Owing to the Strategy Games' historical origins in War Gaming, most of them revolve around territorial or resource conflict, with the ultimate goal of dominance. By contrast, the objective in political strategies is legitimacy, with two subgenres generally distinguished:
- In a Political Campaign Sim, players engage in political battle to come to power (whether through election or revolution). In other words, their goal is to claim and to substantiate greater legitimacy than the opposition.
- In a Government Sim, they already are in a position of power and must negotiate policies and spin intrigues to remain there. In other words, their goal is to maintain their legitimacy while undermining that of the opposition.
While some political strategies have explored feudal settings where legitimacy is derived from birthright and titles, most simulate democratic societies and frame legitimacy in terms of popular support and programmatic ideologies. The most common historical settings are therefore The United States (and Fantasy Counterpart Cultures thereof), followed by generic Banana Republics, the (former) Soviet Union, and The Roman Republic.
Political strategies often have some or all of following gameplay features:
- Political Ideologies are a form of Character Alignment and/or Karma Meter comprised of (often contradictory) scoring criteria, usually affecting either how many resources (see below) the player gets or how close they are to winning (or both). Because most political strategies take place in Western(-inspired) settings, specific ideologies are typically based on existing and historical Western political movements.
- Popular support is a indicator of the legitimacy a player enjoys within the simulated constituency. It has different gameplay functions in Campaign and Government Sims: the former usually tie it to the victory condition (the player with the most support wins), while in the latter, they function more like Hit Points (if your support drops below certain threshold as a result of your or other players' actions, you lose).
- Political capital are resources that the players spend to enact their political agenda. Some games have only one generic resource, while others subdivide it into multiple types, with different in-game actions requiring different amounts of different resources. Most common resource types are Money (material resource) and Clout (immaterial); sometimes, Force (training and equipment needed for direct, violent action) and Media (control over information itself) are distinguished, as well. Different resource types may be associated with particular ideologies, e.g. in how you obtain them or which flavor of actions you can spend them on.
- Political actions are the main Gameplay Mechanic available to players:
- The core mechanic in Campaign Sims is spending political capital to acquire popular support, whereas in Government Sims, capital is spent on proposing, backing, and opposing new policies and/or legislation.
- Additionally, both genres typically feature a large number of strongly-themed special actions, which can be used to give oneself extra resources, to sabotage other players' support or resources, or even to knock them out of the game entirely.
- In games with hidden information, one may carry out special actions in secret, allowing other players to spend resources to investigate them, in hopes of exposing one's wrongdoing and damaging one's popular support.
- Current issues are a form of Random Events designed to challenge the players' in-game ideology, ideally by pitting it against their pressing practical concerns (or against other players'). Taking a stance on a current issue (in word or in deed) typically results in the player's political capital and/or popular support shifting up or down, depending on the specific design.
- In multiplayer games, players are typically allowed to trade political capital at any point, but not ideology (however it is modeled in the game) or popular support. Furthermore, they are fully expected to form temporary coalitions, which may or may not have special mechanics attached to them, so political strategy typically sits in the Dynamic Alliances section of the Sliding Scale of Cooperation vs. Competition. Combined with ideologies-as-alignments, this usually facilitates some amount of role-playing among players.
The challenge in political strategies comes from managing the conflict of interest: your power (resource) comes from representing the interests of others, whether they are individual voter demographics, special interests like domestic lobbies and foreign NGOs, or rival players, all of whom impose contradictory restrictions on how you can spend that power. The tension comes from maneuvering around these restrictions to maintain your legitimacy and power base while also expanding it.
Examples of Political Campaign Simulations:
- The Campaign Trail simulates a historical American presidential campaign, with several dates available. The player must take a Presidential candidate and then choose a Vice-Presidential candidate setting the tone of the campaign, along with advantages in some states. The campaign proper allows the player to visit a state and react to events such as strikes, riots, or foreign wars. Several issues are available, depending of the year, including the annexation of Texas, the Transcontinental Railway, slavery, civil rights, gun rights or the Gold Standard.
