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Wot I Think: The Political Machine 2012

Time for Tea

It's election fever! Well, election ennui. As the disappointingly over-cautious incumbent takes on a billionaire charisma-vacuum for rights to the throne of America, Stardock release an update of their presidential wannabe sim. I've been creeping around the corridors of power in The Political Machine 2012 for the last couple of days. Join me in the west wing for a post-mortem, won't you?

That lily-livered pinko hippie Al Franken might have the goddamn vegan commies down in California in his pocket, but I'll be damned if that's going to keep me, staunch Republican Ian Prejudice, from saving the American people from their own venality. On a crusading, unwavering platform of fanatical Christianity, tax cuts for the rich and blind hatred of gay marriage, I will lead this ailing nation to a brighter, better future where everyone who isn't exactly the same as me is ritually persecuted and, ideally, homeless. Or cleaning one of my many houses for a pittance. It's their own damn fault for not being rich, white, straight, Christian men. Yessir, Ian Prejudice knows values, and Ian Prejudice will never change his values.

Though... I suppose I could say I endorse green jobs if it'll get those West Coast hippies on side. And New York... well, what's the harm in men in cavorting with other men so long as they don't do it in somewhere that matters, like Texas or Georgia? Whassat? Flip-flopping? No sir, how dare you? This is for the greater good of the greatest nation on Earth! And of course if I want Iowa on side, that crucial swing-state, I'll need a stance on Obamacare. Those hicks don't know their own minds about, is the thing. Well, today I'll say it's socialism incarnate then tomorrow I'll say I'm all for it. That should cover it. What's this? Florida's not taking well to the idea of a Christian nation? Well, as long they vote for me I suppose that means their values are intact. Flip-flopping, you say? No sir, no sir - I call it winning.

I've done this before, but last time Ian Prejudice bore his then-pseudonym Dick Cheney**. Back then, there was no mention of Obamacare, Mitt Romney's rictus grin and plastic hair were merely a footnote to the Obama-McCain clash, while American was pre-recession (just about) and pre-Tea Party. Such sweeping socio-economic changes have not altered the nature of The Political Machine in the four years since its last iteration. I've got to admit, I have now had enough of writing about sequels which don't make great efforts to leave their predecessors' shadows.

That's my own fault for repeatedly installing games with numbers in their titles, of course. The Political Machine 2012, Stardock's pithy US election sim, isn't just functionally similar to The Political Machine 2008 - it's functionally identical, but with new politicians and new, topical issues added to the roster. Guess I can't blame them giving how timely it is and how many newly politically-cognisant folk presumably now abound, but what a shame* to not evolve the systems and strategies. I can barely remember what happened this morning, let alone four years ago, but this was like slipping back into my oldest pair of underpants, so familiar was it.

It's only $10 mind, but it's hard to not think of it as a data pack rather than a whole new game. Unless Steam Achievements make the difference to you, anyway. If you haven't played the previous TPM, then it's different prospect entirely. It might be lightweight and it might be taking any aspect of debate or morality out politicking, but it's rather adept at distilling the strange, furious carnival that is the US election process down to the cynicism and statistics that it entails underneath the issues.

Here's how it works. You pick a candidate, represented as one of those wobbly-head dolls that tasteless people put on their car dashboards. Forever smiling, forever nodding, a gleaming plastic sheen and zero trace of humanity - it's the perfect parody of a politician, without a single barbed word uttered. It's essentially turn-based strategy, with a distinctly boardgamey vibe, as you peg it around a map of the US, picking which actions to do in which states, at the expense of cash and energy.

You're trying to make each state love you rather than your opponent, and you primarily do that by appealing to the issues that are most important to each region. Either by saying you're on their side regarding unemployment, gas prices or whatever, or claiming that your rival is not. You do this by buying ads, making speeches, hiring agents and gaining the support of national bodies. Your opponent is, of course, doing the same.

It works because it's intense and high-speed, with your fate forever uncertain until polling day itself, and it works because it puts ethics to one side in favour of cold practicality. Your national stance might be pro-Obamacare, but saying something to the contrary in a state whose residents haven't actually researched anything about it and have thus been brainwashed into believing it's socialism might be enough to swing a key zone to your favour. The game positively encourages hypocrisy, though it is also possible to win by holding fast to your chosen values - for instance, by being so sickeningly rich that you can almost buy your way to power.

It's superficially silly, what with its bobbleheads and its gentle spoofing of The O'Reilley Factor and the Colbert Report, but there's a core of cynical steel underneath, both in terms of being highly strategic and being quite clear that it believes high-profile politics is a media circus rather than a contest of knowledge and values.

But it is The Political Machine 2008 with some new characters, some new text and, I think, some updating of states' preferences based on recent trends. Also, some Steam achievements. This means I'm using the same strategies as last time around, and frankly there didn't seem like there were too many of them back then either. Multiplayer, now as then, keeps it alive for longer, and I had an agreeably stressful but ultimately successful time triumphing over Dan Griliopoulos' Michelle Obama with my Michelle Bachmann yesterday. Roleplaying (i.e. as a psychopathic right-wing puritan) is the most entertaining way to play the game for sure, even if it's not necessarily the best tactical move.

Democracy does it better, and more thoughtfully, but embrace this as a pastiche as much as it is mini-strategy game and you'll likely be charmed. It is the same game as last time around, but I can just about forgive that purely because this election sees far more polarised political stances than 2008. There's no way I'd vote it in for a third term, though.

I'd love to see 2016's game explore what happens after the election, and how all those desperate promises made by the candidates are brought about or betrayed once in office. There's a long, meaty, enormously snarky game to be made from this whole concept, so I hope TPM won't always settle for just the tip of that absurd iceberg.

The Political Machine 2012 is out now.


** Ian Prejudice is a character of my own creation, thanks to TPM's playful candidate-creation tool, but any similarity to reptilian vice-presidents alive or dead may not be entirely coincidental.

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