Thursday, August 26, 2010

Board Game Review: 1960: The Making of the President

A few weeks ago, I announced that I was going to be writing a series of reviews about political board games, specifically the Leonhard/Matthews line of games. Last week I finally recieved their newest release, Founding Fathers, and hope to have played it enough times to review it by the time all of the other reviews have been presented.

The first game I am going to review is 1960: The Making of the President. It is designed by Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews. It is published by Z-Man Games and was released in 2007.

This game is set in the final few weeks of the United States Presidential Election of 1960 between two future presidents: Senator John F. Kennedy and then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon. It is a two player game, with one player playing as Kennedy and the other as Nixon. The object--quite obviously--is to win the election by winning enough states to put you over the top--the magic 270.

The game is played in nine rounds. The first five rounds are played where the candidates campaign; then there is a debate; two additional campaign rounds are played; and then election day determines the winner.

To win a state, a player simply has to have more support than their rival. Support is represented by either red (Nixon) or blue (Kennedy) cubes. Players place their own cubes or removing their opponent's from the various states, representing the level of support in that state.

The board is a representation of the United States. The electoral votes of all the states are listed, along with who historically carried the state.

Here is a close-up of the northeast section of the board:

There are several components in the game besides the cubes and the board. There are endorsement cards and tokens, momentum tokens, issue markers, and candidate cards, along with a small "Debate" board.

Above, in order, are Campaign Cards, Endorsement Cards, Candidate Cards, Momentum tokens, and Endorsement tokens.

The heart of the game is in the Campaign Cards. Each player is given a set number of Campaign cards each turn. With that card they can place support tokens on states; they can also place support on specific issues and buy advertising. Alternately, each card has a specific event they can play instead. The trick is that each card can only be used for one of these actions; determining which action is in your best interest is the crux of the game.

Let's take a look at one of the cards:

The 3CP at the top is how many "Campaign Points" the card is worth. Campaign Points (CP) can be spent on state support, issues, advertising, or moving your candidate. I won't go into all of the details, but generally speaking most of the time players will place support on the states, since that is what wins the game, but there are bonuses for controlling each issue and a small advantage for advertising, so at different phases of the game there are different justifications for what action you take.

The "Rest Cubes" notation allows a player to set aside some of those cubes--and the amount of cubes always add up to four, so for example if you spend three CP, you'll get one Rest Cube. These rest cubes go into a bag. At various times, it is necessary to pull cubes from the bag--so the more cubes you have in there, the better off you'll be. This is a nice balancing mechanism; if you play weaker cards that have less CP, that just means you'll have more Rest Cubes in the bag. 

The event listed on the bottom is also a choice--in the card above, it affects the Economy issue. Note that this particular card will help the player who has the most support in the Economy. If that's not you, you don't want to play the event on this card!

Which takes us to the very bottom of the card. That tank icon helps in the debate and the state abbreviation (in this case, Tennessee) help during the debates and campaigning, respectively; we'll get to those later. The two party icons (the blue donkey and red elephant) determine who can play this as an event. In this case, either player could since both icons are there. Had, say, only the red elephant been on this card, only Nixon could have played it as an event.

The cards dealt to a player come from the same deck--which means that Nixon may end up with events that only Kennedy can play, and vice versa. In this case, there's another choice to make. Each player gets Momentum markers. These markers can be used to "trigger" an event played by your rival. So if Nixon plays a card with a Kennedy icon, Kennedy could "trigger" that event by spending a Momentum marker. Timing your events now becomes more important--if you have several events that help out your rival, you may want to play the weaker ones first to force them to burn up their Momentum markers by the time you get to the hugely advantageous events. Alternately, you can play two Momentum markers preemptively so that your rival can't trigger the event; since Momentum markers are normally scarce, this is an expensive but sometimes necessary precaution.

Events can only take place once, so they are removed from play after they have their effect. Certain cards remain in play for the rest of the game, while others only affect the Debate or Election Day rounds. 

After both players have played all of their cards, they set the last remaining card aside for the debates. (In the last two rounds after the debates, two cards are set aside for extra campaigning at the end of the game.) Then, each player is awarded endorsements and momentum markers depending on how much support they have on the three issues (Economy, Civil Rights, and Defense) and the importance those issues currently have. Momentum markers, as noted above, are used to trigger events; endorsements are used to break ties at the end of the game.

The debate round is short, and I won't go into it--it's not difficult, but it's not easily explained, and the effect is fairly minimal. It more or less allows players a few extra cubes to the board based on how well they do. Astute players soon found out that it may be useful to "throw" the debate and use it as a sink for awful cards--a viable, if not attractive, option.

