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Wot I Think: Political Animals

The elephant in the room

It was around the mid-point of the election campaign that I decided not to worry about all the dirt that was sticking to me. There were enough manufactured scandals that adding a few genuine conflicts of interest to the pile didn't seem like it'd make much difference, and it's not as if the voters seemed to care as long as their concerns were being addressed. I picked up the widow of a wealthy supporter at his funeral and, later, when she'd left the country, I flirted, through the media, with a hot celebrity who had shown an interest in me.

I'm aiming to become the president in Political Animals [official site], and it probably sounds a lot more enjoyable than it actually is.

The widow gave me a big stack of cash and the celeb connection made me seem real, which gave me lots of support in one of the battleground states packed with undecided voters. I imagine those new supporters were youths, plucked from precisely the demographic that my campaign had been neglecting. My party, the Forgetful Elephants, were running a strong Guns and God ticket, well-equipped to deal with a population worried about law, order and religion, but clueless when it came to education or employment.

Positech, the indie studio behind the Democracy games, published Political Animals, but it was developed externally, and general political theme aside, it's a very different game. Where Democracy models demographics within the population and simulates how one issue or ruling might influence others, Political Animals is not about the interaction between politics and the people. Instead, it's a game strictly about the ground game during a two-party election.

It doesn't matter which policies your candidate focuses on, and the population of each state is nothing more than a number. You don't need to worry about implementing the promises you make, or handling the scandals and deceptions that happen along the road to victory, because there is no aftermath. Unlike the real thing, this election has no consequences – the votes are counted, the game is won or lost, and that's the end of it.

The goal, then, is to win the most votes, using whatever means necessary. Broadly speaking, the means are divided into above board and below the belt, with the former being fund-raisers, rallies and campaigns, and the latter being bribes, threats and slander. Unless you want to roleplay a certain kind of candidate – and there's enough depth of character for that to be an attractive option for me – you'll end up using whatever helps to get your numbers higher. When you finish a campaign, you'll be told whether you played pragmatically, or on the side of the angels or devils, but corruption and cheating are practical plays rather than fundamental shifts in focus.

Think of Political Animals as a digital boardgame. As you begin each campaign, you create a candidate, selecting two policies at which they excel and a special ability. I've already mentioned that the actual policies you select don't matter – what does matter is the balance of points given to each. You could throw equal points at both, or specialise in one with only a point or two spent on the other. When the game begins, each state has two issues that concern it and you can see how well they match your policy specialisations, and those of your opponent.

Where this gets interesting is in the use of rallies and campaigns. Rallies increase concern about one of the two issues present in a state, while campaigns capitalise on those concerns. So to win voters for my elephant, I could use one staff member to do a rally about law and order, whipping up fears and anxieties about crime, and then swoop in to do a campaign about the solutions to those fears once the numbers were high enough for the cash expenditure to deliver enough voters for it all to be worthwhile.

Essentially, you're engaging in two rounds of attacks, the first preparing the ground and the second taking control. Things are complicated by the aforementioned dirty tactics, which either win support without the necessity of that first round of the attack, or create scandals that can threaten the popularity of your opponent. Scandals can pile up, one on top of another, and are only active in the state where you spawn them.

I'm not entirely sure how they work,whether having more in play means the chances of a hit to popularity is higher or whether a greater number increases the damage caused if they do activate. Mostly the game is very clear about what the result of any action will be, but scandals are the exception. Or I'm just missing something obvious. They become dormant after a turn in play and it's the process by which they activate after that point that I don't understand.

Like a lot of the other mechanics, scandals are best deployed in sync with characters' special abilities. Every staff member and the candidate itself can use all of the basic actions (unless you don't have enough cash to pay them, in the case of staff) once a turn, but each has a unique ability. For reporters, that ability is to activate a scandal before it becomes dormant. So creating a scandal and then moving a reporter into play to detonate it is an obvious but pleasing tactic.

There are plenty of other tricks to discover, such as the use of cute little bunny couriers, who can move two states in a turn, to fundraise far and wide. Go around cap in hand too often and a state's funds run dry, so it pays (literally) to spread the net across at least a few friendly states. And the friendlier the state, the more cash you can squeeze out of it, especially if you have the support of the richest resident.

The three people of influence in each state provide the final wrinkle in the game. One provides cash boosts during fundraising, one reduces the logistics (think action points) cost of every action in that state, and the last boosts the performance of your campaigns. Importantly, if they support your opponent, they'll have a negative effect, increasing costs and reducing funds gained. To earn their support, you've got to spend cash.

If Political Animals has taught me one thing it's that it costs money to earn votes, and it also costs money to earn the money you need to earn the votes.

There are a few different maps to play on, some of which must be unlocked, and it all looks very nice –cute wallpaper in a house of horrors – but the use of animals isn't much more than an aesthetic choices. I find it infinitely preferable to the bobbleheaded caricatures of real candidates that are used in some other election games but the animals don't add anything of note. In general, once you start to see the rules beneath the colourful surface, Political Animals is a numbers game. You calculate your way to victory, particularly at higher difficulty levels, rather than creating a sense of party or purpose.

After a few campaigns, it's left me a little cold. Topical it may be, but the lack of engagement with issues and their effects makes it hard for me to see the theme (both animal and political) as much more than a lick of paint on a fairly well-worked but narrow game of numbers. Perhaps that's what electioneering actually is but if I had to cast my vote, I'd be sticking with the push-and-pull policies of Democracy rather than Political Animals' detatched campaigns of territorial control. That widow I seduced and the celebrity I flirted with were, like my own elephant form, a sprinkling of flavour with no lasting effect and no meaning beyond pluses and minuses.

Political Animals is available now for Windows and Mac via GOG, the Humble Store and Steam.

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