Review: Politicraft, A Fun Card Game that Models Civic Engagement
When I started doing research for this list of political board games, one of the games that really stood out to me was Politicraft: An Action Civics Card Game.
It looked like it had some real potential for use in the classroom, and it’s endorsed by the National Council for Social Studies. So when I got my hands on a copy of Politicraft to try out, I was definitely excited.
After playing it through, the game didn’t disappoint. It was fun and easy to get started. I loved the variety of different actions you could take in the game, and they represented many of the things that I’ve done in my career as an activist and an organizer.
Ultimately, Politicraft combines the best elements of a card game with the best elements of a role playing game to create a unique learning activity for students. It’s also the kind of simulation that has been proven to help students learn about civics and civic engagement.
In this review, we’ll first take a look at the contents of the game. Then, I’ll describe the basic gameplay. After that, we’ll get into the good, the bad, and the ugly about the game. Finally, I’ll wrap up with a few thoughts on how this could be useful in your classroom.
Make sure you read through to the end and leave a comment about your own experience with Politicraft. I’d love to hear what you think.
The Contents of Politicraft
The contents of Politicraft: An Action Civics Card Game are pretty basic.
The game comes packaged in a small, plain box that holds the deck of cards. There are three kinds of cards inside – the regular playing cards, public figure cards, and integrity cards. The box also includes a small pamphlet with the rules of the game.
The bulk of the deck is the white playing cards. Throughout the game, you draw from this deck and play them. There are a couple different kinds of cards, which we’ll look at when we talk about gameplay.
Then there are six public figure cards. Each player gets one of these, and it is either face up or face down – depending on how many points the player has accrued.
Finally, there are yellow integrity cards. You gain and lose these cards throughout the game, and certain cards require you to have a number of integrity points in order to play them.
The cards are high quality, similar to a trading card game like Magic: the Gathering. They shuffle well and seem prepared to stand up to the wear and tear of regular use. The font and colors are appealing, and the artwork is great. There’s a definite vibe to the artwork that connects the pictures on different cards.
Basics of Gameplay in Politicraft
Gameplay in Politicraft is fairly straightforward.
Each player chooses an area of impact – i.e. the environment, education, or gun control – that they care about. Throughout the game, they play cards that represent different actions they could take to impact that area and make a change.
Over the course of the game, players accrue social impact points as well as integrity points, and they become able to play increasingly meaningful cards – like making friends in Congress, getting elected to a position, or forming a non-profit.
Each player draws seven cards. They play one card each turn and then draw another to replace it. Above, you can see a picture of a hand that you might draw to start the game.
In the bottom row, you have three cards that you can play right away – “Help the Less Fortunate”, “March!”, and “Put Up a Sign.” Each of these cards represent low-bar activities, have no pre-requisites, and score you a few social impact points. For example, you could play the “March!” card and attend a rally.
In the middle row, you have three more powerful cards – “Start a Social Impact Company,” “Big Donor,” and “Buy a TV Ad.” Each of these represents a much more substantive form of civic engagement, and as such it has certain prerequisites to be played and it scores more points. For example, to “Start a Social Impact Company,” you have to have already played one “Policy & Practices Card,” and you have to have at least one integrity point.
Finally, at the top, you have a Powerplay card – “Recount.” You can play these kinds of cards to interact with your opponents – sometimes stealing cards, sometimes helping them out, and at times impacting the number of integrity points players have.
Building a Narrative As You Play
One of the important aspects of Politicraft which stop it from just being a competitive card game is that you build a narrative as you go. Any time you play a card, you have to explain how that action helps you support your cause.
Taking the cards above as examples, you might start by playing the “March!” card. You were inspired to join one of the “March for Our Lives” events throughout the country. After the march, you play the “Put Up a Sign” card, because you were inspired by the march to support a particular candidate you saw speak at the rally.
The narrative revolves around election cycles. Whenever a person draws an “End of Election Cycle” card, play stops and the card is played. This involves one or more of the players doing something.
The game ends when you’ve gone through four election cycles.
The Best of Both Worlds: Combining a Card Game with a Role Playing Game
One of the things I like most about Politicraft is that it combines the best elements of a card game with the best elements of a roleplaying game to create a straightforward and enjoyable gaming experience.
Role playing games are great for telling stories and narratives, but they’re complex. They also often require an expert who understands the mechanics of the game better than the rest of the players to guide them through the game. One could imagine a roleplaying game a la Dungeons and Dragons that revolved around making a difference in an area of impact. But there would be a much higher barrier to entry.
Card games, on the other hand, are straightforward and quick. Once you understand a few simple mechanics, the cards tell you everything else you need to know. But, this comes at the risk of removing the element of narrative from the game when it just becomes about playing cards and scoring points.
