Positech Games’ Democracy 3 is a little bit outside my usual review spectrum. For the benefit of anybody who doesn’t regularly follow my website, I strive to make sure that everything I review has some sort of genre element. Democracy 3 is the exact antithesis of genre. As a political policy simulator, the game is about as real as one can expect. Reality, however, is a subjective thing. Even though I have only invested a few hours into this game, I find myself questioning the reality that underwrites the simulation’s “real” world.

Democracy 3 has players select a western democracy and act as its head of state. From there, a complex web of policy options are layered into various national crises and data tables (e.g. organized crime as a social issue has ties to policy decisions on prostitution, alcohol, policing, narcotics, drones, and so on). Armed with this knowledge, players spend political capital to legislate as they see fit. The endgame is two-fold: keep the country on track and get re-elected.

Great, I thought to myself, I’m a political wonk and a data analyst by day – not to mention the fact that I’ve mostly figured out Crusader Kings II – this should be a walk in the park.

Hubris, thy name is Adam…or is it?

My attempts to run Canada in a socially progressive and Keynesian fashion led to ruin on two separate occasions. Play through one saw Canada’s GDP bottom out so badly that after ten turns (2.5 years in game time) I said “fuck it” and started again.

On my second play through I lasted thirteen turns before a Christian fundamentalist group assassinated me. I suppose that’s what I get for refusing to enact surveillance policies while investing in community policing.

Meanwhile, the policies I did support never seemed to earn the approval of the electorate, my cabinet ministers (upon whom my pool of political capital depends), or the private sector. While it’s possible that I’ve yet to discover the right way to finesse success out of this game, I’ve also noticed some problems that make me think Democracy is less a simulator and more a political statement on the part of the developers. For example, each time I’ve started the game as PM of Canada, I’ve come into office with ~20% popular support. I get that the developers are giving me a steep hill to climb, but that number doesn’t make sense. Nobody gets a majority government in Canada without at least ~40% popular support.

Then there’s the economy. Canada starts with a roughly 7 billion dollar quarterly defect and a national debt of a trillion dollars. On my second play through I shrunk the deficit with each turn, and then crushed it through the creation of a carbon tax (All for you Stéphane Dion). After two turns running a surplus budget, my global credit rating was downgraded to triple B.

Again, the game defies reason. Nations that are actively shrinking their deficit – an in-game deficit born of Democracy’s desire to replicate recent global economic trends i.e. Keynesian-style spending to offset a lack of market demand amid the global recession – don’t get their credit ratings knocked down. Pair that with an in-game recession as a seemingly fixed event, and I was as good as sunk. Interest payments on the debt became impossibly high at a time when GDP was falling independent of any of my policies. Since raising taxes during a recession is akin to economic suicide, my only option for addressing a spiralling deficit would have been to roll back the social policies which addressed widespread organized crime and unemployment. Because who needs employment policies when the economy is in the toilet?

All of this leads me to ask: is Democracy 3 actually Wargames. That is to say, is the only way to win at Democracy not to play? Or perhaps a better question, are the economic and ideological biases of the developers being marked out as the path to victory? Consider that when I raised taxes on mansions and very high income earners, I got hit with a brain drain. For a third time in as many hours the game didn’t make sense. Very high income earners don’t represent the bulk of knowledge workers. So is the game punishing me because I’ve made a poor policy choice, or because the developers think I’ve made a poor policy choice?

I can live with Democracy 3 if I’m not fully appreciating its complexity, but after a few hours, I fear that my lack of success might be due to the game disagreeing with my politics.

More on this as it develops.