Checks and Balances



by Matt Stollenwerk

When Matt is not in class or working in the Instructional Media Lab, he likes to spend time going out with family and friends, reading, drawing, hiking, backpacking, climbing, and anything else he can find that has absolutely nothing to do with a computer.

Instructional Objective 1. The learner will be able to explain the concept of checks and balances within the Federal government.

2. The learner will be able to identify powers of each of the three branches of the Federal government which check powers of each of the other branches.

Learners/Context The learners are students in a United States government or history class currently learning about the system of checks and balances within the Federal government. Examples include 8th grade United States history, 12th grade American government, college-level political science, and citizenship test preparatory courses.

This card game would be used by the student after the instructor has introduced the role of each of the three branches of government as well as the purpose of checks and balances between the branches. Several stacks will be available for use during class time, one deck for every four learners.

Rationale A card game is appropriate for this type of material for the following reasons:



Rules The object of Checks and Balances is to win rounds. A round is won by the player with the highest numbered card of the prevailing branch of government at the end of each round. The game is best played with 4 players, but anywhere from 2 to 6 can play.

1. Arrange seating and select a dealer by any means agreeable to the entire group.

2. The dealer shuffles the card deck and deals the cards to each player clockwise, starting with the player to the left of the dealer. If the number of players is six, then deal 6 cards to each player and remove the remaining 4 cards from play, face-down. If the number of players is five, then deal 8 cards to each player. If the number of players is four, then deal 10 cards to each player. If the number of players is three, then deal 13 cards to each player and remove the remaining card from play, face-down. If the number of players is two, then deal 20 cards to each player.

3. Play proceeds clockwise starting with the player to the left of the dealer. The first player begins a card pile by placing a card in the center of the table, face-up. The branch of this card is the trump branch.

4. Each following player may either 1) place another card of the current trump branch on top of the pile or 2) place a card from a different branch which checks the card currently on top of the pile (each card includes an index of cards each card checks and cards each card can be checked by). If a player places a card which checks the previously played card, then the check card's branch becomes the trump branch.

5. If a player cannot place a card which meets either criterion, that player may place any other card on the pile, but the trump branch does not change and a check card cannot be used on top of that card to change the trump branch. A player may only place a card which is not trump card or a check card if he or she has no cards which meet those criteria.

If a player is caught breaking this rule by any other player during the course of the hand (by noticing the offending player place a trump or check card after placing a non-trump or non-check card), 1 point is deducted from that player's score and he or she is ineligible to win the current round.

6. Play continues until all players have placed 1 card on the pile.

7. The trump branch at the end of play is called the prevailing branch. The winner of the round is the person who placed the highest numbered card of the prevailing branch during the hand. The high card can be at any location in the pile, even if the trump branch has changed back and forth during the round since that high card was played. The winner places the cards face-down in a pile in front of him or her and 1 point is added to his or her score. The winner begins the next round by placing a card in the center of the table. The branch of this card becomes the new trump branch.

8. After all the cards in the deck have been played, players tally their current point totals. The dealer then takes all the cards, shuffles them, and deals the cards as specified in step 2. The person who won the last round then places a card to begin the next round.

9. The first person to win 10 rounds is declared the winner.


Cutthroat Variation This is a shorter version of Checks and Balances in which the deck is only dealt once. Play is similar to the above rules with the following exceptions:

Card Design

Legislative Branch Executive Branch Judicial Branch

Deck Design The deck is comprised of 40 cards (2.5" x 4") classified into three suits representing the three branches of government. Sixteen of the cards are legislative, 13 of the cards are executive, and 11 of the cards are judicial. Each suit is numbered from 1 to the number of cards in the suit.

One side of each card contains the following information:


The other side of each card contains a pattern which is undistinguishable from the other side of all other cards in the deck.

Design Process The idea for this game actually arose from the challenge of finding content which would fit a certain game concept. I didn't want to use rummy or war as a game concept, since they are rather simple games which people would get bored of quickly. I was looking for a card game which teaches content, but would be interesting enough to play again and again. I figured a simple whist-type game would be easy to learn, but would interest players since it can involve a great deal of strategy as players get familiar with the game.

The idea of checks and balances came almost immediately after I committed to the whist format. The concept of checks and balances is much like the trump suit in bridge, hearts, and other games: a certain card of one suit can change the trump suit of a trick much like each branch of government has powers which can check the powers of other branches. I began designing my game based on this idea.

Most of what actually went on each card was simple. The three suits would represent the three branches of government. Each card would represent a power of each branch. Since the three branches have a disproportionate number of powers vested by the Constitution (and I wanted all significant powers to be represented), the three suits would have a different number of cards within each. I figured this variation from a traditional card deck would make the game more of a challenge to card counters. I placed an index on the bottom of each card so players could tell which cards checked what. I figured this would be good for beginning players so they could play the game with no knowledge of governmental powers. The index would also reinforce players' understanding of the relationships of governmental powers. More experienced players could have the option to hide this part of their cards to test their knowledge.

I knew that I would need a hierarchy within each suit, but since there is not a hierarchy of powers in real government, I had to improvise an arbitrary yet strategically organized hierarchy of powers within each suit. Cards which could be checked by the most other cards were given the highest numbers to compensate for their vulnerability. Cards which checked the most other cards were given low numbers to offset their trump-changing power. Cards in the middle were given random number assignments.

The rules for the game were harder to devise. I originally planned to have all players exhaust their hand before determining the winner of each trick. The winner of the trick would be the person with the highest card of the trump suit. The winner of the game would be the first person to reach a certain number of points.

Play-testing involved one person who was familiar with bridge and three people who had never played this style of card game before. The rules were read and a sample round was played. One player quickly pointed out that playing the entire deck out for each point would be very time consuming. We changed the rules so each trick was based on a single card placed by each player. This way points would accumulate more quickly. When players ran out of cards, the dealer would continue to deal hands until someone broke the target point total.

The second problem encountered was the assignment of numbers to each of the powers. The high card of each suit was usually the winner of each trick and the check cards were not often played because of their low value. I decided that it would be better to place the check cards higher in the hierarchy. Another player suggested that more cards should be available to check other cards, or wild cards should be thrown in to disrupt play. We brainstormed for parallels in government, such as PACs or lobby groups, but I did not include them since they could be a distraction from the main learning objective.