Democracy 4 Review – Incremental Changes to a System That Works… sort of

    Title: Democracy 4
    Developer: Positech Games
    Release Date: January 13, 2022
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: Positech Games
    Genre: Simulator

Democracy 4 is the latest release in a franchise of games designed to give players — in the words of its creator — “the fantasy of influencing our political system.” This is a long-running series that has evolved over many years as modern politics have gone through a seismic shift. Democracy 4 has come at an opportune time as mainstream politics have never been more interesting.

It was this shift in politics that made its predecessor become outdated so quickly. Democracy 3 was released in 2013, just before much of modern politics began to change. It’s always been a series that allowed for absurd political simulations, such as implementing a police state or abolishing taxes. Still, even Democracy 3 did not predict the mainstreaming of policies such as “print money to ease deflation” or “build a giant wall on the border.” It’s safe to say democratic politics have changed since 2013, so the release of Democracy 4 — officially out of early access as of Thursday, January 13, 2022 — has adapted to our changing times.

This sequel is similar to modern-day politics. Democracy 4’s changes are incremental. There are many more policies, an improved visual interface, and some light story-telling mechanics added in, but it is mostly the same structure of a series of systems made many years ago. For a series that has stuck to its niche and somehow grown its audience, more of the same may satisfy its established constituency… but it doesn’t escape the dissatisfaction that comes from wondering if it could’ve been better.

Democracy 4's user interface
Behold: your democracy — a series of bubbles and sliders.

Democracy 4 is made by Positech Games, and I think it is relevant to mention the “studio” is really one man, Cliff Harris. Harris employs contractors for things like art assets or supplementary programming, but Democracy 4 is mainly his game. This is relevant because whenever you’re playing a political simulator, you have to ask yourself, “who made this game, and what were they thinking?” Democracy’s prior installments and early access reviews have attracted reviews from frustrated players who suggest the only viable path to success in the game is to implement its creators’ specific political worldview.

For example, some have suggested your country will only ever end up in shambles unless you implement socialistic policies. This is somewhat contradicted by Democracy 4’s in-game view of global player data that shows most players implement right-leaning policies. But even this “contradiction” is a simplification of all the factors at play. Maybe the reason most players implement right-leaning policies is that the default country to play is the United States — which leans right when compared to other countries in the world (especially compared to the other countries available to play in Democracy 4 — United Kingdom, France, Spain, Italy, and South Korea).

Like with any complex issue, there’s enough evidence for different interpretations of the most successful strategy, but Harris assures players he doesn’t insert his politics into the game. He does this precisely because “players get turned off by it.” This is a game meant to show modern politics for what it is: incredibly complex and often frustrating.

Democracy 4's user interface filtered for policy popularity
Democracy 4 provides a handful of filters to make the mass of bubbles easier to navigate, but some — such as this filter showing the popularity of policies — are more useful than others.

Complex is the defining attribute of Democracy 4, though that should not be confused with complicated. Complex is when the rules are simple, but many factors keep track of. Complicated is when the rules are difficult and may not necessarily have any influencing factors. Chess is complex. Many moves and many options. Taking off in an airplane is complicated. There’s one set of correct actions, and any variance results in failure. Democracy 4 is a complex game.

The complexity of Democracy 4’s mechanics should not be understood as a game with an impenetrable learning curve. To the contrary, the user interface of Democracy 4 is serenely straightforward. Players govern their country by looking at a grid of bubbles divided into seven overarching categories of politics: Foreign Policy, Welfare, Economy, Tax, Public Services, Law and Order, and Transport.

The bubbles are color-coded to indicate the player’s ability to control their outcome. Most bubbles are gray, but you’ll also see bubbles that are blue, red, and green. There’s only one difference between gray and the other colors, and that’s the player’s ability to change them directly. Gray bubbles are policies you can modify. Everything else is what I call “data points.” Clicking on a policy gives you the option to slide a scale to increase or decrease investment in the policy. As you move the scale, you can see various data points that your changes will influence. Data points are most commonly displayed as blue bubbles. You can’t change them directly, but you can influence them.

Screenshot of Democracy 4's election results screen
The cynical humor of Democracy 4 is sometimes subtle, such as showing the player the overwhelming majority of voters in every election didn’t vote at all.

For example, your corporation tax is a policy you can raise, lower, or eliminate, and any of those options will influence a blue bubble data point called GDP (gross domestic product, a standardized metrics for assessing the size of a country’s economy). Policies often influence many data points, and sometimes they influence other policies too. For example, if you have “police body cameras” enacted and you choose to expand the size of your police force, you’ll see the cost of the body camera policy will increase as your police force grows. If data points are really good or really bad, they’ll appear as green or red depending on the circumstance, such as “Technological Advantage” (green) or “Technology Backwater” (red). In effect, you can bring your country to a new utopia or total devastation just by moving sliders around.

