Unsurprisingly, I love political boardgames. The excellent 1960 is the gold standard, but it can be a long game, and is definitely complex.The designers of 1960, Jason Matthews and Christian Leonhard, have distilled a lot of the concepts and gameplay of 1960 into their latest game – Campaign Manager 2008.
Campaign Manager is a deck building card game of the Obama McCain election. Instead of the entire election, the game focuses on 20 "battleground" states (10 blue, 10 red) of which 4 are always in play. Each state has 4 characteristics – electoral votes (essentially victory points), key demographics (two each state. These are things like Reagan Democrats, Latinos or Women. The key demographic toggles back and forth between the two choices, and can trigger special effects from many of the cards you play), issue (abstracted to either defense or the economy. Each state begins caring about one issue or the other.) and voters (represented by 3 or 4 spaces on the card for playing support tokens from either candidate. Most states begin with some red or blue voters. White voters are undecided.)
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is the deckbuilding. Deckbuilding games are very popular right now, chief among them Dominion. The idea is that you have a large deck of cards, but you build a "tuned" deck that does not use all the cards. Campaign Manager uses drafting. Each candidate has a deck of 45 cards, but you will only use 15 in any game. To start the game, you draw three cards, and choose one of the three to remain in your hand. This can lead to some agonizing choices, especially if you have the misfortune of having three great cards in the same draw. How do you choose which to keep?
Once you have made your deck of 15 cards, the game begins. Each player selects two states to start, and then draws three cards. On your turn you simply either draw a card, or play one of your cards. If you play a card you follow the directions on the card. The directions might involve adding support in a state (which means adding voters of your color to the state), changing the key demographic in a state, drawing more cards or shifting which of the two issues a state cares about. If all the voters in the state's majority issue are your color, you have carried the state. You immediately remove it, and get it's electoral votes. First to 270 wins.
When a state is carried, the player who won gets to choose the next state (either red or blue) to put out. As soon as a new state is introduced, there is a "Breaking News" random event that takes place. Putting out new states makes for some interesting choices. Do I bring out a key state early in the hopes that I can win it, and get a big early lead? Or do I try to nickel and dime things by making the other player waste resources in a bunch of small states? Next to the card drafting, choosing the next state is my favorite part of the game.
The game plays very well, and after the first game, could easily play in 45 minutes. It's almost always close. In fact, when we played on Tuesday, it came down to Florida in the end. Unfortunately, despite the intervention of Oprah, my Obama campaign couldn't pull it off. The small deck means you can run through the deck pretty quickly. This is important because you want to maximize the times your better cards show up. It also means that losing a card can be vicious.
Special notice should go to the design. The art is good, using photos from the campaign, and the flavor text is very well written. A clever bit, each card has a post-it note from your campaign manager. These are often funny, but also include some interesting political observations. My favorite design element is the scoring track. It's a race to 270 votes, and as you win a state, a proportionally sized strip is put into your part of the scoring track. It's a fast visual presentation of who is winning, which also happens to look a lot like election day graphics.
Campaign Manager 2008 is a great two player game. I love 1960, but it is a 2 hour commitment. With Campaign Manager I can get a lot of the same feel, some fresh new mechanics and play in less than an hour. Now, if only I actually liked either of the candidates…
Last 5 posts by Ezra
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