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Subject: Interview with Jason Matthews and Christian Leonhard rss

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Larry Levy
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One of the most anticipated games of the next few months is 1960: The Making of the President. This is a card-driven game from Z-Man Games about one of the most notable Presidential elections in American history, the titanic 1960 battle between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. What’s got gamers salivating is not only the fascinating theme, but the fact that this is being widely viewed as the sequel to one of the most remarkable games of recent years, Twilight Struggle. I’m lucky enough to be good friends with the game’s designers, Jason Matthews (a co-designer of Twilight Struggle) and Christian Leonhard (who is making his designer debut with 1960). I thought I’d take advantage of my position to ask them some questions about the upcoming game. Here’s what they had to say.


[Larry] Okay, let's start with Jason. After the incredible success of Twilight Struggle, when did you start thinking of a second published game? Did you have any requests from publishers for a sequel or for games based on a particular period?

[Jason] Basically, instantly. I've got a lot weird ideas floating in my head at all times. So, its just a matter of creating an actual prototype from these thoughts. My first plan was radically different than 1960. I wanted to do something on the War of 1812. It does not take much to become the world's foremost expert on the War of 1812. The previous record was held by some guy who had read a book and a half on the subject. I've read four. So, my head was originally focused on the rocket's red glare. But, my unindicted co-conspirator for that project went and had a child instead. So, that left me debating my next project..

Since the process of picking something new to do began before Twilight Struggle really took off, there was not a lot of talk about sequels or particular periods. That was all up to me, and for the most part, has remained so. Now, even before our game is published, Chris is being approached for new projects.


[Larry] Well, speaking of being approached, and mindful of those weird ideas in Jason's head, just when did Jason first talk to you about doing a game together, Christian? How long did it take you to agree to devote a significant portion of your life to this silly thing called "game design"?

[Christian] I've had a longstanding interest in presidential election simulations, dating back to the old President Elect series of computer games, but have never been entirely satisfied with any of the existing boardgames on the subject. Shortly after the publication of Twilight Struggle, Jason happened to mention an interest in doing a more politically-themed game as a follow-up, and I broached the idea of working together on an election game. It was Jason's idea to tie it to a specific historical election, and we almost immediately seized on 1960 as the most promising subject.


[Larry] 1960 is very much a crossover game, combining mechanics from card driven wargames (CDWs) and Eurogames. Was this always the intent? Or was there a period where you kicked around the kind of game it would be?

[Jason] That cross-over feel was very intentional. However, it also incorporates a conscious shift from Twilight Struggle. Twilight Struggle is a wargame (actually, more properly described as a Conflict Simulation, or a consim) that appeals to Eurogamers. 1960 approaches the middle ground from the other end of the spectrum. It is more of a Eurogame that will appeal to wargamers. But both games are slippery to pigeonhole.

[Christian] I'd been interested in doing an election game for years without ever finding an approach that felt quite right. After playing Twilight Struggle, however, I realized that a similar card-driven system would lend itself readily to the subject and be well suited to providing a deeper level of historical detail than past election games have chosen to provide. As Jason points out, though, we made a conscious decision from the start that this game would be a kind of "mash-up" hewing much closer to the Euro style while incorporating key elements traditional to wargaming.


[Larry] So when did you actually start working on the game? Did you discuss concepts and swap ideas for a while, or did you just start putting together a prototype?

[Jason] We started throwing ideas around about a year and a half ago. When we had a concept that made sense, we put together a prototype to show around. We took that to the World Boardgame Championships last year. We showed it to Zev Shlasinger of Z-Man games and he agreed to do it. That was exactly a year ago. Now, all we are waiting for is the game to come back from China.

[Christian] We started throwing ideas around right away, as well as reading books and doing research online. By the time we got around to actually producing a playable prototype, for the purpose of having something to show publishers, I'd say the game was about 90% of the way to where it is today. Most of what's changed since then has been fine-tuning and balancing the various subsystems to ensure that players have interesting, tough decisions to make every turn between the various options open to them. But we had worked out the overall structure of the game fairly thoroughly before we ever had a physical copy to play.


