Building my perfect dictatorship in 'Democracy 3: Africa'

Breathing fresh life into an already great game.

Positech's Democracy game series has always offered a grotesque caricature of politics. I've put tens of hours into Democracy 3 (D3) in recent years, and the lesson I've learned is that what starts as a nuanced game about balancing policies to keep a society happy more often than not devolves into a hilariously entertaining social-engineering simulator. This week, the one-man British developer released a standalone expansion to the game titled Democracy 3: Africa (D3:A), and the changes it brings add a whole new dimension to the series.

At first glance, D3:A is just as utterly impenetrable as the game it's based on. You're presented with a wall of bubbles that can be roughly divided into three categories -- policies, statistics and situations -- and a central set of charts that represent voter groups. Hovering over a group shows what's affecting it positively and negatively. Your job is to make everyone happy while keeping your finances in order.

The key to understanding any Democracy title is to grasp that bubbles are deeply interconnected, and that each voter falls in more than one group. No individual is just liberal or just religious; she is many things, and keeping your electorate happy is all about equilibrium. You'll never make every group totally happy, but you can make nuanced choices that'll keep them content enough.

Look at a problem, identify the cause and implement a solution.

If people get extremely upset with you, they'll peel away from regular activism groups into extremism. Think: Greenpeace vs. the Earth Liberation Front. These activists are highly dangerous, and if their needs are left unchecked, they will assassinate you. On top of all that, there are also ministers to keep happy, random world events that affect your country, quarterly dilemmas to act on and international relationships to maintain. Oh, and there are global recessions that can destroy your country's finances if you don't pay attention to them. You haven't felt dread until you've had your credit rating downgraded to a "B."

So those are the core mechanics of D3. It's not an accurate simulation of politics in any shape or form. Instead, it's a political-strategy game -- one that takes an idealistic view of the world. The lure of striking those balances to push your ideals on a nation is what made D3 so popular (it sold 500,000 copies) that Positech could afford to build a school in Africa.

D3:A is so different because the needs and issues of developing nations are vastly dissimilar to those of the Western countries featured in the original. Voter groups have been moved around, with urbanites, country-dwellers, the elderly and women now tracked for the first time. Press freedom, the right to protest and ideals of democracy itself are now modifiable and tracked, and you'll face regional health issues, urbanization problems and struggles with basic infrastructure.

To explain how this might pan out, in the original D3 you might start as prime minister of Britain and be tasked with fixing the dire situations of alcoholism, homelessness and an uncompetitive economy. Start D3:A, as I did, as the leader of Mauritius, and your immediate worry will be power blackouts, general strikes and a cynical natural disaster. And that's the easiest country to manage by far.

After failing miserably several times -- the first few in-game years in any D3:A campaign are severe -- I eventually settled on Kenya as a site for my utopia. Among other concerns, my first issues as president were foreign intelligence destabilization, an HIV epidemic, female genital mutilation, armed robbery, organized crime and even my own military interfering in daily rule. Let's take my Kenya game as an example. People were very, very unhappy, and I needed to choose which issues to tackle in what order.

The start screen for the Kenya scenario. Red bubbles are negative situations, green positive.

This meant prioritizing smaller problems over the big issues -- fixing an HIV epidemic probably would be my first point of order in real life, but I knew it would take years to see any positive political effects there. Instead, I started with the armed-robbery problem. I first increased the police budget -- a change that goes through quickly -- and set up a community police force. Everyone will appreciate crime rates falling, but using more authoritarian tactics like armed police, security cameras or torture would upset too many voters.

Over the next few turns (each turn represents a three-month period) both environmentalists and feminists began to radicalize, so I spent most of my time and political capital implementing low-cost policies to curb extremism. A nationwide door-to-door recycling service, (admittedly weak) gender diversity quotas and a ban on genital mutilation did the trick, but not before I'd survived two assassination attempts. I also invested heavily in science funding, which would ultimately help ease the HIV epidemic and improve the economy, and reacted to a random event by starting a campaign encouraging safe sex, which, incidentally, helped lower HIV rates considerably.

