Running a country is one job I’d never, ever want to have. The level of responsibility, the very real and wide-reaching consequences of your actions, the fact that no matter what you do, you’ll always leave someone feeling let down-—there’s no paycheck on the world that I think could be worth all that. Some people dedicate their whole lives to a career in politics; I can’t think of anything worse. And yet, I find myself enjoying the early access for Democracy 4 a whole lot. Take away the stress and responsibility of doing it for real, and running a country becomes fascinating.
Democracy 4 is, in essence, a strategy game that has you juggling your own political motivations, the health and wellbeing of your citizens, your government’s popularity, and your country’s finances. Do well, and you’ll likely find yourself re-elected and able to serve another term; do poorly, and an unhappy constituency will be sure to show you the door at the next election.
The bulk of Democracy 4 revolves around setting, adjusting, and abolishing policies in seven key areas: welfare, economy, public services, transport, tax, law and order, and foreign policy. Every adjustment has a flow-on effect for numerous different societal indicators, which in turn affect other indicators, which in turn affect others—the core of Democracy 4 is about using your policy decisions to manipulate a complex web of causes and effects, in order to achieve whatever political goals you’re trying to achieve.
Let’s take car usage as one example. You can’t directly control how widely-used cars are in your country, but you can influence this by enacting policies that discourage car use or encourage other forms of transport—hybrid car initiatives, petrol taxes, how much you invest in roads, and so on. It’s also affected by other indicators, like citizens’ average incomes, GDP, and how widely used other forms of transport are. In turn, car usage affects everything from the environment to rates of respiratory disease to the oil demand. Here’s what that web looks like, even for a relatively straightforward example:
As you can probably guess from that screenshot, Democracy 4 is a heavily UI-driven game. All your policies and indicators represented by little icons grouped in their respective areas, with the map of cause-and-effect relationships just a mouse hover away. Clicking on any icon gives you more detail, and in the case of policies, the option to adjust them or cancel them altogether. It can be a little overwhelming at first, especially since the in-game tutorial doesn’t really go into much detail, but once you start get more familiar with how all the different elements relate to one another—and, crucially, which pieces of information overload you can safely ignore at any given point in time—it starts to make sense.
On top of that, you have to also think about how popular your decisions will be—a widely-disliked president is one who’ll struggle to get re-elected. Voters are broken down into different groups based on things like demographics, political beliefs, car ownership, income status, and so on. Any individual will be a member of multiple groups—they could be a middle-income socialist environmentalist self-employed parent—and every decision you make will affect the happiness of these different groups, in turn affecting your overall popularity. You can’t please everyone, so you have to decide where your priorities lie, but you also take a big risk if you start completely alienating large groups of citizens.
There’s also the country’s finances to think of. Running a country is an expensive affair, and you have to find the best way to manage the financial situation so that you can keep services running and keep doing the work that needs to be done, which again loops back into your policy decisions. Who do you tax, and how much? How much are you spending on certain things, and is that expenditure worth it? How manageable is your national debt?
And finally, there’s your “political capital”, which is basically your main resource for actually doing anything in Democracy 4. Each turn (which represents one quarter of a year), you get a certain amount of political capital based on, among other things, how loyal your cabinet ministers are and how popular you are with voters. Most actions and decisions cost some amount of capital, with more drastic or controversial decisions costing a lot more.
It’s how all these different details and systems connect to one another that makes Democracy 4 fascinating. No policy, outcome, voter group, or financial consequence exists in isolation; everything is connected to everything else. Even seemingly random events stem at least in part from the conditions you create. Figuring out how to keep everything in balance, while still trying to achieve your political goals, is a complicated but rewarding endeavour.
There’s still a lot I’d like to see added to Democracy 4 before it leaves early access. At the time of writing, you can play with five different countries—USA, United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Canada—but there’ll be more added over time. Here’s hoping New Zealand and Japan are among them. I’d love to see different mechanisms for parliaments and elections incorporated, too, to better reflect the featured countries. In real life, Germany uses a mixed-member proportional (MMP) system, but in Democracy 4, it’s got the same American-style first-past-the-post system as every other country in the game.
It’ll be interesting to see how Democracy 4 develops over the course of its early access period. But even as it is now, it’s managed to turn what is, to me, one of the least desirable jobs in the world into a rather captivating strategy game.