Thursday, February 4, 2010

Review: Campaign Manager 2008

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I'm also a bit of a political wonk in my downtime and my core gaming group consists of people who are also very much into politics. Also, I was very interested in and aware of the 2008 US Presidential election, but I'm not too partisan when it comes to this game. I'm a registered member of the Green Party.


The Overview:


The box cover is not overly flashy, but perfectly elegant for the theme of the game (even if the counties didn't go in the directions shown on the cover here).



Contents of the box: 110 cards, 32 wooden bits, and a bunch of cardboard tiles. 



Campaign Manager 2008 is a political themed game where one player plays the Obama campaign and the other plays the McCain campaign, and each player is using their deck of cards to try to carry enough states to win the election. The game begins with each player creating a deck of 15 cards from their candidate's deck of 45 cards. After that, each player takes turns going through the current states in play to try to win them over with enough states based on each state's issues and demographics.

The game is for 2 players and plays in about 30-45 minutes. Most games will probably play closer to 30 minutes, but if both players happened to build decks that happen to directly oppose the other's strategy, play can carry on a bit longer, even with experienced players. Each player builds their deck then starts play. There are only 4 states in play at any time. To win a state, however, each player needs to focus on that state's demographics (two are listed on each) and each state begins with a focus on either Defense or Economics (known as the state's majority issue; though this can change). Whoever gets all of the voters to support them on the current majority issue wins the state and adds the electoral votes of that state to their total. The first to reach 270 electoral votes wins the election and the game.

The game begins with each player building their campaign decks. Obama has a deck of 45 cards and McCain has a deck of 45 cards. This is where the rest of your game strategy will be defined. Each player goes through their deck three cards at a time. They choose one card and discard the other two. They do this until they've gone through the entire deck and have chosen 15 card which will represent the campaign deck that the player will use throughout the game. Yes, there are only 15 cards in a player's deck. This means you will go through the cards often and not be able to use the excuse of poor card draws for your loss. A lot of the game will come down to who has built the better deck when it comes to opposing the other player's deck. There are many different kinds of deck building strategies and some are stronger or weaker depending on how your opponent has built their deck. I'll comment on that a little more later.

After each player gets their campaign deck of 15 chosen cards (or uses the 15 card preconstructed deck for each candidate), they each choose two states to start with. Each candidate has 10 states (for a total of 20 in play states) to start from (states that tend to favor that particular candidate, but not so much as the candidate has that state "locked" up). The four states chosen will be the starting states.

Whenever a state comes out, it has a marker to signify which is the Majority Issue (Defense or Economy) and how far along the track they support it (the track has four steps, two towards Defense and two towards Economy). Each state also has two demographics which represent important voting blocks in play in each state. However, only one demographic is the "key demographic" in each state at one time. For example, Florida begins with "Jewish Conservatives" as the key demographic. However, "Latinos" is another important demographic and can become the key demographic with card play that changes it. The current key demographic is important in a state because each candidate that has cards that can sway undecided voters based on their demographic. For example, Obama's player has a card that makes all undecided voters in states where Latinos are a key demographic vote Blue (Democratic). Florida begins with "Jewish Conservatives" as the key demographic. Obama's player would have to try to try to switch the key demographic to Latinos before he could effectively play that card.

Once the starting states are chosen, play begins with each player drawing three cards. On a player's turn, they can either play a card from their hand or draw a card from their deck. If you already have 5 or more cards in your hand, you cannot draw a card and must instead play a card. That's it. That's all you do on your turn. However, playing the cards is a very strategic thing.

To win a state, you need to have all of the Voters on the Majority Issue of a state supporting your candidate. How does that happen? Let's use Florida as an example again:



Florida is worth 27 electoral votes. Jewish Conservatives are the key demographic, but Latinos can replace them. Defense starts as the Majority Issue, but it is only one step away from Economy becoming the Majority Issue. The top row of 5 circles shows the starting voter commitment for Defense, while the bottom row of 5 circles shows the starting voter commitment if Economy becomes the Majority Issue. 


If McCain plays a card that gives him one Support in Defense, he can replace one of Obama's Blue counters with one of his red counters on the top row (Defense). He will still need to win over the two white undecided voters, however. If all of the decided voters (one with either color on them) are already supporting McCain, then playing that card will let him cover a white voter with his marker. If McCain plays a card trumpeting Joe Lieberman's support to win over all Undecided Voters in states where Jewish Conservatives are the key demographic, then McCain can cover the two white undecided voters with his red markers. If all of the support markers are of one color on the row which coincides with the Majority Issue, then that candidate wins the state and it's electoral votes. However, if Obama can change the Majority Issue to Economy in Florida, then it does not matter if McCain has all five of the support in Defense. McCain will either have to try to win enough support for Economy to win the state, or change the Majority Issue back to Defense in order to win the state.

Once a state is won, a new state is brought into play, chosen by the victor of the last state. Then, a "Breaking News" event card is drawn and the instructions on the card are followed. Usually, the Breaking News card will just effect the new state that just came into play and will do something such as change that's state's current demographic or it may shift the Majority Issue in one direction or the other. There are also other cards which can effect each player's campaigns and other effects, but they are in the minority.

