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October 24, 2009

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Office Politics reviewed

The game of squabbling over power
bases and positions in the pecking order,
for 3 to 6 players

Designed by John Harrington
Published by Fiendish Board Games
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

15 ($29)
3-6 players
90 mins

Reprinted by kind permission of Ken Tidwell of The Game Cabinet

John Harrington is one of those annoying people that, having decided to be a game designer one morning, starts knocking out very creditable titles. And this from a standing start with no thought to the poor saps who have been slaving away for years with no result. His first published game, the clever Breaking Away, has become something of a cult hit around the hobby, being widely played postally and having almost sold out its first two print runs. In the interim Fiendish Games published Alan Parr's Traffic Lights, an entertaining little abstract game representing fantastic value, and while I would like to put in a vote for John's Movie Mogul and soccer systems to be the next out of the traps, for now we are presented with Office Politics.

Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment, or extensively read Dilbert, will be familiar with the idea behind this game. If you have ever encountered the empire building IT director, the influential 'inner clubs', the links to mystery MPs, the incompetent executive, the trolls in accounts, the stunning new marketing temp, the completely unthinkable office romance that 'ties' two departments. Cynical, me? All this is here and it has been executed in a clever, quick and largely original fashion. What is slightly odd is that you have no role to speak of. You are simply trying to spread your 'faction's' influence through the corporate hierarchy and win the game by controlling the most departments.

The board depicts a typical corporate pyramid: the chairman at the top worth 7 points (useful for income, tie breaks and the ability to influence 'down' the tree), cascading down through directors, senior execs, middle management, and finally the people that do the work - your 'power base' - including a large number of departments such as VDU operators, typists, legal, accounts, clerks and the stock room. Each department is connected to a couple of others through thick lines and additionally some are, through dotted lines, potentially connected. More on this later. The lines indicate the expansion routes for your power base and are, in the main, completely logical - so if you 'control' both the receptionists and telephonists, you will have solid influence over the Help Desk and ultimately Client Liaison. Clever eh?

The game is driven through 'kudos counters', a form of action points that we quickly found ourselves renaming to suit personal taste (kudos is just one of those words I dislike, especially when used as, "Kudos to you for that review Mike". Bleurghhh. Completely irrational, but that's Siggins). These are used to bid for order of play (important later on, this), to attempt to gain control of departments and are the common currency. Income derives from the number and status of departments controlled (packing producing just 1, the CEO 6 action points). These are totalled each turn and added to your stock. They are usually spent in trying to gain control of a department, which is the heart of, and one of the cleverer ideas in the game.

Let's say it is early on in a three player game and Anne, Bob and Colin decide to contest Quality Control. In the first phase of kudos laying, you can lay as many as you like in any number of areas but in so doing reveal your plans to your rivals. In phase two, each player can lay only as many kudos as there are players in the game. Anne lays one in QC to show an interest, Bob passes and Colin plays seven. In phase two Anne passes, feeling she can't catch up, Bob lays just one to groans from Colin (we shall see why) and Colin plays his maximum three to make ten. The key rule is that at the end of the phase, players must remove kudos equivalent to the number of contesting players times the level of the department. In Quality Control's case, this level is three, so with all three players present, each must remove nine kudos points. Anne and Bob remove their singles, and Colin removes nine leaving one unchallenged which is enough to place one of his control markers into Quality Control. He groaned because Bob's single kudos marker cost him another three, so he would have still one left after nine were taken off. Without Bob, he would have only removed six, allowing him to usefully play his three elsewhere.

The neatest element here is that while you can only lay kudos in adjacent departments to those already controlled, you can set up links within the turn allowing fairly rapid expansion up or across the board - especially when using event cards. Additionally, you can always lay kudos in the lowest status departments without even being previously connected. In a three player game these level one departments are vital since each player can acquire a number and quickly progress to the twelve department game ending margin. As the number of players increase, the chances of this reduce and the struggle for the lower 'power base' areas is much tighter.

All this would still be rather an abstract exercise without the event cards. Each player has eight with the same composition for everyone. There are low key cards like I'll Decide - which pretty much secures you the sequence bidding, Personal Feud and Shag That which break or establish lines of influence between departments. More powerful are Golden Balls - which reduces by half the amount of Kudos you need to remove, Glamour Job which doubles the income from a department, Leap of Faith which allows you to leapfrog a department when attempting to gain control and Change of Heart which removes control. The only aspect to mention on the cards is we felt there were perhaps too few of them (though I will happily defer to the designer on this one), especially only being able to use them the once, and that those mentioned above were seemingly the most powerful and thus require careful timing for maximum benefit. Otherwise, the cards add just the right level of interaction and variety - as designed, they are both strong and scarce enough to make them valuable and they do not affect play balance or skilful play unduly, a common complaint against event cards.

