Analog Gaming: Relive the Exciting Days of Not Terribly Long Ago

One of the criticisms of American politics is that it’s been turned into a game, where the only concern is making the other side “lose” instead of trying to figure out what will be best for the country. What better way to examine this than to actually make a game out of American politics? And what better political event to make a game out of than the 2008 Obama/McCain election, with all its highs, lows, majesty, and mudslinging?

Here is that game, which encompasses and summarizes the entire campaign:

No, no, wrong game, sorry. This one:

Campaign Manager 2008 (Z-Man Games, $29.99) is a two-player game from the team of Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews who, while their colleagues focus on themes such as building cathedrals and trading spices, have been making excellent games about more contemporary events, such as Twilight Struggle, a not-quite-wargame that explores the Cold War era. The team previously tackled U.S. politics with the stunning 1960: The Making of the President, which dramatized the Kennedy/Nixon election, and have now focused on the most recent battle.

Campaign Manager 2008 is only thematically a sequel to 1960. While 1960 covered an election in fine detail, CM focuses on broader gestures. CM starts with all but 20 states locked up, and the candidates in a virtual tie (Obama actually starts with two more electoral votes, but they’re probably from Delaware, so who cares). During the game the two players will fight over the remaining states for precious, precious votes.

Four states are displayed at a time, and each state has two demographics as well as voters on each side of the two main issues: defense and the economy. Markers show which demographic is the “key” one and which issue is the “majority” issue.

The candidate who fills the majority issue with his color wins the state and its electoral votes, edging him closer to victory. The first player to 270 points wins the election and the game. The loser simply gets a lucrative book contract and apparently a lifetime ticket to be on television.

How is this accomplished? Through card play. Each player has a deck of fifteen cards and on his turn can either play one or draw one. The cards allow you to place tokens onto an issue, alter the importance of the issues or the key demographic, or other manipulations. (Obama’s cards tend to favor economics, McCain’s favor defense.) When you run out of cards you simply reshuffle the discards and go again. This ensures you’ll see the same stuff over and over again until you’re sick of it, just like a real campaign!

Some of the cards also allow you to “go negative,” which, as in real elections, can have costly consequences. When one of these cards is played, it can give your opponent an advantage.

The true genius of the game is in the fact that although you play with only 15 cards, you have 45 cards. You can select the ones you play with either by going with the suggested starting 15, or by doing a pre-game drafting where you draw three cards, select one to have in your deck and discard the others, and continue until you’ve selected 15 cards. So you can try different strategies: appealing to key demographics, going super-negative, or playing mostly cards that let you draw cards so that you don’t have to waste turns drawing. Not only does this add variety to the game, it allows the creators to release additional cards to choose from as an expansion.

The game is very easy to learn, and it really zips along. Once you have the mechanics down, you can bang out a game in about thirty minutes. Unlike the actual 2008 campaign, you won’t want to slit your wrists before it’s over. It’s not particularly complicated, nor does it take forever to play. Campaign Manager 2008 is a great game for both experienced gamers looking for something different and for new gamers wanting to get their feet wet with a strategy game.

And yes, there is a “Joe the Plumber” card.

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