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Pros: Appealing artwork, data-rich statistics, and infinite strategies guarantee replayability.
Cons: High learning curve and no final wrap-up or postmortem to aid learning.
Bottom Line: It's a highly entertaining and surprisingly deep way to help students see the strategy -- as well as ethical choices -- involved in elections.
Political Animals is a look at the minutiae of decisions that candidates must make during a political campaign, so it will be most appealing for students who love data, strategizing, and resource management and allocation. Teachers should first play it a few times to get oriented, so that they can guide students through how the game works and how to best make decisions based on their personal campaign goals. Everything happens pretty quickly in the game, even though it is turn-based, so urge students to take their time. Their first time through, they'll still be getting oriented, even if they've read all of the tutorial screens which are plentiful but can only accomplish so much.
Both teachers and students would benefit from playing their first game as a short, 15-day campaign with $300,000 so that they can try out different strategies and get to the end result faster. The next time through, have students play the game with a tighter budget and a longer campaign, and at a higher difficulty. A tip for both teachers and students: Take care of events as soon as they come up, because if they are left until the end of the turn, there might not be enough resources left to make the desired choice.
Note: Players with visual challenges may find the many small details on the screen difficult to process.
Political Animals is an election simulation/political strategy game set in a fictional world filled with animal candidates and constituents from mice to pigs to crocodiles. While they look adorable and cartoony, the characters run the gamut from rule-abiding to corrupt. The goal of the game is to choose a candidate, mold a platform, and win the election. Along the way, players can discover just how corruptible or incorruptible they are.
The game plays like a turn-based strategy game, and can be played against the computer or another player via local multiplayer. To begin, players choose (or have the computer automatically choose) their candidate, platform, strategies, staff, island map, and home district. Each candidate has one advantage and one flaw, along with a special ability that allows them to take special actions, such as kicking opponents out of districts or investigating them. Players pick two platform priorities from religion, health, employment, law and order, or public works. Then they pick three staff members (e.g., thugs, agents, lawyers, couriers, activists, reporters, and security). Each member of the player's staff has a strength and a weakness as well, and they also have a daily salary. Each district that players must win over has different priorities that candidates need to appeal to.
Each turn, players spend points to move their candidate and staff around the map. They can then bribe voters for support, raise funds from the wealthy, give gifts to influential locals, hold rallies to build grass-roots support, or work on campaigning. Players also encounter random events that can help or hurt them, incur scandals, or run into members of the opposing side. The game is filled with data students must use to make decisions, including a periodic Weekend Report that shows how candidates' reputations have changed recently. At the end of the campaign, the votes are counted district by district and the winner is announced in a striking newspaper headline.
While Political Animals is about civics and campaigning, its lessons extend beyond the factual and toward the social and emotional. By running a campaign, students learn how hard it is to appeal to everyone, and that having more money doesn't necessarily lead to a win. On the campaign trail, students practice valuable skills. They learn to manage budgets and logistics, track each district's strategy and goals, and read and analyze charts. There's a lot of data to keep track of, and spending money and logistics points are key to an efficient and effective strategy. Students will need to manage their staff, sending people to places where they can make the biggest difference in the campaign. Students will also have to keep track of their actions and stay on course with their plan, since there isn't a log of actions. As students try out some strategies, they'll watch their influence increase or decrease, along with the influence of their opponent and the (usually) large group of undecided voters. The whole thing is a delicate balance that will teach students how to weigh options, strategize, plan for the future, and get elected without resorting to nefarious tactics (unless they want to, but they might get caught!). It's not a 100 percent realistic view of how campaigning and elections work, but it will show students how many factors are involved -- and how difficult it is to run any kind of successful campaign.