The Political Machine, developed by Stardock Entertainment, is a game where you get to function as the campaign manager for a presidential candidate. You get to decide things like the candidate’s itinerary, you get to manage the campaign finances, and you get to determine the best issues for the candidate to focus on. You even get to select who the vice president should be. But let me state this again: The Political Machine is a game and not any sort of election simulation. Playing The Political Machine won’t tell you anything more about November’s presidential election than a game of checkers or chess.
Of course, The Political Machine sort of looks and sounds like a simulation. When you start a game you can change a few values (like how well the economy is doing) to define the political climate of the country, and the states have been set up to reflect their partisanship and the issues they find important. But too many things have been omitted or “game-itized” to believe that the end result of a campaign has any meaning. Here are a few of those things: the game doesn’t notice the race or gender of a candidate, nobody is considered to be the incumbent, there aren’t any national debates or speeches or conventions, and the cost of moving from one state to another is fixed, regardless of where the states are in relation to each other, and so traveling from New York to New Jersey causes the same sort of fatigue as flying from New York to California. Sure.
But, whatever. Monopoly isn’t likely to be confused with a simulation of how real land barons work, but people seem to enjoy it anyway. Will people like The Political Machine? It’s hard to say. The game is broken down into 41 turns. During each turn (which is considered to be a week in the campaign), you can do things until your “stamina” is depleted. Moving between states costs one stamina, holding a fundraiser costs three stamina, and giving a speech costs five stamina. You can also take out ads, build campaign headquarters, or buy “political capital” so you can add operatives to your staff or gain important endorsements. Operatives include people like spin doctors and smear merchants.
During your turns, there are three things you need to focus on: making money, getting people aware of who your candidate is, and taking a political stance. Probably your best friend in the game is the campaign headquarters. You can put at most one of these in each state, but after the fee to build them, each week they bring in a little money and build up some awareness. If you need money or awareness faster than that, then you can stop by a state and give a speech or hold a fundraiser. However, speeches and fundraisers cost stamina while headquarters work for free, and so they tend to be special things you do in states you consider to be important.
Oddly, taking a political stance isn’t overly important in the game. You can actually win by simply saying that you support the war on terror, or that fighting crime is an admirable thing, and by ignoring related issues like what we should do in Iraq and how restricted handguns should be. The only time you might have to take a stand is if you appear on shows like “Barry King Live” or “50/50,” but you can avoid the shows if you want (although appearing on them is good for national exposure). If you do appear on a show, then it’s essentially like taking a multiple choice test, and picking out the best answers for your platform is pretty easy.
The Political Machine might be fun enough to play for a while, but two things kill its long term appeal. First off, each game is about the same as every other game. There aren’t very many strategies you can use to win a campaign, and so each one seems about the same. True, you can randomize the states if you want, but that just changes where you focus your attention, and not how you play the game. If you have to spend a lot of time in Maine instead of California, so what?
The second problem is that there isn’t an easy way to run a campaign other than the 2004 campaign. It would be nice if you could select a year for a campaign to take place, and if the game would then set the political climate of the country for you, add or remove states if necessary, and give you access to the two candidates who squared off that year. But The Political Machine doesn’t do any of those things, and so you’re pretty much stuck with today’s climate, although there is a wide assortment of included candidates to choose from (Richard Nixon, Ulysses S. Grant and Arnold Schwarzenegger being just three).
There are other issues with The Political Machine as well. The opponent AI is lame, and the only time a computer-controlled candidate should ever win is if you set the difficulty rating so high that it can spend outrageous amounts of money. Election night is also surprisingly boring. It only takes a minute to run through the results, and you’re given enough polling data beforehand that you’ll probably know who the winner is before the results are posted anyway.
And so, overall, I wouldn’t really recommend The Political Machine. It’s colorful, and it’s easy to understand, and it might even be reasonable as a multiplayer game, provided you can find anybody to play against, but I just don’t see it being a game anybody would want to play more than a handful of times. It’s just too simplistic. I saw everything there was to see after one game, but I played it five times to be sure, and that was plenty.