[Larry] Okay, let’s look at some specifics about the game. Did the game always include the concept of geographic regions (as opposed to just having the candidates run around campaigning in different states)? Were there ever more or less than the current number of four regions?

[Christian] The exact function of the map and how (or whether!) players would move around it went through a number of different versions, but the division into four regions was always there. The gameplay reasons for doing so derive from the desire to create conflicting incentives that force players to make decisions where there's no obvious right answer. The travel costs associated with moving from one region to another make the most efficient strategy to stick to your long-range plan and finish your work in one area before moving on to the next. At the same time, the existence of the Gathering Momentum cards and the penalties associated with "carried" states make it a very dangerous proposition to allow your opponent to campaign in a particular region unopposed (especially in the early game). But the specific way we chose to divide the country wasn't entirely arbitrary; the four regions in the game correspond exactly to those proposed in the NASS's Rotating Presidential Primary Plan, and have been used in other contexts as well.


[Larry] The use of a cube bag as a randomizing device is one of the game’s more interesting innovations. The obvious advantage is that if a player does well picking from the bag early on, the odds will favor his opponent later in the game. It also lets you incorporate another clever innovation, rest points (when a player plays a card, she also adds a number of cubes of her color to the bag equal to its rest points; the weaker the card, the higher its rest points). This compensates a player who might be drawing weaker cards than her opponent. Where did these ideas come from and were they in the design from the start or added later on?

[Jason] From the get-go, we decided to eschew dice altogether. However, we still needed a randomizer for some aspects of the game. I've seen some clever randomizers in different designs, but the combat bag in The End of the Triumvirate was the real inspiration for our use of the mechanism. It’s a great game on a lot of fronts, but what really stands out is that it is a wargame without dice. When we decided to go with a bag, the rest concept evolved naturally. We needed a way to reseed the bag, and utilizing the bag as a luck balancing mechanism seemed a great way to go. The notion of using the bag came at the conceptual stage of the process. The rest cubes followed logically, and also came reasonably early--both ideas were part of the first prototypes.


[Larry] Another interesting innovation in the game is momentum. In Twilight Struggle, when a player plays a card, the event on it gets played, even if it applies to the opponent. In 1960, though, in order to activate an event on an opponent’s card, you need to play a momentum marker. You can also play two of these markers to keep an opponent from activating an event on your card. Needless to say, these markers are a limited and precious commodity. How did this distinctive idea come about?

[Christian] Well, we definitely thought it would be interesting to add a strategic element to the triggering of events, a decision regarding how badly you wanted a particular event to occur rather than having it just occur automatically because your opponent had to play the card. Also, we liked the idea of there being uncertainty about whether or not a particular event would ever occur during the campaign instead of it just being a question of when. At the same time, we had this nascent idea of incorporating "momentum" as some intangible quality that could turn toward you or against you with wide-ranging effects, and it quickly became obvious that this was the perfect application for it. Even after we'd worked out where momentum would come from and how it would be spent, however, there was still a great deal of work involved in finding the right balance for doling it out. Too much, and the players can spend it so freely that no interesting decisions are being made; too little, and it becomes a non-factor. In the end, I think we got it right.


[Larry] I know that you both worked really hard to make the debates an interesting aspect of the game, which is appropriate given its importance in the actual election. It seemed like you were trying out different systems well after other portions of the design had been set. Can you give us some insight into what you wanted to do with the debates and how you finally decided on the system that appears in the game?

[Christian] The debates were an interesting challenge because, as you said, we had very early on worked out nearly every aspect of them EXCEPT for exactly how they were going to work. We always knew they would involve the Campaign Strategy cards being set aside each turn, which meant the stakes needed to be high enough to make this an interesting choice: do I play this strong card now for an immediate benefit, or save it for the debates? Both of these needed to be tempting options. We also wanted there to be some level of interaction to the playing out of the debates, as opposed to just adding up point values and moving on. So, we had all of these requirements in place long before we'd actually worked out exactly what the debate system would be. At that point, it was just a matter of playtesting many, many different ideas with an eye toward systems that offered both non-trivial decisions and significant (but not TOO significant) rewards. We quickly decided that allowing ties in the debates was undesirable, for example, because it felt anticlimactic and watered down the rewards, reducing the tension in deciding whether to set good cards aside as Campaign Strategy.


