With the New Hampshire Presidential Primary being held today (sort of), we turn our attention to what I consider the most comprehensive and enjoyable effort yet at a presidential election video game. There have been many electoral simulations released over the years. Some very crude, especially back in the early days of computing, basically assigning money to states and regions and enduring random outcomes. As the technology improved, the ability to determine campaign strategy and messaging became folded in. In my opinion, the genre reached its pinnacle in 2006, when developer TheorySpark released President Forever 2008+Primaries.
This game has everything for the hardcore political junkie or would-be James Carville. You take a real-life candidate (or make your own!), and then you set issue profiles and determine travel schedules and allocate ad buys after you figure out what to run on which airwaves how often. You decide whether debate prep or fundraising are better uses for your candidate's time as you careful monitor his or her energy levels. You keep an eye on the financial bottom line, woo influential political and media endorsements, watch the polls, and consider the impact of national events. In the end, your exhaustive strategy will have to shepherd enough electoral votes into your campaign's column come November to claim victory. One of the super cool aspects of this game is that it allows the player to try this feat not only in 2008 but in 1960, 1980, 1992, and other years. Heck, there are mods to be found online for just about any past US presidential election. But that's not even the coolest part.
This game is unique because it doesn't begin in July with crowned party nominees and a sprint to election day. No, it begins months earlier, with a crowded field of candidates all seeking to earn enough delegates through primaries and caucuses to secure their party's nod at the convention. Your candidate will have to navigate the thorny politics of intra-party squabbles, finite resources, shifting electoral maps, and razor-thin margins of victory in fifty different political landscapes. Attack your opponents to gain an edge, or play nice and maybe when a fellow candidate drops out they endorse you. If you win, your reward is the opportunity to pick a running mate, dust yourself off, and tackle the main event of the general election.
I love this game. It tries with admirable ambition to include as many details of a campaign without becoming unwieldy or dull. It's replayable: take the helm of a well-funded juggernaut presumptive favorite or mount a scrappy insurgency, play a scenario from another century, import yourself as a candidate! I don't really hand out ratings in this collection of profiles, because that's not what this is about. I cherish each of these games for their own reasons. But this is one that is not only a favorite of mine, but a first-rank game by any measure.