Dedicated readers of this page recall I wasn’t thrilled with my experience with Democracy 3 two months ago. To sum up, I described it as annoying, arbitrary, droning and limited. Unfortunately, too many promising government simulation games end up being described the same way. If it’s too easy or simple it’s not a good simulation, but if it’s too serious or in-depth then it’s boring. I’ll be the first to admit that’s a tough balancing act, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a fun, full-fledged political game.
Until now. Since Stardock Entertainment’s The Political Machine 2016 is specifically an election game, it may not perfectly fit under the umbrella of a traditional government simulation. Judging it as such, though, I can say TPM16 is the best, most thorough election game I’ve ever played. Behind the corny name and the simple bobble-head aesthetic is a serious election strategy game with big ideas and a backbone to follow them up.
To be clear, TTPM16 is the fourth game in the series. Stardock made one for every presidential election since 2004, each time being built around the main candidates from both parties. Since I’ve never played any of the previous installments, I can only speak for this one. As such, I must say the attention to detail is tremendous. In a single-player campaign, you can choose the amount of weeks in your simulation, the chance for random events, your starting circumstances and more. Then you proceed to choose who you will play as and run against. TPM16 has a roster of around 20 candidates for both parties, including a mix of the actual primary candidates and prominent partisans who didn’t run this year, such as Elizabeth Warren, Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin. These pre-made candidates already have stats tailored to their real-life priorities as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Or you could make your own candidate from scratch.
The game begins with most of the states neutral to both candidates, and you only having your home state reliably in your corner. The gameplay is built around you and your opponent flying to different states over the weeks and performing different actions. You start with plenty of cash but no name recognition, so your first priority is to give speeches and make ads on the issues important to each state. Giving speeches are cheap and give a big one-time boost in the state you’re in, but comes at a heavy cost of energy. Energy is the currency to determine how many actions you can perform in a week, so it’s costly to give too many speeches at once. Now you could run ads in local newspapers which costs less energy and is relatively cheap but only gives you a small polling boost over time. You can also run ads on television which generate bigger incremental boosts to the polls, but are very expensive.
Once you generate name recognition, the next step is to run ads to actually propel the polls in your direction. Sounds like a lot of work? It is! Thankfully, through the construction of Consulting Offices and Outreach Centers, you can generate enough political capital to start hiring different operatives, each with their own unique skill. In addition to your traveling around to different sates they can be deployed to wherever you most need the boost they’ll provide. All these different actions end up costing a fair amount of money, meaning that you have to be aware of which states you have the highest fundraising potential in, and where you need to build campaign headquarters in order to solicit more donations. Be careful not to run out of money in a state with low fundraising potential, or you may be stuck for a week or more trying to earn enough to get out.
On top of all of this, you will occasionally be given the opportunity to receive an endorsement from a national organization, which — depending on your policy priorities — can greatly boost your issue ratings across the board. In case that wasn’t enough, midway through the election you get to choose your vice-presidential candidate, whom you also have to manage on the map. Along the way there are a myriad of opportunities for events to sway the polls, such as television appearances, scandals, disasters and more.
The icing on TPM2016’s cake is that it has a multiplayer mode. You can challenge people to elections in real time and even move up the scoreboards. The queue wait time for a match was on the longer side, but after playing a round of multiplayer I was hooked, and my opinion of the game was guaranteed.
Once again from seemingly the most unlikely of sources, a rare gem of a game has appeared. To call back to that Democracy 3 review one more time, I concluded by saying “the search for a political simulation game that is both realistic and truly enjoyable continues. I’m sure it must be out there somewhere.” Now, I needn’t search anymore. TPM2016 is a fun, challenging, and dynamic election simulation with plenty of replayability value and customization options. Both the single and multiplayer modes are engaging, and I look forward to putting in many more games as the actual election nears. I’m glad I took a chance in The Political Machine 2016.