Friday, March 14, 2008

Tricky Dick gets Tricky

Mike and I got together this week for a little bit of a context switch. I had considered our Tunisia battle last session to be my choice, but Mike insisted it was a joint choice. So, that meant it was my turn to choose. Instead of wargaming this time, I suggested a game I had received as my secret santa gift that I'd really been looking forward to trying: 1960: The Making of a President.

Now, it's true that 1960 is not a wargame, but it certainly has its roots there. The game uses the card-driven wargame (CDG) system pioneered in We the People and refined into probably 20 or more designs over the years. (There used to be a list on the net somewhere. I'm curious if it's been kept up-to-date. I'm sure there's a geeklist I haven't discovered.) The primary difference between 1960 and most CDGs is that there aren't any armies. Like Twilight Struggle, you're manipulating influence across the map instead.

Unfortunately (or, maybe not) it's going to be impossible to talk about this game without comparing it to Twilight Struggle. There's simply too much in common – not a surprise given they share a primary designer.

The game simulates the last two months leading up to the 1960 US Presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Each turn is a week, and an interstitial turn covering the debates is included. (I believe these were the first televised debates in US political history.) The major features of the game cover things that actually happen in political campaigns – media influence, random events, comments from related parties, and nothing matters except the final scoring – the actual election at the end of the game.

Standard CDG mechanics apply. There are a certain number of rounds per turn, you can play a card for the event or the action points, and the action points can be applied to one of three types of actions. Pretty standard framework. There are four primary features of the game that interact. The map, issues track, media influence, and the political capital bag. If you can get these four features to interact most advantageously, you're going to win. In the end the map matters most, as you would expect. That's the only place points are scored.

The issues track is processed at the end of every turn, and you're given either momentum markers (more on them soon) or media endorsements or both depending on how well you did on issues. There are also a number of events that help (and occasionally hurt) the leader in a particular issue.

Media support comes in two forms – influence and endorsements. Influence lets you avoid support checks for attacking your opponents entrenched positions, and can give some other ancillary benefits. Endorsements end up acting as tiebreakers during the election. It seems like a small thing, but you'll see otherwise given the outcome of our game.

The Political capital bag is interesting. At the start of each turn, initiative is determined by pulling cubes out of the bag until one side has two pulled. They get to choose who goes first. (And it's not always a clear-cut choice.) When you try to add influence in a state your opponent is carrying, the points you apply to that state are not applied directly to the state but are a support check instead – you pull that number of cubes out, and only the ones in your color apply. This is almost the same as the rule in Twilight Struggle where influence costs double in countries controlled by your opponent. It's just a tad more random and subject to influence. Each card you play during a turn gives you some number of “rest cubes” between zero and two. (The number is actually four minus the action point value of the card.) These are then added into the bag at the end of the turn. So, if you were dealt a had full of low-point cards, you get a bone thrown to you by having a lot more cubes thrown into the bag than normal.
At the end of a turn, you'll have at least one card left over. You stash away a card (or two in later turns) to be used in either the debates or the election. You tend to want to stash high-value cards during the first part of the game as they'll help you in the debates, but you have to be careful and not destroy your hand in doing so. Those high-value cards are helpful.

I ended up as Kennedy from a random draw, and we started off. I found myself playing a fair number of events, and as the turns plodded along, I noted that Mike had many fewer cubes left in his supply than I. Given that there's no scoring until the end, it was a bit unclear early on if I was doing well or not.

Mike didn't fully grok the debate rules, and as a result I ended up sweeping the debates. The resulting nine cubes let me lock in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. (The last of which had been hotly contested up to that point.) Connecticut became a bit of a battleground due to an election event (Early Returns) giving the winner of Connecticut support checks in California.

On the last turn, I won the initiative. (I think for only the second time in the game.) I chose to go last after looking at my hand. For what I think was my last play (an event I don't remember), I removed Mike's solitary cubes in four midwestern states (Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, and Kentucky, IIRC) rendering them cubeless. ("undecided.") As I had a Midwest media endorsement, I was looking at taking all four of those states, and the 47 or so votes that came with them. (Winner is the first to 269 votes, I believe.)

What I didn't count on, however, was the issue track in the last turn. Mike swept the issues with his last play, and got a momentum marker and two endorsements. These both turned out to be in the Midwest. The first eliminated mine, and the second brought those four states into his camp. Now, this sounds like a bit of wackiness, but I can exactly see the real-life scenario here. The Indianapolis Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had been endorsing Kennedy, and two days before the elections change their endorsements over to Nixon with well-written editorials. For those four closely-run states, it's the deciding factor. After all, it only takes a few popular votes to swing a states entire collection of electoral votes.

The election events were mostly a non-issue, other than I got eight support checks in Illinois (five from an event, and three from a stashed card), and stole that from him. None of the other election support checks changed anything.

When the final tally came in, I came up short. Nixon won the election 283-254, if I remember the scores properly. (Where Mike mishandled the debates, I misread the tiebreaker rules for states with no cubes and no endorsements. I thought they just went to Kennedy, where they actually go to their historical victor – this definitely cost me some votes, but maybe not as many as my debate victories cost Mike.)

I had only won 15 of the 50 states. But I had just about every large state except California. Only five of my states provided single-digit votes. I had also completely abandoned the west. (Which is not dissimilar to history: Kennedy only carried Nevada, New Mexico, and Hawaii in the west.) In the end, though, it was not enough. (Had those endorsements turned out differently, though...)

What does my gut tell me about this game?

First off, this is a very simple CDG. There are some tweaks that really change your thought pattern from the standard CDG and Twilight Struggle, however.