Some cards can allow a player to "Go Negative". These cards are usually very strong and are best suited to use it to quickly win a state. However, after the card is played, the player then rolls a six-sided die and consults a chart to see what the repercussions of going negative are. There is a small chance that nothing will happen, but generally, there is a backlash to going negative and your opponent gains a bit of aid such as gaining support in an issue in one state or drawing more cards into their hand.

Once a player reached 270 electoral votes, they win. Now, there are only 20 battleground states in play. The other 30 states and Washington D.C.'s electoral votes are already distributed, as they are considered to be "locked up" for either candidate. McCain begins with 155 Electoral Votes locked up and Obama begins with 157 Electoral Votes locked up. So, technically, Obama begins needing two less votes than McCain to win, but this is balanced by McCain beginning with stronger battleground states from the beginning).


The Theme:

Campaign Manager 2008 is a light, but thematic game. The theme isn't really in the game play itself, since it is basically a deck building and card management game and it doesn't really catch the nuances and diversity of a real election. However, the cards themselves do a sufficient job of bringing the theme to the forefront of the experience. Each card relates to something from the actual campaign, so there is a historical flavor to the cards and I enjoy the little flavor text "notes" on each card written as if a note from the managers of each campaign.

Ultimately a game that is meant to be light and played in a half-hour isn't going to cover the topic in depth and at times it can feel a little bit like you are simply playing cards to win area control sections of an abstract map. However, given the constraints of the system and time, the theme is built in fairly well.

A lot of the theme actually comes from the deck-building portion of the game. Here you decide how your campaign will play. Will you focus solely on the Economy? Will you try to be diverse and confront both issues? Will you try to focus your play on manipulating the demographics of the states and win over undecided voters by appealing to their specific interests rather than focusing on the issues alone? And will you keep a couple dirty tricks up your sleeve, or will you play a completely clean campaign?

The other issue that hurts the theme a bit is the abstract nature of the election in the game play. The real U.S. election takes place simultaneously (well, except for time zone differences) and in the game, only four states are in play at a time. However, the abstract of this is easily forgotten by considering that this is played during the course of the campaign where a candidate visits a state and makes speeches, essentially sewing up a state before actual election day. However, if this is the case, it would still be nice to have a mechanic where a state that was won over could then be brought back in play by future events or campaign strategies. Still, I understand why this isn't the case for the game play mechanics. It would be too powerful to bring back already won states, especially with such tight decks.

The largest problem that I have with the theme overall is that the game card choices are a too symmetrical. Ultimately it depends on what 15 cards are chosen, so strategies still may vary greatly, but the card selection is a little to symmetrical. The biggest difference between the decks is that McCain can influence Defense more while Obama can influence Economy more. Other than that, the cards work out to essentially have their equivalent in each deck which is kind of disappointing.


Learning the Game:

The game is easy to learn. The rules are explained on an eight-page 8.5" x 5.5" booklet that is full of pictures (and in fact, the first two pages are just flavor introduction and component lists). Deck building is where the game gets a little tricky. With my first game, my wife and I built our decks without really realizing a lot of subtlety of the process. We stopped our first game half-way through and decided to start again and build our decks once more since we got to know what we were doing. So, I would suggest that for the first play, each player should use the pregenerated decks for each campaign. After one play, you will get enough of an idea of how the game works to build your decks afterwards.

After a few plays, the subtleties of deck building and the different strategies will be much more important and interesting. Since the decks you play with are only 15 cards, card selection is very important. This is probably the only real learning curve in the game. A good deck builder will have an advantage over someone who has not played as much and isn't as good at building efficient decks. However, it is difficult to specifically build decks to shut down your opponents strategy since you are building them at the same time and you do not know exactly what your opponent will take.


The Components:


Some of McCain's cards.



Some of Obama's cards.




A few of the Breaking News Event cards.




The front and back of the campaign strategy cards. 



The cards are all well designed and very beautiful. The cards are of a good stock that should hold up well to wear. They are really beautifully designed and I am very impressed with the artistic quality of the production. They are very clear, informative and still provide a good amount of flavor in the text and pictures (especially if you followed the election and know the events that each card are referring to). The only negative thing that has been commented on the cards has been from my wife. The back of the cards show a campaign binder and there is a crease along the left corner. However, the artwork is so realistic that my wife thinks the crease gives the card too much depth and she constantly thinks that there is another card beneath her top one offset just a little to the left. That's been the closest to a complaint I've found: my wife thinks they look too real.



Michigan battleground state card. Depending on the population of the state, each has between 3 and 5 voter support spots. 


The battleground states are a heavy cardboard stock and very functional and again, artistically beautiful. The breakdown of counties on the card show the way each county went in the election (unlike the box cover, which does not show the real breakdown). The breakdown even shows Iowa County on the Iowa State Card as purple which was virtually tied at the time of election. The only thing missing from the cards is a breakdown of what the actual votes were for the state. I think it would be interesting to see, but I understand the reason why they were left off: The game may cause a state to go in another direction. Still, the wonk in me would have found it interesting.



