Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Democracy 3

Post-Launch Review
Democracy 3
Developer: Positech Games
Released: October 2013
Played: 4 games over 2h:30min
(one two-term win, two first-term losses, and an assassination loss)


You've just been elected as the leader of a powerful democratic nation! Implement, alter, or scrap policies to balance your country's finances and wellbeing while aiming for reelection. Be careful, because if you become unpopular and lose the next election, it's game over!

At Launch

Democracy 3 earned average review scores of 70%. Some reviewers were blown away by how the game opened their eyes to the complexities of running a country. Many were initially intimidated by the apparent complexity, but most caught on quick. Several critics were disappointed in the lack of depth, having expected more than a turn-based game.

Post Launch

Several patches fixed bugs, altered game balance, and added a couple of minor quality of life features.
Steam Workshop support allows modders to create their own starting conditions to add new playable countries.
Three expansion packs were released.
Clones & Drones deals with futuristic concerns like unemployment due to automation, drones, and robot rights.
Extremism focuses on pushing the limits of democracy with the ability to enact extreme policies or place bans on entire industries.
Social Engineering adds more subtle ways to influence your population, like ad campaigns and less intrusive policies and taxes. 

I'm going to come right out and say it: Democracy 3 is one of those games that's not fun, which I did not enjoy in minute-to-minute gameplay, but that I think is actually quite important.

The interface is a little overwhelming at first. You get this big splash screen with all kinds of icons of different colours, a bar graph in the middle of the screen, and a bunch more numbers and icons in the top bar. The tutorial helps, but it's easier to just poke around and fiddle with things. 

The bubbles represent your policies, statuses, and crises, and by mousing over them, you can see which effects contribute to or detract from others. This is where things get complicated again. Mouse over something important like GDP and you've got a massive web of things that tie to other things. Everything's interconnected. Some things have a dozen or more linked attributes or policies, each of which has effects tied to other things. And some of those factors are outside your control - the biggest one being the global economy, which can have massive unpredictable effects on your country.

Whether you get reelected depends on your popularity, and you have a bunch of different voting blocks to try to please. Many of them overlap - if you want to make commuters happy, you have to keep in mind that some commuters are poor, some are middle class, some drive, some take public transit, some have kids... The more you explore how everything connects - policies, taxes, voters, crises - the more the game hammers home how complex politics really are. Almost nothing is as simple as pushing a slider to make people happy, and even when it is that simple, you're paying for it out of a limited budget.

The real brilliance in Democracy 3's design, though, is its razor-sharp focus on objectives: your goal is reelection, and if you fail it's game over. That single objective is where I really came up against dilemmas and realizations. 

First is that it's never as simple as pushing policies according to your personal beliefs. Legalize everything and raise taxes on the rich! Oh wait, now the capitalists and business owners are moving away because I've taken too much of their profits and moving to another country is better for them, and having all my businesses migrate away creates a massive drain on my GDP, so unemployment and crime are rising and I'm losing funding and running a big deficit which is causing my credit rating to drop and loan interest to skyrocket. Turns out that I'm not a politician or economist so I didn't realize what was happening until it was too late to fix, and now it's game over because I tanked the economy and no one wants to reelect me. Shit.

But what really freaked me out is that in tough times I found myself ignoring certain problems, postponing helpful policies with too big a price tag, or enacting policies I would never even think of backing back in real life. I'm sitting here thinking "Well it would really benefit the country in the long term to increase science and education funding, but I can't afford it right now so I'll cut funding instead", or "Hm, I'm losing support with religious groups. If I scale back abortion from unlimited access to requiring 2 doctors' approval, I lose almost all of the religious opposition without dropping too many points from other voter groups!".

It's that damn focus on reelection. With reelection as your sole goal and losing the election as the ultimate game over fail state, your popularity with voters is the number one concern, and improving the country is just a numbers game to boost your popularity, not a noble goal of its own.

I've known intellectually that gunning for reelection above all else is a problem, but playing Democracy 3 and actually thinking about what I'm doing to get there is what really drove it home. The game gives a really visceral sense of how complex politics and economics really are, and if you stop to think, maybe even forces you to examine just how far you'd go when victims are only statistics.

With that in mind, Democracy 3 is not a "fun" game, but it's an important one that you really should play for a couple of hours while thinking about what you're doing (though if text-based sims aren't your style, the price tag might seem pretty steep).

Recommendation: play it.

As for the expansion packs, consider holding off until you know if you enjoy the game enough to spend more time with the increased complexity and more varied options. If the base game doesn't appeal to you on its own, the expansions won't help at all - but if it does, you'll enjoy the new tools and problems to solve.

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