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What happens when kids run America's democracy

August 30, 2012: 1:50 PM ET

Fortune found out when it turned over the electoral college to four children as part of the board game The Presidential Game.

FORTUNE -- Though America's youngsters are unlikely ever to adore C-SPAN or riff on Medicare, a new board game is getting kids pumped about politics. It's the Presidential Game, virtually the only entry that's centered on Presidential elections. Amazingly, it makes a sport of mastering the math and strategy of that arcane, 223-year old institution, the Electoral College.

I first encountered the Presidential Game when I visited the Long Island home of Regina Glocker, a Wall Street executive search consultant who created it on the finest of shoestrings in her spare time. After dinner, a thirteen-year old challenged his mother and myself to a contest. Playing the Republican, he walloped the adults by painting the board red where it counted to our poorly placed patches of Democratic blue. I was so intrigued that a kid could get the same kick from marshaling electoral votes that I once relished as a young Monopoly fanatic putting a hotel on Boardwalk that I invited he and his friends for an all-kids demonstration.

So on a recent afternoon, four kids (and three sets of braces) arrived at Fortune's offices in Rockefeller Center accompanied by Regina. It was immediately clear that the youngsters were approaching the contest with the utmost seriousness. The teen who'd vanquished this writer, William Detwiler, and his brother Jack, 12, were attired in khakis, blue blazers, and loafers with white socks. On the opposing team were Ella Hetfield, 12, and her step-brother Joe Petrini, 11. Ella proudly described her role in developing of the game. "When Regina first described the game, it didn't sound like fun," declared Ella. "But we printed out a map, wrote numbers on the states, and used pennies for the Democrats and dimes for the Republicans. I'd never spend them, they're still in rolls on my bookcase."

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For her efforts, Ella's name is embossed on the box. The changes Ella and other kids recommended, among them junking exasperating competition from a third-party, shaped the game these kids were eagerly unpacking in the Fortune conference room.

The Presidential Game is well designed, defying its kitchen-table origins. Adorning the square blue box is a pastiche of a reimagined Presidential seal flanked by red-white-and-blue ribbons. The look was crafted by Regina's partners, the father-and-son industrial design team of Russ and Christopher Patrick. The board, folded into six panels, displays a map of the U.S. with the number of electoral votes printed on each state.

The kids choose to play for "fifteen weeks," so that each team gets fifteen rolls of the dice for a contest lasting around an hour. In a departure from the real world, all of the states are equally competitive. Before each roll, the teams must choose either to "fund raise" or to "campaign." The teams can fund raise in one of four states they must choose in advance, California (55 votes), Texas (38), Florida (29) or New York (29) –– "That's where the money is!" declares Joe. Half or more of the total shown on the dice goes to that big state in red or blue clips, and the other half, or what's remains, can be distributed to any other state, big or small.

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If they pick "campaigning," the team announces three states –– Illinois, Maryland and Virginia, say –– and rolls three dice (it's two for fund-raising), then piles the number of chips corresponding to each die on one of the chosen states, with full freedom to match any of the three numbers to any of the three chosen states. The winner, like the victorious presidential ticket, is the team that first reaches 270 or more electoral votes.

The Presidential Game is a rare board game played in tandem with a PC. William logs onto thepresidentialgame.com and an electronic map appears. The screen is used for keeping score––the map looks a lot like the one showing the current projections on realclearpolitics.com. As they play, the kids will press the states on electronic map when they take the lead so they light up red or blue, and the screen shows the ever-shifting electoral count for each side, in boxes festooned with a cartoon elephant for the Republicans and donkey for the Democrats.

As the contest begins, both teams choose "fund-raising" and engage in a fierce battle for California and Texas, states boasting a total of 83 votes. Ella's team, the Democrats, keep piling blue chips on those big targets, while Jack and William counter by trying to take them away –– a state is always red or blue; when Ella has ten chips on Texas and Jack and William announce Texas use announce Texas and use six of their points on the Long Horn State, they subtract those votes from Ella's but Texas stays blue, now by 4 chips. As the game progresses, Ella and Joe get a long lead in the big four states. Joe is rolling lots of large numbers, with Ella extolling one big roll a "game changer" and praising her step-brother's "hot hand." So obsessed is Joe that he allows, "I need to go to the bathroom but I'm too busy."

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Jack, the opposition's designated roller, keeps landing snake eyes, much to the chagrin of William. "Jack rolls like he's disabled," laments William. "And the way he flips the dice, he'd be outlawed in Vegas."

When a team chooses fund raising, it gets to pick one of the game's 80 cards that grant points to one of the teams based on often-amusing scenarios that teach the kids about the state's products and folklore. William draws "You only drive American cars, while your opponent owns several foreign cars. Add four votes to Michigan." "I don't care," says Joe. "I'd rather be the opponent driving the fancy foreign car."

Having ceded most of the big states, William and Jack switch to heavy campaigning, hoping to close the gap by distributing chips across lesser but still weighty mid-western states such as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. But Joe and Ella's early dominance of the ultra-vote battlegrounds proves the winning ticket to 270-plus, besting Jack and William's approach of spreading their bets.

So besides all the fun, what did the kids learn about the way America chooses its presidents? "Before I started playing, I didn't know what the electoral college," says Joe, who adds and "I" and calls it "electorial." "I always thought when they announced who won a state, it really didn't matter because they still added all the popular votes, and the biggest total won." Joe adds that he wondered why Maryland, being so small, had so many votes, then learned it's because "a lot of people live there." Ella says that she went to bed well before the results were announced in 2008, but will demand that her parents let her stay up on November 6th until a winner is declared. "I'm much more interested this time," she says. "I want to watch the whole thing."

The kids also derive great satisfaction from defeating adults. "When they play in groups they don't pay attention, so we beat them," says William. As for real-life politics, William announces that "I vote for the candidate, not for the party!" Quips brother Jack, the wit, "What are you talking about? You can't vote yet!"

The Presidential Game fills a void in the market that lured Regina Glocker. "Monopoly was created in a downturn because everyone was depressed," she says. "I was amazed that in board games, there's almost nothing mainstream about politics, which is odd considering how obsessed this country is with politics." She raised over $35,000 using the internet funding platform Kickstarter, attracting small contributions from more than 200 friends and fans. Now, the game is available for order on thepresidentialgame.com (price: $35), and for sale at the Smithsonian gift shop in Washington, DC, and Compleat Strategist gaming stores. It will debut in Barnes & Noble in mid-September.

So is the Electoral College fair as well as fun? No says another 12-year-old who loves the game, Milo Bernfield-MIllman of Brooklyn. "I kind of wish they counted everyone's vote," he says. "In a state like New York, where the outcome is already decided, the voters really don't have a say." The Electoral College was created by the Founding Fathers on March 4th, 1789. Now, a lot of kids are rolling, joking and thinking about how it works, and even what it means.

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About This Author
Shawn Tully
Shawn Tully
Senior EDITOR-AT-LARGE, Fortune

Shawn Tully has been writing feature stories for Fortune since 1980. He's covered stories as varied as the Vatican's finances, the exile of fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich, and the disastrous merger between Guidant and Boston Scientific. He specializes in banking, federal budget and spending issues, and health care. Tully holds a B.A. in English from Princeton University, an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, and a master's in Applied Economics from the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

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