1960: A Year in Review through Boardgaming

1960: A Year in Review through Boardgaming Hot

MattDP     
 
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The other week I got to play a couple of games of 1960: The Making of the President over at WarGameRoom. I was pleased to have the chance to play as, like most fans of the outstanding Twilight Struggle I'd had my eye on this, the second game from the same designer. After playing, I spent a little time picking over what was good and what wasn't so good in my head and I was also struck by a curious revelation. I don't normally do review-style pieces here at F:AT but I wanted to share my revelation, and the only way to introduce it properly is to do this "semi-review".

Now I'm calling this a "semi" review for two important reasons. Firstly two games aren’t nearly enough to make a good judgement on the strengths and weaknesses of a game. Second, the review is leading up toward making a point, and so inevitably I'm going to be focussing the review on the aspects of the game that support my arguments. For these reasons you should take what follows with a pinch of salt - it might give you a little insight into whether you might like the game or not but please, please don't just take my word for it. Research elsewhere or better still, if you can, do what I did and play the game before you make a decision.

The game is an event-card driven game based on a famous US election in 1960. That's the entire introduction you're getting from me - if you want to know the rules then go read them as they'll do a better and more concise job than my crude summary will manage. Since this isn't a proper review, I really can't be bothered. Okay, you're all excused for ten minutes to go and grab a copy of those rules and read. Those of you who already know the rules can grab a beer or roll a joint or do whatever it is you do for relaxation instead.

Back already? Did you read them all?

You did? Good. Okay then well let's start by taking a look at those rules. The game is easier to play than Twilight Struggle, but not a great deal. Cards still have multiple uses which are governed by different mechanics. To add to the complexity there are two rounds - the debates and the Election Day itself - for which the normal rules are completely suspended and replaced with different ones and you need to digest those as well. Like a lot of more euro-style games which feature a fairly high degree of abstraction I also found there were places where I couldn't envisage quite how the rules would work in the game itself as there was no real-world equivalent I could compare it to. So, Ticket to Ride this isn't, but there's nothing here that a hobby gamer of any stripe should have difficulty with. I'm going to stop the TS comparisons here, at least until I reach the discussion stage, because it seems unfair to keep comparing them whatever similarities they might have. They are, after all, very different games which use very different mechanics to represent different themes.

One thing I was really struck by as I read the rules was the variety of interlocking mechanics on offer. This is a big feature of a lot of Euro systems and it's normally something that really turns me off a game - I prefer a limited tree of tough, hard to call decisions and variables to a tree made tough by the sheer number of decisions and variables. I thought it would spoil 1960 for me - in addition to campaigning across the map there's also the effects of advertising, momentum, media endorsements, issue support and the cards you pick for the special rounds, creating what looks to be a wheels-within-wheels layering of strategic effects. In practice this simply didn't seem to happen, because the importance of campaigning kept taking precedence. TV advertising in particular didn't seem to be much help at all and momentum proved less important than I'd predicted from the rules since you can minimise its effect with clever card play. Spending on the issues more often than not came down to who'd won the initiative draw and chosen to play last.

So what's on offer during the mainstay activity of campaigning by card play? Well, for starters you get the good old CDG fun of desperately sorting through your hand each turn and trying to come up with inventive ways of playing cards in the best order to maximise the impact of your events. Because this game has a mechanic which allows your opponent to spend momentum points to trigger his events off your cards you can also try and minimise the impact his events might have or, and this is a nice touch, you can try and set up elements of bluff to convince your opponent to spend out before he has the chance to trigger the really horrible event you've got later in your hand. Since you have to put by cards each turn, either for the debates or for election day there's some extra headaches in deciding what's going to get played and what's going to get stored, especially since the election day cards - which can be vital - offer the very tempting added bonus of being a completely safe siphon-off for opposing events you don't like. Just like every other CDG there's a significant random element here in the cards you get dealt - although the designer has tried to play this down with the introduction of momentum event-triggers it doesn’t entirely work - momentum is hard to come by and decays each turn and you usually don't know what's in your opponents' hand, so the luck factor here is still significant. This isn't a bad thing at all as it creates plenty of excitement in the dealing and playing of cards whilst still resting on top of a sound strategic framework.

The trouble with campaigning is that although there are some good hard choices to be made in your card play, actually applying those effects to the board is a whole lot less interesting because of a lack of meaningful geography. The board represents the US, but you can travel pretty much wherever you like and campaign for the penalty of a single point, and you can even avoid that through the large number of event cards in the deck which allow you to dump cubes pretty much wherever you choose. This latter point also devalues the role of "controlling" (having 4 cubes) in a state, which makes it harder for your opponent to campaign there because those cards don't suffer that penalty, making it very hard to hold on to a "controlling" stake in more than one or two states. The states thus have no geographic value, they only have a vote value which is printed right there on the board so it's completely obvious where you ought to be spending points to wrest control from your opponent. The overall result of all this is that a lot of the game involves you just watching number of cubes rise and fall in a few key areas across the game. Possibly worse, the sameness-in-effect makes all the cards look ultimately the same and discouraging you from relative to and differentiating between the different events and divorcing the game from one of the great strength of the CDG system which encourages you to learn history as you play.

