Gaming the Election
Lighten Things Up with Board Game Distractions
By Stephen Harkleroad
It’s an election year! So it’s time to avoid the news and play games instead.
The board game industry has always capitalized on the unique nature of the American political system—between the electoral college, the first-past-the-post voting system, and third parties, there are plenty of elements that translate well into the board game world.
Since interest in elections will almost certainly increase this year, it may be useful to look at some of the important historical games dealing with the American election system, and also some recommendations in case you want to play things out with your own preferred outcome.
For decades, most election-based games either involved Presidential trivia or simple roll-and-move rules. These games had little to do with elections per se, and only used the election as a starting point.
However, there have been plenty of election games with a wide variety of depth and skill, so there are many to choose from.
One of the first strategic board games to explicitly attempt to replicate the presidential election was 3M’s Mr. President. Originally printed in 1967, by today’s standards it’s needlessly complicated and dated. However, it’s certainly playable and has many of the features that are now commonplace in election games.
Honorable mentions go to 1992’s Road to the White House, published by Mayfair; it’s a modernized take on the election system, and uniquely focuses on cities for vote totals rather than the electoral college.
The standard bearer for election games is almost certainly 1960: The Making Of The President. Unlike most election games, 1960 focuses on a very specific campaign, that between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Using a system originally used in the highly-rated Twilight Struggle (and sharing one of the same designers, Jason Matthews), players alternate campaigning in states, as well as using the media and focusing on the issues.
The core mechanism of 1960 is the “card-driven” system. Players are given cards that have a Campaign Value and an event; each player can only use one or the other, so every card played requires a choice. Events are powerful but tend to be restricted.
In addition, both sides draw from the same deck, so the Nixon player may draw a Kennedy Event—and then it’s incumbent on Nixon to decide if it’s worth playing the card (and risk Kennedy using the associated Event) or to forgo it completely. Each turn is a tense game of risk management, played out on a map of the United States.
The same designers tried a simpler approach with Campaign Manager 2008, an attempt to release an election game shortly after the real election.
In this game, depicting the contest between John McCain and Barack Obama, only the swing states are contested, and players begin the game curating a unique deck of cards—15 out of a possible 45—to use for the remainder of the campaign.
While the game is short and easy to learn—focusing only on the swing states simplified things greatly--it also doesn’t really differentiate much between the candidates; McCain has a few more Defense cards, and Obama a few more Economic cards, but beyond a few other cards the two decks are identical. This title was later re-implemented into a game called Sola Fide, using the push-pull mechanism between the two sides of the Reformation instead.
If you want to go waaay back, Divided Republic uses many of the same features as the above games, but transplants them to the 1860 contest between four candidates: Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, John Bell, and John Breckenridge.
Unlike most election games, this is playable by up to four players, with different rules in place to scale to two and three players as well.
Candidate is a game focusing largely on the Presidential primary, rather than the general election. While it plays out similarly to how one would think the general election does, it allows more than two people to play, unlike most other election games.
It is also unique in that each round involves only a small cluster of adjacent states voting, an inventive method to combat the issue with many other election games, where everything is a lead up to election day and all states are resolved at once. Candidate ends up being largely a bluffing game, but the electoral politics make it interesting.
If you want to dip your toes into simulating a foreign election, Die Macher represents a parliamentary election in Germany. A long, strategic game, it’s highly regarded as one of the best games to balance the real-world systems and a playable game that people can enjoy.
Strangely, there hasn’t been a flagship “generic” election game—there have been a few attempts, as mentioned above, but they haven’t been nearly as successful as the historically-based versions. It is possible this is due to the nature of the election itself—issues, candidates, and methods change relatively quickly, and a game released today is going to seem outdated in four years. Even a game made ten years ago, for example, would almost certainly not have mentioned social media. And then there’s the electoral college—by design, the game will be outdated every ten years as the vote values change in accordance with the census.
So if you are looking to get into the election season but don’t want to deal with the messy aftermath of actual, real-world politics, playing an election game might be the lesser of two evils.
Stephen Harkleroad has been playing board games since before you were born, statistically speaking. He wrangles spreadsheets for a living. His favorite board game is Dune, and he has most recently spent time as a Human Cleric (Life Domain).