Thursday, July 20, 2017

Boardgame review — 1960: The Making of the President


“Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…”


Designers: Jason Matthews and Christian Leonhard
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games


Ever since its first publication in 2007 (by Z-Man Games), I have loved 1960: The Making of the President with a passion. In part because it makes clever use of the fantastic tug-of-war system that blew me away in Twilight Struggle, but also—and perhaps especially—because it felt like a microcosm of that sprawling Cold War epic. I always thought that if we could zoom in on a single card in Twilight Struggle (used above as the title of my review) and play out the event depicted by that card at a tactical level, then we'd get 1960.
A game within a game; a cog lost in the big machine.

(Of course, one of 1960’s designers—Jason Matthews—also happens to be the co-designer of Twilight Struggle; so that intimate connection between the two games shouldn’t surprise anyone. Indeed, I am not surprised by it: I’m fascinated.)

Z-Man put out a 2nd edition in 2008, essentially tweaking the visuals for clarity. But for the 10th anniversary of 1960 (how deliciously confusing a phrase, from its 2017 perspective), GMT is giving us a completely retooled version, complete with original art and rules modifications.

But first, how does it play?

The game throws two players into the arena: one as Nixon, the as Kennedy, both fighting tooth and nail during their arduous presidential campaign. The political match unfolds on an electoral map of the United States, circa 1960, where opponents travel from one state to the other, hoping to win local support—and then hold on to it until that fateful election day.
In classic card-driven fashion, both players are dealt a hand of cards at the outset of each turn, and those cards can be used in multiple ways. You can use the points listed on them to campaign (travel the country and muster support for your party, indicated by piling cubes on the targeted states); you can also use those same points to buy media support in one or several areas (which helps you break the stranglehold your opponent may have in that neck of the woods); or you can use those points to position yourself on the issues that mattered most back then (defense, economy and civil rights).
And then, of course, there’s the big one: you can forego the points and instead decide to play the historical event depicted on each card—granted it is playable by your side of the political divide. And what if it isn’t? Well then you have to make use of the points, but you can expend precious momentum tokens to prevent your opponent from benefiting from “his” event. Otherwise he might just spend his own tokens to trigger what could be disastrous circumstances for you.
At the end of each turn, each player sets aside one unused card in anticipation of the upcoming TV debates (a novelty of great historical significance in that day and age), and both opponents pick up the fight for one more round. After five turns, the aforementioned debates are resolved through the play of cards previously set aside, using issue and party icons on each card to help position your candidate. Victory in the debates provides a significant advantage, so don’t take them lightly.
Then the game resumes for two more turns, at the end of which cards set aside are used this time to fuel final thrusts into the hearts and minds of the voters—it’s Election Day!
Both players gather up the seals of the states that favor their politics, add up the electoral votes associated with them, and hope to God they make it to 269.
And we have a new President.

PRODUCTION

Serving up this new incarnation of 1960 in their “double deep” box (a thick bookcase-style box, as opposed to the flat and oblong original), GMT went with fresh artwork that moves away from the game’s familiar look. Starting with the game cover, which is fantastic. Inside the box, we still find wooden cubes in red, white and blue (with a draw-string bag to fish them from); we still have a separate debates board for that tactical mid-game twist; and yes, those cardboard discs (both for momentum tokens and state seal tokens) are omnipresent. But the pièces de résistance here are the cards and game board.

The card back is magnificent—artist Donal Hegarty really did a fine job there. (Yes, I’m a big fan of card backs. It’s not the last time you’ll read about them on my blog…) It’s got that late ‘50s feel that permeates the entire package, and I think that goes a long way towards thematic immersion, which is never easy to accomplish.

Now that's a card back.

The face of the cards is also very nice, if a tad subdued. And while I’ll admit that I miss the newspaper-headline look of the original, I find the new card layout easier to decode. (Many new players kept missing the number of rest cubes each card would provide; not with this edition.)

GMT edition on the left, Z-Man 2nd edition on the right

The board is a beautiful, mounted leviathan, and a true work of art. Donal Hegarty and Mark Simonitch managed to make it look like it was made—manufactured—in 1960. Where the original board went for a realistic campaign manager look (complete with a “battle map,” a manila folder, a coffee cup stain, and a pencil that I’ve seen more than one unwary player try to pick up), the new board asserts its identity as a game, albeit one that aims squarely at late 1950s aesthetics. It’s also easier to read than the original, and I’ll never say no to that.

