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June 17, 2008



- Well-designed interface makes it easy to simulate the management of major political campaigns

- Clever, light humor and cheerful graphics keep the poison out of the political atmosphere



- The game doesn’t really have a way to assess the impact of major external news events, such as the current Wall Street meltdown, that invariably impact campaigns



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Political Machine 2008

Score: 8.5 / 10


The 2008 elections are heating up, and for all of you political junkies out there, designer Brad Wardell and publisher Stardock are hoping to drag you away from your obsessive DailyKos, Redstate or fivethirtyeight clicking long enough to try your hand at The Political Machine, a well-produced strategy title that allows players to try their hand at running a national presidential campaign led by cartoon bobblehead versions of Barack Obama, John McCain, or a number of other current political heavies on either side of the red and blue divide.


political machine 2008          political machine 2008


Overall, it’s a very well designed strategy sim with an easy to learn interface. Click on “Quick Play” mode from the opening menu, and players are taken to a simple screen where they can adjust game length, starting funds and difficulty, and select from four different campaigns: this year’s presidential campaign, the 1860 election




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campaign during the U.S. Civil War, a humor campaign where players can try their hand at getting elected President of Europe-as-seen-by-an-average-American high school student, or a Drengi election for leadership of an evil Galactic Empire.


After selecting a scenario, players pick a candidate.  In the 2008 scenario, for example, players can initially pick Democrats like Senator Barack Obama, Hillary


Clinton, Al Gore and Bill Richardson or Republicans like Senator John McCain, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani. Each of these candidates has a range of strengths and weaknesses in terms of stamina, money, fund raising ability, charisma, attractiveness, credibility and experience, all displayed in at-a-glance bar charts. Players can also design custom candidates, picking out a gender and developing a personal appearance through a simple interface, and then choosing those strengths and weaknesses along with a home state, a former career, and stances on a wide range of issues.


Once all of that is settled, players get to politicking. In the 2008 election mode, that means you start 41 weeks away from election day, with an open map of the United States in front of you, and your bobblehead candidate hanging out in his or her home state. Fans of real time strategy will be quick studies. Basically, players move their candidate from state to state, setting up infrastructure in the form of Campaign Headquarters, which generate money and awareness of your core positions in a state or region; Outreach Centers, which generate “public relations clout,” which you can spend getting the endorsements of major, nationally known organizations such as unions, business associations, environmental groups and gun rights groups; and Consulting Centers, which generate “political capital,” that you can use to hire operatives with self-explanatory names like Smear Merchants, Speechwriters, Webmasters and Spin Doctors.


Alternately, players can spend their turns giving speeches on a large variety of topics, creating advertisements for print, radio or television, or raising money so that you can continue to travel, build infrastructure, and buy advertisements. Since, of course, there’s only so many hours in a week, players can only accomplish a limited number of these tasks each turn, and your candidate’s stamina stat sets the limits here.


Occasionally there are opportunities to appear on popular news shows (like “The O’Malley Scenario”) with left- or right-leaning anchors. These appearances could end up playing out well or terribly, depending on how players answer a series of multiple choice questions. From what I found, playing as both Obama and McCain, was that the key to a good appearance was making sure your answers were consistent with your campaign’s internal messages and, more importantly, your previous answers on the show.


political machine 2008          political machine 2008


But here’s where things get tough. I suppose that the truly neurotic RTS fan who had absolutely no interest in politics or any understanding of the Electoral College could fly blind for a couple of games, and eventually figure out which states demand the most attention, which strategies work best where, and even how to give the right answers to a bobblehead news anchor without digging through menu screens to figure out what to say.


 Otherwise, this game demands a bit of real-world background knowledge. To play the 2008 campaign well (and this is no spoiler alert if you’ve already read this far and are interested enough in politics to consider picking up this title) you need to know that Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and possibly North Carolina are the states that have been heavily contested this year. You need to know that, no matter who your candidate is, California, New York and Texas are the places where you go when you need to raise lots of money quickly.  And, you need to know some basics about your candidate’s proposed policies.


I’m guessing that Aaron asked me to review Political Machine because he knew that in 2003 and 2004, I participated in a frenzy of political activity—I was attending rallies and letter-writing campaigns, donating money, handing out voter registration forms at liberal institutions, such as Sunday brunch lines, and ultimately making weekend trips from NYC to Pennsylvania as part of a get out the vote operation for Kerry.


