Mary Russell

I began working on this year's holiday freebie game just before last year's sale. I was reasonably pleased with that year's game, The Toledo War, and wanted to do something roughly in the same vein: a short card game about an obscure conflict that was mostly bloodless bluster and posturing. I settled on the Quasi-War as my topic almost immediately, and I already had a wonderful title for it: Obnoxious and Disliked.

This of course was how John Adams was described in 1776, a stage musical for which I had a tremendous amount of affection, so much so that I used to watch the movie every Fourth of July. The game was originally conceived as a solitaire game in which players assume the role of the hapless Adams during his chaotic presidency. You were dealing with the French (trying to prevent the war from escalating), muckrakers, and political intrigues, with the end goal being to secure election to a second term.

That game fell pretty flat. I was having difficulty determining how much agency the player should have. President Adams wasn't so much someone who made things happen, but someone who things happened to. The best he could do was take advantage of some pieces of news, which often arrived months after it had happened. This suggested a game with fairly limited agency. But I've a strong dislike of solitaire games where everything is outside of the player's control (we'll see how well I can square that circle with Endurance, my upcoming treatment of the Shackleton expedition).

I decided to approach the design as a two player game, and it occurred to me almost immediately that the two players shouldn't be Adams and France, but Adams and an obscure founding father that no one has ever written a hit musical about, Alexander Hamilton. Both men were members of the Federalist Party, favoring a strong central government - in opposition to Vice-President Jefferson's Republican Party. Hamilton had resigned from Washington's cabinet in 1795, and his political prospects looked dim after a 1797 self-inflicted sex scandal. (Payments he made to a James Reynolds led to accusations of corruption, and to "defend" his honor he published a lurid account of his affair with Reynolds's wife.) Despite this, he was still very much a force to be reckoned with within the party, and in fact Adams's entire cabinet was comprised of High Federalists - Hamilton loyalists who worked tirelessly to sabotage the administration of the President they hated, while feeding intel to A dot Ham.

Hamilton had another ally: George Washington. When the Quasi-War began, Adams appointed Washington to command the army in case of a French invasion. Now, Adams was determined to ensure that things didn't escalate to that point, and the French Directory had its hands full with a host of enemies on the continent. Further, Adams felt that the best defense would be the establishment of a navy. So, putting Washington in charge of the army would hopefully only be a nice bit of PR. But Washington was on the wane - he would die the following year - and so put Hamilton in charge of the army, a move that Adams reluctantly went along with.

Hamilton was spoiling for a war and the military glory that might come with it, to the point that he suggested he might use the new army to conquer Spanish colonies bordering the American south, on the pretext that Spain was an ally of France. He was seriously miffed when nothing much happened, and blamed Adams for wimping out. About the only action federal troops saw was the suppression of yet another tax rebellion, the ringleaders of which were sentenced to death for treason. Adams pardoned them, further enraging Hamilton and the High Federalists.

Fixating on Adams as the cause of his frustrated ambitions - no one could hold a grudge like Hamilton, except perhaps Adams - the now senior officer of the United States Army actively campaigned against Adams's re-election, throwing his weight behind the Federalist's Vice-Presidential nominee, Charles Pinckney. (I'm not even going to get into the complicated mess that was the Electoral College in the early days of the republic, except to say that it was somehow stupider and less democratic than it is today, and it might have been entirely possibly for a VP nominee to win the Presidency instead.) This culminated in Hamilton sending a letter to two hundred Federalists bashing Adams's character and fitness for office. Jefferson's Republican Party got hold of the letter and published it, and it had a deleterious effect on Adams's chances for re-election.

And it's not like Jefferson and his party were just politely minding their own business when this fell into their lap. Quite the contrary: Jefferson was an expert at playing dirty pool. Like Adams's cabinet, his Vice-President actively worked against him. Attempting to provoke a constitutional crisis, Jefferson secretly wrote the Kentucky Resolutions, which argued that any state could nullify any federal law it wanted. While smiling politely to Adams's face, he encouraged pamphleteers like James Callender to attack Adams as being a "strange compound of ignorance and ferocity, of deceit and wickedness" possessing a "hideous hermaphroditic character". (Callender would later turn on his master, publicizing the Sally Hemings scandal.)

And so Adams was already fighting an uphill battle for re-election when Hamilton's letter came across the transom. The Federalists never won the Presidency again. Like the Reynolds Pamphlet, this was an entirely unforced error on Hamilton's part - his capacity for self-inflicted damage is frankly a little awe-inspiring, and I wonder what kind of irritating shenanigans he would have gotten himself up to if he hadn't died in a completely pointless and stupid duel.

As you can imagine, I'm not exactly in Hamilton's corner, but that doesn't mean I'm in Adams's, either. Earlier I described him as hapless, and I think that’s apt: he was completely out of his element, guileless, trusting, and manifestly unequipped for the rough-and-tumble world of politics. I have some sympathy for that, as I think I possess many of those same faults. But, you know, I'm also not running for President of the United States.

