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Subject: Gonna Party Like It’s 1969 rss

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Jason Farris
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Citrus Heights
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There is a duck in every game. You may not see it, but it's there.
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Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space. You’ve heard of it, no? If not you should look it up. It is an old DOS PC game (Based on the board game Liftoff) that fired my interest in the space race between the then Soviet Union and United States. Before that, my interest in space was more about Star Wars, Star Trek reruns, or going way back the first lift off of the space shuttle. Just think of the promise in a vehicle called the space shuttle. The idea that we can travel back and forth into space likes it’s no big deal. And then look at the reality of it. After the novelty wore off, the space shuttle was literally a vehicle that went back and forth into space and it was pretty boring. Robots do most of our real exploration now, and it doesn’t look like we are going to Mars any time soon. Oh, to be back in the days of promise where the exploration of space was inevitable, and we knew man would soon be setting foot on other worlds. Back in the days when the cold war pushed us to boot strap our way off this blue marble and out into the void for the first time. Back in the days of 1969.

That’s a big lead up for any game that intends to capture the nostalgia and excitement of man’s first steps into the solar system fueled by the mistrust and fear created by potential nuclear holocaust. This is rich territory and 1969 sets out to mine a small piece of it. And a very small piece it is. While the scope of the game is pretty much the entire 1960’s, it’s focus is broad and overarching. This is a forest game, not a trees game. In that sense it may be disappointing to some gamers who want to delve into the rich feast of technobabble and real world physics that is a game like High Frontier or the much more in depth space agency simulation that is Liftoff. On the other hand, you are likely to get a lot more people willing to play the much lighter 1969 then you are High Frontier or Liftoff. I own all of them and can honestly say, 1969 will earn its keep back faster than High Frontier or Liftoff ever will. Where High Frontier is obtuse and Liftoff is fiddly, 1969 is easily accessible. Where high frontier and Liftoff have depth, 1969 is light and fast.

So temper those expectations if you want a meaty spacefaring epic. The only thing epic about 1969 is the time scale from the first manned orbitals to the moon. This is simulated through 7 rounds of purchasing, mission scheduling and launches. Players purchase scientists who are then assigned to research projects that either directly help out in making missions succeed (such as lunar lander research) or who will help you indirectly (Mission insurance). Players then get to choose missions they want to attempt based on cost of mission, and what they have researched. After that it’s a roll of the dice, adding and subtracting modifiers, and the result is how many steps up the mission track you go. If you make it to the top of the track it will help kickstart your lunar mission, or you just get a ubiquitous victory point pay out. Whoever has the most VPs at the end of the seventh rounds wins. You don’t even have to succeed at the moon mission to win, just do really well with the early ones.

While 1969 is mostly a straightforward combination of worker placement and push your luck, there are a few cute little bells and whistles like the spy mechanic and espionage cards. Black researcher cubes are spies. You place them on an opponent’s play mat and they give them nothing, but you get the equivalent of a researcher in the same research area on your mat. It’s not James Bond, but it makes sense. Also, there are cards that can be purchased to either boost your missions or hinder another player’s mission. Considering it is so much better to invest in your infrastructure, they are really not bought much until the last round or tow of the game. The only other time cards see much play is when a player invests in a technology that gets you them free every round.

1969 plays like a race horse champing at the bit while players are continually yelling Woah! The simplicity of the mechanics make this game want to race ahead, but the way turns can actually play out, slow down the pace. Everyone does one phase and then everyone does another. There are enough decisions to be made during the purchasing phase that the game starts to drag once the players have a lot of money. This is a situation common to other worker placement games such as Ground Floor, where you start out with very easy turns as you are limited by resources. However, the last few rounds take as long as the first 5 because there are now so many resources and options open. Luckily, unlike Ground Floor, the options are circumscribed so it does not slow down too much. Similarly, those cards that were a waste of money early on, are now more plentiful around the table, so each player has to decided on each mission whether to play cards. This tends to slow the game a little as well.

If the game doesn’t sound like it has much of a theme, you are pretty much correct. The board has some great art but it is never clear exactly what mission you are doing. For example, one might give you a bonus for researching gantry, lunar landing module, and circuit board. The mission track goes from earth to the moon. What mission is it? I decided it was an unmanned lunar orbital with landing module test. But who knows what it really is? So you have to do some work to de-abstract the board. The artwork is great and thematic, but the game could be reskinned easily.

And that may be the biggest Achilles heel of 1969. It is a very competent and proficient game but has no pizzazz or sizzle to it. As a game, it’s the generic equivalent to every forgettable romantic comedy you went to with your significant other. A nice way to pass the time but nothing you’ll remember the next day. Fortunately it has the theme of rockets and the space race to get it out of the suburbs of mediocrity. If you like space themed games, 1969gives you the smallest taste of what a really good space game could be. Also, you get to make fun of the Canadian space program (which almost won our last game) or laugh when the Germans manage to get 0 points on a mission along with the obligatory launching of their rocket into the air only to have it immediately crash. I personally prefer to slowly tip the rocket over so it appears like it just fell off the gantry but to each their own. During these moments, I really wish I was playing Liftoff which is a much better push your luck game but borders on too much simulation for many people.

When you buy 1969, you are effectively buying a light dice game with lots of ways to modify the dice roll in your favor through worker placement. Even a total disaster can have you laughing all the way to the bank if you have insurance. The theme is light and pasted on, but gives you enough for your imagination to supply the rest. It is not the perfect race into space, game but does a passable job. If you don’t like space games at all, then the mechanics of 1969 will likely not bring you back for many more plays. But, if like me you really enjoy anything to do with the space race, then you won’t regret having a copy. If you don’t care one way or another about the space program, it’s still worth playing and who knows, it might lead you down the Rabbit Hole to Liftoff, High Frontier, or other heavier space games.
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