Saturday, October 20, 2007

My Game of the Year (so far)

My pick for the best game I've played all year was finally released this week. No, it's not Beautiful Katamari (though I need to pick that up too if I can get it in the midst of all of the other great games being released in the next six weeks; this is the best Christmas season for games I can recall in a long, long time). I'm talking about the board game 1960: The Making of a President.

Political games have a long history of being absolute garbage. One of the few quality ones for computers was Balance of Power and a few years ago Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews took inspiration from that classic computer game to create the board game Twilight Struggle. Twilight Struggle has the players compete as superpowers through the cold war and is the best feeling strategic cold war game I've ever played. 1960 is a kind of sequel where Jason Matthews took most of the mechanics that made Twilight Struggle so great and applied them to a presidential campaign.

Each player steps into the shoes of one of the candidates and on each turn are dealt a hand of cards which depict major events that occurred in the weeks leading up to the election. If the event is something that his candidate can take advantage of then the player has a choice of using the event which can affect a lot of things in the game or caching it in for influence over voters. They can campaign directly appealing to voters in a particular state which can pay off in the short term since enough of an advantage can effectively lock their opponent out of the state, or put their efforts into campaigning on particular issues which can have long term benefits if the issues they're ahead on are the ones that are important to the American people.
The events give the game a see-saw feeling where even when things are bad they can turn around in an instant with a good play. A card could lock an opponent out of a region of the country for a time letting their opponent run rampant. Or a shift of priority in the issues could lead to a come back with media endorsements. A landslide is possible but your opponent has to just about roll over and let you take it for that to occur. At 1960's heart it's a game of damage control; you have to react to the bad events while trying to leave yourself enough resources left over to gain ground.The game components are impressively designed. The board has a late 50's style, the game uses tokens that feature the campaign buttons, and the markers for keeping track of the electoral college votes have the appropriate state seal for each of them printed on one side. It's some of the nicest design work I've seen giving the fun game inside some very pretty wrapping.

If you play the game then I would recommend reading The Making of a President: 1960 (hey, that title sounds familiar). T.H. White, better known to nerds as the writer of The Once and Future King, followed the Kennedy campaign around very closely and wrote a very detailed history of the campaign as it was occurring. His closeness to the Kennedy camp did seem to make him more willing to excuse Kennedy's faults compared to Nixon's, but it brings much of the history detailed in the game into focus.

It's a fun game. It's an interesting history lesson of the type usually only found in quality wargames (and I guess you could call a campaign a kind of war). It's the best game I've played so far this year.