This Old Game – Shadow President
How’s this for an unusual premise for a game: the President of the United States is not actually the President. Well, they are, but that’s just a show for the public. Real power lies in a mysterious council, who elect the true power – the Shadow President. The Shadow President is the person who actually directs U.S. policy, foreign and domestic. Just the same, the Shadow President’s actions will reflect on the public President. And their fates are tied. If the public President loses an election, or worse, impeached and removed from office, the Shadow President is out as well. The council will just find a new manager. Behold – the convoluted plot behind Shadow President, a game that should have been the successor to Balance of Power.
In 1991, Robin Antonick was wrapping up several years of working on two incredibly popular games: the original John Madden Football, and its sequel. Together with fellow designer Brad Stock, Antonick set out to create a deep, yet playable, geopolitical simulation, in the mold of Balance Of Power. But he had something bigger in mind. Using recently declassified information and the CIA World Factbook as the foundation of their database, Antonick’s game would bring the Multi-Polar game-play of Balance Of Power to include virtually every country on the planet. It promised to be a geopolitical simulation junkies dream. Unfortunately, it only kind of succeeded.
Released for DOS in 1993, gameplay in Shadow President begins on June 1st, 1990, just as the most-recent conflict between Somalia and Ethiopia ends. A major, and starting, point for the game will be just over two months later, August 2nd, 1990, when Iraq historically invaded Kuwait. Each country has wide range of data, and there are spreadsheets worth of data-point categories and stats. Each of these have variety of effects both internal, and in terms of foreign relations. But the game does a good job at showing you only those points that were effected by a particular action.
The Shadow President has a broad range of actions at their disposal, including Diplomatic, Economic, Covert, Military and Nuclear. Each of these categories has an appropriate range of sub-actions that can be targeted at individual countries. “Economic > Change Trade Status”, or “Diplomatic > Initiate Cultural Exchange”, etc, for example. Each various action has a range of effects, regardless if the action is successful or not. Players also have a limited Foreign Aid budget in each category as well, allowing them to disperse funds to friends and allies.
While gameplay is deep and can be fun, the user interface is a disaster. Buttons are everywhere, and labeling is not entirely clear. Shadow President frequently likes to use graphical-representations to show data. This could work, if done right. But in Shadow President, these representations are not charts and graphs. No, they are little 3D’ish models of buildings, trees, people, etc, meant to represent a counties economic and military power, quality of life, etc. It’s insane. Changes over time are impossible for players to track. It seems pretty clears that, at some point in development, Antonick and Stock decided to make the UI as un-spreadsheety as they could, and they went way, way too far. How has my Humanitarian Aid to a particular country help to effect it’s Quality Of Life? Who knows, unless you have a photographic memory and clicked on the “City” icon while examining that country year-over-year.
The game also has bugs that were never patched. None are really show-stoppers, but some can be weird. For example, if you are able to prevent Iraq from invading Kuwait, every few months, for the next two years, your Defense Secretary will alert you that Iraq is about to invade some other country, but never does. Then, if the President is re-elected, that will stop. Bugs aside, the game algorithms can be pretty cleaver, especially those for economics. Antonick and Stock capped how quickly a countries economy can grow, at about 10%. You can see this in the popular “Give Most-Favored Trade Status To Every Country To Reduce The Budget Deficit” strategy. If you do it too quickly, by the time you are 15-20 countries in, you’ll notice that every subsequent action will no longer increase the Economic Growth Rate, or Average Income. At the turn of the year, when the game does its final economic updates, you’ll have a fresh 10% to grow.
In 1996, a sequel was developed, called CyberJudas, which, sadly, did not improve the UI, or User-Experience. Rather, the focus was on improving the Presidential Advisor models to weak mid-90’s 3D, and add a gameplay option where an Advisor was a traitor (the aforementioned “CyberJudas”) that needed to be uncovered. Shadow President is a game just begging for UI/UX polish, not enhanced graphics to non-main game screens and gameplay distractions. It’s a shame that the designers seemed so hung up on making Shadow President into something it’s not. CyberJudas essentially added nothing valauble for the game’s natural audience, while those additions had little appeal to mainstream gamers.