Of course, religious types weren't happy with what they saw as encouraging casual sex, so I had to delay my plan to make abortions more accessible. Instead I focused on kickstarting the economy, offering grants to small-business owners, while at the same time tackling pollution by encouraging home renewable-energy generation. Unfortunately, after a few quarters, I had more problems to solve, and some extremely unhappy patriots. Life's tough when you're running a developing nation, and D3:A is much tougher than its predecessor. It's also more nuanced; where in D3 you could dial policies up to the max and quickly engender change, here you must be very careful to keep a balance. Expect to be assassinated several times before you figure out how to make it into your second or third year as leader.

Expect to be assassinated several times before you figure this game out

This nuance leads to some tough decisions. Child labor was common in Kenya when I took over, but following my instinct to ban it entirely would have serious ramifications for the poor and those living in rural areas who relied on the income their children generated. Likewise, maternity leave was only at half-pay when I took office, but giving women full pay -- although great for improving gender equality -- would enable them to take more time off work, seriously reducing productivity. At the time, I was running a small deficit and just couldn't afford to take the hit.

If you can make it through your first term and get reelected, things settle down a little. It's likely that more than half of your population (D3:A is based on a two-party system) is happy, and with those confidence levels you'll have more political capital to implement policies. You'll still be faced with tough decisions, but you can start being sneakier and leading your electorate to change their views. Offer up rural development grants, and more people move to the countryside -- meaning positive policies in that area will have a wider reach. Push evolution over creationism in schools, and the number of religious people in your society will decrease; boost funding to your national health service, and the number of state employees rises. By making tweaks like these, you can completely change the political compass of your country.

But for this to work, you need time. I was approaching the end of my second and final term as president when I decided I wasn't quite finished implementing my grand vision for the country. I then made two decisions that sent me down a path of no return. First, I changed the constitution of Kenya, allowing me to run for president as many times as I deemed fit. This made liberals unhappy -- and they were pretty miffed at some of my recent decisions already. The problem was, I didn't really have any money in the budget to make a bold play at winning their favor back. And besides, anything I did to please liberals would only upset conservatives.

So I clicked on the bubble that said "press freedom," and set the slider within to "none."

The liberals were not pleased, but this action boosted the happiness of everyone in the country so much that it didn't even matter. The press were now peddling propaganda that boosted people's opinion of me and our glorious country. One thing that both my changes did affect negatively was my Democracy score, which, you guessed it, feeds into the Dictatorship score -- a new metric for D3:A. As uncomfortable as that made me, my citizens seemed happy, generally. I had some problems with trade unions a few turns later, and decided to ban the right to demonstrate. Democracy was slowly slipping from my grasp, and the liberals, as silent as I'd made them, had never been unhappier. I then fell upon a novel thought: With my critics largely silenced, I could finally create the liberal, egalitarian society I dream of at night.

I could finally create the liberal, egalitarian society I dream of at night

This simple dial sent me on a path of no return.

Luckily, becoming a dictator does wonders for your political capital, effectively doubling the number of policies you can implement each turn; no one's going to stop you, after all. Rather than role-playing as an evil dictator, though, I made broad reforms, outlawing race discrimination, establishing human-rights and nature-conservation authorities and even devolving many powers down to local governments.

I then invested heavily to boost the economy, establishing a large budget surplus and slowly improving our credit rating. I used the increased income to pump money into our schools and libraries, and beautiful things started to happen. Residential credit facilities began to spring up, responsibly lending to those with aspirations of a better life. A stock exchange was established, and we became a technological powerhouse. I then began to tackle the ails of the poorest in our society, outlawing child labor and introducing food stamps, free school meals and extensive legal aid to help families hit by the ban.

In 2059, Kenya's major problems have all been solved, thanks to my leadership.

I'm now in my 43rd year as president, looking out across my fine country. We haven't quite gotten over the issues presented by mass urbanization and overcrowding, but our country has never been happier. Foreign aid might have dried up decades ago, but under my firm leadership we've erased public debt and have $11 billion in the bank. In fact, we're so prosperous that we're giving out $51 million in foreign aid each year.

One-hundred percent of our country's employees work for the state, many on rockets and satellites for our new space program. Religion, trade unions and crime have been eradicated almost entirely. Things couldn't be better in Kenya. One day, I might decide to let people protest. Or re-establish the free press. Maybe I'll even let families have more than one child. My citizens would never rebel against their fine leader, would they?

On second thought, I probably have a few more terms in me.

'Democracy 3: Africa' is available for PC, Mac and Linux now on Steam or through the developer's website. It also supports creating actual democracies.