According to the game itself- “Citizen is the reality based strategy game that lets you build the America you believe in by putting you in control on the significant issues of the day. You win Citizen by being the first player to pass your cause through both the Senate and the house of the actual 117th Congress. You also support your cause or oppose other players’ and build sets of Citizen cards that influence votes with alliances of historical faces, forces, and fates that build our nation.“
That’s all a rather tall order but it’s not surprising with a game that has over 800 card in the box. At first, I was a little overwhelmed when I opened up the box and saw how many cards were in here but it is a reality-based game in which you are using all of the members of that Congress. Why do I say that Congress? Because this game is intended to change
with every new sitting Congress. This is actually the second printing of the game with original printing of the game showing the previous Congress. The copy I have is for the 117th Congress edition.
The central game board abstracts the idea of the House and the Senate. For the House, you only use about 1/3 of the cards to play a game. Each member of Congress will show their party affiliation and whether they vote only on party lines as well as topics and industries that supported their most recent campaign. It will also show an abstracted idea of the influence within the chamber of Congress that the person holds. Technically, this influence is called the vote score which represents the representative’s or senator’s influence in their particular chamber.
The game begins with each player choosing a visible cause and a hidden cause. Every cause card will have a party affiliation, a suit, for example Bill of Rights, and a topic. There are about 30 of these topics. Players will go through an initial draft where they get Citizen cards to build their own deck. There are no dice in the game and the chance to pass your cause is based on getting good sets of these cards in order to match your cause and Congress cards.
During a turn, a player will play one Congress card from the deck in which their cause card begins play. There are three different ways that you can match Citizen cards, I’m not gonna go over all those, but suffice it to say the more matches you have lower on your cards the better your matches are. In addition to playing Citizen cards you may also be able to play a power card which has things like the power of Veto, if you have a high enough set. After you have shown your set to everyone and played any power cards, then you tally your votes and move your player token in the appropriate part of Congress. Your goal in the game is to get a majority or super majority in both the House and Senate. Accomplish that, and you will win the game.
One odd thing about play here, when you play Citizen cards, they are discarded back to the shared discard. For a game trying to eliminate randomness by not having any dice this seemed like an odd choice to me. I don’t want to continually have to rebuild my deck through drafting in order to get the cards I need. Having to search through any deck can be a chore.
Depending on the strength of your set, you will be able to get more votes on your side, or change the vote of an opponent, or even pull their nay votes away to your own side. Again, lots of different things you can do depending on the strength of your set played, but you will never be able to count on the cards you have drafted necessarily being there when you need them because once they are played they are discarded to the common discard. You can choose to discard cards to your own discard and cycle until you get the set you need. This is an arduous mechanic which is isn’t quite clear why it exists in a game where I am trying to build a coalition.
Despite all that going on with the playing cards, and you do always have to play at least one card, your token will start moving through the House or Senate. If your token ends up on the same space as another players, you may choose to trade cards without showing those cards to one another. This is called horse trading.
Play will continue with the next player. Each player will continue in this way until they receive the required votes in order to pass their pet causes. Once a player has passed their cause in both chambers of Congress, they win the game.
The main gameplay mechanics of Citizen are easy to grasp. Although the game feels overwhelming at first, you really don’t have too many choices in the game. Additionally, the creators have included a handy reminder of how to make the different sets and what types of things you can do with those sets. I also have not yet mentioned circumstance cards. Whenever you land on a spot with the Smithsonian weather vane, you get a circumstance card. You can also just use your turn to receive a circumstance card. All players follow the instructions on the circumstance card whenever they are played.
The game attempts to be value neutral. Or, I should say the designers of the game attempt to be value neutral; games don’t attempt anything on their own. In a lot of ways, that’s a bigger undertaking than making a game like this. Research is evident throughout the game but there’s also a huge amount of flavor text with subtle nods to the creators’ own views. One example, would be the fairly innocuous statement about Chief Justice Marshall, the fourth chief justice of the supreme court. On the card about him, it says that he made many contributions to our legal system. This statement may sound value neutral at first, but there are those who might disagree with this assessment of John Marshalls changes to and influence on our legal system.
There is nothing wrong with adopting a moral or value position on something. Taking a position is how we grow and learn. The gameplay encourages us to explore different values and see if we would really want to see those to one possible end. For example, do you want to see all members of Congress vote themselves into being royalty? You can do that in this game- is it a good idea though? The game provides a tool to begin the conversation on whether those types of causes are a good idea or not. This discussion, is in itself a value judgment.
The idea that a game or even information can be completely value neutral when shared with others used to be a popular opinion. After playing this game in our current political climate, it’s hard to agree with that sentiment. My personal opinion is that information is valuable, and that we need games like this in order to educate people about what our Congress is actually doing. Too many times, Congress is ignored as money continues to influence them. This game makes it clear that money funds many causes and is the single biggest factor in how Congress will pass its laws. Citizens United has indelibly left its mark on this game and our political system. Overall, the values shown in Citizen are not ones that I disagree with but is it a compelling way to teach?
My kids are 10 and 14 respectively. They both played this game a couple of times and each time they were completely engaged in the gameplay. Part of what made it interesting for them is it connected real people who we have talked about and seen with ideas that they were unsure of before. As a homeschool parent this is a useful tool to me. Sharing this with other people it became more of a topic of conversation, rather than a game in and of itself. Is this a bad thing? I’m not sure. For me, the ideal group for this game is people who are ready to have a conversation, but that’s either people I likely already agree with somewhat politically or students who are already open to the idea of change and growth in their views. Although I think the creators of this game would probably like to envision those of opposing parties sitting down and playing this game, I have a hard time imagining that would go over well for anyone who took the ideas and causes of of this game seriously. The discussion sparked in this game has real world implications. Civility is an option for those who already agree, comply, or have their rights secured. This game cannot create an atmosphere of civility on its own, and I’m not sure that it should.
Is the governance of our country just a game? I think that’s the difficulty of making a board game like this.
As far as the production of the game, I do have a couple thoughts too. The rulebook, although nicely bound, could use some cleaning up in the way it was written. I found a few mistakes in relation to page numbers and clarity of explanation, and that’s likely going to happen in a game like this that keeps having new editions.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a well done educational tool. Are the gameplay mechanics solid? Yes. Is this a game I always want to play? No, probably not. Although the game can get more difficult and there are some suggested different ways to play, I just don’t think it’s my sort of thing even though I like politics and card games. For me, this is mainly due to the fact that there is no way to completely ignore the reality of what these causes and funding represent in the real world. This isn’t just abstraction- Citizen serves to reinforce the reality of the corrupting influence of money and corporations which have an outsized impact on our society in the U.S. You could probably get away with calling the game Causes or Lobbyist.
The designers’ love for the United States and its history comes through in this game. You don’t make a game like this unless you are hopeful. Maybe there is reason to be hopeful for our representative democracy, and maybe I’m just too cynical. This game helps explore much of the power in our current political milieu.
Citizen was designed by Steve Barger and Gray Smith, with art by Amber VanDyke, and developed by Chris Currie. The publishers were kind enough to send me this review copy and all opinions are my own. The game has a variable play time depending on the difficulty level selected, but experienced players can expect to spend about 1 1/2 to 2 hours playing, with an initial playtime of less than an hour as long as someone knows how to play. 2-4 players, designed for ages 13 plus is probably due to the large amount of text and variability in play, although the basic rules are easy to share.