Trump Is Overpowered, and Other Lessons from a US Election Simulator

The Political Machine is more checkers than chess, just like real US politics.

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Mar 5 2016, 5:00pm

Image: Stardock

Last year we wrote a story about Prime Minister Infinity, a super-realistic political simulator that lets players take control of one of Canada's main political parties and lead it to victory in the 2015 federal election.

Players could tinker with an astonishing amount of details, modifying their candidate's policy positions with a series of sliders in order to pinpoint their stance on a variety of issues. It's an accurate and considerate—read, Canadian—simulation that's been refined over 15 years.

But fuck that noise. We're in the midst of an American election, and I want an election game that caters to my American sensibilities. I want something simple, flashy, and a little obnoxious. I want to kick ass and take names. Most important of all, I want to win without having to think about it too much.

Enter The Political Machine 2016, an American presidential election simulator made in America by developer Stardock. If Prime Minister Infinity overwhelms the player with details and realism, The Political Machine keeps it simple.It skips the primaries and jumps right into the general election, so all you have to do to get going is choose your candidate.

Image: Stardock

"We feel like the best part of that process was running for the president, and adding the primaries would just add time and complexity to the game without enough 'new fun' to justify it," VP of Stardock Entertainment Derek Paxton told me.

You can make your own candidate, but part of the reason Stardock has released a new version of The Political Machine for every election since 2004 is that it allows the developer to add the relevant candidates and issues of that election cycle.

I consider myself pretty good at games, and The Political Machine seemed simple enough. So when scrolling through the bobblehead renditions of the current political field, I picked the candidate I thought would be most entertaining to make president: Dr. Ben Carson. The Political Machine also allows players to pick their opponent, so I picked the Democrat that I and the current polls agree is most likely to become the next president: Hillary Clinton.

Just like Mortal Kombat. Image: Stardock

As I found out, these early decisions underestimated both Clinton and The Political Machine as an accurate simulator.

By default, The Political Machine suggested I play the game on the easy setting, and undertake a campaign that lasts 21 weeks, though players can choose to play on difficulties as high as "masochistic" (which makes the AI opponent more vicious), and campaigns that are 52 weeks long. Each week counts as a turn, during which players use a limited amount of energy to perform as many tasks as they can: travel to different states, give speeches, pay for political ads, build headquarters, and more. It's a lot like Sid Meier's Civilization.

Players win a game of The Political Machine in the same way real candidates win the election: a candidate that gets the most votes in a state wins that state's delegates. The candidate with the most delegates becomes president. The delegate distribution is carried out the same way it is in reality, and the states' political affiliation and top issues mirror reality, too. States along the border with Mexico are more concerned with immigration, for example.

"We update throughout the process to add issues that occur in the real campaign," Paxton said. "It is always interesting to us to see the development of the campaign from the time we start working on the game up until the election. The topics often change considerably, and we update the game to reflect that."

Damn right, Carson. Image: Stardock

For example, Stardock is now preparing a patch that adds random issues that could crop up because of the Supreme Court vacancy or the Flint water crisis.

I "role-played" as Carson, meaning I tried to emulate his positions on issues as best as I understood them from the debates. That alone didn't make the game harder. For example, just like in real life, winning the delegate-rich Florida can make or break a Republican campaign, but that's not a hard place to be a Republican. I simply flew bobblehead Carson down there, gave a speech about how we must destroy ISIS, ran political ads about my commitment to Israel, and watched my numbers go up.

These positions also didn't come to haunt me on the national level. I couldn't win an endorsement from environmental groups because Carson is just not the kind of candidate to stump about climate change, but there's no shortage of other influential groups willing to back me, including the NRA, foreign policy experts, and business moguls.

Overall, Democrats and Republicans are well balanced. There's nothing ideologically that prevents either side from winning. A Republican will have a hard time winning Massachusetts and a Democrat will have a hard time winning Texas, but there's always a path to victory.

The problem with Carson is his stats. Just like a role-playing game, each candidate has between 1-10 points in a variety of skills that define his or her abilities: Money, fundraising ability, charisma, intelligence, experience, and so on.

If it was just about issues, Carson would win. Image: Stardock

"Surprisingly, we find that designers who side with one party unfairly handicap their own party too much," Paxton said. "I don't know if they are overbalancing for their own bias, or if they are just too harsh on the candidates they know more about. But we generally go through a few rounds trying to get the candidates right and making sure their stats are reasonable, not just crazy caricatures or their public perception."

If you watched Carson in any of the debates, you might agree that his defining characteristic is that he's a bit… subdued. Especially compared to the rabid Republican lineup this year. To me, he seems like he's always just waking up, about to go to sleep, or like he just ripped the dankest bowl of indica. Either way, I know I'm not alone because in The Political Machine Carson's biggest flaw is his low stamina rating, a pitiful 4 out of 10.

This makes winning the White House almost impossible. After several hours and more than a half-dozen attempts, I certainly haven't been able to do it. When Carson gets to a state and delivers his message (mostly that the US should fight ISIS), people love it, but he can't get around fast enough. This is especially a challenge for a Republican, who has to hop around a large number of states worth few delegates in the South. So while Hillary, who has 7 stamina, is zooming between Ohio, California, Florida and New York with enough energy to give speeches along the way, Carson flies to Florida, gives a speech, and then maybe has enough energy left to get to Texas before taking a nap.

Image: Stardock

I tried the traditional Republican strategy of forfeiting coastal states like New York and California while running the board in the middle many times, but never pulled it off. Carson always ran out of energy or money before he could cover enough ground, allowing Clinton to nab Louisiana, sometimes even Florida. One time I even tried a crazy strategy of investing most of my resources in Texas, Florida, and California, and the latter even turned red in the final weeks before the election, but in the end Clinton always managed to take it.

It was incredibly frustrating because Carson's problem wasn't that people disagreed with him. The Political Machine's America generally agreed with his platform that guns are good and ISIS is bad. He just didn't have the resources and god/game-given attributes to pull it off.

In this way, The Political Machine is disturbingly like the real thing. It's about the candidate, not the issues; personality, not substance. In fact, a candidate's position on an issue is the most flexible part of the game. I could give Carson a platform that copied Bernie Sanders' socialist playbook, or any other opinion I wanted. It doesn't matter.

I made America great again. Image: Stardock.

After a number of losses and a couple of hours, I gave up on Carson. I wanted to win, goddammit, so I picked Donald Trump. It was as if I lowered the difficulty setting. He had the same message as Carson, essentially, but he starts the campaign with $5 million, as opposed to Carson's $3 million. He also has 7 stamina, 8 fund raising ability, and 8 charisma. I beat Clinton by a landslide on my first try with Trump. I even won California.

In this sense, The Political Machine is horribly unbalanced. I like to win, but I also like the illusion that I accomplished something. When I played with Carson I never won, but the challenge actually forced me to understand the basic rules of the game. When I played as Trump, the rules didn't matter because he was so overpowered. I won so much I got tired of winning. If I was at Stardock working on the next patch, I'd make Carson a little stronger, sure, but the top priority should be nerfing Trump.