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  • Matthew Green

Want to take a shot at running for president? Try playing this board game.

The clutch Lyndon Johnson card.

We’re less than 60 days from Election Day, which means the political news is all but dominated by stories about the presidential campaign. But even if you follow the Trump-Biden contest intensely, unless you are one of the handful of people who have campaigned seriously for the office, it can be difficult to imagine what it’s like to run for president.

One can learn by reading books about presidential campaigns, like Samuel Popkin’s The Candidate and Richard Cramer’s What It Takes, or by watching fine documentaries like The War Room. But there’s another, more immersive (and much less expensive and time-consuming) way to experience running for president: the board game 1960: The Making of the President by Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews. Like Pandemic, which I wrote about back in March, The Making of the President is not only highly enjoyable to play but also captures key dynamics of a real-world phenomenon – in this case, presidential campaigning.

The Making of the President is a two-person game in which each player takes the role of either John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon and tries to get elected president in 1960. As with an actual election, whoever has the most electoral college votes at the end wins. (Yes, it is possible to play out an alternate history in which Nixon beats Kennedy.)

The game is divided into rounds in which the two players each draw a set of cards, then take turns playing one card from their hand at a time. The cards, which usually reflect actual events in the 1960 campaign, are worth a certain value known as “campaign points.” Those points (or the event on the card) can be “spent” by the player to do various campaign activities. These include travelling around the country, increasing support in a state (by putting cubes in that state), advertising (by drawing random cubes from a bag), or gaining an advantage on an issue like defense or civil rights.

The Making of the President combines fascinating, sometimes obscure lessons in history – did you know that Nixon was once pelted with eggs by Michigan hecklers? – with superb game play. It also reveals some important truths about campaign politics that are no less true today than they were over half a century ago. These include:

* Campaigns depend on limited resources. Most of the cards in the game aren’t worth many campaign points, so players cannot do very much on a particular turn. For example, a player might be able to spend points to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast, put two of their cubes in a nearby state, or gain a small advantage in two separate issues. In addition, points often cannot be split between different actions, so a player has to decide upon one action per turn.

Similarly, presidential candidates in the real world usually have limited resources and so must make difficult choices. Should a candidate spend her funds to travel to a vote-rich state, or save time and money by campaigning in a “cheaper” state that is worth fewer votes? Should she try to snatch a state away from her opponent, or give it up and go for other, less-contested states instead? These are the kinds of difficult choices that presidential candidates (and political candidates in general) routinely face, because they seldom have enough resources to do everything they’d like.

* Campaigns are a repeated game. In The Making of the President, each person plays one card at a time. That means that a player can react to what his opponent has done, or he can try to make the other player respond defensively to his move. Has Nixon left California to go to New York and try to win votes there? Kennedy can respond by reinforcing his lead in New York, or he could go to California to take that state away from an absent Nixon. Or Kennedy could decide to do something entirely different—bulk up his support in a particular issue, say—which might bait Nixon into doing the same and neglecting New York in the process. This is what game theorists call a “repeated game,” in which players must repeatedly consider how their moves will be received by their opponents.

Presidential candidates also respond to, or anticipate, each other’s moves in ways designed to gain an advantage. In 2008, John McCain announced the surprise pick of Sarah Palin as VP right after the Democratic convention, hoping to dampen Obama’s expected bounce in the polls. Donald Trump took advantage of Hillary Clinton’s relative neglect of key swing states in 2016 by travelling to them more often—including Wisconsin, which Clinton never visited following her party’s convention, and which she narrowly lost to Trump.

* Campaigns have to deal with unpredictable events. As much as they try to control their political environment, presidential candidates must prepare for unexpected events that may help or hurt them. Changes in the economy, surprise news stories, the publication of tell-all books, and even the weather can change their fortunes for better or worse.

Randomness is also a critical game mechanic of The Making of the President. Each player draws his cards from a shuffled deck, and some are more helpful than others. In addition, many tactics require players to pull cubes randomly from a bag, and they are successful only if they pull enough cubes of their candidate’s color.

* It’s rarely certain who will win the election. Finally, The Making of the President underscores an all-too-common feature of presidential campaigns: the ultimate result is often hard to predict until the very end. No matter how intelligently you play the game, last-minute moves by your opponent (“October surprises,” if you will) can tilt the electoral vote count against you, and luck can unexpectedly help underdogs.

Granted, the game’s theme is the 1960 election, a notoriously close election that was ultimately decided by less than 0.2% of the vote. But it was hardly the only close presidential election in American history. As many people learned four years ago, presidential candidates who may seem all-but-guaranteed to win might, in fact, be in substantial danger of losing. There is a good reason that election prediction models report probabilities, not certainties.

So if you’re looking for a way to learn about political history, gain insights into presidential campaign politics, and have fun doing both, consider recruiting someone in your quarantine bubble to play a game of The Making of the President. And if you choose to play Nixon, who knows? You may find a way to eke out the victory he was denied in 1960.


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