- Game of Politics (1935) may be the Ur-Example of a political strategy game, simulating the 1936 US Presidential Election. Each turn, the player rolls dice, which determines how much popular support they can obtain in that round. Additionally, they can hold topical speeches (represented by playing cards with generic topics on them) to improve their support in specific states; each player starts the game with three random cards, and additional cards are drawn from the deck and auctioned to players (this is where their money resource comes into play) whenever certain values are rolled. The game ends once each state has at least one candidate in it, and someone rolls doubles; the victory then goes to whoever has the most popular support.
- Pax Porfiriana (2012) and subsequent Pax games may well have been the codifiers of modern political strategy board games. In Porfiriana, players assume the roles of wealthy Mexican magnates during the long reign of the (non-playable) Porfirio Diaz, who all jockey for position to topple him and to become the new ruler of Mexico. While the gameplay is mostly military-economicnote , what makes the game a political strategy is that victory conditions are tied to players' Prestige (representing their popular support), rather than wealth. Furthermore, there are four types of Prestigenote , and which one is needed to successfully topple Diaz depends on the current Regime typenote . These Regimes represent different ideologies, change at randomized intervals, and modify basic gameplay rules. Players gain Prestige from controlling and developing various Enterprises and Mines, but also from buying the support of influential NPCsnote , dubbed "Partners", who belong to one of four factionsnote with constantly shifting hostilities to each other. Political actions come in the form of black and orange cards, targeting other players or their Partnersnote and other players' Enterprisesnote , respectively; though because they often award Prestige to the target, it is also perfectly legal to play them against oneself. Current issues are represented by the Headline cards, which can trigger shifts in faction hostilities, Regime changes, and even economic depressions. A special type of Headlines are four cards that represent opportunities to Topple the presidentnote — if no player manages to win by the time the fourth Topple attempt is resolved, everyone loses.
- When playing the Woodland Alliance in Root (2018), the gameplay approaches political strategy (whereas other factions play more of a War Game on the same board). Ideologically, the Alliance represents a populist reaction to the ongoing exploitation the forest by and armed conflict between bigger factions, so it gains victory points by spreading civil unrest throughout the map, with the end goal of a popular uprising. Popular support is thus represented by Unrest tokens, which are purchased using one of two types of political capital: Clout (represented by Supporter cards) and Force (represented by Warrior meeples). Supporter cards are slowly accrued by drawing from a common deck and playing them from hand, or from other players who move their troops into regions with Unrest tokens or suppress said unrest with violence — this represents the growing popular outrage. Warrior meeples can be used normally for battle against other factions, but they also can be converted into Unrest tokens, as they represent not so much soldiers as seasoned revolutionaries. Finally, supporter cards can also be spent on local uprisings that not only produce new warriors and strongholds, but also clear all enemy forces and infrastructure from the region, showcasing the terrifying power of a popular revolt.
- SHASN note (2021) is a Kickstarted board game, notable for being setting-agnostic, with the same mechanics applied to different time periods from The Roman Republic, through modern-day US and India, to 20 Minutes into the Future. It is a Campaign Sim and allows players to dynamically shift their ideology. On their turn, each player draws an "ideology card" with a setting-appropriate policy question, with their answer determining their ideological standing and which resources they receive. The game has four types of political capital (Funds, Media, Clout, and Trust) and four corresponding ideologies (Capitalist, Showstopper, Supremo, and Idealist). Resources can be used to secure votes in one of nine regions on the board, or to purchase Conspiracy cards to sabotage other players. Having certain levels in any ideology, meanwhile, unlocks powerful special abilities. The goal of the game is to secure majority votes in the most regions: when majority is formed in all nine, the game ends and the player with the most majority voters wins. One unique twist is Gerrymandering, which allows a player who has the most voters in a region to arbitrarily shift voters (their own or the others'!) across all neighboring regions. Players can trade resources and Conspiracy cards at any time during their turn.
- Presidential Election (1980) was a type-in game by Ralph G. White for Atari 2600 about running for US presidency. The player can decide whether their presidential candidate is the incumbent or the challenger, Democrat or Republican, and shape their ideology by setting relative priorities of six current political issues (unemployment, inflation, energy, social adjustments, defense, and foreign affairs). They then have nine months to tour the six US regions, where they can either spend the main resource (money) to campaign for popular support, or conversely raise funds. At the end of each in-game months, they are given their current financial status and poll ratings, and are confronted by a random political event which they have to take a stance on according to their chosen ideology. The game ends after nine months with you either being elected into office or losing the race.