GMT game board. A chunk of it, anyway. 

The only aspect I will lament as far as the new edition looks is the loss of authentic photographs. While the old game plastered historical pictures all over its real estate, the new one goes for a traced-over-the-picture style. It’s all fine, and it certainly jives with the period vibe oozing from the box. I just miss the pictures, that’s all. (Quite the irony when you think that a gazillion wargames published by GMT use historical photos!)

RULES

While some sections were reformulated, the rulebook remains essentially the same. And at 14 pages, the game is one of the easiest to learn in the GMT stable. It’s got the same sample turn the original offered, with clear examples and a cleaner layout that makes the whole thing easier to follow.
However, veteran players will be interested to know of the three rules changes introduced in this edition of the game.

1.  Support Checks: Players must now make Support Checks for Events which grant State Support in states carried or currently occupied by their opponent, just as if they were Campaigning. 

(This makes carrying a state—owning at least four support cubes there—much more significant than in the original game, where an event would allow your opponent to breach your fortress without breaking a sweat. Notice, though, that the above rule states that this only applies to events: debate victories are immune to the change, which beefs them up a bit. An exciting tweak to be sure, as I’ve always found the debates to matter less than I would have liked.) 

2.  Momentum Phase: The player with the most media support may now shift issues before momentum and endorsements are awarded rather than after.

(Shifting them after the awards hardly did anything, since so many events shuffled them around before the end of the next turn, anyway. But altering their order right before rewards are doled out has a big impact on the game flow, and I welcome it with open arms.) 

3.  Tiebreaker: While the first tiebreaker remains the player who won most states, the second tiebreaker is now the player who has the most total state support. 

(The original game’s second tiebreaker was to give the game to Kennedy—certainly the change least likely to affect you. After many, many games, I’ve never seen a single tie. Let alone one that requires two tiebreakers.)

But the new rulebook doesn’t stop there: it also provides two optional rules! The first one has players start the game with their Vice Presidents (Lyndon Johnson and Henry Cabot Lodge) on the side; a player can discard one of his own events to play his Vice President card as if from his hand. The second optional rule prevents players spending points on issues from adding support to the issue depicted on the card thus played.
I haven’t tried those optional rules, and I doubt I ever will. But they’re there if they tickle your fancy.

Finally, the last page of the new rulebook features an obsession of mine: historical notes. Enjoy!

FUN FACTOR

1960 has always provided me with visceral thrills and historical insight, and I was initially doubtful when GMT announced their own edition of that all-American gem. Why would I switch? But after just one game, I was won over. The look of the new edition makes the experience even more enjoyable and immersive than it already was, and the little tweaks to the rules pack an impressive punch, patching up the only weaknesses I ever felt the design needed to address.

PARTING SHOTS


It took three turns at bat, but we’re finally here: this is the best incarnation, the definitive edition of 1960: The Making of the President. A challenging, clever, and tight contest—very much in the spirit of the moment it tries to evoke—now with inspired visuals to match.

If you have any interest at all in the history of the United States, and in the amazing campaign of 1960 in particular, this is the game for you. What happened to Nixon in Michigan? What was “Lazy Shave” powder? Who was Herb Klein?
It’s all in there
—and a whole lot more.




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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Boardgame review — Comancheria


Lords of the Southern Plains


Designer: Joel Toppen
Player count: 1
Publisher: GMT Games



In my review of Navajo Wars, the original game in the First Nations series, I wrote about the Navajo that “their history—rife with conflict—is one upon which designer Joel Toppen has crafted an experience that is part simulation, part history lesson. Listen closely.”
And I wouldn’t change a word to introduce Toppen’s second opus, Comancheria.

[Although I will make every effort to review Comancheria on its own terms, comparisons with Navajo Wars will sometimes prove inevitable. I shall then present such insights within brackets, so that readers unfamiliar with the previous title might easily navigate around the unwelcome interruptions.]

This time around, the game brings the Comanche empire back to life, in all its glory, and asks the player to lead the Lords of the Southern Plains in their struggle against formidable foes—from rival tribes to the Spanish, to the Mexicans, all the way to the Americans. Can you preserve the Comanche culture and way of life?
Not to spoil anything, but the deck is stacked against you. Quite literally.

