City politics isn't so fun,except in this new game

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The board game is called Ninety, and the object is to get yourself elected mayor of Pittsburgh.

It's coming to a coffee shop near you this week. That's why your stunt columnist sat down to play with the game's creators Friday morning at Cannon Coffee on Brookline Boulevard.

Much like Republican mayoral candidate Josh Wander, I didn't devote a lot of time to this contest. I didn't sell my house and fly off to Israel like the aptly named Mr. Wander, but like him, I was in this virtual mayor's race right up until the beginning. My behind was kicked from the West End to the East Hills.

Never play poker with a guy named Lucky and never play Ninety against Alex Pazuchanicsand Adam Shuck. If you're a dyed-in-the-Terrible-Towel Pittsburgher, though, you might enjoy trying this game at 7 p.m. Monday at Cannon Coffee, or at the same time Tuesday at Bar Marco in the Strip District.

Mr. Pazuchanics and Mr. Shuck are a couple of twentysomething political animals who met when they worked about three feet from each other in Carrick Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak's office. Mr. Shuck's still there while his erstwhile colleague toils for state Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mount Washington, but their idea of a fine June day is to pile into a van with four friends and hit all 90 of the city's neighborhoods over the course of 11 hours.

OK, so these guys did that only once, but that tour a couple of springs ago that felt like a Rick Sebak special was the inspiration for this game. With a $1,000 grant from the Sprout Fund and the design talent of Carnegie Mellon University graduate Tara Helfer, they've produced a prototype that features a handsome multicolored board and rules about as easy to understand as Chinese algebra.

When I asked before we began whether it would be smarter to concentrate on one part of the city or to seek support across the board, Mr. Pazuchanics, 23, answered, "That's the problem with campaigning. You kind of have to do both.''

The game has cards, dice, money and tiny wooden blocks that players place in each neighborhood as they gather support. If Monopoly and Risk had a baby, it might be Ninety, though this game has a sleeker look. Ms. Helfer's illustrations -- a kayak on the river, the bald eagles nesting in Hays, the Brookline firehouse, the Beechview trolley -- accent a map worth framing.

The game begins two weeks before election day, and the candidates -- 15 possibilities with identities such as Sports Legend, Riverfront Defender and Grandma Activist -- hop around the city. One has to return to the home neighborhood for more supporters or go Downtown to raise money so, like a real candidate, players must decide which move has the most impact.

Ninety is not yet for sale. Its creators had only enough money to equip six boards, and they made it clear I had to return the stack of cards I borrowed before Monday night's tournament.

Mr. Pazuchanics -- friends call him "Paz'' and "The Old Lady Whisperer,'' for his ability to connect with older female voters -- said that as typically broke young men, he and Mr. Shuck are keenly interested in finding a market for this game that represents hundreds of hours of work. But he's come across enough Pittsburgh-themed games at second-hand sales to know those odds are long.

For now, they're just having fun. When I voluntarily turned back campaign money the bank had forgotten to take, Mr. Shuck said with mock surprise, "An honest politician.''

"That's how you know it's a simulated game,'' Mr. Pazuchanics responded.

The Sprout Fund's "Connect Your City'' grant is designed so this game can tour the coffee shops and taverns punctuating the neighborhoods. The first two tournaments are packed, but prospective players will be able to sign up for later games on the Facebook page, "Ninety: The Campaign for Mayor of Pittsburgh,'' or at www.ninetypgh.com. Merchants may find out more there, too.

Sure, it's small-time now, but when I joked that this game's destined for a tournament in the Consol Energy Center, Mr. Pazuchanics said he could envision a showdown akin to the 1990s matches between world chess champion Garry Kasparov and the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue.

He was only half-kidding. This is the one mayor's race left in Pittsburgh that's a genuine contest.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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