Sunday, January 27, 2008

Review of 1960: The Making of the President

I recently played "1960: The Making of the President" a few times and I was hoping it would be a fabulous game. However, I found some serious flaws with it. Granted, the production quality is top notch and I like the thematic titles and tid-bits of info on the cards. However, the general luck of the draw in the game (or, to put it more accurately, the sequence in which certain cards are drawn and by which player they are drawn) can be too significant (i.e. they can take away much of the significance of player choice because of the power of certain events and/or the sequence in which they happen).

What's funny about the dynamics of play in this game is that the number of interactive influences inherent in the cards and in the structure of play create the illusion of one's choices being more weighty and meaningful than they really are. Instead of being a game where each player makes small strides that all add up to a larger conclusion (as the game appears to play at first), this is actually a game where each turn can potentially represent huge swings in what would be the final score if the game ended on that turn. This is a reflection of the average power inherent in the design of the events on the cards and the (admittedly thematic) distribution of points for control of different areas on the board. There are simply too many events that can have a large impact given the fact that there are unequal distributions of points for cubes played (different states have drastically different values). Though this is thematic, this also results in a game where the luck of the draw can actually trump planning.

This criticism of vast swings in play is also due in part to the fact that the area control aspect of the game in the states is mostly a zero sum game (with an exception being in the case that the "unfaithful electors" card is in play). Therefore, each electoral point I'm able to completely take away from my opponent will get added to my side. Thus, each swing must be thought of as being double what you lost because not only did you lose it but your opponent gained it. For example, if by playing a card, I can swing New York away from my opponent and over to my side, that's a 90 point shift (-45 for him, +45 for me) in a game where there are a total of 537 electoral votes in play.

Another example: I played a game once where I went through on one turn and cleared out a lot of my opponents cubes off of states that would swing my way if they had no cubes on them at all. That resulted in a 140 point swing (-70 for him, +70 for me). Then the next turn, he got an endorsement in that area which swung the whole thing back in his direction - a 140 point swing the other direction. In a game where there are, again, 537 electoral votes at stake, that's some massive swinging of points happening in just the space of two turns. Such vast swings would be objects of criticism in a game like, say, Power Grid. It would be like on one turn I have 12 houses and my opponent had 6 and then the next turn my opponent took 4 away from my side while adding those 4 to his side leaving him with 10 while I have 8 and so forth.

These massive swings of influence maybe would have been tolerable or even enjoyable for me if the game had some scoring in the middle to reward early plays. However, since all the scoring happens at the end (which is, admittedly, thematic), and because the swings of influence can be so dynamic and significant from turn to turn, the early part of the game doesn't really feel important. The winner of the game can potentially be determined on the last play just as easily for both sides depending on the last few cards drawn by either player. Though this is thematic, it's not what I would prefer in a game like this. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that a person can play poorly and win this game. What I am saying is that, because the swings of influence are so dynamic and drastic from turn to turn, much of the tension that this game is touted as having simply isn't there. Assuming both players play capably, this game is more like watching a pendulum swing back and forth where you hope that it just happens to be on your side at the end of the turn when the game ends. In this respect, the game feels more like a long, drawn out coin flip than a strategic exercise.

If the possibilities for influence inherent in each individual card were lessened by several degrees, if the distribution of points on the board were more balanced, or if there were possibilities for mid-game scoring, then the game would be more strategic and less luck driven (however, balance in point distribution on the board and mid-game scoring would both run counter to the theme). Nevertheless, despite my criticisms, I am not that surprised that very few people who have rated this game are picking up on these problems. As a player gets involved in the moment to moment decision making of 1960 and in the thematic appeal of the game, it can be easy to get caught up in the process of trying to decide which card to play without taking a step back to look at the general patterns of massive swings that are happening on the board. The type of board analysis I'm talking about can be obscured by the fact that the amount of surface area control on the board is not at all equal to the amount of electoral votes for each player.

These criticisms wouldn't be a problem at all if the game played in only about 20 to 30 minutes but this is an hour-and-a-half to two-hour long game. I really wanted to like this game (and I do like the theme) but there is no real emotional pay-off for me in a victory won in this type of game because it's hard to feel like one has "earned" a victory. It's more like one "received" the victory (which is thematic given that the game is about an election). However, this is a great game if a person wants to experience what an election feels like or if a person wants an experience that is historically immersive. The theme is solid.

In spite of my criticisms of the game play in 1960, most of the reviews on BGG for this game are glowing and the only really negative review focuses more on humor than it does on offering enlightening criticism. This has been a source of frustration for me. Surely I'm not the only one who sees things as I do?

Well, I encountered the following review because someone else included a link to it in their comments on 1960 at BGG. This review comes from the perspective of comparing 1960 with Twilight Struggle (a perspective I simply don't have yet as I have not yet played Twilight Struggle). The criticisms offered on the game in this review are quite well thought out so I'm posting a link to it here:

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