Speaking of random events, another way in which the designer has tried to step in line with the low-luck community is to replace dice with cube-drawing. Now, I must confess that I was pretty taken with this idea. The basic premise is the same as a cube tower - the more cubes you have in the bag the more likely you are to get lucky and draw a cube of your own colour from the bag rather than your opponents'. Over the course of the game this is a really nice way of retaining the thrill of a random mechanic whilst trying to ensure that the swings and arrows of outrageous fortune don't favour one side too much over the other. It still kicks you in the teeth sometimes - sometimes the result is much more important than others - but that adds to the fun, retaining the feel of excitement a dice can provide while adding something of a cap on the worst excesses. To further reduce luck in the game, replenishing cubes in the bag is governed by your card play - some cards give you more cubes than others, usually the more powerful events giving you less cubes. This mechanic falls completely flat on its face though as the event or point value of the card always, always seems to trump its importance in cube value.

I am mindful that this might seem like quite a negative assessment of the game, but remember that I'm focussing on certain aspects for emphasis later on, and we're coming to that shortly. This is unfair - 1960 is most definitely a good game, and one which I would be very happy to play a few more times. The heart of the play, after all, is in the creative strategy and hard choices of card play and events and there's plenty of that here. But it isn't a great game and for me, happily displaying my "I love multiplayer chaos" badge on my sleeve, that just doesn't quite cut the mustard in a two-play title. This is, essentially, a CDG for people who think they probably wouldn't like most CDGs. And perhaps also for people who love CDGs so much they play virtually nothing else. For those of us in the middle there are better examples than this to play.

So what's the point of all this? Well after I was done analysing the mechanics, my thoughts wandered on to the conclusion that this intentionally designed as a CDG for Eurogamers and was, therefore, a CDG stripped completely of its more wargame-style aspects and rendered more in line with the things the Euro-crowd seem to like such as reduced luck. And with this in mind I was struck forcibly by two conclusions.

The first is that this is a fantastic lesson in how all the things I keep saying about how over-streamlining a game in the Euro mould can spoil an otherwise good game. This is effectively an attempt to take the good things about Twilight Struggle and strip away those aspects of it that the vocal Euro community didn't like such as complexity, long(ish) play time, randomness and so on. Take the map in this case - by opening it up and removing geographic constraints in the manner of popular Euros the designers have apparently increased the amount of choice in the game and so they have, but at the detriment of actual meaningful choice and the divorcing of the game from its historical inspiration. Again, by changing the rule that ensured your opponents' event always happened (which was, apparently, too random and didn't involve enough choice) to one where your opponent could spend resources to trigger the event what resulted was the addition of a fairly meaningless choice at the cost of a lot of tension in the game play. There are other examples of this in my review above if you care to go back chase them down.

The other thing that struck me is this - this is a stylised attempt at a Eurogame which, given the esteem it has very rapidly garnered, has clearly succeeded in appealing to its target market. So it seems extremely strange then that however Euro-ised the game might be it still succeeds in breaking almost every tenet of modern Euro design. The game is not all that short. As we've already discussed it still has a considerable weight of rules and, considering the amount of eventual chrome of that got worked in to the game in the form of semi-pointless things such as advertising, can't really be considered elegant. It's jettisoned the tight geographical constraints of a wargame but still has a board on which positional play has an important role. Although this is very much a game in which skill triumphs on a satisfying proportion of plays, there is nevertheless a big luck element. So the popularity of the game is maybe a bit hard to explain - what has drawn the Eurogamers in? Could it be that those high production values have trumped, making the Euro crowd every much a bunch of bit whores as we are? Perhaps the self-made hype machine that surrounded the game from day one has, yet again triumphed over good sense and created a situation where no-one dares to be the first to burst the bubble and admit that this is an average game and that they were wrong to hype it?

I don't think either thing is true. On further consideration I realised that a lot of the enduringly popular Eurogames actually break their own rules. The most glaring example is the ever-beloved Puerto Rico which, with its plethora of different buildings, some of which are virtually useless, is actually neither simple nor elegant. Others, such as Ra and Tigris and Euphrates, have very significant luck elements. Shogun and Age of Steam feature direct confrontation and what amounts to strategic manoeuvre. I can't comment on some of the other games as I haven't played them, but it seems to me that the only real Euro out of the collection of top Euros that I know is Power Grid - so probably no great co-incidence that it's the only one that I really dislike! Even that has some competition for space on the board.

So this is it - I'm calling bluff on the whole Euro design paradigm. It's time to come clean and admit that following the Trappist rules of austerity that designers are finding ever more ingenious ways to force onto their games at the behest of a vocal minority of the Euro community actually doesn't result in games that many people want to play. You need, as I've constantly said, some sort of relief from the joyless straightjacket of no luck, no confrontation, no chrome to make a good game. Admit it - you're rumbled. And thanks to 1960 for helping me see that for the first time in clear, stark relief.

1960: A Year in Review through Boardgaming There Will Be Games
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