnam War was in full swing, I had just been born so I hadn’t really amounted to much yet, and worst of all, people were wearing some really ugly clothes.
Oh yeah, there was also a political scandal that rocked the United States to its core and resulted in the first Presidential resignation in the history of the country.
You know, a minor thing.
Watergate, published by Capstone Games in North America, is a game about that political scandal that involved cronies of the Richard Nixon administration breaking in to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office building and the subsequent Nixonian cover-up of the crime.
This 2-player game was designed by Matthias Cramer and has artwork by Klemens Franz and Alfred Viktor Schulz. It was published this year (2019 if you’re reading this in the far future, and if so, welcome!).
How does it play?
Let’s take a look.
Much in the vein of Twilight Struggle, 13 Days, or 1960: The Making of a President, Watergate is a card-driven game where both sides alternate playing cards that will allow them to either spend points to do something or allow them to execute the event text on the card.
The twist in this one is that both players (the Washington Post editors and the Nixon administration) have their own deck of cards to use.
The Editors deck consists of some journalist cards, some events that make exposing the scandal easier, and Informant cards that let you put out one of seven informants that have a lot of dirt on the President.
The Nixon deck has some conspirators, some events that make hiding the scandal easier, and Informant cards that let you get the support of the Informant rather than having them help the Editors.
The game board has both an Evidence board (that looks delightfully like a conspiracy board you see in a lot of movies and memes) and a Research Track that both players will be fighting over.
The Evidence section has a place for all seven Informants (around the outside of the board), and the Editors are trying to link two of these Informants to Nixon in the middle of the board.
The way they do this is quite intriguing.
The Research track is on the right side of the board, and you start each round with a Momentum token, the Initiative token, and three face-down pieces of evidence all in the center of it on the “0” mark.
Nixon knows what the three evidence markers are, but the Editors don’t know until they move on the track in either direction. Then they flip to the visible side. One side is toward Nixon and one is toward the Editors.
If anything (red Momentum Token, white Initiative Token, or any piece of evidence) reaches the “5” space for either side, that player wins it immediately. Otherwise, whoever wins it is based on where it is on the track at the end of the round.
The Editor starts the game with the initiative. After that, each round’s initiative is based on where the Initiative Token is (or, if it ends up at “0”, then whoever didn’t have it last round will have it this round). That player draws 5 cards from their deck while the other player draws 4.
The player with initiative plays first and will also end up playing last (having an extra card). This can be a huge boon.
On your turn, you will play one of the cards in your hand. You can either play it for the text on the card, or you can use the top left corner of the card. This will allow you to move (for example) a yellow evidence token, the initiative token, or the momentum token two spaces on the Research Track in your direction.
If the Editor plays a card (the above is an Editor card) and the evidence is face down in the middle of the track, then they ask the Nixon player if there is a yellow evidence. If there’s more than one, Nixon can choose any of them but they must reveal one that is then moved.
If there isn’t a yellow evidence token, then the Editor can still move the Initiative or Momentum token instead.
If you play the text and it’s an event, then the card is almost always removed from the game (there is one Nixon event that will let you remove a Conspirator from the game instead). Conspirators and Journalists are typically not removed.
If you play an Informant event, then you will be placing that Informant out on the board. The Editors play the Informants face-up while Nixon plays them face-down. That means that the Editors cannot use that Informant as part of the evidence chain. They will never narc to the Editors about their part in the scandal (unless the Editors play Deep Throat as above, who allows you to remove a face-down Informant so they can potentially be played by them in the future)
Once the round ends, players check to see who won Initiative, who won the Momentum token (placing it on their player card in the next-numbered space), and then see who won the evidence tokens.
In Initiative order, players place the evidence tokens they won on a space on the Evidence board corresponding to the colour of the token (multicolour ones can be placed on either colour).
The Editors are trying to link two Informants to Nixon while Nixon can place tokens face down to block the chain.