All of these policies influence your popularity with set-in-stone voter demographics who will either choose to vote for you in the next election or vote you out into a game over. These demographics are a mix of political sympathies and identity groups such as Patriot, Environmentalist, or Liberal, as well as Middle Income, Commuter, or Farmer. In addition, the demographics can overlap for specific individuals. For example, a voter may be middle income and a commuter at the same time (in fact, most are).

This is also true for your ministers, who you select to oversee each individual branch of policies (listed above… Foreign Policy, Welfare, Economy, etc.). If you make voters unhappy, they’ll vote against you. If you make ministers unhappy, they’ll resign and make you more unpopular among the demographic they represent.

Screenshot of Democracy 4's minister selection page
Ministers has various stats, but in my experience, the only variable that mattered was their relationship with specific demographics.

A combination of your support among all the demographics, your ministers, and your party’s membership compared to the opposition gives you your “political capital” number. Political capital is generated each turn, and it is the only real resource in the game. Political capital dictates what policies you can increase, decrease, implement, or abolish. For example, a politician with low political capital cannot implement a draft or repeal healthcare, but a popular one might be able to.

Ok, so Democracy 4 is complex, but is it any fun? One of the hurdles for the Democracy series is it is in the same vein of other strategy games that ask players to “make their own fun.” There are no objectives in Democracy 4. Instead, you have to set personal goals for whatever country you govern. You need to have a sense of curiosity and experimentation to find any fun with Democracy 4; otherwise, it will grow tiresome quickly. A single “game” (playing a two-term politician) can take you anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour, but rarely does a single game take longer than that.

There are some achievements in the game to inspire your creativity. Maybe you want to take the United States into the socialist paradise it should’ve always been (there’s an achievement for that). Or perhaps you want to ironically implement George Orwell’s 1984 (there’s an achievement for that as well). Or maybe you don’t care about politics and just want to pass moderate policies until you’re universally loved by the electorate (there’s an achievement for that too). If you don’t make your own fun, you won’t find any in this game.

Screenshot of Democracy 4's voting intentions interface
Sometimes life comes at you fast. True to life, nothing unifies an electorate like really bad traffic.

I had been fiddling with the Democracy series since Democracy 2 back in 2007. Despite the many hours and years I’ve dumped into this game; I found the minor tweaks to the established formula enough to freshen up the experience. Many new policies are relevant to the modern era of politics that you couldn’t get in previous games. New policies include things like: Cryptocurrency Tax (or ban), Universal Basic Income, Gender Transition Policy, Synthetic Meat Research, Carbon Capture, and Storage, Legalize Sex Work, Prisoner Voting, Mandatory Microchip Implants, Banning Airports, and a lot of other fun stuff.

Democracy 4 also implements the features from Democracy 3’s expansions. Harris has said Democracy 3: Extremism was the best selling of the bunch, so those more radical policies and mechanics are in the new game as well. For example, if the player creates an immense divide in their country, you may find yourself in a crisis — such as “Class Warfare” from low equality. The crisis may result in the player getting “Emergency Powers.” These powers are temporary, but they juice your political capital to a maximum of 50 compared to the average of high 20s under normal circumstances. The idea is to give your government the ability to enact drastic reforms to overcome a crisis, but… you don’t have to do that. Instead, you can use the emergency powers to enact mandatory microchips or other extreme policies that are impossible to pass in more peaceful times. This, of course, opens the opportunity for you to intentionally manufacture a crisis as a strategy to pass your proposed reforms.

There are also the more peaceful long-term methods of implementing change in your country, which are rewarding in a different way. Some policies have low-cost and are low-impact, but they will fundamentally change the nature of your society over a long time. For example, a “Social Justice Foundation” will result in more citizens identifying as “Liberal,” or a “Daily School Prayers” policy will result in more citizens identifying as “Religious.” You may not see the impact in your first term, but seven years of teenagers praying to religion may result in a growing constituency you’ll have to appease or suffer the consequences.

Screenshot of Democracy 4's polling interface
You can follow the history of support per demographics, and often times these trends will reveal what’s contributing to your overall approval rating.

These long-tail policies and impacts are not exclusive to voter demographics. Sometimes tiny contributions to a more significant issue can result in massive problems or victories for your administration. The most obvious example is climate change or a debt crisis. Years of neglecting your deficit or environmental reforms will result in a death spiral of problems you can’t surmount without drastic measures. Learning to avoid these problems is one of the great feelings of accomplishment you can have in Democracy 4. Good things can happen, too, such as creating a perfect storm of circumstances to have “high productivity” or “egalitarian society.” Unfortunately, these tend to reinforce themselves in perpetuity unless you’re really trying to get rid of them.

