Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Barack Me Obamadeus [I didn't come up with that one]

It appears that Barack Obama has won the 2008 presidential election, and I heartily congratulate him. Luckily this is not a political blog so I am not required to say anything intelligent on the matter. I will however use it as a segue into talking about 1960: The Making of the President, a Eurogame about the presidential race between Kennedy and Nixon. (By Eurogame, I'm reffering to the style and elegance of its mechanics, because the game was in fact designed by a couple of Americans, hence the subject matter.)

I confess that I haven't played this game enough to really give a proper review, but I will say that the game's presentation is absolutely fantastic. I mean, I'm not a sucker for nice graphics or bits, but this thing just oozes '60s political campaign, from the little candidate pins, to the mugs and fake coffee-stains on the board (which makes my brain confused because usually the sight of any sort of stain or blemish on a game board drives me up the wall, but here it just looks so awesome). So far the game seems tight, and reviews are high, and I look forward to playing again, mostly so that I can practice my Nixon and Kennedy impersonations.

It makes me think though; There aren't a heck of a lot of strictly political games, and almost none that aren't boardgames. Sure there are a lot of games that involve politics to some degree, but "politics" usually just means that the players are allowed to make deals and gang up on each other. A couple of games like Twilight Imperium or Warrior Knights utilize a mechanic where players vote on agendas that will add to or change the rules of the game in some way. If you like this sort of thing, you could take it to the extreme with Nomic, a game about only this (well, there's also a die and a score pad in there somewhere).

So is Nomic the ultimate political game? Well, by some definitions, but it's not themed around any particular political setting either real or make-believe, and I have a hard time categorizing any abstract game as the ultimate example of a non-abstract thing. I mean, politics is a real phenomenon, yet rather than try to simulate it in a meaningful way, games try to shovel in truckloads of event cards corresponding to real-world events, even if the gameplay bears no similarity to the events supposedly being simulated. I can easily design a game about World War II where all we do is play events back and forth: Maybe I play the "Seize Czechoslovakia" card and then you play the "Declare War!" card but I cancel it with the "Neville Chamberlain's Wacky Appeasement Policy" card.

My point is that this game has nothing to do with World War II. It might have taken me hours of hypothetical research to write all three-hundred hypothetical cards, but this doesn't change the fact that we're really just playing an abstract card game because there is nothing about the gameplay itself that has anything to do with the Second World War.

Now despite this rant, I am not in fact criticizing the abundance of historical event cards in 1960: The Making of the President. I do not know enough about this election or the American electoral process to assess whether the overall gameplay is accurate, but it is quite possible that it is overall a fairly good representation, and more importantly it is fun and the mechanics are engaging and not just an excuse for historical flavor text.

No, my objection is that it seems like every time a game tries to incorporate "political" elements, it just adds a bunch of simplistic, politically-themed events into the mix and calls it a day. To me, this demonstrates a lack of understanding for the subject matter. Politics is at least as complex a subject as warfare, yet we have far more sophisticated mechanics to simulate that. (And just wait for my rant on how lousy I think most tactical war simulations are.)

So this is your challenge, game designers of the world: Start inventing more interesting political mechanics. They say Die Macher is the father of Eurogames, but it seems like nearly all of his children must be adopted because almost none of them seem to have gotten the interesting-political-simulation gene. Some day in the future, when I'm playing 2008: The Making of the President II, I want to have to think long and hard, and consider many interesting factors, before I decide to play the "Sarah Palin" card, and if I do, then I'll just have to hope that my opponent doesn't play this card.

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