Developed and released in time to run alongside the real-life race for November 2, 2004, this deep, abstract strategy game challenges players to manage a fictional campaign for the office of President of the United States. A map of the U.S. serves as the game's primary interface and through it, virtual campaign managers can apprise themselves of all the basic data that sets the field for the race ahead. Of particular importance is knowing which issues are important to voters in each state, and how many electoral votes each state wields. Information such as this allows managers to decide where their candidate's time will be best spent.
Though the campaign may begin in a single, small office with a tiny staff, success leads to more outlets and greater influence. In addition to directing the candidate toward the most beneficial appearances and managing the efforts of other campaign workers, the player must also look after fund-raising efforts, to keep the coffers full and voter interest piqued. Realistically, these duties are further complicated by a combination of many other factors, such as high-profile debates and events, the demands and concessions of special interest groups, and the media.
Sid Meier had it easy. When it comes to subject matter for a strategy game, world conquest is a no-brainer. You've got your armies, your cities, a few abstractions for tech upgrades and governments. Voila! Classic strategy game. It's a cakewalk.
But try designing a strategy game around something as complex as a presidential election. It's a battle for the country, fought between two people (sorry, Ralph) using ideas, misinformation, polls, the media, and money. And it all comes down to one day in November. It's something we all know, something we've seen played in real life, something we've helped decide. But it's a sprawling, messy, confusing thing that doesn't seem like it would fit neatly into a strategy game.
This, however, is exactly what Stardock's The Political Machine does so adroitly. There have been other election games, but they haven't had the foundation that gives Political Machine its slick playability; Stardock is building on the basic design of The Corporate Machine, another adroit strategy game about the equally inscrutable world of business and marketing. And although the subject matter for both games sounds dry, the execution is anything but.
As with The Corporate Machine, the approach here isn't one of neat increments. You don't win by harvesting shields or improving your attack value by +1 or capturing a city. Instead, you navigate your way through a map of data, in this case representing the United States, with each state represented by how strongly it cares about certain issues. At first, with fifty states and as many issues, it can be overwhelming. The first thing you have to do is note which states offer the most electoral votes and which issues have the widest appeal. You'll quickly suss out certain trends and how they can be managed. Eventually, the whole thing fits together so that even marginal factors like capital punishment and Wyoming come into play (no offense intended to "The Equality State," but you guys only have three electoral votes, plus your state quarter isn't even out yet).
Your job, as candidate for the president, is to either adapt to what the states want or to bring the states around to your way of thinking by rearranging their preferences. As with The Corporate Machine, there's an astute underlying message about the interaction of reality and perception. As you and your opponent jockey for hearts and minds, an emergent national consciousness burbles up, somewhere between what you want, what your opponent wants, and whatever issues get kicked up in the process. Given that Stardock dynamically incorporates current polling data, you'll have the war in Iraq and terrorism high on the list of national concerns. But part of the beauty of The Political Machine is how fluid it is. One election might be won with an emphasis on fighting crime, another with an emphasis on abortion rights, and yet another with an emphasis on gun control.
You gather support by moving your candidate, who is basically a playing piece, around the map. It's a turn-based game in which you spend your week's worth of action points to give speeches and buy ads on the issues of your choice. A big part of the gameplay involves burning your action points to gather a currency called "political capital." This is used to buy endorsements from thinly veiled versions of groups like the National Organization of Women and the National Rifle Association. But political capital is also used for the more devious part of the game, in which you buy additional playing pieces like spin doctors, smear merchants, and fixers. These represent dirty tricks that let you tweak your standing in different states or bring down your opponent. As you play, random playing pieces and events appear as question marks, up for grabs to whoever gets there first. Some are assets, like the movie director who will help you make inexpensive television ads, and some are liabilities, like the lawsuit that drains money.
There aren't any significant random events in The Political Machine, such as an economic downturn, a terrorist attack, or dramatic overseas development. And while this decision might fly in the face of recent unemployment numbers, Spanish elections after the Madrid bombings, and the fallout from Najaf and Fallujah, it's clearly an example of how The Political Machine favors gameplay over realism. These are the sort of things that can throw an election regardless of a candidate's actions. It's wise that Stardock chose not to include drastic, random changes, which could have been frustrating. In fact, they don't even distinguish between the incumbent candidate and the challenger. However, you can set conditions for domestic unrest, world peace, and the state of the economy when you begin a game. You can randomize the state populations, swap in wacky issues like duck herding and mandatory biking, or shuffle the distribution of democrats and republicans.
The multiplayer game plays smoothly as long as you don't want to interact much with your opponent; The Political Machine's chat function leaves a lot to be desired. As a single-player game, the challenges vary wildly based on the candidate you select and who you're competing against. There's a campaign mode that lets you unlock new candidates, including historical figures that look funny giving speeches on NAFTA or gay marriage. However, the way candidates are modeled is a significant flaw in The Political Machine. Like characters in an RPG, each candidate has attributes, including things like integrity, experience, and fund-raising ability. But these attributes are by no means equal. In fact, some of them are virtually useless, while others are absolute gamebreakers. This allows for interesting variations in candidates, in which some seem almost impossible to beat.
But when it comes to building your own candidates, the system breaks down. Many of the attributes that should play a significant role -- integrity, military experience, and credibility, for example, all play a significant role in the current election -- are all but useless because there's no way to see how they matter in the context of the game. This also means playing pieces like "Definers" and "Storytellers" who modify these attributes are essentially useless. In fact, the entire system of candidate design and attributes feels like something someone forgot to finish.
Then there's the recurring issue of Stardock shipping a game with outdated and incomplete documentation. The Political Machine is, for the most part, a sleek muscular design. But without an explanation for a lot of what you see, you have to get through a period of playing poorly by no fault of your own. This isn't a learning curve, so much as a "lack of documentation" curve.
Visually, The Political Machine is a nice colorful take on the caricatures you see in political cartoons. There's a lot of delightfully flavored text that's also informative, including multiple choice TV interview questions, occasional news updates, and a text crawl across the top of the screen. The map can get cluttered as the election draws near, particularly in the smaller states in the northeast, so it's easy to miss something important if you're not zoomed in. A few more hotkeys wouldn't hurt, but the interface makes it easy to get around and access information with a minimum of fuss.
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