- President Elect (1981) is a purely U.S. presidential election simulator. It covers the period from 1960 to 1988 and allows a significant amount of customization.
- Republic: The Revolution (2003) puts you in the shoes of a young activist from a fictional post-Soviet Eastern European republic who forms his own political party to topple the corrupt and reactionary government. To do so, he recruits additional activists from all walks of life and assigns them (and himself) to carry out "actions" in the game worldnote , e.g. investigating a city district (or spreading misinformation), campaigning for popular support of his cause (or sabotaging that of rival parties), or even attacking other parties' functionaries (or protecting his own). Having popular support in a district over time nets you different amounts of three types of political capital (Force, Influence, and Wealth), which correspond to three core ideologiesnote and which you spend to launch actions, as well as story eventsnote . The game has three ideology-based endings: a Military Coup (Force), a Velvet Revolution (Influence), or a forced resignation of the incumbent President Evil, followed by his assassination (Wealth).
- The Political Machine series (2004ongoing) is a Campaign Sim where you assume the role of a candidate in the contemporary US presidential elections (choosing one of Real Life candidates from the corresponding historical elections or creating your own from scratch) and compete against the others by traveling from state to state and alternating between raising funds and growing your popular support by spending funds on political ads in newspapers, TV, etc., with their effectiveness depending on the message and where you broadcast it.
Examples of Government Simulations:
- Model US Gov (2014ongoing) is an ongoing Forum Role-Play hosted on Reddit, which simulates multiple branches of a fictionalized United States Government.
- Clout was a satirical browser-based MMO game where players assumed the role of members of a fictionalized US Congress proposing and voting on bills, while also engaging in Skullduggery (up to and including assassinations of other players) — thus, it can be seen as an thematic precursor to The Partisans. Each player belonged to one of five parties (Conservative, Libertarian, Liberal, Socialist, or Green), which determined their overall voting priorities. Players also had a Constituent Support score, which determined whether they were re-elected (remained in the game) at the end of every Real Life month and could be raised by voting with the party, lowered by voting against it, and lowered drastically by having their Skullduggery exposed by other players. The game had two types of political capital: money was used to buy bonus items and fund Subterfuge operations (including Skullduggery), while clout was used to propose bills and to vote for and against it. Clout was apparently shut down in 2017, with no known plans to bring it back.
- The Republic of Rome (1990) simulates the senatorial politics of the pre-Imperial Rome. There are no hard-coded ideologiesnote , but any public promises and deals made by players are mechanically binding. Instead of a party, each player controls a faction of named senators, who also constitute their political capital. Each senator has two popular support ratings, Influencenote and Popularitynote , as well as Oratory and Military ratings, with the most important being Influencenote . Other political capital includes Talents (money, either belonging to senators, or to the faction), votes (see below), and loyalties of veteran legions (mainly for players who pull a Caesar). While there is a wargame dimension to ROR, it is very formulaic and streamlined and serves mainly as a means for individual senators to gain popular support away from Rome. The heart of the game are the senate sessions, where players convert their senators' Oratory skill, loyal equites, and talents into votes, which are then used to support or oppose proposals, such as senator appointments as consuls, provincial governors, and generals leading legions to warsnote . Another important part of a senate session are the prosecutions, where a vote decides whether senators are fined or even executed for corruption or anything they did while in office on the previous turn (if convicted, a senator can try to use their Popularity to rouse the rabble to his defensenote ). Interestingly, while there are "laws" in the game, which tweak its basic mechanics when played, they only need to be voted upon with optional rules, otherwise they take hold automatically. Lastly, at any time during a senate session, players can attempt to assassinate another's senator, though the punishment for it, if caught, is severe. The game ends when a) a senator pulls a Caesar and successfully takes Rome with his loyal veteran legions, b) a senator gains 21 Influence and gets voted in as Consul for Lifenote , c) the Random Event deck runs empty (in which case the faction with the most total Influence wins), or d) the republic collapses either because it is fighting too many wars simultaneously, can't pay for its expenses, or the civil unrest results in a revolution (in which case all players lose).