Politicraft combines the simplicity and low barrier of entry of the card game with the narrative element of the role playing game.
Other First Impressions of Politicraft
Overall, I enjoyed the game. I found the gameplay to be simple enough, and I didn’t have to spend a long time with the directions before getting started.
I like the variety of the actual gameplay cards. They represent a broad spectrum of civic engagement – from simple tasks like posting to social media or attending a rally to more complex ones like creating a website or running for office. I assume this also lends itself to a fairly high replay value.
Although the game is intended for play with two to six players, I think you should try and play with more than two. When there are only two players, you have limited options when it comes to cooperation and powerplay cards. I also found that we played a lot of cards and went through quite a few rounds before we drew an “End of Election Cycle Card.” Conversely, I wonder if with six players you’ll end the game before you’ve made much headway.
I did run into a few rules questions where I couldn’t find a clearcut answer. For example, when you accrue enough points to be a public figure you play two cards per turn. The instructions don’t explicitly say to draw two cards per turn as well, but I assumed you should. There was nothing too complicated or frustrating, and overall the gameplay was easy to grasp, but I wonder if inexperienced gamers might be thrown off course at some point.
Usefulness for Teaching Civics
Overall, I would say that this is a great resource for teaching your students about civics and civic engagement.
Gameplay is straightforward enough that students will be able to get started with minimal difficulty. While you should circulate to ensure that they aren’t having any trouble, I wouldn’t foresee any major complications.
It’s fun. Card games are fun, and they drive themselves. You draw, you play, and things quickly move along. There’s an element of chance, but it’s not nearly as simple as rolling dice and moving along a board. The player makes critical decisions in gameplay about how things progress.
This models for students the many forms of civic engagement. Voting is one of them, but there are many other cards that you could play. Similarly, you could run for political office, but that’s not the only way to impact your policy area or to win the game. It’s just one avenue for advancement.
It’s also cheap, which makes for a low bar of entry for classrooms. At $17.95 per deck, and each deck accommodating groups of up to six players, you can probably fit out a classroom for under $100. It’s not nothing, but if a school (or even an individual teacher) wants to implement it, they can find a way to fund it.
A word of caution, though. The real power of this game comes from the narrative telling, so you need to keep an eye on your students to make sure that they’re really participating while they’re playing. If they don’t bother with the “fluff” of the narrative, then it loses a lot of its power.
How You Can Incorporate Politicraft Into Your Class
I don’t think the big question is whether you should use Politicraft in your classroom. The big question is, “How?“
Time is a valuable resource, and teachers often feel pressured for time. But if you think you don’t have enough time to teach something like Politicraft, here’s a tip – don’t feel bad skimming over or sacrificing less important content. You can’t teach everything, so you shouldn’t try to.
So, assuming time isn’t a problem, here are a few suggestions.
Three Ways to Use Politicraft In Your Class
Obviously, this is an easy sell for a straight civics class. If you teach a semester or yearlong course on American government and civics, you can easily fit this into your curriculum. It would make a great introduction at the beginning of the year. You could follow up with a few rounds of play throughout the year, and you could wrap up and have students play again at the end of the year and reflect on how their gameplay and perceptions of civic engagement changed as a result of the course.
Or, if you’re doing something like Project Citizen, this is an awesome way to introduce it. I find that students often struggle with the part of the project where they develop an action plan. You could sandwich Politicraft in the middle of the project by first helping them identify an issue, then having them play the game, and finally having them use the game to identify potential steps they could take to impact their chosen issue.
Finally, I wouldn’t hesitate to use this in a regular U.S. History class, either. We need to incorporate more civics activities into history courses, and this can be an easy stand alone way to do so. It could be an introductory activity at the beginning of the school year, or it could be a “fun activity” in between units. You could also use it as a recurring tool for something like “Fun Fridays.” I always did current events on Fridays, but this could be a useful alternative on a monthly or semimonthly basis.
Closing Thoughts on Politicraft
My first impression of Politicraft is that it is a great game, and I would definitely suggest that you find a way to use it with your students. It combines the best elements of role playing games with those of card games. It’s a fast paced game with a low bar of entry, and it will help your students role play many forms of civic engagement.
There’s a ton of food for thought in the game, and the possibilities for reflection and discussion with your students are endless. Take a look at your calendar, and make the time to try this out with your kids.
You can purchase Politicraft: An Action Civics Card Game on Amazon.
You might also be interested in this list of other civics board games. Politicraft isn’t the only game that can be used in your classroom to teach civics and government. And for more ideas about how to liven up your classroom, check out this post on how to teach government in a fun way.
Have you used this with your students, or did you get a copy to try out yourself? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment below, or head over to this post on our Facebook page.