The electoral votes are tallied by placing a state's scoring tile onto the scoring track to see who gets to 270 first. 


The only component that is a disappointment is the scoring track. When I first saw it I thought it was ingenious. When you win a state, you lay it down on the vote track. Each state's tile is the correct size to fill a number of electoral votes equal to what the state is worth. When your row of won states reaches the 270 point, you've won. Again, ingenious... in theory. In practice, it does not work so well. You need to trim the little flash edges off of the cardboard markers, otherwise you may end up with an extra point or two. And in real close races, you have to go through and manually count everything anyhow. This was a really clever idea, but in practice, it just does not work well enough and you will probably have to count votes by hand or record them on a sheet of paper to figure out where you stand if the race is at all close.


Playing the Game:

Game play is quick and intuitive. Since the decks consist of only 15 cards, it focuses on how important deck building is in the game. You cannot claim poor card draws as a reason for losing the game, since you will cycle through your deck quickly and often.

There is a lot of subtlety in the play and strategy here and there are a lot of different ways to play and win. Being able to switch the Majority Issue can be quite strong to stop your opponent from taking a state and switching it to an Issue that you are more prepared for. Strong decks can be built with the idea of focusing on changing and dominating Key Demographics since it can get you a lot of undecided voters quickly. There are also media support cards that stay out in front of a player until someone plays a new one. The ongoing effects of them can be very strong and you may want to include one or two of them in your deck if for no reason than to bump your opponent's media support card out of position.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that there are strong methods of deck building, but not one that will dominate. This is especially true since you do not know what your opponent is building. If you both build decks to manipulate Key Demographics, it is a race to see who wins them over first. If both candidates build strong Defense decks, expect long, drawn out battles.

Ultimately, it is this deck-building mechanic that will make the games tight and offer a variety to the game and replay value. I cannot even go with a standard deck build since the building is randomized. If I want to play with both "Crank and Bank" and "Online Fundraising" in my deck as Obama and draw both at the same time when drawing my three cards , I can only keep one of them and will have to discard the other. This means that your deck building will have to be done on the fly as well and may have to change and adapt depending on how and with what each card becomes available.


Scalability:

Um... It isn't scalable. It's for two players only. Me and my homemade Green Party deck are shut out from this game just like we are in most elections. I can't even step in as a third player to try to win one state away or drain support from a candidate's base just to increase recognition and media play to get my third party deck into a future expansion. So, I guess in that respect, the game keeps to realism.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. We are also constantly looking for short two-player games that aren't too heavy to play together after work since we don't watch much teevee. This fits the bill very well. My wife happens to despise Sarah Palin, so that means that I will be forever playing the McCain deck against her, but that's fine. As I stated before, the decks are pretty much the same, so I'm not missing out on any real difference in deck-building strategies.

Still, my wife enjoys it and it fits the bill as an enjoyable, light two-player game. I've gotten her to play Twilight Struggle and she isn't too keen on it. She's more of a fan of 1960: Making of the President, which is a little less deep. I think that this is probably her favorite of the three. She's not the political wonk that I am though.

I would suggest this game with my wife and have a good time, however, for my deeper and more wonky friends, I would still reach for Twilight Struggle first. If I were to go lighter, I would probably choose this over 1960, simply because the depth of choices in 1960 do not correspond well enough to the time invested in playing. For Campaign Manager 2008 the amount of depth to time ratio is good and it works.


The Pros:

*Excellent cards and art that is functional and pretty.
*Great deck-building mechanic built into the game, that is surprisingly deep and builds interesting choices.
*Perfect play time compared to the depth of the game.
*Balanced game (though the fact that this feels forced is a bit of a negative).
*Light political game that still carries enough decision making to build interest through the game play.
*Surprising variety of game strategies afforded by deck building options.
*Deck building sets theme and also is tight enough that every decision matters and limits luck of the draw.


The Cons:

*Scoring track is a good idea, but is not functional.
*Decks are too symmetrical and it seems forced to make the game play balanced (As an example, both Palin and Biden's gaffes have an equal penalty to them).
*A bit simplistic if you are really looking for a political game.


Overall:

Campaign Manager 2008 is a beautiful little game that really does not have a lot of flaws for what it is. I tend to enjoy deeper, more complex games, especially if they are political in nature. However, finding people to commit to six to eight hours to play Road to the White House or even four hours for Die Macher isn't always going to happen. This doesn't quench that thirst for the depth of those political games, but it is still a nice cool mist of water on me to sustain me in my marathon to get those games to the table again. This is a light game whose simplicity belies the strategic decisions and importance of most every move that you make in a tight game. The game may be a little on the light end for my preference and I would still choose Twilight Struggle's depth and involvement over this game, but this is a fine short game that keeps a perfect ratio of depth to game length.


6.5/10

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