[Larry] Without question, the most celebrated political game of modern times is Karl-Heinz Schmiel’s Die Macher. Did this design have any influence on 1960?

[Jason] Die Macher is an absolutely superb game. It deserves its reputation for excellence. But, Die Macher did not really affect the design of 1960. The two games diverge right from the start--Die Macher is a multiplayer game, and 1960 is a two player game. Thus, Die Macher has an important negotiation and collaborative component. With 1960, we were very consciously going the other way. One weird thing about the genre of US Presidential election games is that many of them are multiplayer. But of course, the US electoral system is really set up as a two player affair. So, from the start, we were consciously avoiding an important element of Die Macher.

Secondly, Die Macher is about a series of elections in the German states (these elections impact a national electoral scoring at the end). The interim scorings, in that sense, are more like the scoring cards in Twilight Struggle than 1960. Again, working within the constraints of the US electoral scoring system, in 1960 there is only one scoring that counts: election day. With the German electoral system, you have different scoring options. Of course, a game about the US primary system would afford some Die Macher-like possibilities. Hmmm.

[Christian] This is why many, if not most boardgames ostensibly about US presidential elections, such as Candidate and Road to the White House, are actually about the primaries rather than the general election.

[Jason] Superficially, though, you can find plenty of similarities. They are both political games. They both have advertising; players compete for influence in states. They also have issue tracks with important impacts on game play. But the issues track serves as an example of how the games differ. In 1960, it is the players who define the importance of issues. Players place emphasis on issues by using precious campaign points. In Die Macher, the issues track is an evolving measure of public preferences. But those public preferences are essentially random. This is a very clever element of Die Macher, but also reflects a more passive, and perhaps European perception, of the relationship between politicians, issues, and public preferences.

Finally, Die Macher, like most American election games, deals with elections in an abstract environment without context. The issue choices in Die Macher may not be evergreen, but they are close enough. 1960 is very contextual and tries to capture a moment in time. All issues and all regions are not created equal. Some approaches are less likely to work than others based on the limitations of the electorate at the time.

That's too long an answer to a simple question, but Die Macher provides a useful foil to illustrate what 1960 is not.


[Larry] So what has it been like working with Z-Man? How closely did Zev work with you to develop the content and looks of the game? Did the game change much after you signed the contract?

[Jason] Zev is a quality human being and has been great to work with. He's been very hands on with 1960 doing a lot of playtesting himself at conventions and such. He has not been pushy about his own ideas with the design, but has chimed in with his own experience at various crossroads. In terms of the look, Zev had subtle points--as we all did--about Josh's work [Josh Cappel, the graphic designer]. But I must say, even Josh's mock-ups knocked my socks off. Many things evolved after we signed the contract. End game resolution changed dramatically; we tweaked the way momentum was assigned; we got rid of a subsystem for issue precedence; we restructured the debates and added endorsements. That said, if you played our first prototype, you would still recognize the game. I just think you would like it better now.


[Larry] Okay, last question. What can you tell me about any future designs you’re working on? Jason, on the Geek you hinted something about a Twilight Struggle card game that might be forthcoming. Care to comment on that or on any of your other projects?

[Jason] Larry, I've got a few irons in the fire. Chris and I have started working on a different sort of CDG. The game will be about the anti-war movement in Vietnam. It will not be about the Vietnam War, but purely about the home front, with one player trying to force the US to pull out of the war, while the government player tries to hold on.

Ananda and I are working on two items. The first is the Twilight Struggle card game you mentioned. That also involves the Euro game designer Franz-Benno Delonge. It will be very much a Euro-style card game that captures elements of Twilight Struggle and plays in about 30 minutes.

The other project Ananda and I have underway is another epic style consim. It will cover the 200+ year rivalry between England and France. It’s kind of a game about the first cold war, but of course this one got rather hot every 10 years or so.


[Larry] Thanks so much for providing these interesting insights into the creation of this game, guys. I, like much of the gaming world, am eagerly looking forward to the release of 1960 later this year.
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David Levin
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Thanks for this thread, Larry (and Jason and Christian).

It takes a bit of the misery out of the wait for this game.
 
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