This Old Game – President Elect: 1988 Edition
Growing up, I was always a politics-geek. The maps, strategy, ‘battle-ground states’, campaigns, elections, etc, I ate it all up. Beginning in 1981, I had heard of the President Elect series of games, but Strategic Simulations was pretty selective about what they ported to the Atari 8-bit line. Since Atari is what I was running, I never had a chance to play the first two versions of the game. By 1986, I’d upgraded to an Atari 520ST and in 1987, SSI released the last version of President Elect, the 1988 edition. As luck would have it, this time around SSI made a version for the ST. Political-simulation serendipity had been achieved and hours upon hours of my life would be lost.
Originally developed by Nelson G. Hernandez, Sr., President Elect changed little from its original release in 1981, but, if it ain’t broke… The game engine allowed users to manage historical campaigns, from 1960 through 1988. Users could also chose to play completely new scenarios, either using historical match-ups or theoretical ones – Reagan and Kennedy could face-off in 1960, for example. While users were not able to modify demographic data in the game, you could customize the game by setting GNP and Unemployment rates, whether or not the country was at war, and, if so, how popular the war was, etc.
President Elect ’88 includes 69 potential candidates for the Presidency, but it also allows you to design your own candidate as well. For Candidate Creation, the first step is answering a series of questions, to indicate how strongly the candidate agrees, or disagrees with certain ‘litmus test’ positions. This series of twenty-one questions of these allows the game to generate a composite political-spectrum score for the candidate, across a range of issues – economic, social and foreign policy (generally Cold War policies), on a scale of 0 to 100 (conservative to liberal). Then the player chooses 1-to-10 scores to reflect a candidates speaking ability, their personal magnetism, and their poise – or ability to avoid gaffes and other mistakes. The last step is the choose the home states for your tickets candidates for President and Vice President, which is the only attribute given to the prospective VP.
The game does allow for third-parties, but they are limited to ‘Independent’ runs, such as George Wallace or John Anderson, rather than a reflection of the myriad of third-parties in the US. Meaning, you can’t have strong Independent and strong Libertarian candidates running at the same time – three-way races are the maximum. Of course, taken in context of functional reality, this makes sense, even today. That said, I always through it would be interesting to create a crazy, 4-or-more-way “What If” contest to become PotUS.
Campaign management is the role the player will most frequently take in President Elect games. Right off the bat, you’ll need to decide if you want to send either your Presidential or VP candidates on a trip overseas, selecting either a friendly, neutral, or unfriendly country, and for how many days. In my experience, the foreign trip is a total crapshoot that costs too many campaign resources, which also reduces the candidates ability to campaign. If you are going to send someone, make it the Veep. After that, you are into the game, which revolves around managing your candidates time and travel schedule. More than that, you are responsible for the campaigns limited supply of Political Action Points (PAP), a catch-all measure for the campaign’s finances, staff levels, etc. Woe to the third-party campaign, suffering it’s inherent structural disadvantages, receiving about 1/10th of major parties PAP’s.
As campaign manager, the player guides their campaign through 9 weeks, each one representing a game turn. Every week, random events may occur, economic indicator reports, foreign events, etc. And, unlike Presidential campaigns these days, there are several opportunity for a debate, although a campaign can choose to not participate without appreciable consequences. In President Elect debates consist of 5 questions, and is only time in the game where the player shifts from the campaign manager role to the candidate. Since the candidate’s positions on these questions is already known through the candidate creation process, the game handles debates in an interesting, and, I think, elegant fashion.
As seen on the debate screen above, the player indicates how much time their candidate will spend constructing their argument for/against a particular position. The algorithm used here is pretty complex for circa 1981, punishing candidates who are too negative (attack), too ‘eggheady’ (relevant considerations) or untrustworthy (kill time). At the same time, you cannot just state your position, and contrast it, or you come off too robotic. I always found that debates are crap-shoot, and are best avoided unless your candidate is losing or slipping badly.
The key to President Elect, as in real-life campaigns, is managing your PAP’s through Election Day, spending them on swing states, as well as states where your opponents support is soft. As a political simulation, President Elect was always deep, allowing campaigns to concentrate advertising nationally, regionally, as well as at the individual state level. Advertising only goes so far, nothing beats personal appearances by the candidate, as seen below where Kennedy’s advertising plus appearances in the Industrial Midwest are crushing Nixon advertising alone.
I wish I could find out more about Nelson G. Hernandez Sr., because he created a remarkably deep campaign-simulation, that is also fun and approachable. I certainly spent a ridiculous number of hours playing this game. President Elect is, like Balance Of Power, an incredible ‘software time capsule’. Unfortunately, SSI dropped the franchise before the most interesting presidential election in a generation, the 1992 3-way race between George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot. Mindscape, distributor of Balance of Power, did release their own election-simulator, Power Politics, in 1992. While it was graphically superior, being for Windows, and deeper, allowing for advertising and campaign-stops down to individual cities within states, it was far less user-friendly than President Elect. The “Playing A Spreadsheet” phenomena, for me at least.
The fact that SSI had a semi-successful franchise of political-simulations in the 1980’s shows how incredibly different today’s computer game market is. Certainly niche titles are still developed and released, but not by major Publishers, like SSI was. These days, big Publishers tend to stick with the bread-and-butter FPS, MMO, RTS, and sports-game franchises. President Elect: 1988 Edition1, while not rising to the status of Gamechanger, was always quite interesting, entertaining, fun, and one of my very favorite computer games.
Update: October 6th, 2015 –
Charles Bethea, from the comments below, was able to track down President Elect’s creator, Nelson G. Hernandez, Sr., and interviewed him, as well as some other folks involved in the development of the game. Please be sure to check out Charles’ fascinating article at New Yorker Magazine’s web site.
Update: March 31, 2017 –
While going though the manual for President Elect ’88, I came across this great “Campaign Strategy Sheet”. Originally you would photocopy it and use it to track each turn of your games. Here it is in PDF format, for all of the President Elect fans out there.
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