At any rate, I thought that the Adams/Hamilton conflict would make for a good lens through which to treat the period. Like The Toledo War, the two players would compete in three different categories. You of course want to outperform your opponent in at least two of these categories. The twist would be that your score across all three categories would need to also best the score accumulated by the non-player Jefferson in order to secure the election for yourself (Adams) or Pinckney (Hamilton). Failure to do so would result in a Jefferson win (both players lose), and the game would be weighted toward that result, making for a challenging little game.

With The Toledo War, I borrowed the "ops or events" paradigm common to CDGs; either a card could be played for Influence within a category, or discarded to resolve its special event. This time, I borrowed the card market from Pax Pamir and some other titles. Cards are bought using coins that stack up on other market spaces, taking the card into your hands. Those cards can then be played in front of you; sometimes, playing a card will require you to discard another card from your hand. Cards in your tableau give you points in one of the three categories. These I have tied to standard French playing card suits.

Diamonds stand for political influence. Many of these have the "discard a card" cost mentioned above, but Hamilton ignores that when playing diamonds, representing the natural talent for political machinations that Adams so sorely lacked.

Hearts stand for public opinion. These cards usually have effects that will discard opposing cards that are unprotected - more on that in a minute.

Finally, there is military power, represented by spades (navy) and clubs (army). Either player can play cards of either suit, but spades are doubled when played by Adams, and clubs when played by Hamilton, for reasons which are probably now obvious.

Each card has a special effect associated with it. These can be triggered only after a card is in a player's tableau, and requires the player to place one of their coins on the card. This also "protects" the card from ever being discarded. A handful of these effects are mundane, simply giving the player more influence within a category. For example, Timothy Pickering, the card for Adams's Secretary of State, has a rank of 3 in diamonds, but if his card effect is activated, he also provides 1 club (i.e., one military for Adams or two for Hamilton). Wooden Walls, named after Adams's favorite rhetorical device to describe the navy, only has a rank of 1 in spades, but its card effect gives the owning player one heart for each played spades card.

Other card effects are swingier. The card USS Constitution celebrates an American naval victory, and this tremendous news will rearrange all the cards in the market. Aaron Burr is a card that you give to your opponent when you activate it, and it will cut their political influence in half if they are ahead at the end of the game, acting as a spoiler. Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott Jr. lets you steal coins from the market, and gives you an additional diamond if you have more coins at the end of the game. The Reynolds Pamphlet discards all of Hamilton's unprotected diamonds, though if Hamilton himself plays it, he gets two diamonds in consolation.

The trick is of course that there are only so many coins to go around. The game has a more-or-less closed economy, and so using card effects decreases your buying power. These cards and their effects aren't necessarily meant to reflect the player doing those things or directing them to happen, so much as they are taking tactical advantage of them as they occur.

Beyond these cards, the deck also has four "tricolor" cards - special events which are triggered automatically if not bought. Three of these will forbid play of certain suits while the card is in effect (i.e., until the next tricolor is resolved), though players might have cards in their tableau that can get around this. The fourth tricolor, 18 Brumaire, will simply end the game when it is resolved (the game also ends when the deck is exhausted). This card begins the game at the bottom of the deck, but one of the tricolors, Yellow Fever, will cause the deck to be reshuffled along with all discards, creating uncertainty about when exactly the game might end.

These four tricolor cards also have a rank which they contribute to Thomas Jefferson's "score" for the end-game. Obviously the more tricolors that get resolved, the harder it will be to beat Jefferson. And, again, the players are trying to both get a higher total than Jefferson, and to best their opponent in at least two categories. One does not necessarily lead naturally to the other. Let's assume Adams has a score of 5 in politics, 4 in military, and 3 in opinion, Hamilton scores of 4, 11, and 2, and Jefferson 16. Adams beats Hamilton in politics and opinion, but a combined score of 12 isn't enough to best Jefferson. Hamilton's combined score of 17 just inches past Jefferson's, but because they only won a single category, they would also lose the game.

In playtesting, Jefferson won (both players lose) half the time. I'm sure some players will find the repeated Jeffersonian victories a little frustrating. Which brings me back to the title. Mary pointed out that a title like Obnoxious and Disliked would give its detractors extra ammunition - the jokes kinda write themselves. I very briefly considered calling the game Pax Adams, in a nod both to Adams's determination to keep the young country out of a European war and to the market I cribbed from Pax Pamir, but the title carried the risk of folks thinking there were going to be a bunch of footnotes. But then I came across Jefferson's description of the anti-French war fever that gripped Washington as a "reign of witches" and thought, hey, that sounds pretty metal, I'll use that.


  • It is USS Constellation, I just mistyped in the blog-post.

    Tom Russell

  • The Wooden Walls card special effect could be clearer, for example, it could say ‘for each Spade card played..’

    Shouldn’t the USS Constitution card representing a naval victory perhaps be labeled ‘USS Constellation’ since it was her victories that were famous in the Quasi War?

    jeff miller

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