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.


Dug said...

I'd change your "intro to CDG's" order slightly.

First, I'd put We the People third. The game has very little chrome, and while the cards are a bit on the unforgiving side in terms of what you can do with them (they are either events or operations, no choices to be made), the strategic situation is pretty simple a fairly forgiving, assuming you don't lose Washington (the general) as the US.

Wilderness War is a great game, but has a *lot* of chrome. The way that regulars move through wilderness is very unforgiving, the rules concerning Indians can be a bit confusing, and the whole Louisbourg thing is a bit tacked on. I'd leave it off entirely, putting it in with the other CDGs.
Hannibal, on the other hand, is definitely step 4. And, perhaps the entire point of learning CDGs - I still say it's the best of the bunch, certainly the best of the single deck political control games (although some may contend it's For the People).

Eric said...

It's always interesting to see people's takes on things like this.

I wouldn't even put We the People on the list, honestly. The systems have evolved so far that I'd only be interested in playing it for historical purposes. The unforgiving cards and go-like supply rules are a turnoff, IMHO. It will be interesting to see what Washington's War becomes if it's ever published.

Also, I wouldn't make a blanket statement about "the entire point of learning CDGs" as there are going to be people for whom the theme does nothing for them, making Hannibal a passing interest, if that. For these people, Triumph of Chaos might just be the whole point of learning these games. Theme is more important than gameplay for a lot of people.

Jackson said...

Well now you've done it- stirred up the whole CDG crowd!
Actually, all of the games are such a breath of fresh air, and everyone will have their personal favorite. I did play We the People recently, right after we had finished an epic game of Hannibal, and it did come across as dated. The main problem was that Battles were so indecisive, especially compared to the Epic duels in Hannibal. I am still trying to get my head around Wilderness War, and would love for you to choose it as the Weekly game soon. One of your write ups would be great!

Eric said...

Well now you've done it- stirred up the whole CDG crowd!

Well, THAT doesn't take much!

I am still trying to get my head around Wilderness War, and would love for you to choose it as the Weekly game soon. One of your write ups would be great!

Our first request! Thank you Action Jackson!

WW has been on my list for a while, but it's just a tad long to fit into our typical weekday evening sessions. (Though the tournament scenario just might work.)

I'll have to talk to Mike about it during our next session. Another day of OCS goodness :)


Thank you! It's nice to know we're not only talking to our immediate gaming group all the time...