Comancheria is strictly a solitaire experience: you jump in alone, against the “cardboard computer” the designer has put together. The game cycles through a simple sequence of play, first having enemy armies (if any have formed on the board) march towards your territory, then letting you move from point to point on a large map and execute one action, before (probably) resolving enemy actions. You then reap the rewards and/or suffer the consequences, the great clock ticks forward one step, and the cycle repeats itself. This keeps on until either defeat ensues (when the Comanche culture and military might are completely eradicated) or you survive the end of a Historical Period, indicating victory. Unless the chosen scenario calls for more than one Historical Period to be braved…

Actions available to the player are Moving, made easier with a horse, but otherwise still feasible; Hunting, in order to provide Rancherias (bases) with much needed food; Raiding, to destroy rival tribes as well as acquire horses and the occasional captive; and Trading, which makes it possible to upgrade resources and gain a crucial edge over the hostile environment. There’s also the Culture action, which strengthens Comanche culture according to occupied territory; Planning, where community leaders make use of their influence and Rancherias are relocated; and Passage of Time, when new Rancherias are created (affording the player more options) and community leaders risk dying of old age.

[At seven, the number of possible actions is a bit less than the 10 Navajo Wars offered. But seven is really all you need in this case, and it makes jumping into the game that less overwhelming.]

I think it fair to say that the game revolves around Raiding. This is something you will find yourself performing over and over again, not only for the resources that successful raids provide, or the destructive effect they can have on rival dwellings (the elimination of which proves vital more often than not), but also because Raiding is the only way to boost the influence and power of the Comanche community leaders. And the more powerful those leaders become, the more effectively their Rancherias can operate and thrive.

Raiding is resolved by drawing a number of counters from an opaque cup. Some of those counters indicate a success (resources taken, rival dwelling ravaged, and leader potentially more influential), while others show a number of action points that enemies will be able to use at the end of the turn. Nothing’s ever free, even when you ride a horse without a saddle.

[At first I, too, missed the great raid resolution mechanism from Navajo Wars, which had us drawing colored cubes from a bag. But you’ll soon see what exciting twists and turns the drawing of counters in Comancheria makes possible.]

But no matter what action you select, the game’s timer moves down one notch once that action is completed. After a few times, you start rolling a die to see if your next action will be a free choice, or if you will be forced to take the Passage of Time action summarized above. The more the game moves forward, the greater the chances of a mandatory Passage of Time. And after each Passage of Time, the game’s second timer goes down one notch, while the first one resets. (Think of this as two hands on a clock: the little hand counts down the number of player actions, while the big hand counts down the number of overall rounds in the game.) When that second timer reaches zero, the Historical Period is over. You check for victory (or at least avoidance of defeat), and then call it a day or proceed to the next Historical Period.

But before we get to that glorious conclusion (or ignominious kick in the butt), enemies also get to play, and that almost on every turn. Depending on the scenario, the identities and natural tendencies of enemies will change from one Historical Period to the next. But the basic mechanism for activating them remains the same.
Their actions are decided by an Instruction Display where instruction counters are set up in four columns—one for each enemy—at the start of the game. A die roll determines which enemy will wreak havoc on the board this turn, while another roll flips over a counter in that enemy’s column, revealing a different instruction. Action points accrued through failed raid attempts are then used to pay for each instruction, and the enemy works its way down its column of instructions, until it runs out of action points. At that point, used counters are cycled back to the bottom of the column, and everything shifts up in preparation for the next turn.

Easy, right? But the random enemy selection and the equally random flipping of an instruction counter mean that while you always have a pretty good idea of what will probably happen, you can never be sure of it. Plans need to be kept flexible.
There’s one more twist, this one made possible by the counters used to determine the success of a raid [something that wouldn’t have worked as elegantly with the cubes in Navajo Wars]: instruction counters sometimes make their way into the success cup, waiting for the unwary player to fish them out of the cup instead of a success counter. So you thought you were going on a tranquil raid and could prepare for enemy payback at the end of the turn? Surprise! The enemy is coming out of its lethargy early this week.

Three types of cards round out the game’s engine. Culture cards are purchased with culture points, and represent Comanche skill advancements. Development cards are essentially events that, for good or bad, influence life on the plains; they include such evocative titles as Mild Winter (good!), End of Ute Alliance (bad!) and Epidemic (I think I’ll go home now). The last type, War cards, regulates armed confrontations between the Comanche and their enemies, allowing war parties to move on the map and bestowing one side with an advantage or saddling them with a drawback.
Combat is simply resolved with modified die roll. There’s no need for more: this isn’t a game about war, but a game about survival. (Which sometimes requires military action.)
  