If the Editors ever succeed in this linkage, they win. If Nixon ever gets 5 Momentum tokens, he wins.
This happens immediately, so if Nixon wins the 5th Momentum marker in the same round that the Editors would place their final piece of evidence, Nixon still wins since Momentum is awarded first.
He outlasted the investigation and finished his term.
The game continues until one of these two things happens, or there is a rare occasion that there are no more Momentum markers to put out (that would mean the Editors won 5 of the 9 Momentum tokens, which should mean that Nixon was on the ropes anyway but the Editors blew it and Nixon wins).
Is Watergate an explosive expose that saves the country? Or is it the scandal of a lifetime that leads to nothing but darkness?
I absolutely love this game.
There’s something to be said about a 2-way tug of war that is almost literally a tug of war (except that physical strength is not required). And there are so many choices!
Yes, some of your choices are dictated by the cards that you happen to draw, but the fact that most of the big movements and adjustments can only happen once (because they were caused by an event that has to be removed) mitigates that slightly.
Also, there’s almost always something you can do that will help you. Maybe you just move that evidence token further out of reach of your opponent. Or maybe you steal the Initiative token on your last card so you can keep it next round.
The fact that you get 5 cards and your opponent only gets 4 when you have Initiative can be a big thing.
Not that Initiative is mandatory, as Jess shows in the above Heavy Cardboard playthrough that made me salivate and want this game so badly. However, it can be quite important.
Nixon wants Momentum tokens, but he can’t just let the Editors get all of the evidence tokens and concentrate on Momentum or he will lose. It takes 5 rounds minimum for Nixon to win. The Editors can win sooner if Nixon doesn’t stop the evidence from accumulating.
I love how both sides have different goals but can’t concentrate on just those goals. They have to also try and inhibit the other player as well.
The card-playing mechanism out of Twilight Struggle works really well with this game. The Events can be monumental, but then they’re gone. The journalists and conspirators can be powerful, but each side has a card that will prevent the effect from happening.
The Informant cards are removed for whoever “captures” them, but not for the other player. Instead, the other player still has their card that can be played for movement on the Research Track. That makes the decision easy!
The push and pull on both sides in this game is just delicious.
I also love how the Evidence board looks. The strings linking one piece of evidence to another and then to Nixon or an Informant. It just looks really cool.
For some, the theme of the game is a bit off-putting, especially in current circumstances. However, for me it is a great historical theme that really brings the scandal to life. Nixon feels that pressure as the evidence mounts, trying desperately to block it from ever reaching him, or at least making it to the end of his term before it collapses around him.
It can be quite tense. In one of my plays, the Editors were most likely going to win at the end of the round (only needing one evidence token to win), but Nixon was able to get the Momentum token during the round by getting it to space #5.
Which does bring to mind what some may consider a fault: it is a bit luck-driven. Since it’s not a 3-hour game, the luck may not have time to even out like it does in Twilight Struggle (in that game, if you have a bad round of cards, you’ll probably get decent cards next round).
If that doesn’t work for you, then you may not like this game.
However, it is a quick game (30 minutes tops) and it packs a lot into that time.
It also appears to be well-balanced, at least in my three plays. I’ve seen people on BGG say that Nixon can’t lose and I’ve also seen others say that he can’t win. In our experience, Nixon has won twice and the Editors once, but they were all close games.
I also really love the components to Watergate. The cards (and the rulebook) are packed with history and flavour text. They’re of excellent quality and quite large as well (not quite tarot size but close).
The cards and game board are littered with historical pictures that really set the mood as well. The cardboard tokens are solid and just feel substantial.
All of this is packed into a very small box that fits nicely on your shelf.
Watergate is a great 2-player game that you can play in a very short time. It’s perfect as a lunch-time game with co-workers or as a nice way to start or end a game day.
Give Watergate a try.
If you don’t like it, maybe that’s the conspiracy?
This review was written after 3 plays.