The Political Machine is a fun 2004 US election simulation from Brad Wardell/Stardock Systems, makers of excellent underdogs like Galactic Civilization and Entrepreneur. Using a modified version of the engine that underlies our HOBF inductee The Corporate Machine, Stardock has once again succeeded in crafting a unique and fun strategy game that takes a short time to finish (under an hour), but offers enough intricacies to warrant multiple replays. Some excerpts from Tom Chick's excellent review for GameSpy.com hopefully will convince you about this underdog's quality:
"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.
Your job, as candidate for presidency, 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 bubbles 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 developments. 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.
...One of the trademarks of Stardock's games is that they evolve based on player feedback. Almost like an MMO, you can probably bet that in a month The Political Machine will be nicely polished. And, while it might lose a bit of its immediacy on November 3rd, there's no denying that this is going to be another enduring feather in the cap of one of the most exciting strategy game developers since the heyday of Microprose and SimTex."
Note: Stardock has kept releasing these titles on an quadrennial basis. See the official site for the most recent one.Reviewed by: Underdogs