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Plugged In

Playing politics: Can you do better than the pros?

Plugged In

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Times are hard. Money is tight. Congress's approval rating is even lower than normal. In these recession-struck days, there's still one thing that unites Americans of all political stripes: a dislike of politicians. And if there's a second, it's the certainty that you could do better.

Care to put that to the test?

You can do just that in with these election-themed political games, which range from highly realistic recreations of famous U.S. election races to tongue-in-cheek simulations of the political hustle and bustle of running your own banana republic. Democrat, Republican, or Independent, you're sure to find something worth your vote.

President Forever

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And the polls open with 2006 classic President Forever, a detailed simulation pitched firmly at the political hardcore.

Pick your candidate, be he (or she) a famous front-runner or a little-known also-ran, decide where you stand on the issues, and get ready for a lot of tough choices. For detail and realism it can't be beat, but it's not exactly a lightweight play; it's hard to learn and can be almost overwhelming at times.  Right now the game simulates the elections of 1960, 1980, 1992, 2000, 2004, and 2008 — but a 2012 update is in development now and should be released this summer.

eLECTIONS: Your Adventure in Politics

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If that all sounds too factual (or too much like hard work), check out the free, browser-based game eLECTIONS. Think of it as The Game of Life: Presidential Edition -- only rather than getting married, changing jobs, and buying houses, you'll be holding fundraisers, going on TV debates, and jetting around the country rallying your supporters. It's aimed more at teens and casual political observers than Karl Rove wannabes…but then, whoever wanted to be Karl Rove, anyway?

The Political Machine

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Here's the obligatory centrist, third-party candidate. Pitched somewhere between President Forever's wonkish detail and eLECTIONS' family game night levity, The Political Machine's cartoony presentation and approachable interface make it an easy play. Even so, it still managed to be realistic enough to correctly predict the outcome of 48 states in the 2004 election, a task that proved beyond a good many professional pundits.

The only drawback? The game's latest update was in 2008, and as yet there's no sign of a new edition featuring this year's campaign. Still, if you can face reliving Obama vs. McCain another few times, it's available for download for a measly $10.

Balance of Power

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Of course, the real work doesn't start until after the election is won.

Geopolitical simulator Balance of Power gives you the unenviable task of taking the helm of one of the Cold War powers, with the simple aim of avoiding World War Three. This is not as easy as it sounds. In fact, it's extremely difficult. A seminal piece of game design, Balance of Power's theme is dated but the gameplay is still as gripping as it ever was. Best of all, it's "abandonware" — nobody really knows who owns the publishing rights, so you can download it for free if you know where to look. (Here, as it happens.) It's easier to install on older versions of Windows, so blow the dust off that old laptop and get nuking.

Tropico 4

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No matter how much of a Washington wannabe you are, at some point this year you're going to get tired of hearing about the presidential race. Perhaps, indeed, you already are. So what could be better than a tropical vacation?

Sure, you'll have to run the place, balancing the interests of competing factions both domestic and international, while managing the island's economy, defending it from rebels, and maneuvering your way to success in its periodic elections.  But life ain't all bad for El Presidente: if you can siphon off enough cash into your personal slush fund, you're guaranteed a luxurious retirement. Provided you live that long.

1960: The Making of the President

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As the nation gears up for yet another bitter, hard-fought presidential election, it's tempting to look back on past political campaigns with fondness — after all, things were nowhere near as aggressive back then, were they?

Board game 1960: The Making of the President, which depicts the 1960 race between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, should disabuse you of any such rose-tinted recollections. From Nixon's infamous pre-debate "lazy shave" to the signing of the 1960 Civil Rights Act, this two-player game recreates the drama of this celebrated face-off, and lets the actions of the players decide the election's nail-biting outcome.

Hot Dog Bush

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Once you're done biting your nails, however, you're probably ready for something a little lighter. So how about a hot dog? No ordinary coneys, these: they're served by one former prez George. W. Bush, who's inexplicably decided to run a hot-dog stand now that he's out of office. Something of a come down after being Commander-in-Chief of the world's most potent military force, perhaps, but judging by his grin he seems to like the simpler lifestyle. Will he prove more popular as a vendor of questionable meat by-products than as a president? He's going to need your help.

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