On election day, each player reveals the cards they set aside for some last-minute campaigning--cubes are pulled from the bag for those states each player set aside for the last two rounds--and a few other events (if played) are resolved. Then, each player tallies up their votes. A player that has at least one cube on a state wins all of that state's electoral votes. It doesn't matter if they have just one cube or twenty--either way, they win the state. Ties are broken by endorsement or, if that doesn't do it, by the historical result. The player with the most votes wins!

Let's be frank, here: This isn't Monopoly. While all of the above may seem like a lot of rules, it really isn't. The main part of the game--understanding how the Campaign Cards work--is pretty easy once you play a round or two and get used to it. There's a little bit of maintenance concerning the issues and timing, but it's not anything that's insurmountable. All of the cards and instructions are clearly noted, and the rule book has plenty of clear examples.

Since the Campaign Cards can do so many things--but only one thing at a time--and can also help your opponent, there can sometimes be excruciating decisions you must make. This may be internally (whether one action will benefit you more than another action) or externally (how your opponent will react to your decisions). This creates a fun, tense game.

There's a few items I didn't get into--such as carrying a state, advertising, the debates, decay, and the candidate cards. They're relatively minor but they all make the game more interesting.

What is good about this game:
*In case you didn't notice from the above pictures, the production quality of this game is top-notch. the graphic design and photographs that are used evoke exactly what a post-war election in the emerging mass media culture would feel like.
*The game is fairly balanced. While the different events for each candidate are wildly different, they are dealt equally to each player, and the ability to "trigger" most events helps regardless. As mentioned before, playing weak cards just allows you to put more cubes in the bag, which may help on election day. And so on.
*The number of things you can do with just one card is astounding--and this fact makes the game fun. You have no less than four choices with each card you have, and thanks to the CP value and the event, each card has a unique advantage and disadvantage for each choice you make.
*The theme is integrated into the gameplay itself. Many games try and fail to do this, and many games just plain don't even try. The events--all of which are actual events that occurred during the real election--have real, logical effects in the game.
*It's difficult for this game to get stale. While one would think that with a fixed deck of about 100 cards would get old, it really doesn't--drawing Card X on turn one may have a completely different effect than drawing it on turn eight.
*The game is just about the right length. It's a tight game, and after both players are acclimated one game takes about an hour. Any longer would drag, any shorter and you'd lose a lot of depth.

What I don't like about this game:
*Not much, really. The below points are all quite petty, but I think they're worth pointing out.
*The debate phase is a bit weak. It's a fun little mini-game, and a player who sweeps the debates will get a clear bonus, but it seems like an awful lot of work for minimal benefit. 90% of the time the debates end up getting split with only a few awarded cubes separating the winner and the loser; it hardly seems worth it. The debates are interesting, but I'd raise the stakes a little more by maybe adding momentum or endorsement bonuses in, too.
*This is what is called a "managed luck" game--while it's true the cards you are dealt are completely based on chance, the rule set allows you to manage that luck to maximize your benefit and minimize your losses. This is an integral part of the game; unfortunately, it also means that you are occasionally dealt a dog of a hand and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. It doesn't happen often, but it happens.
*There has been some talk about the "Issue War" problem, where players simply go tit-for-tat on the issues. While I can see why--unlike most of the other options, with only three issues the range of choice is limited--it also presumes that the rewards for controlling the issues are greater than just dumping the equivalent number of cubes in the states. I don't believe that to be the case. It's important to win the issues, since it's the only way to gain momentum and endorsement markers; I'm just not so sure this is a problem.

Overall, this is a fun game. It's a little higher on the complexity scale than most people are used to, but anyone who has played, say, Risk, will not find a problem with this game. I've been playing it for a few years now and I still see opportunities in different card combination that I've never encountered before, and that sort of longevity is rare on board games. I give it a clear A-.

The next game up for review is 1960's spiritual successor: Campaign Manager 2008.

1 comment:

  1. Great little review! Just got hold of this myself at the weekend and had a quick blast. Took us a bit longer than average, but as we'd played Twilight Struggle before it probably didn't go on as long as it could've done.

    At the moment I'm reserving judgement until I've got a few more games under my belt. The first game ended up a landslide but it seemed to really rest more on luck than good management, as both of us were pretty clueless as to how our actions would pan out, which cards we should hoard for the debates/elections and what cards are potentially available.