Watergate, a two player tug of war board game based on the historical Nixon scandal

As a Canadian, I am aware of the Watergate scandal but I don’t really know all that much about the details. It’s not a part of history that I’ve been particularly interested in, so when the internet buzz started up about Watergate, the two-player only abstract strategy board game from Capstone Games, I have to admit I didn’t pay much attention.

As the game spread and more people played it, I started to hear more and more hype about Watergate. It seemed like every reviewer and podcast loved this two-player tug of war. Watergate also went on to be nominated for and win a number of two-player game awards. Due to the theme, I still didn’t pay much attention, until I won a copy of the game at the Capstone Games Camp Capstone virtual con this past summer.

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What do you get with Watergate?

Watergate was designed by Matthias Cramer and features art by Klemens Franz and Alfred Viktor Schulz. It has been published by more than ten different publishers all over the world. My copy comes from Capstone Games and was published in 2019. In addition to the black shattered glass covered version of the game, which I own, Capstone also produced a Barnes & Noble exclusive white box version. The only difference between these two versions is the box cover. 

Watergate plays with two players and two players only, with games lasting anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. Most of the games I played lasted closer to twenty to thirty minutes. 

To take a look at what you get with this two-player game, check out our Watergate Unboxing Video on YouTube

Watergate comes in a pretty small box and there really isn’t a lot in it.  

First, you will find the rules. These are surprisingly thick. This would lead you to initially believe that you have a much heavier game than you might think until you realize that more than half of the book is background information. For anyone, like me, not familiar with the Watergate scandal, this book is basically like a small history textbook, taking you through all of the movers and shakers and a full timeline of events. 

As for the rules themselves, they are only the first ten pages of the book. They are presented in a very logical and clear way, not only featuring lots of examples but also having each section of the rules colour coded for quick reference during play. This is one of those rulebooks where I didn’t feel any need to look up a how to play video or anything, though Rodney Smith does have a great How To Play Watergate video out there for those of you that prefer to watch over reading.

The box also contains two punch boards. These have all of the two-sided evidence tokens and picture tiles for the various witnesses. These are decent tiles that were well-cut. I had no complaints with them at all.

The board for Watergate is fairly small, one-sided and four-fold. This is the kind of board that will fit on most coffee shop tables, something I like to see in a two-player game. 

The Nixon Administration Cards from the board game Watergate.There is a black cloth bag for blind drawing evidence tiles and a small baggie of cylindrical wooden markers, one white and nine red.

Finally, we get to the cards. These are large cards. I think they are roughly tarot-sized. There is one initiative card, one end of round overview card and twenty-one cards for each player including one momentum card each. The card quality here is excellent and the design is just as good. Cards are clear and easy to read, an advantage of the large size.

How do you recreate history in Watergate?

In Watergate one player takes on the role of the Nixon administration while another plays the Washington Press. The goal of the Washington Press is to connect two witnesses, by a chain of evidence, to Nixon. The Nixon player’s goal is to build enough momentum to stay in office before that happens. All of this plays out through a card-driven tug of war style mechanic. 

To start a game the board is placed between the two players. Players take their personal momentum cards and place them beside the board. Then they shuffle their twenty remaining cards. The initiative card is placed beside the board and it starts facing The Press. All of the evidence tokens are placed into the bag. The witness tokens are left beside the board. 

The research track in the card game Watergate.Each round starts with some preparations. Both players draw a number of cards, the number of which is based on who has initiative (five cards for the player with it and four for the other player). The Nixon player then pulls three evidence tokens from the bag and places them on the zero spot on the research track. The initiative token and one momentum token are also placed there. 

The research track is on the side of the board and has eleven spots on it. The middle, zero spot, is neutral and then each player has five spots on the track counting up towards their side of the board. 

The evidence tokens come in three colours, yellow, green and blue with a few tiles that are a mix of two of these colours. When placing them the Nixon player is free to look at them but the Press does not get to see them until they get moved on the research track.

Starting with the player with initiative and swapping back and forth each player plays one card and resolves that card fully before play passes to the next player.

The Washington Press' cards in the hobby board game Watergate.Each card can be played for its value or its action. Every card shows a number in the top left under which one or more of the three evidence colours will be shown. In addition, each card has a text action on it. Players can use each card for only one of these two things each time it is played. 

Playing a card for its value lets you move the things on the research track towards your side. To move evidence the card colour must match the evidence colour. Note the editor player doesn’t know the colour of the evidence at the start of each round so will have to guess what colours are present. If they try to move a colour that is not there they must instead move the initiative or momentum marker. 

If during one of these moves any item ends up at the end of the track (on the five spot) on one player’s side of the research track they immediately take that item. It will not be affected by any further card play that round.

The action section of the cards do all kinds of things. Many of the cards are event cards, and when played are removed from the game if used for their action. These cards represent actual historic events that happened during the Watergate scandal.  The Nixon Administration deck also has Conspirators which often give a beneficial effect and stay in the player’s deck so they can be used a number of times during a game. The Editor similarly has Journalists that do the same.

