GMotW: The Electoral College

1960 cover
“Players should now claim the state seals for every state where they have state support cubes. At this point, players may total up their electoral votes (displayed on the backs of the state seals) and determine the winner.”

I’m feeling a bit political. Just a bit. So I’m looking at a rule from Z-Man Games’s absolutely delightful 1960: The Making of the President. It’s a game about a close run for the US presidency that puts players in the shoes of Kennedy and Nixon. And it’s a rule which you can see in a slightly less “gamey” form in no less a document than the constitution of the United States, good ol’ Amendment XII:

“The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed.”

… that is to say, my game mechanic of the week is the Electoral College system.

“But wait,” you (theoretically) say, “The Electoral College isn’t a game! It’s how we elect the dang old president here in the dang old USA!”

To which I say… oh isn’t it? Of course it’s a game mechanic, and you can see this by looking at how interesting it makes 1960, which is, incidentally, a terrifically fun bit of political strategics that I’m not allowed to play with my wife anymore because I always win (it’s okay, I’ve never beaten her at Dominion, so we’re pretty even). It allows you to view states as strategic tools and compare them effectively; Michigan is twice as important as Tennessee  but roughly half as important as New York. If you have a lock on Texas, I can’t equal that out quickly, but if I’ve got enough momentum in the West I can grab all four corners and that’ll be pretty close. If it’s down to the wire, maybe we’ll both fly to California and throw campaign points at one another because nothing else can change fast enough to make a difference. The Electoral College allows Kennedy and Nixon’s players to create varied strategies regarding how they approach the map; this is what lets the game be about more than drawing cards that make you look good and pumping time into issues and advertising. The most basic choice is between pumping your efforts into the big three–NY, CA, and TX–and defending them from attack, or spreading the love around to the other 47 which get you significantly fewer votes per campaign point spent, but can’t be taken away so quickly, but there are any number of variations to try; focus on one quadrant of the map, keep your best cards hidden until debate season and then sweep the big states, throw everything you’ve got into endorsements and then just keep your opponent as deadlocked as possible, so on and so forth.

It’s a neat system, and it’s fantastically gameable. Just like in real life.

“But wait,” you (theoretically) say (again), “In real life there are no contests over New York or California or Texas anymore. That’s not how campaigns have been run for the past two decades or so!”

True, I say. That’s when we go off on a long talk about metagaming. You know, the game about the game… the reason that tiers exist in fighting-type games: there are methods for working with Meta Knight that allow him to outpace Kirby in every way possible, such that competitive players don’t play Kirby anymore. To say nothing of Ganon, who nobody wants to play as. Metagames, the reason you can write a book about chess that’s longer than, like, ten pages.

Metagaming is the reason one can look at an element of the game, for instance the entire state of Washington, and acknowledge that it is, by and large, irrelevant. Oh, it’s got points, and if you can snag them that’s good, but there’s no impetus to do so as anything but a half-hearted side-action when you’ve got campaigning energy to spare and you’ve already locked in California.

But that’s in 1960 again. In real life, the Electoral College metagame is so gosh darn locked in, neither Washington nor California matter, which is why, if you are politically minded, you’ve probably realized that the past six months of campaigning have been spent all but exclusively in trying to win over Ohio and, like, six other states out of fifty. Presidential Candidates focusing on a West-coast state? About as likely as chessmasters opening a game by moving their knight into the A or H column!

(This is incredibly unlikely. I looked it up.)

Now, this is about as political as I’m likely to get here, so let’s swing away from things that don’t work really well for management of a country and re-iterate how well they work in order to codify a facsimile of a country, because they do. They let you game, they let you metagame, and they let you scheme (which really makes you feel like Nixon), and it’s just a game so nobody really cares that Alaska is literally not worth campaigning in under any circumstances. Ain’t no cardboard Alaskans getting disenfranchised!

Bleh. Enough of that.

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