Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Democracy 2 Review

Democracy 2, developed and published by Positech Games.
The Good: Sophisticated cause-and-effect system, good interface despite crowded screen, easily modded
The Not So Good: Can be quite daunting, interruptive tutorials
What say you? A complex but ultimately enjoyable political simulation: 6/8

With election season coming full tilt, the nation’s attention has turned towards the political spectrum. Cashing in on this fervor is Democracy 2, a sequel to the two-year-old Democracy. This is a simulation that shows how difficult it is to keep everyone happy: you can enact policies and change their funding, which will influence what people think about you. This newer version features more realistic voters, a cabinet, varying political costs, and an overall improved simulation. Or does it?

Democracy 2 is presented in the 2-D view that the original game used: all of the factors, policies, and other data is kept intact. However, the graphics have been updated and streamlined to be easier on the eyes. In general, Democracy 2 looks slightly better than its predecessor, featuring better transitions, improved icons, and the like. Information is presented as well as it could be, with flow arrows displaying positive and negative relationships and light gray backgrounds for population levels in each member group. This makes it easy to spot which areas need improvement in order to sway a group of voters. Considering how much information is given to the user, I can’t imagine the interface being designed any better. Sound in the game is minimal at best and can be ignored. So overall, Democracy 2 takes the logical step forward while keeping the excellent user interface intact.

Your goal in Democracy 2 is to get re-elected as the leader of a fictitious country, and you do this by enacting laws and adjusting funding that will sway your desired constituents. The game comes with a tutorial that teaches you the basics of the game; despite the potential overwhelming nature of the game, Democracy 2 is actually pretty easy to learn. The tutorial messages also extend to the main game mode and tend to disrupt gameplay too often; putting the messages in the corner instead of requiring the user to manually close each one would have worked a lot better. Democracy 2 comes with nine countries based off real-world nations, each with pre-set starting conditions and recommended party names. While you can certainly mod in a country of your choosing, it would have been nice to give you the options in-game for customizing or randomly generating your nation. Speaking of mods, Democracy 2 lets you change pretty much anything in the game; there are already instructions on how to add new content; the potential for future game expansion is quite high.

Your nation is broken up into six areas of concern: foreign policy, welfare, economy, taxation, public services, law and order, and transport. Each area has a set of conditions (like air quality or violent crime) that are affected by policies you enact (or are already active when you start a new game). Each of these conditions in turn affects the voters that are divided into twenty groups. Complicating things is the fact that almost everyone is a member of more than one group and each has a level of “dedication” to their groups. This means that a retired liberal farmer might enjoy your state retirement benefits but dislike your religious views more and not vote for you. The end result is a seemingly complicated but intuitive system that produces some realistic results. To show how sophisticated the unlying system of Democracy 2 is, this example shows all of the things that affect the Gross National Product. Yes, that's sixteen different aspects of your nation that influence one result (and there can be more if you enact new policies). This means you really have to think about the impact of your actions, as the effects are far-reaching. Luckily, the effects are clearly given and Democracy 2 comes with a bunch of other information, like budgetary pie charts, poll results, and detailed information on profiled people.

Most of your time will be spent enacting new policies. This is done using political capital generated by your cabinet. There is a cabinet member representing each of the six groups, and the happier they are, the most capital you gain. This is different from Democracy that limited you to two per turn; now, the better you do the more policies you can start (makes sense). In addition, the more controversial the policy is, the higher the cost. There is a whole crap load (technical term) of policies to choose from: income tax, bus lanes, pollution controls, health services, recycling, and lots more. Once you enact a new policy, you choose the level of funding; Democracy 2 gives you instant feedback on its effects as you adjust the slider. Obviously, you have to take the overall budget into consideration, but I was usually functioning with a positive cash flow through most of the game. Usually, each new game starts with a number of critical conditions that must be taken care of immediately (like hospital overcrowding, infectious disease, binge drinking, and homelessness). After that, it’s time to pay attention to the largest groups and pander to their desires.

At the end of each turn (which simulates three months of real time), you will typically have to make a choice on an important issue, such as terrorist deportation or same-sex marriage. Since you are forced to make a decision and its effects are not given, it’s somewhat a guessing game as you need to gauge the effects of each choice on your most popular groups. You will also need to make two promises before each election that will need to be fulfilled in order to keep your people happy. The end result is a very challenging and realistic simulation of political life. Make no mistake: Democracy 2 is very, very difficult game and it’s hard to make it past the first election for beginning players. However, the gameplay is satisfying to someone interesting in the inner workings of the political spectrum, and it’s fun (in a nerdy sense) to see how difficult it is to correct national dilemmas.

Democracy 2 is everything you would expect in a sequel: an expansion upon the original game. This title keeps the spirit of the original intact while adding new features that make the simulation even more realistic. Even with all of the things to worry about in the game, the user interface makes it very easy to see cause and effect. The game can get repetitive, especially if you play countries with the same general problems, but there is enough content to make you focus on different things each game. The random events also serve to spruce up the action a bit. The potential for third-party modifications extends the life of the product even further. Still, Democracy 2 can be quite daunting and difficult to new players. I like Democracy 2, but it’s such a niche game that widespread appeal is unlikely. However, if you’ve been looking for a superb abstraction of political operations, then Democracy 2 is definitely a game you should look at.