The contest between Kennedy and Nixon for the presidency in 1960 was a watershed moment in American history. On the surface, it was between two men who couldn't have been more different from one another: a young, glamorous war-hero, scion of an immensely wealthy East Coast dynasty, brimming with optimistic visions of the nation's future, opposing an experienced, stolidly ordinary establishment Republican with a deep anti-Communist streak and solidly conservative policies. Behind their respective facades, though, both men were ruthless, cynical political campaigners who fought bitterly for an entire year over what became one of the closest presidential elections in American history.
This election has been transformed into a board game by Jason Matthews and Christian Leonhard. 1960: The Making of the President is a game whose simple and straightforward mechanisms manage to recreate this struggle for the presidency in all of its gritty glory. It presents an battle between asymmetrical forces that is nonetheless so balanced that the result is often in question right up to the final election.
The basis of the game is the simple fact of American presidential politics: Each state is worth a certain number of victory points (or as we like to call them, "electoral votes"). If you win a state in the election at the end of the game, you get all of its votes. High score goes to the White House. The loser goes back to Yorba Linda or Hyannisport.
The game is all about the battles over the different states, and that is achieved through the play of cards. In each of the game's seven turns, players get a new hand of cards, and they take turns playing all but one (or two, in the game's final turns). Each card has both an event on it and a campaign point value. When you play a card, you can either trigger the event, or you can spend the campaign points to advance your position on the board.
The events give the game much of its terrific flavor. Kennedy can call in his Harvard Brain Trust for an edge in the debate (and more on the debate in a moment). Chinese saber-rattling over Quemoy and Matsu gives a shot in the arm to the candidate who's toughest on defense. Martin Luther King gets arrested at an civil-rights demonstration in Atlanta. Khrushchev pulls out of the 1960 summit and Francis Gary Powers goes on trial in Moscow.
Awful things happen to Nixon. He gets pelted with eggs in Michigan. Eisenhower, asked if he could think of any contributions Nixon made while he was vice-president, says, "Give me a week." Nixon's knee goes out and he has to spend two weeks in Bethesda. Henry Cabot Lodge gives a speech in East Harlem pledging that the Nixon-Lodge cabinet will include a black man, and support drains away in the South. But it's not all roses for Kennedy. If Norman Vincent Peale preaches against putting a Catholic in the White House before Kennedy makes his speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association it costs him dearly, and if Nixon gets to play the dreaded Unpledged Electors card, Kennedy can basically write off Alabama, Louisiana, and Missisippi, because they're giving their electoral votes to Harry Byrd.
When you play a card, if the event helps you, you'll generally play it for the event, and if the event hurts you, you'll play the card for its campaign points. But the event may still happen: if your opponent has a momentum token, he can spend it to force the event to occur anyway. This is one of the ingenious elements of the game's design: It quickly becomes apparent that fighting over momentum tokens -- which you do by spending your campaign points to establish your position on the major issues of the campaign, rather than on getting support in the states -- is nearly as important as spending your campaign points to build up your support in the states. If you're behind in the momentum race, your opponent can play cards with your events on them with impunity, and every one of his that you play can go off in your hands. But most of your points go not to the issues but to straight campaigning. You can only campaign in the part of the country your candidate's currently in, and it costs precious points to move from region to region. Nixon starts in California, and he wants to seal up California and Washington as best he can before he moves east. (It's very bad if his knee takes him to Maryland before he's ready.) There's 24 electoral votes in Texas, and if you don't head south and pick them up, your opponent will. Getting far enough ahead in a state gives a significant advantage: If your opponent's carrying a state (he's four points ahead), or if his candidate's campaigning there, you can't even rely on your campaign working: instead of playing cubes from your supply, you have to draw them from the bag, and only the ones of your color that you pull count for you.
The bag is another clever device. While a card that gives you 4 campaign points is objectively better than one that gives you 2 or 3, the lower-value cards let you accumulate "rest cubes," which go into the bag. The more you've rested, the likelier you are to win support checks (i.e. that when you draw from the bag, you get cubes that you put in there). And support checks are critical in the final election. But first, there's the debate.
The debate is a game-within-a-game that takes place at the end of turn 5. Each card actually has two more uses besides the event and campaign points. One is that they can also be used to fight for one of the issues in the debate. The cards you play during the debate are the cards you salted away instead of playing during the first five turns. Of course, the cards that are best for you in the debate are cards that would have helped you a lot if you'd played them earlier. As in the real election, Nixon's at a disadvantage here: the two events that affect the debates, the Harvard Brain Trust and the disastrous "Lazy Shave," hurt him badly. And as in the real election, the rewards of winning the debate are substantial: if you win all three of the issues, you can steal New York's 45 electoral votes away from an opponent who's carrying the state and still have cubes left over for California or Pennsylvania.
After the debate come two more turns of increasingly desperate card play, followed by the general election. And here the fourth use of the cards comes into play: every card has a state abbreviation on it in addition to the campaign points, event, and debate icon. The four cards that you squirrel away without playing in the last two turns of the campaign are four states that you get to do extra support checks in at the very end. And then there are the end-game election events, like the dreaded Late Returns from Cook County. The game can be won or lost here: in my last game, Kennedy had New York sewn up going into the election, but Nixon had hidden support in New York and used his Recount there, and won the state by a single cube - a 90-vote swing that took him to the White House.
1960: The Making of the President has an an excellent dramatic feel. You always feel like your opponent is doing better than you, even when you're winning, because there's always some place he's ahead of you. As the debates near, you get this sense of dread: all of the cards that you stashed away for the debate because you didn't want the events on them to happen are now going to cost you dearly. The last two turns have a definite time-running-out feel: you just don't have the juice left to get to California and fight for its modest 32 electoral votes (less than Pennsylvania, just in case you were wondering how much has changed in this country in the last 47 years), and as you watch your opponent's last limping actions eroding the edge you've had in the South since the beginning of the game you pray that he doesn't have the cards to make it.
It's also a physically impressive game. The board is enormous (and it all gets used), the graphic design is outstanding, and the tokens are sturdy and solid. It has the best rulebook I've seen in a game in a long while: the rule set is clear and unambiguous, everything is amply illustrated with detailed examples, and the one-page summary on the back of the book is good enough that you almost never have to open the rules during play. This is a first-rate game.