The Political Machine 2008

Stardock's latest political sim

The Political Machine 2008 is Stardock's latest political sim game, and it bears a close resemblance to the political machinations on the other side of the pond.

Political junkies have had one hell of a ride these last few months. As well as the travails of our own Prime Minister, in the States the recently concluding primary season has been perhaps the most bitterly contested, but still vicariously entertaining spectacles of the past few decades.

So it comes as no surprise that when The Political Machine 2008 landed on my desk I was more than a little excited — what exciting matchups could I concoct? Barack Obama vs John McCain? Bill Clinton vs Richard Nixon? Woodrow Wilson vs Theodore Roosevelt? Suffice to say, The Political Machine doesn't disappoint, offering an excellent improvement over the last version released four years ago — but it's ultimately hamstrung by some nagging issues and the lack of full-fledged improvements.

The Political Machine 2008 ships with four full scenarios — the 2008 campaign, 1860, a hypothetical (and highly amusing) European Union scenario, and a scenario based of Stardock's successful Galactic Civilizations series in which you play as a candidate for the highly militaristic Drengin Empire.

It is a nice mix of scenarios and does give players an interesting mix of potential 'what ifs'. These can often manage to descend into the realm of pure amusement that comes only when you can pit Bill Clinton against Dick Cheney in 1860, where Clinton makes speech after speech supporting slavery, or Al Gore setting up TV ads across Europe extolling his hatred of America and love of partying.

Most campaigns take place over a period of 41 turns — one turn per week — you'll select your candidate who has their own specific statistics (McCain is old for instance, and has less stamina, and therefore can't do as much per week), and thereafter begin attempting to sway individual states over to either the Democratic or Republican parties.

While many of the states are swingable the game does keep many safely in the realm or either party — it's unlikely you'll ever get Massachusetts to swing Republican for instance. Each turn candidates can make appearances in individual states, giving speeches on individual issues, fund-raising, creating ads, or gaining endorsements.

During the scenario for this year's election you'll find just about all current issues popping up on the campaign trail, allowing you to take positions on subjects such as the War in Iraq, Health Care, Climate Change, and smaller (often state specific issues) such as farm subsidies or Katrina relief.

Each candidate has his own values for each specific issue — Obama is naturally going to have the upper hand on McCain on the economy for instance, and vice-versa when it comes to Iraq and the War on Terror.

You'll find different issues in all four of the scenarios, and each time you play a campaign — even with the same candidates — things such as the importance of issues in each state are randomised just enough to keep things interesting. One election the topic of high gas prices might be the key to winning, but attempting to do that a second time might backfire as the important issues have changed.

This all works fairly well and creates its own dynamic campaigns. As noted, you'll never experience the same campaign twice, but the AI has some significant limitations.

For one it frequently manages to ignore the most important swing states or states in which its human opponent is paying the most attention.

Moreover computer candidates often pay too much attention to areas in which you're not going to be competitive or aren't visiting — Republicans paying visits to Alaska every four or five turns to name one such oddity.

Besides this there are a few other disappointments. Only the top candidates of either party this year are represented in the game — it would be nice to play a campaign as Mike Gravel, Tom Vilsack, or Sam Brownback. More importantly, after this years important and highly engaging primary season the lack of a primary season, no matter how short, is a disappointment in game.

Endorsements, gained through political clout, while a good idea — giving candidates bonuses to certain issues — are also little used, being too few and so cheap as to limit their effectiveness to early in the campaigning season only. Vice Presidential running mates also don't feel as fleshed out as they could have been.

These issues are, however, ultimately minor.