This summer, in an effort to get Barack Obama elected, I donated $75 over the Internet and sat on the couch watching, like, 140 Mets games.


I sincerely hope Obama gets elected. At the very least, he’ll return the United States to a progressive tax code. Call it class warfare, but a progressive tax code is where you and I get a tax cut, and our bosses’ bosses’ bosses have to pay more. I like his universal health care plan. I like his approach to foreign policy; he seems much more eager to leverage diplomacy as a first resort than McCain or Palin (who makes me want to dive under my f*ing couch when she talks about Russia. And I can’t even see Russia from my house. )


I think also, that Obama will give the rest of the world a new look at the country after the 8 years of unmitigated disaster that has been the Bush/Cheney administration. While they’re taking that new look, we get a direly needed honeymoon period with other world leaders, and I believe he’ll know what to do with that. He’s a calm, collected guy that taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, was president of the Harvard Law Review, and plays basketball and watches Sportscenter every night. Did I mention that he’s black? Come on America, seriously. Don’t you want to elect the smart cool guy for once?


But one thing that I discovered in 2004 is that politics makes me too angry. It makes me avoid contact with too many relatives. It makes me yell at my television set much more than the 2007 New York Jets. It makes me think that many of my fellow citizens are irredeemably stupid.


It makes me think that way too many of my fellow citizens are getting played. I sincerely don’t understand why McCain and Palin want to win the Presidency. What would they do with what is still the most powerful position of leadership in the world? Clean out corruption? That’s what they keep saying, when they’re not busy trying to insinuate that Obama is a scary black man who was “palling around” with Vietnam War protestors when he was 8 years old. What, exactly, needs to be dismantled and rebuilt that their party hasn’t already had ample opportunities to work on? Republicans have had control of the top office for the past 8 years. 20 of the past 28. They only lost their lock on both houses of congress less than two years ago. Elect McCain and Palin, and it will most certainly be more of the same.

McCain and Palin are running on essentially the same platform that has defined Republican policymaking for the past three decades. These policies are no longer popular, so in order to win, they’re attempting to use the tried and true tactic of dividing the country in half, making those two halves scream at each other over intractable topics like abortion, demonizing their opponent, and hoping to pick up some votes on the margins by lying about a bunch of tax breaks that will never put any additional money in your pocket unless you’ve already got hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank. It’s how Republicans have run their last three presidential elections, and it’s disgusting.


As a simulation, the Political Machine is too light-hearted to reflect how truly nasty and cynical U.S. politics has become. On the other side of that coin, it does not really have the scope or language to simulate Obama’s unprecedented ground game, or to address significant news developments that happen outside either campaign—such as this current, sudden deflation of an international credit bubble that has sent stock markets worldwide into turmoil and helped swing the election heavily in Obama’s favor, thanks in part to McCain’s inauthentic posturing on bipartisan efforts like the recent $700 billion bailout package.


What it does, instead, is offer players an opportunity to jump into the role of campaign managers and explore a few scenarios. Given the current partisan leanings state-by-state, what’s the most efficient way to get the 270 electoral votes needed to win? Am I strong enough in New Jersey and Washington that I can afford to spend minimally there and focus on trying to turn North Carolina blue this year? Contesting that state would force the other campaign to spend their money there as well. Let’s get crazy. What would I REALLY need to do to put Texas in the win column for a Democrat, or California or New York for a Republican? How would Bill Clinton fare against George W. Bush if they were both running for a third term right now?


In this regard, the game performs pretty well. It gives players a good look at the topline mechanics of the election, allows them to tinker with the themes of candidates’ speeches and spend money on different print, radio or television ads about a huge variety of topics that vary by state, and range from national issues like universal healthcare and withdrawal from Iraq, to regional issues like farm subsidies and ethanol production. To afford those ads, players have to figure out how to strike a balance between public speaking, traveling, building state-by-state infrastructure, and raising enough money to keep the whole operation going.


The game’s straightforward interface, light sense of humor and cute graphics might be sufficiently charming to engage and possibly teach a thing or two to players who are moderately interested in electoral politics. However, Political Machine’s target audience seems to be people who have been paying close attention to the twists and turns of this race since 2006. And, for those political junkies, it’s a good sim at an inexpensive price-point—$20 for download. And, if you’re a political junkie and a Republican, who knows? Maybe it’ll offer you a sense of catharsis-on-demand during the next three weeks, as you pretend that McCain and Palin have a realistic chance of winning this year.


- M. Enis

(October 20, 2008)


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