The feel of the game is where it scores. All of the above mechanics come together neatly to give quite a flexible environment where tactical play and occasional sweeping strategy are paramount, and one which takes a couple of games to find out how to best advance up the ladder or deploy your opening power base. I cannot offer any solutions, but suggest keeping a close eye on the twelve department winning margin which has proved decisive twice so far, and trying to get into the centre of the board rather than being secluded at the edges is probably a good idea. However, as often seems to be the case whenever I suggest a tactic, our third game was won by a player working the wings.

The other play dimension is that the game is inherently stable. Once a department is controlled, there is only one way of wresting control away from the owning player (the Change of Heart card) so there is a feel of artificial inertia - so much so that we checked the rule book three times to see if departmental control could change. It definitely doesn't happen very often, so make sure you get into those important departments early. Once you have realised this fact, and come to grips with how your tactics must adapt and which departments are worth those all-or-nothing contests, the game really starts to shine. When three or even four players have eyes on the same expansion route, increasingly common as the tree narrows toward the top, there is a fascinating phase of bluff, sparring and kudos play, and even flanking ploys are possible. The fact that we all sat round and spotted this, enjoyed the contest, and came back for more means that Fiendish Games have found a good mechanism here. The result is a game that can be a little 'quiet', as players studiously contemplate their moves, which then sometimes bursts into verbal activity as a nasty or rival play is made. If that is the sort of game you can enjoy, then I think Office Politics will suit the task admirably.

There is no doubt though that Office Politics is a negotiation game of the genus Diplomacus Fisticuffus. Thankfully, like Quo Vadis before it (a game of similar weight and interest, by coincidence), it can be played either with maximum prejudice or with negotiation turned right down and replaced by gentle hints and humorous threats. And for this gamer that is a very important quality. While I famously went off Diplomacy and its 'interesting' fans many years ago, repulsed by its common need for outright deception, lying and the bad feelings that can create, I have become less and less a fan of the need to haggle ones way into or through a game. I have of course entertained the odd departure into unarmed conflict, thoroughly enjoying Rette Sich Wer Kann, Wrott & Swindlers and the old standby, Doolittle and Waite. But the form can grate, and I have seen members of my group become disquieted when wriggling on the end of a knife. So, as with any game's luck and abstract quotients, the negotiating element needs to be tolerable. And I am pleased to say Office Politics works well on that score. We have played with three, which was good, four which was better - just the right balance of uncertainty and collusion - and we need to try five and six to see if there is any loss of control as so can easily happen with that number.

Production values are serviceable, in a perfectly good box with a free McDonald's Happy Meal toy which doubles to mark the first player and as an anti-boredom device, and the board is innovative. It is mounted on thin plasticard (the sort of stuff you use for model kits/scratchbuilds) which is a good idea. I will talk to John on this since I would think plastic must cost more and be harder to stick than equivalent card? Either way, it lays flat. Whatever, it should be stressed that this is not a gamekit - everything is ready to play, you just have to get used to the slightly eccentric components (pistachio nut shells for markers, so no exports to the USA Mr Harrington, or the FDA will be after you) and graphics. Office Politics is not beautiful, but it works, and that is all I ask given the chance to see a new game system. When the Waddingtons or Avalon Hill version comes out, perhaps with a Dilbert licence, we can talk about aesthetics then.

(The board is now available in two A3 laminated parts, in colour - Ed.)

I am not sure how much scope there is for tactical replayability in Office Politics, but we haven't yet tired of it and I am sure there is at least as much depth as in Quo Vadis which is a firm compliment. The net result is a game that we all enjoyed on its three outings so far, and will certainly play again, but which I feel is not quite up to the standard of John's earlier Breaking Away. That is partly because it isn't about cycling (!), and partly because of the low level negotiation required. I also suspect it difficult to make a game like this seem as enjoyable as a race game - discuss, with reference to Quo Vadis and Daytona 500. But there are several elements in Office Politics that are original, there is a real feeling of fresh, tactical play and I think the action cards add just the right degree of apprehension. I liked it, was partly surprised that I did, and I can recommend the game with slight reservations if you don't mind a little negotiation, and with none at all if you enjoy this aspect. Indeed, if you are of the Diplomacy school, you will probably be playing an entirely different style of game than we did. We look forward to the next Fiendish Game with interest.

Mike Siggins


OFFICE POLITICS


FIENDISH BOARD GAMES
2-6 players, 60 minutes
designed by JOHN HARRINGTON
reviewed by STUART DAGGER

If you design a game, market it yourself and show a profit, selling out both the first two print runs, the sensible thing to do is quit. It is a difficult enough trick to pull off once; trying for the repeat really isn't very smart. Fortunately for us, John Harrington is either a gambler or an applause junkie. Office Politics, or, as it says on my copy of the board, "Office olitics", is the follow-up to his successful Breaking Away and,
like that game, it is a clever idea which works.