First off, cards are mostly see once and forget. Both players are drawing from a common deck, and if our session is any indication, you're not going to get too far into a reshuffle. I think we only saw five cards twice. The deck management portion of most CDGs is simply not here. Second, there really isn't much worry about card interaction. There are very few prevention events, and in fact we didn't play a single event that prevented the use of another card. Third, there's not much variance in the cards. Most CDGs have cards that provide between 1 and 5 action points, but in 1960, the swing is only from 2-4. Your hands will be far more consistent from turn to turn.

There are obvious huge similarities to Twilight Struggle. The biggest is that you're manipulating area control instead of armies. One tweak over TS, though, is that only one side can have influence in a state at at time. Adding your influence in a state leaning led by your opponent first reduces his influence to zero before any of yours is added. Also, in TS, your opponents events automatically happen if you play their card. In 1960, however, you must spend a momentum chit in order to trigger these events. And, if you spend two momentum chits when you play a card, you prevent your opponents ability to trigger that event. We definitely saw a couple instances of chit-fishing with the intent to draw out the last remaining chit before playing a card with a particularly nasty event.

It's hard to get a real feel for a game like this after a single playing, but I do like what I see. In the inevitable "1960 vs. Twilight Struggle" scorecard, it comes out like this: 1960 is a far more forgiving game for inexperienced players. TS is very prone to early Russian auto-victories when inexperienced players are involved. This sours the initial take on that game. Experience brings balance there. Here, however, I'm not sure how much deeper it gets. There's probably some instances where you don't want to commit resources to one state or another until a certain card has gone through the game, but the effect is nowhere near as pronounced as in TS.

Net-net, this is a fantastic intro-level CDG, and is better than We the People, Hannibal, or Twilight Struggle in that role. Inexperienced players can have a very enjoyable experience, but will still likely lose to an experienced player. It's further down the learning curve where I think 1960 is going to fade compared to TS. It's chow mien compared to TS being teriyaki. (Paths of Glory, Here I Stand, and For the People are the five-course meals in comparison.)

Given the relative rankings, as of this writing, on BGG between TS (3rd) and 1960 (13th), I think they're about right, all things considered. 1960 is a great introductory CDG. Twilight Struggle is a fantastic bridge game between wargames and euros, and is soon to hit its third printing. I'll happily play either game, but I think if given a choice and the extra hour to play, I'd still choose TS.

Given access and interest in theme, I think I'd introduce a new player interested in 2-player CDGs to the games in the following order:
  1. 1960
  2. Twilight Struggle
  3. Hannibal or Wilderness War
  4. from here you can deviate as desired by theme and availability. A player versed in the previous three levels could tackle any other CDG with similar amounts of work.
As usual, the game was highly enjoyable, and only took us about two hours. It'll easily be playable in 90 minutes with a couple games under your belt.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

It's Tricky Mickey in a landslide

Back to our regularly scheduled sessions after our OCS Tunisia marathon (my take, Eric's take, Eric's thoughts. After some 'After you, no, after you' on whose choice it was, Eric picked 1960: The Making of a President. I initially had this game on my 'to buy' list, but after reading some reviews I wasn't so sure about it, so it got removed. I was more than happy to get this on the table to try it for myself.

I ended up with Tricky Dicky, and only half-jokingly asked for confirmation that Kennedy won the original election. (Hey, I'm the foreigner here, and was only 1yo at that time.) I started with a big push in the East, not knowing that there were many cards in the deck that gave Kennedy an advantage there, so I'm not sure if that was a sensible move or not. However, grabbing NY and PA forced him to spend time to recover them, so maybe it wasn't totally wasted.

From there I pushed into the Mid-west, South, West, and back to the Mid-west. In the mean time I'd been shoveling cubes into the bag as if they were the crux of the game. At the end of turn 3, with the Debates turn coming up, we went over the rules again on how they worked, but it wasn't sinking in. By the time the debates came up I had crummy cards, and at the end Kennedy had out-debated Nixon 3-0. However, all wasn't lost, as I still felt my position was decent, with presence in a lot of states, if control in few.

In the last couple of turns I drew strong CP cards, with 5 of 7 in the last turn worth 4CPs. In the last play I chose to go for Issues, controlling 1st & 2nd. In his last play Eric Campaigned in the Mid-west, clearing four states of cubes, a smart move as he had an Endorsement marker there.

However, when evaluating the Issues, I picked Endorsements and drew 2 for the Mid-west, gaining the endorsement and an 80-90 vote swing for Nixon. Balanced against that, Eric drew 4 blue cubes from 5 to grab IL from me for a 54 vote swing back in an Election Day event, but I'd protected CA so it was safe from a similar event.

We picked up all the counters, added it all up (using fingers and toes, for some of us) and it worked out that Nixon had won by 284-253. (Or near enough to that.) Kennedy had won the larger states in the East, South and Mid-west, but the West belonged to Nixon, as well as a lot of smaller states.

Certainly very similar to Twilight Struggle, although a lot simpler in the game play, which is both its strength and its weakness. From a casual player's point of view it's a far more approachable game. There are fewer options available, there are only a few card interactions. That's not to say that there are no decisions to make, there are, and they can be significant. That's the strength.

But it's a two-edged sword, for those same strengths for the casual player are weaknesses for the more dedicated player. Fewer card interactions, fewer options, more random wackiness, all features that could turn off someone looking for that deeper gaming experience offered by Twilight Struggle. In TS the player who knows and understands the game's intricacies will win most of the time, less true of 1960.

I'm very much on the fence about TS. I really like the game, but I'm not sure I'm prepared to dedicate enough of my precious gaming time to get to a higher level of play. I find I'm in the same position with 1960, on the fence that is, but for the opposite reason. I'm not sure that I want to dedicate my time for something that feels a trifle light. I'd give it a second go, but for the moment it's not going back on my 'to buy' list.