The first thing to know is that TPM is not a hard electoral simulation by any means. When you see the game's start menu for the first time, you're immediately aware of the light-heartedness that permeates the game. The graphics are colorful and cartoony and the candidates are caricatured. Even your candidate selection must be done with tongue in cheek; Bill Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger are available right off the bat (a Constitutional impossibility) and others like Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt are unlockable (a temporal one).
The candidates are rated on a wide variety of attributes, from fund-raising moxie to compassion, and you can also create your own character from scratch. Match-ups are strictly limited to Democrats versus Republicans, however. Green Party-types and Whigs need not apply.
There are two main modes of play, Campaign and Fantasy. Campaign allows you to choose a candidate from one party and climb a ladder of sorts, facing more challenging opponents as you defeat lower-ranked ones. I can assure you, it gets rather difficult. In Campaign mode, it's always 2004 and the same issues are always prevalent. In Fantasy mode, you can set variables such as international tension and the state of the American economy, which change the political climate in the country.
Once you're in the game itself, you're presented with a map of the U.S. around which the game revolves. The game's GUI is really the best part of the show, as it presents a large amount of data simply and effectively. You can view the country through different filters which show relative wealth, political leaning and polling data from each state. For example, when viewing through the popular vote filter, a state that is indifferent to either candidate will show up as black. As it starts to lean in the direction of one candidate or another, it will turn increasingly brighter shades of blue or red. Clicking on an individual state will show the issues that matter there, and how they are viewed by that state's Democrats, Republicans and independents. Social Security is a vital issue in Florida, but it doesn't show up on the radar in Maryland. Environmental issues matter across the board on the west coast, but only to Democrats and independents in Michigan.
There's a lot of things to do once you get started: opening state campaign headquarters let you address a wider number of issues that are important to that state and bring in more contributions, giving speeches and running newspaper, television, and radio ads raise your candidates profile in that state and draw attention to the issue concerned. There's also appearances on talk shows, fund-raising, garnering political capital, winning endorsements and others. All of the activities sap a certain amount of your candidate's endurance for that week, so good foresight and time management are prized here.
The way issues and campaigning are handled is simplistic, but it works. If your candidate is in Ohio, you'll see that voters of all flavors are against the outsourcing of jobs. You can then choose 'Make A Speech' and select the issue 'Outsourcing of Jobs.' From there, there are four choices: I oppose, I favor, my opponent opposes, my opponent favors... aforementioned issue. Again, simplistic, but elegant and flexible.
Random events also occur, granting you cash windfalls and losses, and allies like "Hollywood Friend" and "Media Darling" that can be moved about the map to improve various ratings for you in the states where they are located.
All in all, there is a lot to like in The Political Machine. As I mentioned earlier, the issue system is simple, but that allows the game to handle a wealth of different issues (there's hundreds). If the options on abortion had been wider and thus more realistic (support/oppose late-term abortion, abortions in the case of mother's health, congenital defects in the fetus, and so onad infinitum), then the interface would have been much more unwieldy. As it is, the game is a fine 'gateway drug' for non-gamers, and that may be the best part. The interface is intuitive and user interaction has an immediate, visible effect on the game. Creating a television ad or an interview on Larry King creates a newspaper headline that flashes on the screen, and attacking your opponent on a key local issue immediately shifts a closely contested state to your color. Election night sweeps the country from east to west, lighting states in the color of the winner as dramatic music plays and exit polls flash. Gamers and non-gamers, political junkies and the apathetic alike may find The Political Machine a gripping experience.
In another nod to non-gamers, The Political Machine is almost a coffee break game. Once can reasonably finish an entire campaign and get his or her election results inside of an hour of play time. This is not a criticism; the game is structured with its Mortal Kombat-esque ladder system to encourage repeat play. No two games have been alike for me yet.
The single largest criticism that can be leveled against the game is that it does lack realism and depth to a certain degree. You can campaign the whole game undercutting your opponent and you'll never see a backlash from your negative campaigning. With insistent campaigning, you can create political impossibilities, like a far-left wing Democrat with a zero rating for 'Religious' taking Texas, Alabama and Mississippi. The fact that you or your opponent can choose long-deceased political figures to be running mates will turn off those who desire a hardcore political sim. Put another, The Political Machine is notGran Turismo, it'sNeed For Speed. You can change the tires, but not the gear ratios.
As long as you go in with that knowledge, most strategy gamers, political aficionados and RPG gamers should enjoy the Political Machine. The game is fun, pure and simple, and may end up hooking your non-gaming family and friends, too.