Saturday, January 8, 2011

Week 1: 1960: The Making of a President

And so I begin.

I have set the following rules for myself:

(1)   For the moment this will be a written blog because that is how I most enjoy expressing myself. The purpose of the blog is not to review the game, explain the rules, or make an After-Action Report (AAR), although I plan to say at least something about the session. It’s not about whether I won or lost. It’s about connections between the game in particular and my life, if there are any, or maybe aspects of the design that I think are special (in either a good or bad way), or…well, wherever the train takes me.
(2)   I will play through my collection alphabetically according to my BoardGameGeek collection list, at least one per week, and blog about it (them) as soon as possible afterwards.
(3)   I get to play other games as well—it’s not a strict ordering.
(4)   Expansions are optional, and may be folded into the base game.
(5)   Games I purchase after starting this which come later in the alphabet will be included; those which I’ve passed in the alphabet already will be left behind.
(6)   If I absolutely cannot find anyone to play whatever game I’m supposed to play that week, I can either try to play it solitaire or I will skip it. The important thing is to keep going.
(7)   (This is the hardest part.) My primary audience for this blog is myself and my friends and I will try my best to attach no expectations to it. This has usually been my downfall in the past with other endeavours, and undoubtedly I will fail this time as well, but I will announce my attentions and repeat them as needed.

Of course this begs the question of why blog this anyway if it’s meant to be mainly private and the only answer I have is that this is the age we live in and I want to be a part of that age. “I think, therefore I blog.”

And so…

1960: The Making of a President was a game I knew I would buy as soon as I heard about it, because the Presidential election of 1960 is one I know a lot about. In Grade 13 I wrote an essay about John Kennedy for my History course and read half a dozen books and almost a thousand pages about him.

But in truth, my fascination with Kennedy and ‘Camelot’ predated Grade 13. I was born in 1968. My older cousins in Hamilton had World Book Annuals stretching back to the early 60s, which I ended up with when they didn’t want them any more. Naturally, the one for 1968 was particularly interesting to me as a child. And 1968 was a troubled year: the assassinations of Martin Luther King (on the day before my birthday) and Robert Kennedy; anti-war riots in the US; anti-government riots in France and Czechoslovakia. It was the year of Beggar’s Banquet, the White Album, Crown of Creation, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and Wheels of Fire.

At some point, I worked my way back from 1968 back to the more innocent early 1960s, and became infatuated by the whole Kennedy myth. In high school got a (used) copy of Vaughn Meader’s The First Family, which sent up the Kennedys. It was a huge bestseller in the years before Dallas, 1963, which have been so incisively portrayed in Mad Men. I also bought and devoured Alternate Kennedys, a collection edited by Mike Resnick, in which various writers took the Kennedy history and wove it into a series of “what-if” stories (what if Joe Jr had survived WWII; what if the Bay of Pigs had led to nuclear war; what if the Kennedys had become a rock group (?); what if Kennedy had survived his attack but brain-damaged and had to be hidden away by his family). I watched Primary, an early documentary by D. A. Pennebaker (who went on to make Don’t Look Back and Monterey Pop and whose style has directly influenced a generation of music videomakers). It covered the West Virginia primary between JFK and Hubert Humphrey, which really shows the beginnings of the modern “politician as celebrity” and shows how hard it was for Kennedy’s opponents to grapple with a candidate who (although quite intelligent) realized he could get more votes by not talking politics.

Of course, Richard Milhous Nixon was the last candidate who tried (and failed) to beat JFK in an election. Some argue Nixon was his own worst enemy in that election: by insisting on campaigning in all 50 states instead of concentrating in the electorally-rich ones; by refusing advice about what makeup to use in the TV debates with Kennedy (people who listened on the radio felt overwhelmingly that Nixon had won—unfortunately, they were bay far in the minority); by repeatedly banging his knee and ending up in hospital. His book, Six Crises (of which the 1960 election was one) is a fascinating look into his worldview and yet another example of how everyone is the hero of their own drama.

1960: The Making of a President borrows heavy from Twilight Struggle, which is no surprise as it was designed by one of the pair who designed that highly-regarded game. A few clever twists were added which not only simulate the election well but also force players to make tough decisions throughout the game—quite the best combination. Three which come to mind are:

    (1)   each card played allows a player to accumulate ‘rest cubes’ of his party’s colour which are put in a tromp l’oeil coffee cup on each side of the board. The more powerful the card, the fewer rest cubes you get to put in your coffee. At the end of the turn these cubes are tipped into the “Campaign Bag”. For various reasons the more cubes of your colour in the bag, the better. So if you play a bunch of high-power cards you will end up with no rest cubes at the end of the turn—which in the long run will hurt you;

(2)   a player can accumulate and use momentum tokens (which look like campaign buttons) to trigger favorable events on cards played by their opponent (or, conversely, to prevent an event on their own card from being triggered). If you spend precious momentum to trigger an event on your opponent’s card now, you might regret it later when you have no momentum left to pre-empt one on one of your own cards;

    (3)   players set aside cards each round. In the first five rounds they are set aside to be used during a special “Debates” turn which provides a “6th Turn stretch” and, incidentally, the possibility of acquiring up to nine blocks of support (which turned out to be very helpful to me in last Thursday’s game). In the seventh and eighth turns they are set aside for the final and deciding Election turn. Naturally, the ones most useful in the debates or election are also the most powerful.

In the end, events (and Events) went mainly Nixon’s way. As Nixon, even though I ended up banging my knee again, I got a chance to remake history, mainly by concentrating my campaigning in big states, racking up endorsements, and getting media backing. Nixon swept the election 371 electoral votes to 137 (the remainder went to Unpledged Electors in the south, thanks to a card I played mid-game).

But the most fun I had was doing my Nixon imitation, crowing “I an NIXON!” whenever things went my way.

Next week: 221B Baker Street.

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