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The Gift of Gaming

Political board games give players a chance to replay election dramas

More than 1,400 days remain until the 2016 presidential election, but there are only 24 days until Christmas, so what better gift for the political junkies in your life than a board game that keeps them sharp for the next campaign?

The world of board games has produced a fair number of ways to keep them in fighting trim, and they’re available right on Capitol Hill at Labyrinth, the Eastern Market retail shop that caters to those seeking games, puzzles and mazes that play to political machinations.

“We’re very picky about our political games,” said Kathleen Donahue, the proprietor of Labyrinth.

Among the games Donahue is up on is 1960: The Making of the President, a two-player game published in 2007 by Z-Man Games that recreates the iconic race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. “1960 is amazing,” she said.

And it just so happens to have been co-designed by a longtime Capitol Hill player, Jason Matthews. Matthews worked for many years for Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., before heading over to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to help lead its congressional and public affairs division. In 2007, he and computer programmer Christian Leonhard unveiled the game, winning plaudits from critics and gamers alike.

“Chris and I were gaming buddies, and we wanted to apply the general structure [of board games] to presidential elections,” Matthews said. “For some reason, they’re all multiplayer games,” he said, adding that it’s more interesting to play a head-to-head matchup, well, head to head.

He and Leonhard wanted to go with a marquee presidential race that could have gone either way and considered the elections of 1860, 1960 and 2000.

The 1860 election seemed too far away, he said, and as for 2000’s contentious race between Al Gore and George W. Bush, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, “It was still raw,” Matthews said.

The duo collaborated on another presidential board game: Campaign Manager 2008. That game, published two years ago by Z-Man Games, gives two players the chance to replay the race between President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 20 competitive states, including the battlegrounds of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

One example of the multiplayer election games that Matthews referred to is Risky Strategy: The Game of Campaign Capers. Published in 1991 by Golden, the game isn’t tied into anything more concrete than just how many electoral votes states had at the time. Dice rolls can land a player on a spot that can cost them some of the votes they had amassed. For instance, landing on “Leak Causes Strategy to Backfire” compels a player to give up a state that goes into a pile of cards anyone else can win with another roll of the dice.

Matthews and Leonhard have designed multiplayer games as well, including Founding Fathers, which was released in 2010 by Jolly Roger Games and allows players to compete to be the most renowned of the Founding Fathers by playing cards representing the 55 delegates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Just like any traditional publishing venture, though, popular games can go out of print. That’s the case not only with 1960: The Making of the President but with the more recent Campaign Manager 2008.

Matthews was a bit wistful when this was brought up. “Sad, but true,” he said. Still, there are copies of the games to be had, including at Labyrinth, and Campaign Manager 2008 remains available on, for instance.

Regarding 1960, Labyrinth’s Esther Kim said, “It’s a pretty popular one, so we generally keep it in stock.”

If Labyrinth doesn’t have the games you seek in the store, they’re happy to help you find them, either through special orders or via websites such as, eBay or Amazon.

Matthews isn’t done designing historical and political board games yet. This year saw the release of 1989: Dawn of Freedom, about the end of the Cold War, which Matthews designed with Ted Torgerson.

Matthews is currently considering a game that will center around mid-19th-century politics. “I’m kind of working on one leading up to the politics of the Civil War” with the working title Antebellum, Matthews said.

And how did his colleagues in Landrieu’s office react to his expanding board game empire?

“Most of them knew I was a big nerd. There was nothing particularly new there,” Matthews said.

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