Saturday, July 23, 2011

Review of Reviews: Political Board Game Series

[Editor's note: I apologize in advance for the multitude of board game postings lately. There's no reason except that I'm struggling with topics at the moment. If you haven't noticed, I haven't bothered to write a Trending post for a couple weeks, and that's because the headlines have been exactly the same for three weeks in a row--phone hacking this, debt ceiling that. So I'm afraid you'll have to put up with some board game and, eventually, political posts, since those are my default topics when there's nothing else to write about.]

Roughly a year ago I wrote a series of reviews about four politically- and historically-themed board games: 1960: The Making of the President, Campaign Manager 2008, Twilight Struggle, and Founding Fathers. These have all been popular games, but I hadn't gotten to play them much lately. I have been able to play some games over the internet; while not my preferred venue of playing (if I wanted to play board games on the computer, I would play video games) it's still fun. More importantly, it lets me play against people around the world I normally wouldn't, so I am introduced to new strategies and new outlooks in each game.

So I figured it may be a good idea to revisit each game and see how my initial review stands up.

Twilight Struggle: Because of its length, I haven't played this one for over a year, and there aren't any good online implementations of it, so I don't have much to change for this. However, the Defcon strategy I mentioned in my original review just really sucked a lot of the desire for me to replay this game. I need to try it out, though, and get this game to the table, because based on the reaction it's not nearly as bad as I think it is.

1960: The Making of the President: This is still by far the best game in the series: it fits the historical theme well, there are plenty of meaningful decisions to make, and it's remarkably simple for the amount of depth. However, after playing many online games of this, my dismissal of the "Issue Wars" problem was probably premature. (As a refresher, the problem is that players simply dump as many cubes as they can into the issues. A player who doesn't immediatley counter it find themselves never controlling any issues throughout the game, and it's very, very difficult to win without controlling them at least at some point. So players find themselves simply going back and forth on all the issues for a majority of the game.) I used to simply wave this off as a tactic that looked pretty but had little strategic value, but now I see that while it doesn't work all the time, it still works often enough that it's a problem. And it does just suck the air out of a game. I still don't think it's an overriding detriment to the game; online, I have nearly won several games deliberately ignoring the issues altogether (though in just as many games I got trounced). At this point, I'll advocate some sort of house rule--the issue on the card is more efficient than the others, or something. I don't think it's necessary, but it does seem to be a blight on an otherwise awesome game.

Campaign Manager 2008: Oddly, this game has seen the most improvement in my eyes, and I'm not sure why. The online implementation is very well done, so I am able to cram several games going on at the same time. This reinforces its reputation as a light, shallow game, which I still won't disagree with. But I've realized the massive importance of the drafting sequence; that is, I'm convinced, half the game. But it's a surprisingly strategic game otherwise, with a lot of surprises and back-and-forth. I still maintain the game would have been better served with a 60-card/20-card deck and a larger number of "unique" cards for each candidate, but beyond that I've had a lot of fun running through a ton of games online with this.

Founding Fathers: This has also improved markedly in my eyes. Now that I've played this a few more times, there's a lot more long-range planning than I thought. And I've noticed a sort of tiered event system going on--some events are no-brainers, while others are conditional, and a vast majority virtually useless. Oddly, though, this works out very, very well, since you don't want events played every single turn. It still seems like there is a "dogpile" element to the game that I don't care for--since only the winning side gets points, once one player casts a vote everyone just starts loading up on that side, because players really don't have a vested interest throughout the game to do otherwise. (Yes, the losing side goes to the Committee room, but that's a much costlier route to get less points.) I wish there were some sort of hidden goal mechanic that would make voting decision a little bit more meaningful. Yet I no longer feel this game to be as dry and mechanical as I originally thought. I still think it could have been tinkered with, but it's still a good recommendation.

The designers of Twilight Struggle are coming out with a new game soon: 1989: Dawn of Freedom, a game very similar to TS but compressed to the brief time frame of the Berlin Wall crisis. It looks equal to Twilight Struggle in both length and complexity. I will probably eventually get it, but it's the first game in the series I'm not salivating over.

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