17 Jan

Campaign Manager 2008

Filed under: Boardgames No Responses

State tiles, support tokens and cards used. In general, the components look and feel excellent.

Since Sean is away on holiday, he very kindly offered to lend us some games from his library to play while he’s away. War of the Ring is one obvious choice. Sean had offered to lend it previously and considering how long it takes to play it, it’s doubtful if I’d ever get to play this two-player game at CarcaSean. In addition, I also picked Campaign Manager 2008. One of its two designers also worked on Twilight Struggle, which I’ve come to like, and I’ve been intrigued with its theme of recreating the 2008 US Presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain. It’s also a light to middle-weight two-player game, making it a good candidate to play with just my wife.

In this game, the two players take on the roles of the campaign managers for the two candidates respectively and the objective is to get your candidate to achieve the 270 electoral vote threshold that lets them win the presidency. Instead of all 50 states however, the game covers only the 20 so-called battleground states, assuming that both candidates start the game with a number of states already in their pockets. Thus both candidates start with a number of electoral votes already won with the Obama camp having a slight edge in this respect. The score track included is pretty clever as you have pieces for each of the states in play, with the length corresponding to how many votes it’s worth up. This means that you need merely to line the pieces up to determine whether or not either candidate has reached the critical 270 threshold.

Each of these battleground states is represented as a large tile and four of these states are always in play at a time. When the game starts, each player picks two states to put in play. After that, whenever a player wins a state, he removes it and picks a new one to enter play. In additional to the votes it’s worth, each of these tiles also shows three other pieces of information. First of all, there’s the four-space issue track. Only two issues are represented in the game, Defense which favors McCain and Economy which favors Obama. One of these issues is always the majority issue in the state and the other will the minority issue. This is linked to the next piece of information, the support tracks.

The score track and the pieces for each tile. The idea is clever but the smaller state pieces are a pain to handle, especially if the race is close.

Each state has two such tracks and the active one depends on which issue is the majority. Each track is composed of a number of circles, with the bigger states having more circles than the smaller ones. Red circles represent McCain supporters while blue circles represent Obama supporters. White circles represent undecided voters. When a player gains a point of support in a state, he basically either replaces one of the opponent’s supporters on the track to his own, or changes one of the undecided supporters to his own. To win a state, a player must change all of the circles on the currently active track to supporters of his color.

The final element of the state tile are the demographics. Each state has two important demographics, for example, Seniors, Reagan Democrats etc. Only one of these is considered the key demographic at any one time. When a demographic card is played, all states whose key demographic matches that of the card has all their undecided supports turn to the color of the player who played that card. This is very powerful as it potentially allows a player to gain lots of support in multiple states at the same time. But it’s also very risky as you need to have the required card in hand at the right time.

Gameplay is conducted entirely using cards. The game comes with two decks of 45 cards each for McCain and Obama, but each player only drafts a deck of 15 cards for each game. Each player simply shuffles his deck of 45 cards, draws three of them at a time and keeps one for his final deck, proceeding until he has 15 cards. Each player starts with a hand of three cards and during his turn, he can either play a card or draw one, though you can’t choose to draw more cards if you already have five or more cards in hand. Each cards has unique effects that are described on the card itself, but most allow you to manipulate one or more elements on a state tile of your choice, gaining support, moving the token on the issues track, changing the key demographic etc.

The cards feature lots of flavor text and photos from the election. I wonder if they asked for permission to use the photos and the campaign logos.

One disappointment is that unlike the asymmetrical cards of Twilight Struggle, the McCain and Obama decks are basically identical, save for a couple of special cards unique to each. I guess this means the game is much easier to balance, but it does rob it of much of its flavor. One other feature is that certain cards with more powerful effects have a “Going Negative” downside. Thematically, this represents attacking the other candidate. When a player plays such a card, the opponent gets to roll the included die and refer to a chart for the results, which can be gaining support, moving the issues track or drawing cards. Finally, whenever a new state enters play, a card is drawn from the Breaking News deck to introduce some randomness into the game. This involves anything from forcing a player to discard cards to giving a player free support in a state.

Play proceeds in this fashion until one player gets 270 electoral votes. Since each player has a deck of only 15 cards, this means you’ll expect to see several reshuffles over the course of a game. This is all the more reason why the initial drafting process is so vital. Some personal thoughts:

  • This is mostly a tactical game. The strategic part lies in drafting your deck. Unfortunately, like many other deckbuilding games, I don’t think there’s much thought in choosing which cards to play and how to play them. Since you have relatively few cards in hand at a time and it doesn’t take very much to win a state, the decisions are rather obvious.
  • This means that in order for the game to hold up, there needs to be a decent mix of strategies in the deckbuilding, complete with bluffing and counter-bluffing. While there are certainly some interesting choices to make here, there are also some cards that seem like no-brainers, especially the ones that let you draw extra cards. Some other cards are pretty questionable. I can’t think of any reason why I’d want to simultaneously shift an issue and alter the demographic for example. I’d think that a good design should avoid such imbalances between cards.
  • The demographic cards are tricky to use. They’re very. very dramatic when they work. In one game, Shan drew the Latinos card in her opening hand and naturally selected two states with Latinos as the key demographic. I inadvertently picked another state with it as the key demographic as well. This meant that when she played her card all of the undecideds in three states turned to her color. The problem was her was that this card subsequently became dead weight to her, fit only to be discarded to pay for other effects. Another problem is that once undecided supporters switch to a color, they can’t become undecideds again, so there’s a very narrow window of opportunity for you to draw and play exactly the right demographic card.
  • The prevailing strategy on BGG seems to be card draw and that’s what I went for whenever possible. If there’s one thing playing tons of Magic: The Gathering taught me, it’s that drawing cards is always good. As others on BGG have pointed out, the demographic strategy looks cool on paper, but it’s not clear that it will consistently win against a card-drawing strategy. If I have the time and if my wife is up for it, I’d like to try a demographic heavy deck.
  • I get that the game goes for a bit of realism by accurately representing the electoral votes each state is worth, but I’m not sure if this results in a better game. For example, whenever Montana, worth a measly 3 votes, comes out, both of proceeded to ignore it for the entire game. Perhaps less disparity between the value of the different states would result in harder choices?
  • The Breaking News cards are very, very random! I know that the Media Support cards can help mitigate this but the effects are still too dramatic for me. I think when games call for random events, the designers like to go overboard by implementing as wide a variety of effects as possible, but this results in worse games, not better games, in my book. Even small effects matter in a game as tight as this one and it would help if the events were more predictable.

A selection of the Breaking News cards. I guess the designers were comfortable about using images from the McCain and Obama campaigns but were worried about annoying Ted Turner?

Overall, I’m pretty lukewarm about Campaign Manager 2008. In its defense, it plays pretty quickly and I happen to like its theme. But I dislike that it’s too lightweight and that the designers made both sides play basically the same. I also note that despite the strong theme and the flavorful components, the game isn’t very realistic at all. Distilling the complicated issues involved to just Defense and Economy is incredibly simplistic. Even the choice of this particular election to make a game of is faintly ridiculous. In real life, the election was characterized by Obama’s runaway victory. He won the election with 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173 votes. As one reviewer on BGG put it, Obama won 17 out of the 20 so-called battleground states portrayed in this game. Despite the blurb on the box about reliving the real-life events, I find it hard to imagine how one would replicate those results in the game.

Written on January 17 2011 and is filed under Boardgames. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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