Several years ago, we played High Treason! The Trial of Louis Riel from Victory Point Games, which was the design debut of Alex Berry. This was the first ever courtroom/trial game we had played and we really enjoyed the mechanics and how it was a fast playing, but tense, 2-player card driven game. Now comes his follow-up effort called Corrupt Bargain: The 1824 Presidential Election that focuses on (you guessed it) the 1824 Federal Election as 4 different candidates (Adams, Clay, Crawford or Jackson) seek to become the next President of the United States. We reached out to Alex and he was more than willing to provide us with some information and inside look at the game.
Grant: First off Alex please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Alex: I’m a criminal defense attorney as my day job, that and a family keeps me too busy for any hobby other than gaming.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Alex: I had been doing reviewing just like you guys do under my boardgameblogger handle, over a million views total on YouTube, but I was slowly not getting enough time to really do that, with a family and young kids tough to have the place quiet enough to do that, but game design you can do on your own, as a Trial attorney who has won and lost a trial at jury selection, I wanted to have a game where jury selection played an important role, so that manifested into High Treason.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Alex: The first game that got me hooked into boardgames as a kid, was Mark Herman’s We the People, so because of that CDG’s are really my main love. I’d have to say Mark Herman and Jason Matthews are the two biggest influences.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Alex: Honestly, for me the most challenging part of the design process is finding the time to put into it, game design really takes a lot of time, and mine is mostly pre-occupied with work and family. I like to think that I am able to find unique areas of history that are ripe for gamification and make a fun, enjoyable game.
Grant: What designs have you completed to date? What do you feel those designs have taught you that help in your current efforts?
Alex: The only two completed games so far I have done are High Treason and now Corrupt Bargain, though I have a few other ones in the works. They are both very different games, but they have both taught me that if something isn’t working mechanically, you can change that while still keeping the overall goal/feel of the game.
Grant: What historical event does Corrupt Bargain cover?
Alex: Corrupt Bargain covers the 1824 Presidential Election, it is the only time since the passing of the 12th Amendment that the House of Representatives has picked who the President was, to me that’s a very interesting event and ripe for a game on the subject.
Grant: What sources did you consult to get the details of the history correct? What one source would you recommend as a must read?
Alex: Sadly, there are not too many books written explicitly on this event. I used a lot of Journal articles to learn about this event from JSTOR, which was an immense help. The one book I would recommend on the subject is The One-Party Presidential Contest: Adams, Jackson and 1824’s Five-Horse Race by Donald Ratcliffe.
Grant: The game is designed for 2-4 players. Which candidates are available to players and how does this change with the various player counts?
Alex: The 4 Candidates that historically got Electoral Votes in the election, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford and Henry Clay are the candidates for the players. If your playing with a lower than 4 player count, the players can decide which ones they wish to be.
Grant: How do the candidates differ in the game?
Alex: There are really two modes for the game, a more sandbox version and a historical mode. If playing the sandbox version, the candidates don’t really differentiate too much however in the historical mode, the candidates start with their respective strengths in the various states, i.e. John Quincy Adams is strong in Massachusetts while Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.
Grant: How long have you been working on the design? How much has it changed over that time?
Alex: I started working on this game back in 2014, (see what I mean about the lack of time) and it has changed so much, it wasn’t even using cards initially and each player would have a privacy screen where actions would be being placed all hidden until the election.
Grant: How similar is the overall structure to your first design High Treason?
Alex: It really isn’t too similar to High Treason at all. The way cards are played & obtained is different, the structure is different, in that the cards are suited, that it is a multiplayer game is different. The most similarity between the two games is that certain cards can be banked for an end game round.
Grant: Why do you feel the best mechanic for this subject is the Card Driven Game?
Alex: The Card Driven Mechanic is really the best mechanic overall, it lets you have cards that break normal rules while keeping the general rules overhead quite low. This allows a great deal of flexibility and to change the game state as the historical events unfold. The obvious benefit for the use of CDG for any game focused on an historical event is one of its greatest advantages. It allows the designer to place the history into the game.
Grant: How is this CDG different from the traditional approach? Where did this inspiration come from?
