Can't wait for November 2? Skip the rest of the campaigning season, and get right to the election results now with The Political Machine, a strategy game from Stardock that lets you manage the campaigns of presidential hopefuls like John Kerry and George W. Bush. The game is a bit on the rough side overall, but it still has a simplistic charm and a somewhat compulsive replayability factor. This isn't the Abraham Lincoln of political strategy games, but it isn't the Jimmy Carter either.
The game's structure is very similar to that of a traditional board game. You sign on as a Democratic or Republican campaign manager to guide candidates around a map of the US for the 41 weeks leading up to Election Day. Play is turn-based, with each turn representing one week, and movement is limited by cash reserves and candidate stamina points. Even the hardiest political hopeful can only visit so many states in seven days, so you have to carefully plan out your agenda. For example, one week you might decide to drum up support in the Northeast, and the next week you might devote to winning over those crucial Florida retirees.
Actions in each state are reasonably well varied, if predictable and a bit repetitive. Primarily, you give speeches either touting your policies or slamming those of your opponent. You launch newspaper, radio, and TV ad campaigns along these same lines, and you hold fund-raising events to keep your overall campaign in the black. Headquarters can be built and upgraded in each state, thus raising your visibility and allowing staffers to gauge the top state issues. Aiming your speeches and advertisements at the right events is key to winning over the people, so you need to deal with the outsourcing of jobs in blue-collar states like Pennsylvania and Ohio while gingerly handling concerns about the environment and gay marriage in liberal California. And, of course, you must make lots of promises about Social Security in Florida.
Successful campaigns require a balanced approach--and no shortage of dirty tricks. Each turn's supply of stamina points can be spent on political capital. This is used to purchase either state operatives or the endorsement of national organizations. So if you want to derail an opponent, you can acquire the services of a spin doctor to increase your issue ratings by 15 percent, or you can hire a smear merchant to decrease your opponent's issue ratings by the same amount. Other agents are also featured. The consultant raises your profile, while the intimidator keeps voters away from the polls. Additionally, the webmaster gets you deals on advertising, while the fixer can be sent in to take out rival operatives. The cost of buying these devious employees increases with each one purchased, thus preventing you from blitzing the country with an army of spin doctors.
Of course, if you want to enhance your national profile, you have to buy endorsements. Procure the support of the Christian Confederation and your traditional values rise at the expense of your credibility on abortion rights. Sign up with the National Organization for the Support of Colored People and up go your civil rights and affirmative action ratings. Link with the National Organization for Women and you see an increase in abortion rights and gay marriage scores. As with operatives, the 10 alliances available in the game are each expensive, so you can't buy the affiliation of rival groups to cover all voters.
Unfortunately, campaigns in The Political Machine take place in a vacuum. This is a particular problem on default settings in the otherwise interesting campaign mode of play, where you sign up with either the Democrats or Republicans to take on a ladder of 10 unlockable opponents (you eventually take on figures like Ulysses S. Grant and William Howard Taft) that get tougher with each of your electoral victories. Just as in a board game, where events are governed in every play session by the same cards and tokens, the game system here is rigid. You repeat the 2004 election, no matter if you're running John Kerry or someone from the game's list of quasi-fantasy candidates, which includes Hillary Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The big public concerns are always the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and jobs.
Nothing ever happens in mid-campaign to stir up a state or the nation, although you do encounter random events. Sometimes you get invitations to appear on public affairs TV shows, like the right-leaning The O'Malley Scenario or Bill Mathers' lefty HardHitter, to answer questions that range from the prisoner scandal at Abu Ghraib to your opinion on UFOs. On other occasions, question marks appear in states. If you fly to that state to uncover what the question mark means, you might get a nasty treat, like a bore who wastes all of your stamina points or a lawsuit that drains your war chest. However, you may receive a welcome surprise in the form of a million-dollar donor or a Hollywood friend who's decided to help your campaign.
Despite this predictability, opponent artificial intelligence often seems lost. While your rival can make some very astute moves and always provides credible opposition, at times the AI fails to recognize the importance of key states. It's often pretty easy to win an electoral college victory by concentrating solely on the Northeast, Florida, Texas, and California. Your rival doesn't show the same attention span and seems more concerned with the popular vote, which, as we all know from what happened in 2000, doesn't mean a whole lot on Election Day.
To spice things up, you can adjust the domestic and foreign political statuses, the economy, the starting prices of endorsements and operatives, and the overall game difficulty. And you can randomize state wealth and population in all modes of play, from fantasy and quick, to campaign. Play during a global war (with rioting in American streets) and state issues can include reasonable concerns about government-controlled TV stations and national martial law. Other state issues can involve some flat-out goofy stuff, such as welcoming alien visitors and cloning Elvis.
But even then, The Political Machine's character doesn't change much. While you can give speeches about cloning The King and rolling out the red carpet for E.T., most states remain focused on the war on terror, the war in Iraq, and possibly one main "new" issue, such as government-controlled TV stations. Nobody seems interested in these nut-bar problems, so don't expect to play up to the good people in Oregon by making speeches about your opposition to mandatory biking. Furthermore, the offbeat issues aren't accompanied by appropriate artwork. Set up an ad campaign supporting duck herding and you get the same handgun graphic used to illustrate ads about boosting crime-fighting, battling national unrest, and welcoming aliens.
The graphics, overall, are actually quite good for this sort of game. There is a Hanna-Barbera philosophy in action here that manages to make even Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton look cuddly. The map is small, though. Get a few icons crammed into a state and it's hard to tell a spin doctor from a webmaster without zooming in. Audio is another story. Stardock has come up with music that mimics the bombastic-yet-bland tunes that accompany the start of current affairs TV programs, but it hasn't toned things down in consideration of the fact that you have to listen to this stuff for a lot longer than the few seconds it typically runs on the tube. As a result, the music is incredibly grating. Other sound effects are barely there. A game like this doesn't need a lot of added effects, although some canned crowd noise during speeches and on Election Night, for when the winner of each state is revealed, would have added character.
Despite these negatives, The Political Machine has a catchy replayability for board game fans and political junkies. You can zip through a campaign in around a half hour, and there's plenty of variety provided to keep you intrigued enough to play through the Democratic and Republican campaigns so that you can unlock the game's mystery candidates. Online play (if you can find an opponent on the sparsely populated Stardock server) can keep you going even longer.