Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 23 July 2010

Election Lite

I have always had an interest in American Presidential politics, usually fuelled by the excellent coverage we get on radio and television here in the U.K. (I doubt that the reverse is as true...), so when I was looking for something to read the other week, I picked up a copy of Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. My interest peaked, I have begun re-watching the first season of The West Wing as well, which leaves only my politics and my gaming itches to be combined. Not wanting to get out and take the two hours necessary to play, I decided against the otherwise excellent 1960: The Making of the President, instead opting for Campaign Manager 2008.

Both games are from Z-Man Games and both are designed by Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews who have also designed the forthcoming Founding Fathers, a multi-player game about the writing of the United States Constitution from Jolly Roger Games, another game that I am looking forward to. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of parallels between 1960: The Making of the President and Campaign Manager 2008. Both are two-player card driven games that simulate a US election, the first between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, the second between John McCain and Barack Obama in 2008. Both are built around capturing the States necessary to gain the Electoral Votes that will vault the candidate into the White Office, but while the first has the candidates battling for all fifty States, the second concentrates on just twenty key or “battleground” states. This is the main difference between the two games, but Campaign Manager 2008 is also a much shorter game, with less of an emphasis on historical detail and the issues it was fought over.

Also, in Campaign Manager 2008, the players do not take the roles of the candidates, but their campaign managers, constructing and using a deck of cards to gain Support or voters and swing the issues in each of the twenty States at stake. The cards represent the strategy and the resources each manager has at hand, and each will be able to use them again and again as they are drawn from a refreshed deck. What cards and thus what resources a manager has to hand will also rise and fall – going all out to win that all important State will mean burning through resources that he will have to garner later on, leaving his opponent to win other States...

Opening up the box finds some ninety Campaign Strategy cards, twenty Breaking News event cards, twenty Battleground State tiles, a Scoring Chart, twenty Scoring Tiles, twenty-four wooden Support Markers, four wood Issue Markers, a single Going Negative die, the Going Negative Chart, plus an eight page Rule Book. All of these components are done in full colour, either on good card stock or in solid wood.

The focus of the game, essentially the playing area, are the twenty Battleground State tiles, ten of them the key target States for Obama, the other for McCain. They are Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia for McCain, and Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin for Obama.

Each Battleground State tile is three-and-a-half by five inches and depicts the State itself broken down into its voting districts, plus its abbreviation and the number of Electoral Votes it possesses. At the top and bottom of the State is an identical row of circular spaces in three colours representing the Voters in the State. Red circles support McCain, Blue support Obama, while white circles represent Undecided Voters. The row at the top of the State reflect the opinions of the Voters on the Defence Issue and is next to the Defence Symbol (a tank), while the bottom reflects their opinion on the Economy, likewise next the Economy Symbol (the almighty Dollar). Between the Defence and Economy Symbol on the left hand side of the State runs a four-space Issue Track. Throughout the contest for each State, the importance of each issue will change, reflected by an Issue Marker which will point towards the Defence or the Economy Symbol. The Issue that the Issue Marker points towards is the Majority Issue, while the one it points away from is the Minority issue. On the right hand side of a Battleground State tile are two spaces for Demographic Groups. Throughout the game, a Key Demographic marker sits in one of these spaces to indicate that it is the current Key Demographic in that State. It is possible to target the current Key Demographic to sway the State’s Undecided Voters (represented by empty white Voter spaces).

Taking Florida as an example, it provides twenty seven Electoral Votes, and its Key Demographics are either Jewish Conservatives or Latinos. Along the top and bottom are five Voter spaces. Alongside the Defence Issue they break down as two Red (McCain), one Blue (Obama), and two White (Undecided), while alongside the Economy Issue they break down as two Red (McCain), two Blue (Obama), and one White (Undecided). In order to win a State, all of its Voters need must support his Candidate in the Majority Issue. In general, McCain is stronger on Defence issues, while Obama is stronger on the Economy.

In order to win a State, a Campaign Manager has to play Campaign Strategy cards gain both Voters and shift the Issue Marker to the Issue that has most Voters in. There are ninety of these cards, divided equally between the two campaign managers, with blue backs for the Democrats and Red for the Republicans. Each Campaign Strategy card lists its type, its title, and its game instructions, along with an appropriate photograph and some colour text, the latter a note to the campaign manager’s team. For example, “Judgement To Lead” is an “Advertising: Minority Issue” type card for Obama. In game terms it provides one Support (or a Voter) in the Minority Issue of a single State and shifts the Issue Tracker in that State one space towards its Minority Issue. The photograph shows Obama at a podium with the attached note, “We need to contrast McCain’s experience against BHO’s judgement.”

