With “the most important election of our time” on the horizon, it would seem the timing couldn’t be better for a political simulation that lets players manage the campaign of either George W. Bush or John Kerry in the run-up to November 2, 2004. Unfortunately, it appears the game may have been rushed to the shelves a little too quickly, as there are more than a few flaws in playability and limited lasting value.
The most simple way to play the game is through the “Quick Play” option, which drops you in at the start of a campaign with 41 weeks to go until election day. You can choose to manage either Bush or Kerry or one of a field of twenty likely (and not-so-likely) candidates, ranging from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Hilary Clinton. The goal of the game is to use the myriad of tools at your disposal to ensure that your candidate has enough support to win the electoral college.
The basic gameplay is incredibly straight-forward and well constructed. Each round counts as one week of campaigning, and your candidate has a certain amount of “stamina” that he or she can expend on various tasks. Most tasks also cost money, so you’ll have to keep a careful eye on your war chest as well. Spending a lot of money early in the campaign can give you a lead, but if you end up short of funds in the final few weeks, your opponent can turn the tide very quickly.
Moving from state to state is the most basic option, and your candidate will gain favor with voters often by merely going to their state. But, as your rival is actively working against you, there’s more to do than that. Giving speeches, appearing on TV or radio shows, and running ads all can gain (or in some cases, lose) you points with voters.
Additionally, you can use all or some of your stamina each round to build up “political capital.” This is where the real strategy comes in, as you can then spend this capital to win endorsements (which can cause major swings in voter opinion) and hire political operatives. The operatives, with such colorful names as “The Smear Merchant” and “The Cheerleader,” can help you or hurt your opponent in various ways in the states in which they are placed. There’s also a special operative called “The Fixer” who can boot out other operatives if they get to be too troublesome.
Play requires a careful balance of spending equal time giving speeches, running ads, and using your political capital effectively. However, by virtue of the nature of the electoral college, the gameplay is skewed such that it is nearly impossible to lose if you simply know where to concentrate your efforts. If you focus on just a few key states with the most electoral votes (California, Texas, Florida, and New York) and give a token effort in others (Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, and Virginia), you’ll never lose in the Quick Play game.
The Campaign Play mode is a little more interesting, in that you have to run a series of campaigns against a line-up of 10 progressively more difficult opponents. If you play as a Republican, you’ll start out against the likes of Wesley Clark and Al Gore, eventually working your way up to FDR and Thomas Jefferson. As a Democrat, you’ll take on Condi Rice and Gerald Ford at first, but eventually be pitted against Reagan and Lincoln.
The learning curve in Campaign Play is somewhat faulty. The first 3-4 rounds are relatively easy, but the difficulty skyrockets around the fifth match-up, making it very difficult to progress all the way to the end of the campaign. Because the game starts off so easy, as mentioned above, this sudden toughness comes as a surprise and is somewhat frustrating. There should have been a more gradual rise in difficulty rather than the quick shock.
The last single-player mode is Fantasy Mode, in which you can randomize certain elements of the game, such as the levels of domestic and foreign tranquility (or unrest). While this adds some variety, the basic gameplay and strategy remain the same.
There is also an online mode, though I was unable to find even a single available game or player on the server after multiple attempts over about a week.
The graphics in “The Political Machine” are sharp and bright, exactly as they should be for a game of this type. The frequent pictures and caricatures of the candidates are well-drawn, though there isn’t that much variety to what you see. Graphics aren’t the selling point of this game, but they are adequate. The only real problem comes in the size of the playing area. Late in the game, when both you and your opponent have numerous ads and operatives in key states, it becomes very difficult to determine exactly what’s going on. The small icons representing the various players can also be hard to distinguish. But this is a minor flaw, and doesn’t really affect gameplay all that much.
Less tolerable are the music and sound effects, which start out as catchy but quickly become very annoying. I turned off the sound half-way through my second campaign.
The greatest fault of the game comes when talk turns to replay value. Once you’ve played “The Political Machine” a dozen or so times, you’re done. There’s no additional depth to explore, no variations that create a different gaming experience. Fantasy Mode makes an attempt at this, but playing around with superficial options doesn’t create enough variety to maintain much interest.
Die-hard political aficionados may get a little more mileage out of the various options, but most gamers, even those who are fans of sims, will likely lose interest after only a few hours of play.
“The Political Machine” is not a bad game, but not a memorable one either. One gets the feeling that, had Stardock had a few more months to add in more features, it could have been a fully-realized simulation. As it stands, its really more of a novelty, albeit a timely one.