Seeing as politics are already a game, it’s surprising it took so long for someone to start making presidential election sims, but back in 2004, Stardock did just that with the first Political Machine game. I didn’t play that first two, but I think it’s kind of cool to put one of these out every four years. It’s almost like a less aggressive Madden: every election, a new one comes out with new political heavyweights, updated stats, and different data for how electoral votes are structured and population is distributed. Yeah! Doesn’t that just get you excited!? It never gets as crazy as real politics, though, or even as deep as other sims. The concepts are there, but the systems aren’t exactly as deep or integrated as they could be. Despite a few faults, it’s a fun experience, perfectly set up to get you back in for another game as soon as you finish the first.
I might as well just have you open up your old Public Policy textbook and read from there, then just add “but in a video game!” because this game is a pretty accurate, if simplified, version of that.
Starting out, you choose your politician, be it from real ones or one you made up yourself. The customization for a new politician is kind of deep. You’ve got points to dump into things like Charisma and Intelligence, but there are also good political ones like Minority Appeal and Media Bias. Separate political issues also have their own points you can dump in so you can determine how much your politician takes a stand on certain issues. The problem with this is there just aren’t enough points to use on all the issues. You only have 100 points and 43 issues you can put them in. You can put 50 points into any issue, either for or against, but if you want to put more than 2 points into anything, you’ll run out really quickly. This leaves a lot of issues without you taking a stance on them either way, and I personally hate doing that.
Customized politicians feel pretty weak compared to the pre-made ones. I did the math, and pre-made politicians have more points allotted to them. So John Roberts, my created political hopeful, was nowhere near as strong as the person who he was running against. It’s still possible to win with smart play, but it’s a little more difficult.
The game is a little dense, so get ready for an info dump. Your goal is, obviously, winning the presidential election. Of course there are a lot of things you can do for this, and the first things you want are buildings. You’ve got three to choose from, and you can only put one per state. They are: Campaign Headquarters, which raise money and your awareness in the state; Outreach Centers, which raise your PR Clout to buy operatives; and Consulting Offices, which give you Political Capital to win endorsements. All of these buildings are equally important and can be upgraded three times. Placing the buildings is also part of the strategy- Campaign Headquarters are best in a state you’re looking to win, while the other two are better in states you’ll never win or lose. You can also delete a building and put up another in its stead. It can always backfire on you, but that’s where your other tools come in.
Two of your biggest tools are the operatives and endorsements. Operatives are essentially buffers- so they can raise your awareness in a state, make ads more powerful, really anything to improve your impact. Some of them are overall buffs, working nationwide, but others are only for one state at a time. You can move them around if you accidentally spawn them in the wrong place, or if they do so well they’re just not needed anymore. Endorsements influence your political platform, so taking one gives you a stronger stance on an issue. These two tools together can make or break a campaign, sending you into damage control or giving you more sway in some unexpected states.
You also have your politician. Your politician runs between states, and everywhere he lands he raises awareness of himself (even possibly turning some states just by visiting). What your politician can do per turn is determined by his stamina, and everything you do uses a certain amount. Your politician has a lot of options, like give speeches. The handy graph system in the menus shows you how the crowd will react to your speech- going to Michigan and saying you’re against auto bailouts won’t go over well, but you can say your opponent is against them and drag their approval down. You’re free to choose between specific issues for each state, and then say whether you or your opponent are for or against it. It’s sometimes as helpful to destroy an opponent as it is to just build yourself up. Speeches are cheap and can be influential, but they really drain stamina.
Similarly, politicians can also participate in interviews on such shows as “60 Seconds” and “The O’Malley Factor,” where they’re given questions and choices to show how the politician feels about it. Since a lot of people are watching, your answers hold a lot of sway with voters. I’m not sure if the shows are national or by state, but they’re a great way to win independents. More intelligent politicians have better answers, but even average ones are given choices that can really please a crowd.
