With the right political machine, anyone can become president

With the big issues of the day – jobs, Iran and Chick-fil-A – stirring up partisan passions, it’s probably the best time ever to play a computer game about running for president. So kudos go to Stardock for releasing The Political Machine 2012, a game that simulates the messy business of going after the highest office in the U.S.A. and injects it with 100 percent more humor and infinitely more bobbleheads to make it entertainment.

Actually, maybe KRS-One’s old term “edutainment” would be more apt here. You can probably learn something about what it will actually take to win the White House later this year, since it’s the goal of the game and takes just the right mix of fund-raising and message-delivering to pull off. Or you can just throw Dennis Kucinich out there against Michele Bachmann and see what happens.


The deep roster of contenders and pretenders from both parties is one of the game’s best features, as a big part of the fun comes from the match-ups. This reviewer enjoyed taking Donald Trump on a serious run as much as the all female duel pitting a Hilary Clinton/Michelle Obama(!) ticket against a Bachmann/Sarah Palin ticket. Each candidate is rated in 11 different traits like Charisma, Credibility and Intelligence, which define his or her strengths and weaknesses and provide a rough outline of how you should focus your campaign.

It’s also possible to create a candidate from scratch, distributing a pool of points to the 11 attributes and customizing your own bobblehead. We’re not just talking about your run-of-the-mill body choices either, as you can put together a pretty good facsimile of Nixon’s head with his powerful robot body from “A Head in the Polls” if so desired. That still wasn’t enough to keep my very own avatar from losing handily to Herman Cain. Alas.

That might be because I had yet to master the gameplay basics, which center around using each turn to gain visibility and connect with voters on the issues on a state-by-state basis. You have a broad set of tools that includes running ads, giving speeches, raising funds and more, but your number of actions per turn are limited by your Stamina and the amount of cash in the campaign coffers.

The Political Machine 2012

Three sets of structures can also be built in each state: Campaign Headquarters to generate cash, Consulting Offices to build up Political Capital and Outreach Centers to increase Clout. A balance of all three is ideal, as Political Capital allows you to summon various types of Operatives that can help your campaign or hinder your opponent, while Clout can win you endorsements from special interest groups that can assist you in moving the needle on certain issues at a national level. In a nice twist, you can choose to win endorsements from groups that wouldn’t normally align with your party (though for an increased Clout cost) if you feel it’s worth the risk of alienating your base. Maybe Al Gore really would have won if he could have had the blessing of the NRA instead of the NOW.

Randomness arrives in the form of mystery players who could be a blessing or curse, only revealing their true colors once you reveal them on the map. You’ll also have interview opportunities on barely disguised versions of real life programs to attempt to rally independent voters to your side.

After you grasp the fundamentals, it’s a matter of figuring out how to best use your candidates strengths to succeed, assisted by polling, demographic and strategic information. Just like in a real presidential race, it’s a must to zero in on enough winnable states to clear the magic number of 270 electoral states, and it’s advisable to punt lost causes to fight the good fight elsewhere. Halfway through the campaign, you’ll choose a running mate, and your VP pick can be sent wherever needed to aid the effort in a specific state and all bordering states.

The Political Machine 2012

Campaigns can be set to several different lengths, but medium (41 turns) seems to offer the best challenge while avoiding the monotony that can set in during longer games when most battles are decided well before the end. Difficulty and starting funds can be adjusted and certain state values can be randomized, but it still would have been great if the 2012 crew could battle it out in previous elections or great presidents from the past were unleashed in modern times. An online mode offers a whole different challenge from human opponents, though there have been complaints of multiplayer glitches on the game’s forums.

In the end, though, it’s really the cast of characters and the particular state of dysfunction that characterizes American politics at this exact moment in time that makes The Political Machine 2012 a worthwhile diversion. And if that statement sounds like a contradiction, you’re just going to have to do what we grudgingly do with our elected leaders and trust me.