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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 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 (see the letter column). I hope they get it right, because this is a good game and it deserves to look as well as it plays.
If you have difficulty getting hold of a copy, either write direct to John at Fiendish Games, 1 Churchbury Close, Enfield, Middlesex, EN1 3UW, England or e-mail him at [email protected]. Ordering details can also be found on his web site which is http://www.fiendishgames.demon.co.uk.