My much-anticipated copy of GMT’s Mr President: The American Presidency 2001-2020 arrived last week–all nine pounds of it. I’m about halfway through an easy run of the sandbox scenario and already have Many Thoughts, but I want to give the game the thorough investigation it deserves before writing about it in any depth. At the very least, I want to give a couple of the “historical” scenarios a try, and look at Gene Billingsley’s Designer’s Notes in detail.
However, “the beast must be fed” and so I’m going to jot down some random observations and share some quick snapshots here both to help organize my thoughts and to give a taste of the game’s felt experience. So here goes:
Mr President delivers on its promise, which was to make the player feel like they were, literally, in the President’s chair in the Oval Office–but it’s not a simulation: to its credit, the game put gameplay first;
In some sense the game is the ultimate in Tower Defence, where the Tower is not necessarily the USA but instead your political survival;
It could have been a lot more “elegant” and “streamlined”–but then it would have sacrificed a lot of the granularity which gives the game its immersion;
That being said, I have never seen a game of this complexity put so much thought into “user experience”, such that it IS possible to literally set up the game and play it out of the box with almost no difficulty, and for that alone Mr President is a triumph of design;
The heart of the game is its Turn Sequence, and mastering its ebb-and-flow is crucial if you want to have even a chance for success (it’s also where you can most “game the system”, undermining the pretence of it being a sim);
Billingsley has taken great pains to present Mr President as a game that doesn’t “take sides”, including a statement in his notes that the game was designed by an inclusive group of people with diverse backgrounds and political views (a la Hitman and other video games), BUT:
The choices Mr President makes in terms of which aspects of contemporary US politics to leave in, model abstractly, or leave out DO still, in fact, make a statement;
In fact I would argue that the game’s hidden thesis is that, although a modern-day American President has a lot of power, their ability to actually effect change is massively dampened by exogenous and unpredictable factors (not to mention the “unknown unknowns”), which begs the question of why do Americans invest so much time, effort, and above all money to elect “their guy” to a position which has a lot less agency for choice than advertized?
David is the Managing Editor of the DWP. He learned chess at the age of five and has been playing tabletop games ever since. His collection currently consists of about 600 games, which take up way too much space. His game "Odd Lots" won the inaugural TABS Game Design Contest in 2008. He is currently Managing Editor of The Daily Worker Placement.
All in all he's pretty smug about his knowledge of games and game