“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.
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.
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?