There is really only a single criticism for Democracy 4, and it is the same criticism that has been laid against the series for over a decade: sometimes, the illusion breaks. The absolute peak of enjoyment in Democracy is believing you have masterfully analyzed the circumstance and threaded a needle so well you found success. The inverse — and far more common experience — is bewilderment at how any of this works at all. The confusion isn’t always paired with failure (in which case the universal “get good” may be the best prescription for your ailments), but rather there are factors in Democracy that seem insanely out of balance.

Screenshot of Democracy 4's voting intentions with the player's popularity at 100% for more than two years
You can become popular enough to abolish term limits, and after that point, the game becomes more like “Propagandist Dictatorship 4.”

Here’s some context for what I mean: countries are meant to have different demographics. France is more socialist than the United States, Canada is less religious than Spain, and etc. This means countries have different responses to policies. Abortion reform in the United States can be dangerous, whereas, in Canada, it’s not. This is an important design decision because playing in different countries is tangibly different. However, fundamentally changing the nature of these countries is laughably simple. If you play as France, just under 80 percent of the society will identify as socialist when you start the game on turn 1. However, increasing France’s “small business grants” to the maximum (at the minuscule cost of 4 political capital) will create a negative drift for socialism membership. It takes 12 turns to implement fully (one term is 20 turns), but since the drift’s maximum is -13 (this is absolutely massive compared to other similar variables), it doesn’t take long to feel its effects. If you spend one turn increasing small business grants and another turn changing France’s labor laws to be “balanced” instead of “pro-union,” you will have France’s socialist population percentage fall from 80 percent to 40 percent halfway through your first term. It doesn’t take much to get capitalists on the upswing, so with minimal political capital or effort, you’ve effectively turned France into the United States.

The issue I have with the above example is I didn’t do it on purpose; it happened by accident. I played a game as France to resolve its unity and budget problems. I was aware France is historically a mix of radically different political groups, including conservative Christians, progressive liberals, right-wing nationalists, secessionists, and many more. I hoped playing as France would reset the learning curve I had mastered for the United States. I passed two reforms in my first two turns that I thought were relatively low-impact. Then, within eight turns, the percentage representation for socialists and capitalists — two polar opposite groups — had flipped. It didn’t feel like I had ushered in a cultural revolution; it felt like the dials on the game’s back-end were out of whack. The illusion was broken. This happens all the time in Democracy 4.

Screenshot of Democracy 4's dilemma interaction
Democracy 4 adds more events, such as this Torture Deportation dilemma. Either option will result in short-term effects on your popularity among certain voter groups.

When you see cracks in the facade, it’s easy to become overly critical of the game’s mechanics. Why are there policies to make more liberals but no policies to make more conservatives (other than raising racial tension or lowering press freedom, which is… interesting)? Why do “media events” repeat the same decisions and never make an actual impact? Why can I never get rid of “media monopoly” when I’m playing as the United States? Why is there an event asking me to ban tobacco, but I’m still collecting revenue from my tobacco tax? In fact, why can I still implement a policy called “Ban Tobacco”? Why is there a reference to a “corporate manslaughter bill,” but it’s not an actual policy I can implement? Why do I keep getting assassinated? How do tasers prevent assassinations? Why do some policies seemingly have no downside? Why do other policies have seemingly no upside?

These critiques have been consistent across the lifespan of the franchise, but what’s unique about Democracy 4 is it introduces — for the first time — mod tools. These tools are relatively simple, but I wouldn’t call them “user friendly.” If you take a few minutes to watch Harris’ YouTube tutorial, you can get a handle for it, but — like many things in Democracy 4. These tools not only allow for a limitless supply of new policies but it opens the door for Democracy’s active fanbase to adjust the game to their liking long after its release. A passionate Democracy player may magically resolve all those problems I referenced above. You, too, can dive in to make our Democracy better for everyone.

Screenshot of Democracy 4's user interface filtered to show the impacts of GDP
Democracy 4 provides tools to track down the source of your problems, but sometimes the complexity of the mechanics makes it difficult to feel confident in your strategy.

Your reaction to that previous paragraph may be the best indication of if Democracy 4 is the game for you. I was excited about the mod tools over the moon when they were announced in October 2021. “Finally, this massively complex political simulator can become even more complex.” This is the type of thing I get excited about. A new feature suggests this latest edition in the franchise may get better with time.

For whatever flaws are apparent in Democracy 4’s base game, it is the only game out there that depicts the densely interconnected system of mechanics that influence our political system. It fulfills a fantasy you can’t get anywhere else in video games — and certainly nowhere else in life. This is why no matter how many criticisms I can list for Democracy 4, I find myself returning to it over and over. That doesn’t necessarily make it a good game, but if it’s the type of game you’d enjoy, there’s simply nothing else like it.

Review copy purchased by outlet or reviewer

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