Since the dawn of mass media, advertisements have been a huge part of any campaign. Similar to speeches, they’re chosen for or against an issue. The plus of these is the extended awareness they raise, as the ads stay in circulation. TV, radio and newspaper ads are all available and all have their pros and cons. Mostly the con is “money” because you have to pay a weekly sum to keep them going, but a more expensive medium can be worth it to get more people seeing the ad.
Right, money. Everything you do takes money, so be careful. Even moving takes money, because you do it on your private jet, so you can actually strand yourself somewhere if you’re being careless. You’ll run out pretty quickly if you’re not raising more funds, and it can be a little easy to lose track. Campaign headquarters raise money every turn, but you can also throw fundraisers to get even more. You generally want to choose a rich state that really likes you so you can get a lot of money from them, but every time you repeat a fundraiser in a state, you’re actually going to raise less than you did before.
Towards the middle of the campaign (which is variable in length, and you can choose from the opening menu how long it takes) you both choose running mates, but they don’t bring much. They can be placed somewhere to win influence over the state for you just by standing there- that’s all they do. It’s helpful, as I’ve won some big states by having them just sit there, so they are a powerful tool, but it would be nicer if they could make speeches or something too.
It’s a lot to go over (and this section is about as long as my entire Tony Hawk review) but it never really feels like it. The game is actually pretty simple to play, and the systems and map screens work to make all the information visible and ready for your political hopeful to exploit. In the end, you really only have to focus on a few things, dealing with just a few things on the turns they come up. It’s never overwhelming, and that helps make the game much more accessible.
For some reason, all of the politicians are bobble-heads. That’s alright- it’s a weird choice, but they run with it and let me poke the politicians in their heads to make them bobble. And their heads reflect beautifully.
Otherwise, it’s kind of spartan. You’ve got a map and you’ve got some info screens. It’s very well laid out, though, and very good at helping you figure out what you’re looking at. Each state even has its own info screen just loaded with data about all the issues, but it’s presented in a good, non-confusing way that’s easy to understand.
Pop-ups come out to help with certain things, like explaining the vice-president or what buildings do, and they’re nicely designed, too. They seem a little inspired by Shephard Fairey’s iconic Obama posters, giving a good summary while also being pleasing to the eye. It’s a fine looking game, but it’s a little un-inspired in spots- too plain, though really, it doesn’t need to look like anything other than what it is.
As soon as I lost my first election, I wanted to get right back in there and show them what’s what. This game is fast-paced and, if you lose, the elections tend to be close enough that you know you can do better next time. 9 hours passed without me realizing it, just like with any good sim.
It’s nowhere near as complicated as other simulations, but it has its own charm. The problem is it’s easy to figure out how to win and then exploit it. Just win in the states with the most electoral votes and make up the rest of the votes you need somewhere in there. You get that, you got it all. This winds up being the biggest undoing- I know a lot of people have their set strategies for a sim (I win Civ through culture every time!), but the fact that there is only one strategy, and that it works with so little effort, doesn't exactly make for the longest-lasting experience in the world.
Still, though, what is best in life? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women? And that’s part of the appeal of the game- you break through the opponent’s ranks, win over their home state, and watch as you get everyone to side with you. A little political catharsis. Seeing all the graphs and polls showing how far ahead you are just hammers it home and tickles those dopamine receptors. This game could be more complicated, but that would take away from the pureness of just crushing your enemies and laughing your way to the White House.
Quick note, they recently put out an update that adds historical figures. So you can finally have that Thomas Jefferson/Bill Clinton election you'd always wanted- and there's a certain fun in that novelty as well.
It’s a lot of work to get into politics, but it’s also a lot to try and turn it into a simulation for us to play at home. I would never say this game is a perfect simulation of anything, but it does a great job of being a simple, accessible simulation game even for people who aren’t really into that type of game. I could probably sit my sister down and have her enjoy herself with this game, but it’s still a fun game that’s easy to get into at a moment’s notice and play a good, quick game. Plus, it’s incredibly satisfying to beat a politician you hate in an election and laugh as they hang their head in shame.