It's almost "Super Tuesday" -- do you know where your candidate is? Do you care? Well, if the current crop of presidential aspirants doesn't inspire you, you can always round up a friend, break out some refreshments and run for the White House yourself ... for a couple of hours. In 1988, as for many years past, a new crop of "Elect Yourself President" games has come onto the market.
The election process, after all, can be fun and games -- a form of entertainment for many citizens, lots of whom bet on the outcome. For at least a century, political parlor games have been making the most of the race for the White House. An 1888 specimen, "Political Euchre," touting itself as "Fashionable Society's Great Game," consisted of a deck of cards with presidential rivals Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, their running-mates, and the governors of the states divided into four bowers. Some of the instructions were in verse:
Four hundred-one elect'ral votes,
While o'er two hundred vic'ty denotes.
On each card trace
It's Governor's face,
As the game on it's merry way floats ...
"Fashionable Society" wasn't too finicky about poetry.
We've been playing games on political themes ever since, ranging from chess sets with candidates' images to puzzles and Parcheesi-style board games. Most interesting are the games which come out every four years to mimic the election process itself. How do the 1988 games measure up? We tested a few to see whether playing politics still can be fun. Special consultants Colleen and Sarah Crowley, 11-year-old twins at Annunciation School in the District, played the game suited to younger players to share their own impressions.
Presidential Sweepstakes (Global Politics, Box 1988, Crested Butte, Colo. 81224. 1-5 players, adult. Around $20).
Political consultant Richard W. Goshorn Jr., "Presidential Sweepstakes" creator, makes huge efforts to recapitulate the political process, forcing players representing real candidates -- Dole, Gephardt, Bush and so forth -- to balance the demands of time, money, and political support groups as the dice send them racing around various regions of the country. Although "chance" cards supply the unexpected twists of the sort we've already seen in 1988, players help control their own destinies by decisions on where to campaign and when to raise or spend money and support.
The game comes with a poster -- enabling players to rank the actual candidates -- and a 108-page book, Expanding Voter Participation: A 10-Step Guide. Both are extraneous to the game itself, but both reflect Goshorn's earnest desire to encourage more rationally informed voting by the American electorate. The booklet is so specific it discusses details of campaign organization and even includes the addresses of the actual contenders' headquarters. The precision of the voter guide, however, is missing from the game rules. The sketchy instructions end, in fact, with suggestions on how to make the game longer and more complicated, an invitation few befuddled players are likely to take up.
"Presidential Sweepstakes" does achieve a closer resemblance to the election process than other board games. It calls for constant strategy and decision by the players and includes chance elements to keep it from being predictable. And in keeping with the mercurial prenomination politics of 1988, the game prudently includes with its playing-pieces bearing the pictures of current candidates, a few blanks to accommodate late entries. Waiting, perhaps, for Mario.
Hail to the Chief (Aristoplay, Ltd., P.O. Box 7028, Ann Arbor, Mich. 40817; 313/915-4353. 2-4 players, ages 10 and up. About $25. Available at Smithsonian's American History Museum; also, Smithsonian catalogue, 703-455-1700).
A two-stage game with junior and senior levels of play, "Hail to the Chief" is fun and, to a degree, educational. Dice propel players around a border of presidential portraits interspersed with chance "Campaign Card" spots. Correct answers to presidential trivia questions allow players to amass enough points to win a nomination and proceed to the campaign game, played on a map in the center of the board. Here the dice move them along tracks connecting state capitals, where state trivia cards govern the award of electoral votes. The first player with sufficient electoral votes to reach Washington moves into the White House.
The instructions are cleverly phrased as a parody of the Constitution: a cute touch achieved at the expense of clarity. While you may quibble with some of the trivia answers their only serious flaw is that some answers are implicit in the game board graphics. The four levels of answers permit players to adjust the difficulty of winning "votes." The only strategy involved comes in selecting one's route and speed around the U.S. map.
"Hail to the Chief" only hints at the election process, but it involves a lot of historic and geographic information. The two-stage nomination-election process affords some variety. While the game's "Constitution" rules, like the Constitution itself, don't completely spell out every possibility, you can easily customize them (e.g., raising the number of votes needed for nomination, or prohibiting passing other players on the campaign trail) to taste.
Younger players: Colleen and Sarah like the game because 1) "You can be losing and then win", 2) "You get to pick which level you want to play at," and 3) "Learning can really be fun." They dislike the need to keep a running tally of electoral votes, but would recommend the game to a friend no younger than 10.
President Elect (Strategic Simulations, Inc., 1046 North Rengstdorff Ave., Mountain View, Calif. 94043. 2-3 players, adult. About $25. Also available at some B. Dalton stores).
Aiming at "knowledgeable followers of politics," Nelson Hernandez Sr. created this computer simulation in 1984, frustrating many players because the predicted result was almost invariably a Reagan landslide. The variables for the 1988 version predicate a slight GOP edge in a game available in Apple, C64 and IBM formats. Players allocate their resources and enact their strategies over nine moves, representing the weeks between Labor Day and Election Day. Historic or fantasy games are possible, ranging from a rerun of Kennedy versus Nixon in 1960 through such scenarios as Hubert Humphrey versus Pat Robertson or Dianne Feinstein versus Jeanne Kirkpatrick. It's more fun to play probable 1988 matchups.
Play starts by predicating economic and international conditions as of September 1988. Players select actual Democratic and Republican nominees and the states from which their running mates come; an option for a major third-party candidacy also is included. The moves which follow deal wholly in political tactics rather than substance. Even in the somewhat cumbersome "debate" phase -- which is optional, depending upon agreement among the candidates -- you select not the substance of the answer but the proportion of time you'll devote to stating your own position, attacking your rival, or killing time with anecdotes. Resource allocation is the key to victory.
This is not so realistic as it pretends. Candidates are essentially frozen into the positions assigned them by Hernandez sometime in 1987; nothing like, say, Richard Gephardt's shift to a more "populist" message, is possible. Indeed, the way the computer program weights the candidates' political views and personalities seems arbitrary.
Within its deterministic premises, however, "President Elect" is a kind of fascinating exercise as the computer digests the candidates' decisions (on how to devote their dwindling campaign resources, whether to take a foreign press-opportunity trip, whether, when and how to debate) and translates them into detailed effectiveness polls available down to the state level. A great amount of the game's appeal stems from its speeded-up, minute-by-minute election-night coverage, with interruptions as results come in from the several states, complete with maps and optional updates on states still too close to call. When one candidate finally wins the majority of electoral votes, your computer pipes up "Hail to the Chief" -- and goes back to tallying the returns, right into the wee hours of "the morning after."
"President Elect" is a game that improves with practice. Two or three adults can play, or a single adult can oppose the computer. Instructions call for a color graphics adapter, but the game is playable without one.
Stephen Ackerman is a Washington writer. His opponent was Roy Nanovic.