Review: Democracy 3 for iPad

By Owen Faraday 13 Jun 2014 0
Alcohol consumption has gone *down*? Talk about unintended consequences. Alcohol consumption has gone *down*? Talk about unintended consequences.

Making an accurate simulation of a democracy in action is damned hard to do -- just ask a political pollster. So when you're looking at any video game political sim, the first question to ask yourself is: what have they left out? What elements of society have the developers chosen to focus on and what have they abstracted into the background?

Democracy 3 boldly bills itself as "the most sophisticated political strategy game ever created" -- and that might even be true. But the cost of that sophistication appear to be that just about all the mechanisms of democracy have been abstracted away. Democracy 3 might not be what you visualise when you hear "political strategy game", but it's an interesting experience if you approach it on its own terms.

The policies matrix is lovely -- and it'd be lovelier at a Retina resolution. The policies matrix is lovely -- and it'd be lovelier at a Retina resolution.

So: you're the President of the United States. Or mayhap the Chancellor of Germany. Or the Prime Minister of Australia. Take your pick, because Democracy 3 offers you all of those scenarios plus France, the UK, and Canada too. The variety of options is welcome, but because Democracy 3's approach to abstraction is so aggressive, those choices are less varied than you might think. Let's come back to this in a second.

Democracy 3 is played from a big matrix of bubbles representing policies and issues in your country. This eye-catching screen (which sadly hasn't been up-scaled for a Retina iPad -- the whole game is rather pixellated) is the home base for the game and though it takes a little while to really wrap one's head around it, it eventually makes it easy to take in a lot of information at a glance.

Touch the bubble for the Clean Energy Subsidies policy, for example. The matrix changes so that you see all of the voting interest groups, issues and policies relating to this one, and you can see quickly that enacting the subsidies will provide lowered CO2 emissions, a boost to the environment and your support with green voters at the cost of angering free-market capitalists. Touch any one of those issues and you'll see a different spiderweb of related matters and interested voters. At the center of the screen you see different voting groups and your standing with them: parents, liberals, religious believers, motorists, and so on. Voters can and will belong to more than one of these groups, which means that you have to keep your favorability ratings high across a broad range of interests if you want to keep your job.

Get outta here, Angie. I'm running this candystorm. Get outta here, Angie. I'm running this candystorm.

The issues matrix is a clever, attractive bit of interface design. But it also reveals how abstracted Democracy 3 is. To enact a policy, you just press a button and spend the political capital points (generated every turn by your cabinet) to do so. There's no wrangling with Congress or satisfying objections from the House of Lords -- it just happens. Policies may take several turns to enact, forestalling their impact on your approval ratings or your budget, which is something you use to your advantage a few turns before your re-election campaign.

Elections, as it happens, are also almost entirely abstracted, despite the fact that election campaigns are, sadly, practically a full-time job for serving politicians these days. There's no making promises or choosing running mates. When your term comes up, the elections just happen and you're duly informed of whether or not you've won based on the popularity of your policies. Elections are so out of your hands that you don't even have a say over how you're perceived in your very first term. You can start a game in the US scenarios planning to be a firebrand socialist reformer, but no matter what you do the liberals and progressives will start your term disapproving of you like you were Ayn Rand herself.

You can focus group your policies with voters, though I'm not sure how useful this is. You can focus group your policies with voters, though I'm not sure how useful this is.

After a couple of games of Democracy, it becomes apparent how generic the issues are. That choice we made earlier about whether to be the UK or the USA just means that the starting approval ratings and budgets are slightly different in each scenario. There's nothing endemic to any of the countries represented in the issues, so as the UK you'll never have to wrangle with whether or not to leave the EU or coerce Scotland to stay in the Union, and the US need not worry about caring for its ever-growing population of disabled war veterans or entertain the notion of building a wall with Mexico. Democracy 3's system is so high-level that it can represent pretty much any Western nation -- and this is somehow appealing and disappointing at the same time.

Democracy 3 turns out to be a toy; a politics-flavoured Rube Goldberg machine for you to experiment with, rather than a deep simulation of any one country's politics. But it's an intricate toy to be sure, and one that you can spend many hours mastering the nuances of. If you're expecting a deep simulation of election politics, you might be better off waiting for Doug Triggs' Election Manager 2016, but if you calibrate your expectations according, you can have quite a lot of fun with Democracy.


Democracy 3 was played on an iPad Air for this review.

Review: Democracy 3 for iPad

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