Fantastic Fiscal Fun

Buzzwords and hot topics permeate the media as the 2012 election approaches. Watch almost any news report and you’ll likely hear phrases such as “fiscal responsibility” and “balance the budget.” As gloomy as the current political circumstances or economic conditions may seem though, history tells us that it’s nothing new. People have long persisted through tough times—and even had their fair share of fun doing it.

Take for example Balance the Budget, a card game in the National Museum of Play’s collection here at The Strong. Produced in 1938, the graphics on the box and cards of this Depression-era game vividly recall the issues of the day but tackle them with a bit of humor and levity. The front of the box claims that “even Congressmen are playing it!”

I have my doubts that those politicians actually paused campaigning to play Balance the Budget, but they might have grown up playing Pit, an earlier commodities game with a lot of similarities. Instead of cornering a market on wheat or oats as in Pit, Balance the Budget players vie to balance their blue (credit) card amounts with their red (debit) card amounts. Players exchange cards with the central stack, and then everyone trades with each other simultaneously, calling out the number of cards being offered. The rules encourage players to exchange “as rapidly as possible,” which undoubtedly makes the game both raucous and hilarious.

To add humor, the deck contains four joker cards, which are used to balance any two cards of the opposing color, provided they are a matched pair. The blue credit jokers are called “Inflation” and “Stabilization Fund,” while the red debit jokers are called “N.R.A.” (Back then, N.R.A. meant the National Recovery Act, not the National Rifle Association) and “Passamaquoddy.” Passamaquoddy refers to the Public Works Administration’s “Quoddy Dam” project to harness tidal energy in the Bay of Fundy between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada. The 1935 project began with the blessings of Franklin Roosevelt who owned a summer house nearby, but public outcry ultimately convinced Congress to stop funding. In 1938 people recognized ”N.R.A.” and “Passamaquoddy” the same way we recognize “Tea Party” or “deficit spending.” Political buzzwords come and go, but at least Balance the Budget players got a good laugh out of them.

Here’s hoping that today’s game inventors will produce a card deck that helps keep issues in perspective and generates some chuckles along the way for the 2012 political season. It might be the one of the few ways to get people on both sides of the political divide to sit down around the table—and enjoy each others’ company.