- The Partisans (2019) is a board game that originated from Extra Credits's "Extra Politics" mini-series and was Kickstarted in August 2018. It simulates the workings of a US Congress-like parliament: each player chooses an ideology and draws a random lobby to give them political capital (PC) tokens. Each turn, players put together new laws/bills out of randomized "amendment" cards, which can enact the interests of their ideology (giving them victory points if passed) or lobby (giving them extra PC), then spend PC to play "political action" cards to sabotage other players and to vote for or against the bill. Players can trade any resource except victory points at any time. Each bill passed alters the government priorities, and at the end of the game, players receive additional victory points based on how closely said priorities match their chosen ideology.
- Dictator (1982) by Don Priestley is probably the Ur-Example of Government Sim in video games. The player assumes the role of eponymous dictator of a fictional equatorial Banana Republic named Ritimba during the Cold War, who must balance the influence of the three Ritimban social classes (the armed forces, the impoverished peasants, and wealthy landowners), guerilla insurgents, the rival Banana Republic of Leftoto, his own Secret Police, and, of course, The United States and the Soviet Union. Each in-game month, one of these factions presents the player with a randomized current issue, and depending on the player's response, their influence and opinion of the dictator goes up or down. While the game is theoretically endless, the player will inevitably run out of money to fulfill forthcoming requests with, sparking either a Civil War or an Assassination Attempt, which may or may not end the game, depending on the current balance of powers. The "good" ending requires the dictator to flee the country before he is assassinated or executed, with the final score determined by how much money he has managed to transfer to his Swiss Bank Account while in power.
- Balance of Power (1985) by Chris Crawford was another early Government Sim. The player assumes the role of the leader of either the US or the USSR and must, over eight year-long turns, maximize their and their country's prestige by resolving randomized current issues while undermining the opposing superpower's prestige without sparking a nuclear war (which is an instant-loss condition).
- Hidden Agenda (1988) puts the player in the shoes of a newly-elected president of a Banana Republic named Chimerica that has just rid itself of its former dictator. The main gameplay mechanics revolve around appointing four ministers (Agriculture, Defense, Internal and External Affairs) from the three Chimerican political parties (the socialist National Liberation Party, the conservative Popular Stability Party, and the centrist Christian Reform Party) and deciding with whom to consult regarding randomized current issues and which of the solutions they propose to implement. In addition to their own parties, the ministers represent the interests of various social groups and external powers, and the challenge is to balance these interests and to manage factional conflict.
- Crisis in the Kremlin (1991) simulates the political landscape of the Soviet Unionnote between 1985 and 2017. The player assumes the role of the General Secretary of one of three political persuasions (Reformist, Nationalist, or Hardlinenote ) and must deal with randomized current issues (such as the Chernobyl disaster), set various public policies and spending, and maneuver between powerful factions of the country without getting ousted from office.
- This is a major element of the Tropico series (2001ongoing) of Settlement Simulations: in most installments, the population of the eponymous fictional Banana Republic is divided into several factions, such as Communists, Religious, Intellectuals, Capitalists, Militarists, Environmentalists, etc. A big part of the game is finding ways to placate these factions, by constructing buildings and enacting policies (called "edicts") favored by their respective ideologies, while maintaining enough support to keep you in power. Consistently favoring a certain faction causes its numbers to swell at the expense of the others, securing your position but also making you more dependent on that faction. Your standing with the factions can also affect your foreign relations: for example, having better relations with the Communists than other factions strengthens your relationship with the Soviet Union but weakens your relationship with the United States.
- In the Democracy series (2005ongoing), you take on the role of a democratically elected leader and can influence your country and, more importantly, your standing among various demographics by adjusting various policies — and thus your chances of getting reelected at the end of your term. Balancing various demographics' demands, your own ambitions, and the requirements and limitations of your current government make up much of the game's challenge and appeal.
