GrogHeads Reviews The Political Machine 2016
Is politics just a war by other means? ~
Avery Abernethy, 25 March 2017
The Political Machine 2016 is a light simulation of the 2016 Campaign for President of the United States by Stardock. The Political Machine debuted in 2004 and an updated version has been released for every subsequent US Presidential Election. The review is based on the 2016 simulation and I’ve not played the previous versions.
The game starts by selecting your avatar for the Presidency. You can select one of nineteen Democratic candidates, one of twenty-six Republican candidates, or build your own candidate. This is a two candidate race with no third party candidates. The leftist third party options are included with the Democrats (think Jill Stein) and the libertarian candidates are included with the Republican options (think Gary Johnson).
Each candidate has eleven factors which comprise their strengths and weaknesses. This includes financial (starting money and fundraising), appeals to different groups (minority and religious), and factors which influence the candidate’s believability, stamina, appearance and other aspects. The candidates bundled with the game have characteristics which cannot be altered. If you run your own candidate for President you have a limited number of points which you can allocate to the characteristics.
Pre-built candidates have preset positions on the issues and defined strengths and weaknesses. If you build your own candidate you have a pool of points which are used to build your avatar and a different pool of points used to set your positions on the issues of the day. Building your own candidate is easy with the tool box. My minimal artistic abilities did not hinder building my custom candidate.
Like the US election, this is a State-by-State election. Each state has its current number of electoral votes and it is winner take all. This ignores States like Maine which have decided to split their electoral votes by congressional district. Each State has a list of issues of varying importance to that State. States also start out leaning towards on party or are relatively neutral based on the issues of importance to that State. Furthermore, your political party tends to provide a set of generic positions. Democrats are in general in favor of more government, taxes, criminal rights, and controlling firearms. Republicans hold the opposite view. To win the election your candidate must obtain a majority of the electoral votes on Election Day.
Your candidate can influence the voters by running advertisements, making speeches, hiring political operatives, and winning endorsements from outside groups. Candidates are limited by stamina and money. Your political standing also is boosted when you visit a State. Funds can also be used to build State-level political building which either generate points used to purchase endorsements, obtain political operatives, or raise money and discover the issues of importance to that State.
The number of turns in a game and the difficulty level of the game are set up before the game is started. There is also an idiotic option to randomize State Populations and issue importance. Choosing that option could give you a Vermont with the population of California and the desire to let everyone immigrate, have minimal taxes, ban firearms but be very religious. You also have the option to disable random events in the election.
The winning strategy is obvious. Focus your candidate on actions that fit their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. If you are a great speech maker, poor fund raiser, and the media hate you the choice is to fly to critical States, make speeches and avoid media interviews. Your initial turns should be spent building political buildings in States with second tier amounts of electoral votes so you can build up a sizable core of votes uncontested. By mid-game to end-game your candidate will focus more and more of their time on a small number of highly contested States.
Although it is possible for a Republican to win California or a Democrat to win Alabama, the issues of importance to each State and the underlying tendencies of voters make this highly unlikely. Some States will go for the Democrat almost every time and vice-versa for the Republican. At the start of the game the map tends to give an advantage to the Democrat because of California, New York and a couple of other States but this is a reflection of political reality.
The game plays very quickly. Even the longest games can be played in one evening. There is no deep strategy. The same basic strategy of either choosing or building a candidate with a certain pool of strengths, focusing early on middle sized States, and ending the game in the battle ground States happens every time. If a random event strikes, then candidate strategy will change. I played a half a dozen games and then put it on the shelf. There is not a lot of replay value given the obvious strategy choices.
There are multiple, fixable problems with this game. First, the game is biased towards Democratic candidates. I totaled the characteristics of every candidate in the game. Six Republican candidates (Trump, Bachman, Cruz, Chritie, Pence and Gingrich) totaled sixy points or less. Only four Democrats had sixty or fewer points. Worse, the leading Democratic contenders have very high point totals (Hillary, Biden, Obama, Bloomberg and Michelle Obama) with only three Republicans with high point totals (Rice, Kasich and Nikki Haley). In sum, the most popular Republicans had the lowest point totals and the popular Democrats had the highest point totals. Trump had the lowest points of all (55) compared to 65 for Hillary.
Second, every election in my lifetime has had a lot of unexpected events that changed the focus of the campaigns. In the Political Machine random events almost never occur and I’ve never had more than one random event occur during a game. Third, the player cannot take an opposing candidate, change their scores, and play against that candidate. For example, Hilliary had stamina issues on the campaign and spent weeks doing relatively little. Trump was more active visiting States, giving interviews, etc…. Yet Hillary has higher stamina than Trump.
If the game allowed players to alter scores of opposing candidates, also tinker with issue importance on a State-by-State basis, and have a lot more random events the game would have a lot more replay value. Sadly, none of these are options. Stardock has a base game engine which they can make mild alterations on every election cycle and sell more units. The strategy is profitable for them but the inability of players to tweak game mechanics harms the replay value.
I bought the game for $2.50 on a Steam summer sale. It was worth that price for a half-dozen games and one fun but insane after-action-report. The list price of the Political Machine is $9.99 which is pretty high given the limited replay value. But if you want a light political simulation of the US Presidency this is a bug free game that can allow your candidate to triumph.