In the introduction to the rules, the game is described as being one of negotiation and conquest and while that is not inaccurate, it makes it sound a lot longer and a lot less enjoyable than it is. After all, Diplomacy is a game of negotiation and conquest. Not to mention 8 hour sessions and headaches the following day. This one is more to do with squabbling over power bases and a position in a pecking order, which makes it splendidly true to its title. In many of the games we play it is clear that the mechanism came first; here there is no doubt but that the theme did.

The board shows the pyramid structure that you get in a large industrial corporation: packers, clerks, typists and the like in the bottom layer and then working your way up through accounts, data processing, personnel and so on until you get to the chairman. Each group is represented by a box in one of the seven layers and the number of boxes per layer
shrinks as you rise. The object is to gain control of these boxes, with the winner being the one who controls most when the game ends. Note that victory criterion: it is quite cunning. What matters at the end is how much of the firm is on your side; not who has the top job. However, the top jobs are important during the game, since they bring in more of the power/prestige markers that you need to run a successful campaign. I am not sure that this sort of play-off of quantity against quality is how things are judged in a real company, but it works well as a game mechanic, setting up the ``I can't do everything. Which should I try for?'' sort of problem that most good games have at their heart.

The basic mechanism for gaining control of departments is by placing counters in the boxes. You start by placing them in boxes in the bottom layer; thereafter you move along influence lines from boxes where you already have a presence. Some of these influence lines are natural, such as VDU operators to Data Input to Data Processing or Telephonists to the Help Desk to Client Liaison; others can be created.

Placement, which is something you do each turn, is split into phases in order to bring the advantage of going last down to the sort of level where players can reasonably be asked to sort out the turn order for themselves by bidding. After the placement phases, counters are removed from each uncontrolled department, with the number removed being dependent on how high up the pyramid the department is and how many players are vying for its control. The effect is to make it harder to gain control of a high up department and a lot harder to gain control when you have a fight on your hands. After the removal stage, any department which contains counters from only one player becomes controlled by that player. Controlled departments are the object of the exercise and they are also the main factor in determining your income, which you take in counters, ready for the next round of infighting.

The game would, I think, be too fluid if it were easy to wrest control of a department from another player. It would also be unrealistic. After all, Brown from Accounts has had his feet firmly under the desk for years and it would take a bomb to shift him. Bombs come in the form of action cards. Each player has eight of these and they are one use only. One of them enables you to remove a control marker from a
department. Others enable you to break the links between two departments (personal feud), create a link (personal friendship), leap-frog a department (accelerated promotion), increase the value of your counters in a department (golden boy) and so on. Their use will be a vital part of your strategy and the timing of their use even more so. Their presence in the game stops it being one of pure calculation and introduces just the right amount of controlled mayhem. As a piece of game design this is a very impressive package.

So much for the game design, what about the components? The rules are clear and well written. There is also a tutorial booklet giving the first couple of turns of a specimen game which will help you understand what you should be doing that much faster. 10/10 for that. The plastic counters and pawns are bought in and good quality and the other small extras are OK. Which just leaves the board and there the best you can say for the one in the first edition is that it is functional.

Having four panels that push together, rather than a professional-style folding board, is fine and so is the use of bendy plastic rather than board as a backing. In fact, the plastic is quite a good idea, because it lies flatter. What lets the side down is the appearance of the playing area and, quite frankly, I could have made a better job of that myself and my artistic talent is close to non-existent. I understand the problem of providing pictures when none of you can draw, but bad clipboard art is not the answer. Better no art than that. It would also have improved matters if, after photocopying the panels, they had used a guillotine so that when the panels were pushed together there weren't gaps in the middle of the central boxes. And why use standard white paper from an office stationers, when the local art supplies shop has attractive stuff that comes in A4 sheets and which works fine in both photo-copiers and laser printers? I can live with the visual deficiencies, because the game itself is fun and the game is what matters, but if Fiendish are going to take this game to Essen, they need to do something about that board. The Germans are so used to attractive looking games that they get quite sniffy about ones that aren't, particularly when they are paying import prices for them. Fortunately, John and his partner in Fiendish, Mike Woodhouse, are as aware of this as I am and they are doing something about it. I hope they get it right, because this is a good game and it deserves to look as well as it plays.

Stuart Dagger


(Note that Stuart was referring to the first version of the game and yes, the clip-art was appalling. We have now upgraded the board so that it is in colour, is laminated and is in 2 A3 sheets rather than 4 A4 sheets. We've even replaced the clip-art with some of Mike Woodhouse's drawings; he's no Michelangelo (he'd look ridiculous in a Ninja Turtle outfit anyway) but the art is improved from the version Stuart reviewed.)


German speakers may also like to see the review in Spielbox back in 1999.  I don't read German so if this review attempts to entice you to do something ridiculous like eat your own head, then I accept no responsibility!

 

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