- A lot of Paradox Interactive's games include sophisticated simulations of historical politics:
- Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun (2003) and its sequel (2010) place a lot of emphasis on your nation's internal politics. Every unit of population ("pop") in your empire has its own needs based on its class and profession, as well as a set of issues it prioritizes that determine which political parties it finds the most attractive. A combination of government type and the political party in power determines the sorts of actions your government can take (passing reforms, setting tax rates, building new factories, etc.); some governments allow for the ruler to appoint and dismiss ruling parties at a whim, while others hold regular elections, with votes being cast according to voter eligibility rules that may give more weight to certain classes or lock others out entirely. Pops who feel that their needs aren't being met or that their issues aren't getting enough attention are likely to radicalize, triggering negative events that will affect the national economy, and may (read: often will) spill over into a full-on revolt to overthrow the current government. Balancing your people's nee
- The Crusader Kings series (2004ongoing) features political strategy of a very different mold than the rest: instead of a simulating republican politics, it concerns Medieval feudal and dynastic power strugglesnote . As such, religions replace ideologies as pseudo-alignments that restrict available succession laws (in regards to order of succession and gender) and government forms (feudal, theocratic, etc.); instead of popular support, your power is measured both by the landed titles held by members of your dynasty (tiered into baron, count, duke, king, and emperor) and by the Relationship Values with your liege, peers, and vassals; and the primary political capital types are Prestige (which you gain gradually from holding noble titles or in large chunks from winning wars or random events, and can spend on political maneuvering) and Piety (gained mainly from fighting religious wars and random events, and spent on matters of faith), plus taxes and levies for economic and military actions, respectively. The core mechanics are arranged marriages, claiming and bestowing titles, adjusting laws within your own holdings, negotiating alliances, and declaring and fighting wars; special actions include all manner of political intrigue, including conspiracies and assassinations (which unhappy vassals can use against the player, too).
- Stellaris (2016) features this in its political system. Unless you're playing as a Hive Mind or an Artificial Intelligence, you will have to manage various political factions in your society. These factions correspond to the eight ethics that you can organize your society under, each of which stands opposed to another one: egalitarian or authoritarian, xenophilic or xenophobic, pacifist or militaristic, and materialist or spiritualist. You choose your ethics at the start of the game (either three moderate ethics, or one moderate and one fanatical ethic), which initially inform the dominant political factions in your star empire, but this can change over time as your star nation grows and various events cause your people to change their outlook. Ironically, managing factions is typically easier in a democracy, as regular elections can allow a popular but disaffected faction to enter power, while under a dictatorship or a monarchy you have to maintain a constant balancing act with those factions that aren't in power lest they rebel (or force you to spend political capital suppressing them).
- The Geo-Political Simulator series, consisting of Commander in Chief (2008), Rulers of Nations (2010), Masters of the World (2013), and Power & Revolution (2016), puts you in the shoes of a head of state of a real-world country and tasks you with managing its internal and foreign policies, while avoiding being voted out of office, overthrown by your own military, conquered by another country, etc.
- Ostalgie: The Berlin Wall (2018) charges the player with managing the politics of one of several socialist states at the end of the Cold War, with the goal of steering the country through the upheavals and revolutions of the period.
- Democratic Socialism Simulator (2019) turns the player into the first democratically elected socialist president of a World of Funny Animals version of the United States (with a majority of Congress behind you and no Supreme Court issues to maintain Rule of Fun), and gives you a series of binary choices (and some random events) during which you try to maintain your electorate while trying to balance the budget, build socialism and try to reach the climate goals of your administration. Every choice will alienate some parts of the electorate and attract others, in addition to requiring set amounts of popular or congressional support.
- Yes, Your Grace (2020) puts the player in the shoes of a medieval king who is tasked with managing the foreign and domestic politics of his kingdom.
- The New Order: Last Days of Europe (2020) is an Alternate History Nazi Victory mod for the grand strategy game Hearts of Iron IV. Despite being a mod for a grand strategy game that had only a secondary focus on political management, TNO puts the political management to the forefront, with many different and unique political simulation mechanics for many nations.
- Suzerain (2020) is a text-based political Role-Playing Game putting you in the shoes of Anton Rayne — a customizable newly-elected president of a fictional quasi-Eastern European Republic of Sordland. Sordland is plagued by regional rivalries, aggressive neighbors, an economic recession, separatism, political violence, corruption, and, on top of all that, is caught up in cold war between two global superpowers vying for influence over it. The objective is to implement state policies that ensure the continued survival and prosperity of both the Republic and Anton Rayne.