Games: Emergency relief for May Day

William Hartston reviews alternative approaches to the general election
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Indy Lifestyle Online
An overall majority of more than 300 for the Liberal Democrats is hardly in line with opinion poll forecasts, yet the achievements of constituency workers cannot be denied. When Vellow Games and Books produced The Hustings, "The Parliamentary Election Board Game" their main marketing thrust was in two directions: schools, and political party offices. Since the rules of the game include the basics of parliamentary democracy - there is even a black ballot box supplied with the equipment - many schools have been quick to seize on its educational value, but the sales figures among the main political parties have been more surprising. While the Labour and Conservative parties have sold just under 100 sets each, the Liberal Democrats have shifted more than 500. Three theories have been suggested by the makers of the game to explain this Lib-Dem landslide: 1) the Lib Dems have significantly greater need for funds; 2) they have significantly greater need for fun; 3) they realise it's the only way they're going to win anything.

Politics apart, the game is played in four stages. First, the nomination: each player throws the dice and moves a piece round the board hoping to land on "Ward" spaces, where rosettes may be collected. Three rosettes must be taken to a "Returning Officer" square to secure nomination. Stage two is a race round the board to visit all the wards and collect unallocated votes to deposit in the ballot box. meanwhile, there are the hazards of Media cards (for example: "You are involved in a major press scandal, miss six turns") and the choices offered by Campaign cards ("Your bandwagon is gaining momentum. Either gain 500 votes or take two extra turns"). Public Meetings and Opinion Polls can also affect the play.

Stage three takes the postal votes into account (the number each player receives is decided solely on the throw of the dice), and stage four is the final count and declaration of the result. No speeches by the winners, though you can calculate figures for turn-out, majority, and swing from the last time you played.

There is, it must be admitted, very little skill involved, but the game is attractively and amusingly designed, and is a playful way to teach the elements of parliamentary democracy.

The Hustings is available from selected retailers (pounds 19.99) or by mail order direct from Vellow (Games & Books) Limited, Willow House, Dragon Road, Winterbourne, Bristol BS17 1BJ (01454-775050 for details).

Snap Election! is designed to appeal to a rather different constituency. Rather than trying to teach the fundamentals of electoral regulations, this game can really only be played by people who are thoroughly familiar with all the squalor of our electoral system at its worst. Here's a sample paragraph from the rules:

"If you occupy the Moral High Ground (ie you have acquired no Sleaze Marks at all) you may at any time launch a Moral Crusade against any opponent who has accumulated 2 or more Sleaze Marks. In order to do this you need to land on the same square as this opponent. S/he must then roll the Rollercoaster Dice and follow the instructions detailed below. If you have led a somewhat sleazy campaign and, to avoid the risk of a Moral Crusade, want to `desleaze', you must head in good time to the Media Circus. You are required to stay there for 2 turns in order for your Charm Offensive to be successful. You may then remove one Sleaze Mark from your Ballot Box and resume the game. (You must stay there 2 turns for each Sleaze Mark you wish to `desleaze'."

Is that all clear? Good. Then all you have to do is familiarise yourself with the rules about Live TV Debates, Swing Votes (for which Manifesto Cards may not be traded in), Banana Skins, Opinion Poll-Boosts, Electoral Pacts and Political Timebombs and you will be ready to start thinking about your Target Policy and whether your strategy should be to cultivate the votes of the Jobless, OAPs, Haves, Have-nots, or any of the other groups identified in the game as being worth pursuing.

And then you'll be ready to take your place on the extraordinary spaghetti junction of a playing area in which counters may be sent on various roundabout- infested routes (but with no No U-turns in the side roads and in the Political Minefield), trying to avoid the Political Wilderness and the Sin Bin.

The greatest fun comes from the Banana Skin cards - which may lose votes for such transgressions as promoting a grey nonentity as your successor, or misspelling "potato" - and the Sleaze cards, which offer opportunities of instant gain at the risk of incurring a later Sleaze Offensive.

This must be the perfect thing to do as you are sitting in front of your television set late into election night, waiting for the election results to come in and trying not to let Peter Snow's swingometer lull you to sleep. The game's inventor, Martin Armitage-Smith, warns, however, that "it certainly makes for a better game if somebody has the decency to take the Moral High Ground though sadly this does not always happen".

The bewildering complexity of the rules guarantees an endless supply of good-natured arguments, and the whole experience will, no doubt, enable the participants to emerge with a heightened perspective of the underlying principles behind our electoral process.

Snap Election! is available at selected stores, price pounds 35. Further details from Prowler Productions (0171-402-8083).