Alex: This game is different from a traditional CDG in a couple of ways. First off, the way you obtain the cards from the Event Card track, depending where from the track that you take the card the different benefits in additional to the event you get. Additionally, the Cards are suited, with benefits obtained for completing suits, so if you might take a weaker card just to complete a suit, which I think makes for some neat changes and interesting decisions. I had been playing a lot of Pax Porfiriana at the time and I liked the card market aspect and thought something similar would work in this setting.
Grant: How many different type of cards are there?
Alex: There are 4 different types of Cards: the Event Cards which are the meat and potatoes of the game, as well as Politician and Populace Cards which are saved for the end game mechanic called ‘The Final Push’ and State Cards which are really just a quality of life, book keeping aid.
Grant: What is the anatomy of the cards? How can they be used? Can you share a few examples of cards and tell us how they work?
Alex: When a player selects an Event Card from the Event Card Track that player will be able to do both the event as printed on the card as well as any actions gained from where on the track the player selected the card from. So let’s say I pick the Edward Coles Event Card from the 1 Action and 1 Insight. I would first perform the Event, giving me one Politician support in a state of the West of my choice, as well as one in the North. I would add 2 Populace Support into Illinois and Grab a Politician Card for later. Then I would perform 1 Action of my Choice as well as the Insight. So lets say I wanted to really focus on gaining Politician Cards this round, one action would be ‘Work the Back Room’ allowing me to draw 4 more Politician Cards and keeping one, and then putting the other 3 on the bottom of the deck, and then my Insight Action would be to target another player, draw two of their Politician Cards, keeping one and giving the other one back.
Grant: How do players go about locking up support from the States? What is the strategy for players to do this well?
Alex: Locking up Support is done entirely based on Suit Collection, so if you want to focus on locking up support (which can be extremely powerful) you might want to focus on less powerful cards in order to be able to lock up support. Let’s say it is my turn on turn 4, and previously I had selected 3 cards with the Issue Suit of Western Expansion, I can now discard those three cards to lockdown a State, which means nothing can change the current support status in that State (including the Final Push).
Grant: What is the structure of a turn?
Alex: Turn Structure is really pretty simple. You select a card from the Event Card Track, perform the Event fully on the card and take the Actions/Insight and it’s on to the next player’s turn after refilling the Event Card Track.
Grant: How do players gain Action Points? What actions can be taken by players?
Alex: Action Points are given to the player based on where on the Action Deck the card the player chose was selected, The 5 Actions are: Campaign for Political Support, Campaign for Popular Votes, Work the Back Rooms, Get Out the Vote and Political Intrigue.
Grant: How do players build alliances?
Alex: You can’t really build alliances per se in the game, however you and an adversary might choose to target/block a particular meddlesome opponent, you never have an official alliance but merely work together for your own self interests.
Grant: What is the Final Push and what does it represent from history?
Alex: The Final Push is the end game mechanic whereby players are playing their banked cards for additional Politician and Populace Support, in an abstract since it represents all the investments that the different campaigns have spent throughout the campaign by having undecideds support them come the election.
Grant: What is the layout of the board? How do players track their influence in each State?
Alex: The Board shows the States of the United States as they were during the 1824 Election. Players will place their Populace Cubes and Politician Octagons directly into the various states on the map to track their support.
Grant: What issues are you still trying to work through in the playtest process? What is the release schedule?
Alex: No more playtesting is needed as the game is finished and has already been printed in its final form. My understanding is that it has been loaded on the boat and is now slowly making it’s way to the States. It should be released fairly soon.
Grant: What great suggestions have your playtest team suggested?
Alex: The game has changed a lot and got better throughout the various iterations, that only comes through playtesting. So all suggestions and observations by playtesters are good. You as the designer need to listen to what they say, maybe that results in a mechanic change or maybe it doesn’t. But input is key and helps us all to make a better final game.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
Alex: I really like how we have a unique final scoring that simulates the election in a way that makes focusing on the House of Representatives Victory as important while not neglecting other aspects of the history and how it got to that point.
Grant: What other design ideas are you working on or stewing over?
Alex: I’ve always got some irons in the fire, but the two games I’m furthest along with are a 2-4 player CDG on the Nuremberg Trial, as well as a 3-player Trick Taking WW2 game.
If you are interested in Corrupt Bargain: The 1824 Presidential Election you can pre-order the game for $51.00 (estimated retail price of $69.00) on the Decision Games website at the following link; https://shop.decisiongames.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=P1908