12th Aug2020

‘Watergate’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

Even before the Covid-19 lockdown came into force, I had always enjoyed the focus of a good, thoughtful, two player game. I think this fascination comes from repeatedly playing Draughts, Chess and Stratego with my dad and friends when I was much younger. Nowadays, I play two player games with my wife mostly, but we still find (in general) that games designed just for two players tend to work better than bigger games played at the lowest possible player count. Watergate, as you can probably guess from the name, recreates one of the most famous tug-of-war contests in political history.

For those who may not know (since it’s not in living memory for a lot of us – including me), Watergate is an infamous scandal involving the administration of then President Richard Nixon, which ultimately resulted in his resignation. Whilst the Washington Post (who were hell bent on proving the involvement and subsequent cover up of Nixon’s administration in a break-in involving their Democratic rivals) did not succeed in having Nixon impeached in reality, they came damn close to it.

In Watergate one player will take on the role of the Washington Post, whilst the other will act as Nixon’s administration, with the sole focus of the game being on the to-and-fro of evidence, support from key individuals and momentum. The whole game centres around a board that features nothing more than a track that begins at zero in the middle and moves upwards to five in both directions towards the players. Next to this track is a corkboard design that indicates spaces where evidence can be pinned, with each informant at the end of a spiderweb of locations that ultimately lead to Nixon.

The idea for the Washington Post player is to push evidence on the track (three pieces will be drawn by Nixon at random at the beginning of each round) onto their side in order to claim them, at which point they can be placed face up on the corkboard on a matching space. If the Washington Post can ever complete unbroken lines of evidence from any two informants all the way to Nixon, then they will win immediately. The goal for Nixon is to either stall the game out to a stalemate (which can happen if the game runs for the maximum of nine rounds) or, preferably, to claim the momentum token five times and end the game early.

The way in which momentum, initiative and evidence move up and down the track is linked to the decks of cards that each player will use. The game begins with the Washington Post having initiative, allowing them to draw 5 cards, whilst Nixon, at that point on the back foot, will draw 4. These cards are then played turn by turn for either the value shown on the top left, or the event played at the bottom. This mechanic is really, really simple, and those familiar with Twilight Struggle will feel immediately at home here – and in all honesty Watergate is considerably simpler.

The real kicker here is that when played, a card will be discarded (for reuse when shuffled later) if the “weaker” effect in the top left is used, but if a player chooses to use the event, then that card will be permanently removed from the game. You can imagine some of the more powerful event effects, but as an example, one of the Washington Post’s events allows an evidence token to be flipped from face down to face up (on the board) and each side has one event card for each informant, allowing that player to secure the support of that informant.

The informant cards really make things interesting, since each one has perhaps some of the most powerful top left abilities, whilst also being essential to winning for both players. Nixon, for example, can go for a strategy of securing all the informants early, but in doing so he will likely leave the Post player able to secure a lot more evidence and perhaps even use one of their own events to flip an informant at a time that suits them. Conversely, the Post player may try to secure the informants themselves early, but that will likely mean Nixon secures enough momentum to win very quickly.

The need to keep one eye on the momentum disk and the other on evidence and which informants are in play is key to success, but at the same time, you can’t simply ignore initiative either, since whoever holds it has an extra card (and thus a whole extra turn) for as long as they hold it. Whilst spending enough effort to move evidence or one of the tokens off the board in your direction means securing that item is certain, it isn’t always the most efficient way to play. Instead, it can often be better to have an item just on your side of the board so that when the round ends (when all cards are used) you obtain it anyway – albeit in the most efficient possible way.

In addition to simply securing evidence and informants, the players must then tackle the mild spatial puzzle that is building (or preventing) the linkage on the other side of the board. Nixon always has the ability to see the Post player building up their connections – and may be able to flip over an informant that isn’t in play before it can be used against him – but the way the board is laid out is such that evidence is rarely dead. It’s just that sometimes, the Post player will need to take the long way round – and let’s not forget that they have the ability to bring an informant back into play with one of their own events.

Aside from its mechanical cleverness, there are a few things I really like about Watergate. For starters, the fact that it is strictly a two-player game really means that it can double down on theme, which it absolutely nails. I have no real interest in the Watergate scandal (and I dare say that it is inherently less scandalous than some of what goes on in modern politics) but every time I play Watergate, I am completely hooked by the story that each game weaves. Even within the relatively tight confines of the two decks, the potential variation from one game to the next is huge.

Another feature that I really like about Watergate is its ease of teaching, learning, remembering and playing. You can get this game setup and underway with a new player in about ten minutes, and they’ll know all the rules within about fifteen and the first game will be over in under an hour, no doubt about it. What this does tend to mean is that a player who gets into it and enjoys it will want to play again, and Watergate is definitely the kind of game that rewards multiple repeat plays between the same two players – swapping sides and trying different strategies.

Overall then, Watergate is a tight two player game presented in a small, neat package. It’s a very clever game that immediately rewards players by making them feel clever as they learn it and then again as they begin to master the nuances that both the game and their opponent present. Watergate is a near flawless travel companion for two players who have a bit of space and time – perhaps on a caravan holiday or a warm balcony – and it’s also an interesting way to involve older children in a bit of historic learning. For me, it’s an absolute must have when it comes to expanding a serious two player games collection, and I’ll play it many more times to come.

****½ 4.5/5

Watergate is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator


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