Even with the bugs, glitches, and terrible UI, Shadow President is the only old-school geopolitical simulation I come back to over the years. In fact, I played a couple of games a few weeks ago, and got the idea for this article. If you can get passed the issues, Shadow President a unique, fun and interesting game. While it didn’t enhance the genre enough to be a Gamechanger, it is still a terrific game for geopolitics fans.
Here are some tricks-and-tips that I’ve developed over many, many games of Shadow President1.
- Watch the alerts from the Press Secretary. When a country has an Event – strike, assassination attempt, coup attempt, etc – and the leader stays in power, there are three routes to take. First, if the country is an Ally, or “Team Alliance Member”, increase their Covert and Military Aid immediately. Second, if the country is an Adversary, such as the Soviet Union or China, then “Dispatch A Peace Envoy” is much more likely to work, and, if successful, will bump-up your popularity. Third, if the country is one you wish have a closer relationship with, such as countries with greater prestige points (India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, France, etc), then “Improve Diplomatic Relations” and “Increase Economic Ties” are more likely to succeed. In fact, hard actions, like “Encourage Social Reform, “Promote Human Rights Reform” are also easier. Even Decreases in Military and Nuclear Spending.
- Don’t hand out “Most Favored Nation” trade status like candy. The game’s economics algorithm is smart enough to compensate for big jumps in ‘Average Income’ for each countries citizens. Rather, at the start of a new year, check the Filter Screen for “Team Members”, and reward any new allies with MFN.
- Different Diplomatic actions have different chances of success, which is then modified by a number of factors: President’s Action Percentage, the targeted countries relationship with the US, etc. A trick is to take an easy Social action with a country, because – if successful – the target country is likely to reciprocate. Rather than Increasing Economic Ties with European countries, try sending Peace Missions instead, and see if they send you a request for a closer economic relationship in return. In my experience, Social actions, from most likely to succeed, to least likely, are: Peace Envoy, Cultural Exchange, Improve Diplomatic Relations, Improve Economic Relations, Encourage Social Reform, Encourage Human Rights Reform. This trick is a nice way to conserve your Action Percentage, as well as your Popularity at-home.
- To stop Iraq from invading Kuwait, you will need success with several (4, 5, 6+) Peace Missions, as well as many other actions that work to lower Iraq’s “Ambition” score. It is worth the effort, as military action in Shadow President is tricky, buggy, and can be deeply unpopular. Just-in-case, it is wise to max-out your Covert and Military Aid to Kuwait.
- If you want to fight with Iraq, you will need to prepare. I suggest immediately, at the start of the game, to cultivate better relationships with: Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan. If you have to intervene in Kuwait, or invade Iraq itself, these countries will – potentially – join in the war.
- Regardless if you want to fight with Iraq, or not, you have to prepare for it. In addition to the diplomatic steps in #5, at the start of the game, you should begin to build up your troop levels, as those diplomatic efforts may fail. If you want to defend Kuwait without invading Iraq, you will need to add several hundred-thousand troops to Saudi Arabia. If you want to invade Iraq itself, you can split that force between Turkey, and any bordering ally who will allow the troops. Do not intervene in the invasion of Kuwait unless your force is fully transported to the Middle East. The Iraqi army, in this game, is no joke, and will defeat the U.S. if the U.S. is not fully deployed. Having to surrender to Iraq after failing to defend Kuwait is a great way to lose the U.S. election, and lose the game.
- Issuing a Statement of Condemnation is equally likely to fail as it is to succeed. Do not use them lightly. In fact, I strongly suspect the game has a cheat for the AI, where their use of SoC’s are far more likely to work than yours. My general rule of thumb is to not use them, even if used against me, except when a country has taken a very aggressive action against a World Team Alliance ally. Such as; sending arms to rebels, sabotage, etc.
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