Election – get yer oversized rosette on

Mmmm, bold primary colours; very 80s

Mmmm, bold primary colours; very '80s

“Maggie, Maggie, Maggie! Out, out, out!”, “The lady’s not for turning”. Ah, British politics in the 1980s; thank f*ck those days are behind us. Anyway, I’m not just bursting out a couple of quotes for no good reason, today’s game is all about British politics in the ’80s. It’s Mastertronic’s 1984 release Election in which the player must contest a parliamentary seat in a general election and run a campaign to win that seat. This game was published on the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Amstrad CPC from what I can gather but it’s the Speccy version I’ll be playing for this review.

First, the player chooses their political party from between Conservative, Labour and the Alliance (now known as the Liberal Democrats) and from there chooses a number of manifesto commitments to focus on; the opposition candidates then do the same. Choosing the manifesto commitments is quite interesting as regards how things have changed since 1984 with Labour wanting to leave the EEC and unilateral disarmament whilst the Conservatives focus on encouraging private healthcare and controlling the trade unions with ne’er a word about recycling. The Liberals, bless them, hardly seem to have changed at all.

Fight the power!

Fight the power!

Anyway, you chooses your party and your manifesto commitments and then we get a graphical display representing streets in the constituency (called Pendel) and their voting intentions which, surprise surprise, are fairly evenly-split between the three parties. Essentially, your campaign focuses on canvassing voters on a street-by-street basis.

Starting with campaign funds of £4000, the player decides how the money must be spent over the course of ten days after which the election will take place. Each day is split into several sections. First, the player will be offered the opportunity to rent billboard space on a street (they have no choice which one, it’s announced by the computer) and must place a higher bid than the other candidates; this is done “blind” meaning the player has no idea what the other candidates are bidding, the winner gets the billboard and presumably more votes.

Next comes the opportunity to buy a newspaper advert. This time it’s all about how much you spend on the advert and this affects the candidates general popularity in the constituency.

After this comes the chance to speak at a meeting in a street. Residents will bring up issues and the player has 25 “points” to distribute in their replies and can allocate as many as they like to a single issue. The number of issues brought up is random and so allocating points can be a gamble. Manifesto commitments also affect how replies go down – if it concerns an issue on your manifesto you score extra, if it concerns an issue on an opponent’s manifesto you lose points. If your points are in the positive after the meeting then you gain votes on that street; presumably based on how many points you have.

This represents streets in the constituency; in my first game I managed to turn Tory Way into a red stronghold. Ha!

This represents streets in the constituency; in my first game I managed to turn Tory Way into a red stronghold. Ha!

Following this comes the main part of the campaign – the player is shown the streets in Pendel again and asked to choose how many and which streets to canvas. Once the streets have been chosen the player is then asked to decide how much they want to spend on canvassing and this will affect their number of votes in that street.

After this, the whole process starts again with a new billboard opportunity for the next day. In addition to this there are random events which can affect your popularity or campaign funds. After day ten the election takes place and the votes are counted on a street by street basis until they are all in and the winner is declared.

So, how does all this play? Well, not too badly. The game is in basic so it runs a bit slow but thinking about which streets to canvas and how to allocate meeting points is quite good fun and the election at the end is genuinely quite gripping as the votes pour in and (occasionally) predictions are turned on their heads.

However, I had some issues with this game. The main ones are about realism. The voters in Pendel don’t seem to be terribly ideological and can be won over far too easily. For example, I concentrated on canvassing the true-blue Tory Way in my first game and managed to turn it into a Labour stronghold. The thing is, Tory Way was clearly a well-off area full of blue rinsers and in the real 1984 some Labour candidate could spend £10,000 canvassing such an area and be lucky to pick-up a handful of votes. The way the random events affect gameplay is also clumsy. If bakers lose jobs then your candidate loses popularity but there’s no indication that you are the incumbent so… erm… why do I get all the shit for it? On an even more absurd note I once lost popularity for something the population were blaming on the government despite being a Labour candidate; say what now? The “meetings” system is similarly flawed; you gain extra points for answering a question that links to your manifesto in some way but again there’s no ideological basis for how this works. For example, if I am the Labour candidate and I have a manifesto including a commitment to control the police and I’m holding a meeting in a Conservative street and someone brings up a question regarding the police then I score well for banging on about my manifesto point despite the fact that it simply would not go down well in such an area, indeed quite the opposite. Again, this whole aspect of the game feels unrealistic. It’s also pretty easy; I played this game twice to write this article and won both times despite not having a very carefully-planned (indeed some might say utterly bloody slapdash) campaign strategy and despite having a general popularity in the negative figures.

So, overall this might be worth a game or two just out of interest but it is repetitive, easy and you shouldn’t expect anything remotely like a real mid-’80s general election campaign. Now, where’s my donkey jacket?

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2 Responses to “Election – get yer oversized rosette on”

  1. gnome Says:

    Another one I missed back in the 80s and another fantastic write-up. Mind you, coming up with a realistic political-sim is nigh on impossible, as it would need to actually best every sociological theory yet, while simultaneously creating something enjoyable as a game.

  2. Matty Says:

    I was thinking the other day how this game could be made more realistic because I agree that creating a truly realistic political model is nigh-on impossible. What I think it needed was an “ideological” or “social” mark for each street meaning that various parties would find it easier to canvas votes on that particular street: this would have stopped things like me being able to turn Tory Way into a socialist stronghold with a few days of doorstopping. I think the “random events” thing needed to be expanded and based more around what party you were campaigning for – for example if something happened which impacted negatively on the government then that would hurt a Tory candidate and help a Labour or Liberal one; and vice-versa.

    I’m actually a bit surprised that political campaigning games seem to have come and gone with the 1980s; I suppose it’s all down to people expecting more and wanting to rule a country and fire-off missiles rather than just campaign for votes but I think, on a strategic level, that whole political scene can be quite interesting.

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