PRODUCTION

True to the series it gracefully expands, Comancheria is one beautiful game.
Again, I’ll steal from my description of Navajo Wars to capture the elegance of the components, “from the evocative box cover to the stunning (mounted) board, right down to the various cards and counters, all produced with the same earthy palette of soothing tones. If you’re going to stare at a game for a couple of hours, it might as well go easy on the eyes—and this one certainly does.”

The game also comes with two well laid-out player aids that remove the need to constantly dig through the rulebook for answers. In fact, you could jump right into the first scenario and learn the game as you go, using those player aids as trusty guides.
  
RULES

Like its predecessor, Comancheria runs on just 19 pages of rules. Rules that are well written, easy to read, and mostly make sense. I say “mostly,” because the way Passage of Time works (the two clock hands I mentioned earlier) was not immediately obvious. But beyond that minor snag, the game just clicked.

As I mentioned before, it would be entirely possible to hit the deck running and learn the game just from the player aids. Everything in the game is procedural: knowledge from outside each procedure is not necessary to its execution. (You might run into some surprises later on, though, but your scars will heal and you’ll have learned a valuable lesson.)

Alternatively, you could also grab the Play Book and go through its 20-page tutorial. That will take you through several preprogrammed turns, at the conclusion of which you can keep going with the rest of the scenario, or reset the game and start over. (Think about that: the tutorial is one page longer than the game’s rulebook. How’s that for quality service?)

Then again, you could go old school and just read the rules. It’s only 19 pages—knock yourself out.

Once you’re done, there are six scenarios waiting to, uh, play with you.
  
FUN FACTOR

When I reviewed Navajo Wars, I declared it my favorite solo game (with John Butterfield’s RAF flying in close formation right behind). But I have to admit that Comancheria is giving my number one a run for its money.

Let’s take a look at this new offering through the lens of my three solo criteria.

Significant Decisions
Do you, as the human player, have a major influence on the way each game unfolds? Absolutely. This is not a “rail game” by any stretch: you’re allowed to gallop every which way and decide what to do. Avoiding raids will not be possible for too long, but that would be like complaining that a wargame forces you to attack the enemy. Your objective is to get rid of intruders and establish dominance over your territory.
But you get to choose how and when to accomplish this. (Good luck.)

Balanced AI
Does the artificial intelligence present a challenge and yet remain beatable? Yes. And it sure doesn’t feel like more of the same from one turn to the next—the clever instruction counters make sure of that.
Enemy instructions range from Hunt (which removes valuable Bison from the board!) to Settle (sending varmint ever deeper into Comanche territory), to all-out War (which can bring about the destruction of entire Rancherias—and cost you the game).
It also happens that an enemy will declare a truce, but hey, that never lasts.

Replayability
I need to steal from my review of Navajo Wars one more time. (Last one, I promise.)
“Because the aforementioned instruction counters always come up in wildly different orders, no two games are alike. At all. Multiply that by the number of different scenarios included with the game (six), and by the variations in deck shuffling, and you get a dizzying array of possible outcomes.”

There’s more: depending on what culture cards you decide to purchase, the ways in which your bands of Comanche riders will capture and hold on to precious territory will be myriad.


PARTING SHOTS

In short, I love this game. It made it to #4 on my Top Ten of games published in 2016.

Comancheria is clever, challenging, rewarding, it tells a story, and it also teaches history. What more do you want? You don’t even need a gaming partner—just open and consume whenever you’re ready.

It’s also a game that requires a rather negligible time investment. While your first game will no doubt eat up a chunk of your evening (I would recommend you set aside three hours if you intend to finish that first scenario), subsequent plays will clock in at less than 90 minutes for a single Historical Period.
We’re talking an afternoon for the campaign game (all four Historical Periods), which is outstanding.

[So does Comancheria feel like just a reskin of Navajo Wars? Not at all. It has some familiar moving parts (mostly the Instructions Display) but it presents a challenge all its own. For one thing, I feel less like I’m reacting to enemy moves, and a bit more like I’m setting the tone (for however long that lasts…). I also found Comancheria to be a little simpler, mechanically speaking, but also a tad more difficult to win. It’s an easier game to ease into, and it also requires less time to play a short scenario.]


I still have ways to go before I can claim to have conquered all six scenarios. But I’m already looking to the horizon, where Toppen has alluded to a future encounter with the Great Sioux Nation.



