Review: The Political Machine

With one week to go in this election cycle, with no more debates, polls hardly moving outside the margin of error and tropical storms forcing candidates to revisit campaign strategies, what is a political junkie to do? With The Political Machine 2012 you can live the dream and run for president yourself. So start begging for money and taping those attack adds, you’re going to need them.

The Political Machine 2012 is a remake of the 2008 cult hit that brought people the closest they will probably ever get to a presidential campaign. The game itself is simple, there are no missions, no primaries, no conventions, just you and your opponent, 50 states to vie for and a presidency to win.

Which isn’t to say that you can’t adjust the game to play as you see fit, and more importantly as whomever you like. Though it is possible to play with most of the bigger names on both sides of the aisle, you can also easily create your own character. Just like any good RPG you get a fixed number of points to spend on your political views, as well as on your personality and career style, setting things such as  experience, fund raising ability, charisma, media bias and so on. Apart from that however, it’s just about picking your opponent, the length of the campaign, starting funds and hitting go.

The game itself plays as a board game centered around and on a large map of the United States where you can move your Mii-like character from one state to the other, giving speeches, building campaign infrastructure or raising funds as you see fit. As you start the campaign, most of the country will never have heard of you or your opponent and you can see states swing back from one candidate to the other, just based on the number of visits and awareness the state has of you.

The Political Machine - Board

Get ready for a lot of zooming and a cluttered board

As you move further towards election day, however, you better hope that you have a party infrastructure in place. Even though different buildings grant you different perks, such as money, awareness or political capital, every one of them also grants you a better insight into the issues at play in the state. These issues are the most important part of the game and it’s important to know and read through all the information on the state screen.

The state screen displays the basis state stats, such as party registration, state wealth and electoral votes, but also polling date on the issues. More specifically it displays the most import issues to the people of the state, the importance of the issue to the various voting groups and your own position on it. Voters in states such as Kansas – my character’s home state – for instance, attach great importance to a candidate’s views on farm subsidies, while California wants to know where you stand on green jobs and alternative energy.

Voters, however, are fickle and even though they care about green jobs one week, it’s no guarantee that they will still care as much for it the next. And this is where your party infrastructure comes into play. As you study the states, you will have to find issues that people care about and where you have positioned yourself better on than your candidate. These might not always be the most popular issue at that time so you need the infrastructure so you’re able to dig deeper than then top 5 issues. After a while, and a great deal of money spend on running adds, you can have your own key issue raise to the top and rain in the state’s coveted electoral votes.

The Political Machine - Coldcut

Just hanging out on the set of the Coldcut Repertoire

Of course you don’t play alone and your opponent will also be running adds, pushing his or her own issues to the front. As such, it really starts to become a game, a very strategic game where you decided which states to go for, visiting them, getting to know them and running adds in the hopes of persuading voters, while trying not to alienate other states where the electorate might just have a greater number of independents who just so happen, don’t really care for that issue that you’ve been pushing front and center in the neighbouring state.

The game isn’t all running around, studying polling data and running adds, though that will take up most your time. From time to time, you will get an invitation to appear on a tv-show. These shows, fictional derivatives such as 60 seconds, the Coldcut Reportoire, Barry King Live and others all dish out two questions on issues at play in the game and let you choose between answers. Your character’s intelligence and media bias traits come into play here as you decide which answer to go for. Most often if not, the bold and truthful answers give the best results, though sometimes the public audience can’t really be predicted in advance. This where the ability to save and reload the game before you step into a studio comes in handy.

It is also where the game’s outdated gameplay comes into play. Even though the issues at stake have been updated (think Obamacare, Afghan withdrawal and even firing Big Bird with the latest update), there are also things have stuck, unfortunately. The fact that Barry King Live is still a talkshow, even though the show was retired in 2010 is just a mistake that can’t be overlooked. But more importantly, there have been no changes to the UI. As far as graphics are concerned, this is not an issue. It’s a cartoon-like board and that’s fine. But it gets hard to keep up to date with everything going on in all the states at later points in the game if the only thing you have to go on are little people and icons crowding a state.

The Political Machine - Barry King

Larry King is still going strong in The Political Machine 2012

There is an overview screen that can display assets and adds, but it does so in a long list without having the ability to filter any of the content. If you know that the list only displays six items or so before you have to scroll, you will be doing a lot of scrolling if you have but one add running in every state. Not only that, all the adds in one state for instance are also called the same, so you do have to click on all of them to know what it is you have running there.

If you are a fun of politics, of the American political system and have always wanted to run for president, here’s your shot. For a very reasonable price you plan and execute your own campaign and maybe make it to Pennsylvania avenue 1600. Don’t expect any glamour however. This game is all about planning and especially if you play the longer campaigns (which lasts 121 weeks) endurance. You need to strategize, not only in terms of what issues to push, but also in terms of prioritizing which states to go for, where to hold your 47th fund raiser and where to spend political capital. The lack of debates, to see what your opponent does in interviews (or the lack of calling them out for not doing any interviews at all), all makes the game sometimes feel more like a statistics’ convention than a game.

But all of that is worth it when you finally reach the home stretch and you suddenly don’t have enough time to visit all the states you wanted to and can only sit back and watch the map turn blue or red on election night.

The Political machine - winning

Say hi to your new president. A woman. From Kansas.

If you’re a policial affectionado, you cannot let this game pass you by. I just hope that Stardock will also not let the chance go by to improve the gameplay and UI/UX design when it launches the next game in 2016.