Some Campaign Strategy cards are marked with the symbol of a six-sided die. When this card is played it indicates that the campaign has gone Negative. The card in question is invariably highly effective, but playing it has consequences, providing a random benefit to a campaign manager’s opponent. The effect in question, including adding Support, shifting an Issue, or altering the Key Demographic in a State, as well as allowing the opposing campaign manager to draw extra cards is determined randomly by rolling the die against the Going Negative Chart.

There are also twenty Breaking News event cards, representing random events that come into play when a State is won and a new one enters play. Each of these comes into play once per game and usually applies to the new State, unless one campaign manager has a Media Support Campaign Strategy card in play, in which case he can control which State it affects. For example, the “Campaign Fatigue?” Breaking News – breaking on ZNN or Z-Man Network News, that is – forces the removal of all Support (Voter) markers from the affected State.

Lastly, there is the rule book itself. It is easy to ready, explains everything clearly, and makes the game easy to both understand and teach.

Setting up the game is quick and easy. Each player chooses two Battleground State tiles and places them in the middle of table adding the Key Demographic and Issue Markers as indicated on each tile. Each campaign manager then drafts from the forty five Campaign Strategy cards that he has available to him, a deck of fifteen cards. This is the Campaign Deck that he will use throughout the game. From this Campaign Deck, he draws a starting hand of three cards. If neither player wants to go through the draft process or chose their initial Battleground States, then the game come with quicker set up solution that also works for those new to the game. Fifteen of the Campaign Strategy cards for each candidate are marked with a star, as are two of the Battleground State tiles for each candidate – Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey. Each candidate will play the game using these fifteen Campaign Strategy cards and start play using the two starred Battleground State tiles.

Once set up is done, for example, with the beginning States of Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey, the campaign begins. On his turn, a campaign manager can undertake just one action. He can either play a Campaign Strategy card or he can draw one from his deck. He will need to do the latter because he will quickly use up the cards in his hand, the trick being to know when. Having more cards in your hand gives a campaign manager more options, allowing him to increase Support for his candidate in a particular State or to respond to his opponent’s activities. Fortunately, some Campaign Strategy cards allow an extra card to be drawn after it has been played, thus ensuring that a campaign manager has options in his hand. A campaign manager also has to be careful when to play Campaign Strategy cards that force him to Go Negative – as powerful as they are, and as useful as they are in grabbing that all important big State, they do have consequences.

Play continues until a State is won. Its winner gains its Electoral Votes which are marked with the Scoring Tile that corresponds to the State in question, the Scoring Tile being placed on the Scoring Chart. Essentially, the Scoring Chart looks like the kind of graphic you would find on television on its coverage of an election night. The Scoring Tiles do not quite fit on the Chart, but this is more a problem of the tags being left on each Tile after their having been punched out. To be fair, both players only need to know their positions relative to each other and what matters is who gains those all too important two and seventy Electoral Votes. This is how a Presidential Election and Campaign Manager 2008 are both won.

The winner of a State also gets to chose which new Battleground State is added to the fray. A Breaking News card is drawn and its effects are applied to the new State. Play continues as normal.

Play in Campaign Manager 2008 tends to ebb and flow. Not just in the way in which Campaign Strategy cards pass through each players’ hands, but the way in which momentum can be gained and lost as one campaign manager wins a State and is able to bring another of his target Battleground States. It also offers each player plenty of choice: what Campaign Strategy cards to draft, when to play or draw a card, which States to target or defend, and then which new State to bring out.

A game of Campaign Manager 2008 is supposed to last about forty five minutes, although we found that it generally lasts longer. Each of the games we have played has been very tight, invariably coming down to a single State that would win either candidate the Presidency. The wins have also been balanced between McCain and Obama, no candidate having a real advantage over the other. Thematically, Campaign Manager 2008 feels a little odd. It is strong in terms of handling an actual Presidential Election, but not that strong in terms of the 2008 US Election. What this means is that there is less opportunity or reason for “table talk,” to really bring out the personalities and issues of the campaign in roleplaying terms. Conversely, this means that the election’s politics do not get in the way of the game. Of course, this is not an issue with the longer, deeper 1960: The Making of the President.

From our plays, we were also unsure about the game’s card mechanics. They do add a strong resource management aspect to the game, their movement through a campaign manager’s hand representing the ebb and flow of resources and stratagems available, but we have been experimenting with being able to draw from all of a campaign manger’s Campaign Strategy cards, adding a draw phase at the end of a player’s turn. It makes for a faster game, but does mean that the ebb and flow feel of the game is reduced.

What Campaign Manager 2008 really offers is solid thoughtful play for two players in something longer than a filler game, but shorter than a bigger game. Its theme is strong enough that it really does feel as if you are battling out for the Presidential Election, but without the raucous nature and politics of the actual election and its issues getting in the way. The game play is simple, but the ideas underlying the game are complex and require the players to think about their decisions rather than rely on luck. If neither you nor your opponent has $2.4 billion between them, Campaign Manager 2008 is about the quickest, easiest, cheapest way to see if you can become the leader of the free world.