First Impressions: Democracy 4

The Democracy series by developer Positech are some of my most replayed strategy games. They put you in the unique position of being the ruler of a modern-day country and letting you introduce, cancel, and alter policies as you see fit; free of the all the difficult bureaucracy and processes that this would usually entail.

Democracy 4 released in Early Access late last year and I was so excited for the sequel that I decided to pick up a copy. However, buying it right now may have been a tad too early on my part.

The game is basically just Democracy 3 with a tweaked UI, and I mean that literally. The game has all the same policies and mechanics as its predecessor, with the Electioneering DLC and other packs now included in the base product. There are a few new situations and policies to play around with, but if you’ve played a significant amount of Democracy 3 and own its DLC, then upgrading to this fourth installment will feel underwhelming.

On the flipside, using the same framework and recycling the original content does mean that Democracy 4 is already a very robust game at this point. Those who are interested in a political sim with current-day topics won’t be disappointed with Democracy 4, despite its Early Access status.

Democracy is a novel game all about balancing policies to reshape the nation you are put in charge of. Each of the nearly-dozen countries included has its own starting situation, which include problems for you to address and unique, cultural traits. South Korea is a great example, as it has to deal with the military threat of North Korea, as well as its complicated language giving it trouble when dealing with foreigners.

All this information is presented to you through a screen full of colored bubbles sorted by category. Red bubbles represent your problems, blue are statistics like GDP or crime, and grey bubbles are your policies that affect them. By hovering over any bubble you can see how it positively or negatively affects anything else, and by clicking on it you get a more detailed overview of that.

The game looks complicated and busy, but getting the hang of it is easier than you’d think. The menus are effectively designed to make analyzing the data at your disposal super easy while still letting you feel smart. Introducing any new bill will show you everything it affects right away and the graphs change in real-time as you alter the funding it’ll receive. The clarity is a step up from Democracy 3, which already left little to be desired in this regard.

Fixing problems and improving your country are fun challenges, but also confronting in a way. If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why the government just won’t implement some measures that would be surefire improvements to society, than seeing the price tag on your favorite policies in Democracy 4 may serve as a wake-up call. It’s as much a game about introducing solutions as it is about cutting them. You may have to raise taxes to eventually drag people out of poverty or cut out foreign aid to increase social justice on your homefront. It is possible to create your ideal society without compromises, but it’ll be a struggle to get there.

Random events will shake up your careful plans and you’ll have to deal with your cabinet members who will grow disloyal if you don’t cater to their demographics, as well as radical organizations that may spring up if you upset them. Your tenure in office may be cut short by a terror attack or you may be voted out because the populace hates you. There’s a lot to the game, though Democracy 4 regrettably still shows flaws that were already abundant in its predecessor.

Cabinet members will sometimes be disloyal for no apparent reason, random events may be nonsensical or repeat within the same run, and elections are so easy to win that the electioneering feature is basically useless. Any run where I remotely cared about winning would see me win in a landslide; 80-95% of the voters every time. Your opposition is way too weak and the new addition of optional third parties only serves to further trivialize your main rival. You never get the sense that you are competing with anybody and they don’t represent any coherent world view, which feels like a missed opportunity in a time where extremist worldviews are gaining traction.

The game also doesn’t always make as much sense. There are several policies for equipping your police force with riot gear, but these don’t actually have any impact on actual riots; they just exist to make liberals angry for you having them. Some data points also go through such intensely-random fluctuations that sometimes a situation triggers in a turn where it has already dropped below the threshold again.

Some problems can only really be resolved with a single solution and some data points appear to be missing entirely. For example, there is gender equality in the game and lots of factors that influence it, but there is no LGBT equality, in spite of many different events and policies that reference it. Just like the riot gear example, this means that issues like gay rights, transitioning, and references to real-life events like the gay wedding cake incident are just an opportunity for you to score free points with either conservatives or liberals.

There is ample room for improvement still and the game’s Early Access release periodically lets users vote on what new features should get priority. More policies, situations, and problems are of course always nice, though I’d appreciate having a few more visual options to play around with too.

I definitely didn’t regret getting back into this game and I’ll be looking forward to future updates. Fellow fans of Democracy 3 are better off waiting for a while longer, but if you are new to these games than there is no reason not to skip straight to this newer release.

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