It’s these actions that form the meat of the strategy and tactics of the game and there are far too many of them to get into here. They do all kinds of things like letting players take evidence tokens early, draw extra evidence tokens, move the items on the research track, force your opponent to discard cards, let you play extra cards, seize the initiative, etc. 

Some of these cards will allow players to place witness markers on the board. Placing these markers and later connecting two of them with evidence tokens is how the editor wins. When placing witnesses, the Nixon player places them face down, making that witness unavailable to the Editor for that game.

Play continues back and forth until both players are out of cards. At the end of each round, players collect the items that are on their side of the research track.

Part way through a game of Watergate.Evidence collected is played onto the board. The Editor places evidence face up trying to create a connected path of evidence tokens between two face-up witnesses and Nixon who is in the centre of the board. The Nixon player places evidence tokens face down trying to stop The Editor from connecting witnesses. 

Momentum tokens are placed on a player’s momentum track. After collecting a set number of these The Editor will unlock some very powerful abilities that let them affect the current board state. Again, these reference actual historic events like The Watergate Trials and even the Impeachment of the President. The Nixon Player doesn’t unlock anything for collecting momentum tokens but if they are able to collect five, they win the game. This represents the administration making it to the end of their term. 

The player who takes the initiative token gets the initiative in the next turn. If it is still on the zero spot on the research track at the end of the round, then initiative flips to the other player from whoever had it this round.

The game continues until either Nixon has collected five momentum tokens (a Nixon Win), the momentum tokens run out (a Nixon Win), or the Editor of The Washington Post manages to connect two witnesses to Nixon through a chain of evidence (Editor win). 

My thoughts on the historical board game Watergate:

Playing Watergate a historic card driven board game.I have heard a ton of great things about Watergate from all kinds of board game media. At this point, the game has seven different award nominations and has won three of them including 2019 Golden Geek Best 2 Player Board Game. This game definitely has a lot of fans. Every time I’ve mentioned the game on social media I have people commenting about how much they like the game.

However, while many people have a lot of love for this game, I’m sad to say that I’m not one of them.

I will say I was very impressed with the quality and design of this game. I was very happy to see yet another small footprint two-player game. The kind of game that is perfect for bringing out to a coffee shop or your local pub. Watergate also has the advantage of having some real meat on its bones, and I’m always happy to find a heavier smaller two-player game.  The rules in Waterdeep are well written and easy to understand and very easy to pick up once you start playing. This isn’t a complicated game, at least as far as the mechanics are concerned. 

The actual gameplay is not at all what I expected. The game is basically a tug of war between the two players over the five objects placed on the research track each round. Each round in Watergate generally has things moving a bit this way and that way for a couple of turns and then someone plays an Event and really messes things up. Suddenly a whole bunch of stuff moves or the token you thought you would collect vanishes from the board or flys way down to the other side of the track. At that point maybe you have a card to counter it or maybe you don’t. 

Playing the Nixon administration in a game of Watergate from Capstone Games.One element of the card play I thought was mechanically well done is just how powerful the events are. Also, most of the more powerful events also have very high numeric values on them, which means that if you use that card as an action you will get a powerful effect but that card is now out of your deck and you lose a card with high value. This makes deciding when to play those events a huge part of the gameplay in Watergate. 

Overall while I was impressed by the mechanics and concept of Watergate I just didn’t find it all that fun. While the tug of war mechanic is an interesting concept, I just didn’t find it all that engaging. The entire game is much more abstract than I expected and despite having a really strong theme, there wasn’t a lot here that made me feel like I was either trying to connect evidence and build a case or trying to prevent the other player from doing that. 

The random factor is very high here as is the learning curve. Until you have memorized the cards in each deck, the game is very difficult to predict. In early games, you will feel like you are doing well only to have your opponent drop some card that ruins everything you’ve planned for that entire turn. Knowing what your opponent’s cards do does greatly mitigate this but there is still the random factor of whether your opponent actually has that card in their hand or not. While I can see this aspect of play appealing to some players, I just found it to be frustrating overall. 

The end of a game of Watergate, the Press wins!While I appreciate that a large number of gamers out there love this two-player historic board game, Watergate just doesn’t seem to be the right fit for me and my wife.

Due to this, despite all the buzz and hype, I strongly recommend anyone considering this game to try before they buy. It’s a very well designed game with some interesting mechanics. The tug of war back and forth of each round wasn’t to my tastes but it just might be to yours. 

It’s not often that a highly regarded, award-winning, game like Watergate ends up being a complete flop for us. I was really expecting to enjoy this game and looking forward to having another strategic, small footprint two-player game for my wife and I to play when we go on vacation or have a board gaming date night

What’s a very popular game that just didn’t work for you or your group? I would love to hear about it in the comments.

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