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Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Year of Boardgaming, 2016 Edition

 Another year has come to a close and, as always, I like to steal a peek over my shoulder (usually the left one) and take stock of my boardgaming activity.
So let’s dive into the 2016 stats, shall we?

GAMES
I played 148 different titles (down from 196 in 2015), for a total of 489 plays (down from 573). This translates to 538 hours spent enjoying the finest boardgames (as well as suffering the occasional turd) with family, beloved friends, and a random selection of total strangers. That’s over 22 full days of cardboard action, which is actually up from the 430 hours I racked up in 2015. This means that I played longer games in 2016: a natural conclusion, considering the vast majority of my plays didn’t occur over lunch at work, where time is limited and one needs to gravitate towards shorter experiences.
By the way, 75 of the 148 games I played last year were new to me, down from 105. It appears I’m trying to play my “old” games a little bit more, which is good news.

So here are the top 10 games I played the most in 2016:
1. Combat Commander (23 plays)
A WWII tactical wargame, and my favorite game of all time (for the last decade).
2. C&C: Napoleonics (21 plays)
A simulation of the Napoleonic Wars, which I only play with the GF.
3. Ottoman Sunset (19 plays)
A solo WWI wargame, part of the exciting State of Siege series.
4. Automobiles (17 plays)
A thrilling racing game with a deck-building twist.
5. Viticulture (13 plays)
A fun worker-placement game about producing and selling wine.
6. World of Tanks: Rush (13 plays)
A very simple, yet addictive, WWII deck-builder.
7. Codenames (12 plays)
The thinking man’s party game.
8. Star Wars: The Card Game (11 plays)
One of the best living card games out there.
9. The Gallerist (10 plays)
A superb worker-placement game about buying and selling art.
10. Dungeonquest (10 plays)
The new edition of the classic game where you try to survive for more than five minutes.

PEOPLE
Last year, I sampled the best the boardgaming world had to offer in the company of 66 different players (down from 76 in 2015). Again, not playing at work with my usual crowd sent the stats tumbling a bit. And it’s rather heartbreaking, when I look at the Top 10 that follows, for me not to see the names of coworkers who used to populate that list for the past decade.

So here are the top 10 people with whom I played the most in 2016:
1. Jean-Luc S.  (143 games)
2. Suzie D. (105 games)
3. François P. (93 games)
4. Ophélie K. Lalumière (58 games)
5. Gustavo A. (45 games)
6. William L. (40 games)
7. Héloïse K. Lalumière (26 games)
8. Jonathan P. (21 games)
9. Philippe M. (17 games)
10. Robert Lalumière (15 games)

So two of my daughters, the GF and her son all show up on the list—along with my father Robert, which is simply astounding. And an honorable mention goes to Gustavo, as the only one of my ex-colleagues who hung in there.
Also, Ophélie had told me 365 days ago that she wanted to improve her rating; well, she did! She climbed from #9 to #4, and got involved 58 times in a game with her old man, which is almost double her 30 from last year. The game we played the most together was Codenames, closely followed by Viticulture.

LOCATIONS
Yes, I also track where I do my boardgaming now. Hey, you can’t be only half a freak.
The interesting here is that while most of my gaming happens at home (72%) and then at my friend Jean-Luc’s (13%), I managed to grab a game (or more!) in 12 different places. Yet this is down from 16, pretty much because I simply didn’t go through the boardgaming pilgrimage that took me to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands in 2015.

RANDOM OBSERVATIONS
I just started a new job and I’ve already identified a handful of boardgamers, and while none of that cardboard stuff is happening at work right now, but I intend to change this in the coming months. And I’m curious to see what those Top 10 lists will look like at the end of the year!
Last January, I said that I thought C&C Napoleonics would end up as my most played game of 2016, and I wasn’t far off: it missed the #1 spot by only two plays. However, other wargames didn’t enjoy the same sort of glorious dusting off. I did break the seal on Empire of the Sun, but Hearts and Minds remains unplayed. And now Triumph & Tragedy has joined the pile of games looking for their turn in the sun, but that should be easily remedied.
My first game of 2016 was C&C Napoleonics with Suzie, while the very last was Star Wars: Rebellion with my buddy Jean-Luc. Very satisfying bookends, if you ask me.

So what’s next? As of this writing (noon on January 1st) I still haven’t played my first game of the year. But I already know that I’m embarking on a new card game adventure with Arkham Horror: The Card Game for 2017. So the new year promises to be, at the very least, terrifyingly entertaining.


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