Review: Democracy 3 for iPad - the game that lets you control the country

News Shopper: Democracy 3 is out for iPad after being an indie hit on PC Democracy 3 is out for iPad after being an indie hit on PC

At one time or another each and every one of us will have claimed to be able to do a better job of running the country than the government.

I could turn the NHS around if I was in charge, I wouldn't let our schools get into that state, I would tighten up our border controls - and so on.

Democracy 3 is a game which puts those assertions to the test by saying fine, here's a country, knock yourself out, let's see what you can actually do.

An indie hit on PC which has shifted 150,000 copies since its release last year, Democracy 3 is newly launched on iPad to provide a tablet version of this complex political simulation.

The first decisions to make in the game are nice and simple - pick a country from the list of six Western nations and set some parameters such as how long each term is and how many terms you can serve.

After this your time in office begins, and there are no more straightforward choices.

Each 'turn' in the game represents three months in your life as PM, President or, in the case of Germany, Chancellor.

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During each period you are allocated a certain amount of political capital, points which are used for introducing new policies, raising or lowering taxes, tweaking spending in various areas and managing your cabinet.

The main 'action' in the game takes place through the home screen which is full of colour-coded icons and bars representing policies, statistics pages, situations that need addressing and satisfaction levels among numerous sectors of the population. At first this page looks overwhelmingly complicated but after a while spent figuring out what everything does and where everything is, it starts to make complete sense and navigating it becomes intuitive.

One of the very best design features is the way tapping on a particular policy or issue brings up a network of lines showing how it is connected to other policies and issues and how it affects different voter groups. It's a great easy-to-understand way of showing how everything is linked to something else. Changing a policy may seem a good idea in principle but could well have a detrimental effect elsewhere or alienate a section of the electorate.

This hub screen serves very well as a gateway to a wealth of additional information. Each icon and bar leads to extra pages showing causes and effects, adjustable spending figures and more analysis of the relationships between your policies/laws and the voters.

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Democracy 3 can be as deep and detailed as you like. If you've not got a head for numbers you can try and bluff your way through by instinct alone - in much the same way, some would say, as many real-life politicians do!

At the end of each three-month stint you get a report outlining the state of the economy, what the electorate think of you, security concerns and any other major news. Quite often there are also one-off decisions to make, such as 'should fox hunting be banned?' or 'should we allow GM crops to be produced?'

If it's election time you're shown the results on a bar graph, which obviously determines if you get to carry on or it's game over. Otherwise, the game rolls on and the next spell begins. Other ways the game can end are serving out your maximum time allowed in office and being assassinated, which has happened to me twice. In fact, I've been killed more times than I've managed to win elections.

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After starting out as head of a government, three things are very quickly revealed.

The first thing is it's impossible to please all the people any of the time, never mind all the time. No decision you take will be universally popular.

The second thing is you realise it's impossible to achieve any of your political goals without being prepared to make big compromises and sacrifices along the way. You can try and be ruthless and single-minded if you want, but chances are it will catch up with you later at the polls. That environmental crusade you want to embark on might be a noble cause but it will damage your standing with some vital groups unless you do something to offset the impact.

A lot of the things you want to do are not necessarily the things you will be able to do. Much of the work in Democracy 3, similar to real politics I suppose, is a balancing act - balancing the demands of your voters to maintain popularity, balancing the books to keep the country's finances healthy and so on.

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The third thing discovered soon after starting the game is capitalists are the most difficult people to make happy. They get very shooty about showing their displeasure too - those two times I've been assassinated were both down to money men clubbing together and hiring a hitman to take me out on the basis of my policies supposedly not being in their best interests.

Though easier to please, other voter groups can't be taken for granted. Nor can they be pigeonholed. Voter AI in Democracy 3 appears to be complex, with each person potentially belonging to multiple categories, such as a conservative, poor motorist or a retired, religious liberal - and these different factors influence them in different ways and to different degrees. Cynicism, mistrust and apathy all play a part too.

Hopefully by now I've been able to convey what an interesting, thought-provoking, absorbing and, above all, challenging game Democracy 3 can be, but there are of course some limitations.

For one thing, players are restricted to either adjusting existing policies or implementing new policies from a small list of suggestions from ministers. It's not possible to just make up a completely new crazy idea you want to try such as invading France for poops and giggles, introducing a massive tax on mobile phones or outlawing violent video games.

There are not that many distinct differences between the different countries featured in the game, so there aren't really any UK-specific issues to wrestle with such as EU membership or Scottish independence.

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Personality plays a massive role in modern politics but seems to have no bearing on your fate in Democracy 3. Real-world elections can be won and lost based on what voters think of party leaders, but this game is more about the numbers than the characters.

Even in the UK, Democracy 3's brand of democracy is very much two-party. Even with only one rival party to compete with, the opposition is non-existent until election time - and even then the result of the election has much more to do with voters' happiness (or lack of) with your policies rather than anything special the opposition has done to try and oust you. There is no 'rise of New Labour' type scenario to contend with. There is also no election campaigning to be done, and no chance to set out a case for why you should be re-elected. Given the depth of the rest of the game, this part seems very basic.

In fairness, these limitations are understandable. I'm not sure there's a developer in the world who could create a fully authentic virtual version of our society and a completely comprehensive simulation of our political system.

Elsewhere, there are some signs that Democracy 3 on iPad is a port of a PC game. On one screen it tells you to hover your mouse over something while in other places menus are obscured by the tablet's keyboard.

A slight lack of polish in some areas is a minor issue considering how good Democracy 3 is overall and taking into account the inspiring story of one-man developer Cliff Harris, the brains and everything else behind Positech Games.

If you're someone who likes a lot of boom boom, bang bang in your games or you're used to playing the shallow casual games usually found on portable devices, Democracy 3 may come as a culture shock to you.

I really like it. The subject is interesting, the strategy involved in playing it is engrossing and the fact it's a complete game available for a one-off reasonable price is refreshing.

I hope this leads to more of Cliff's games appearing on iOS in due course, and serves as stimulation to other simulation developers who have great games not currently available on the platform. Original PC games can work on iPad, as Democracy 3 proves.

8 out of 10

Available to download now from iTunes App Store

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