A new teaser for Netflix’s House of Cards plays like a highlight reel of protagonist Frank Underwood’s most heinous exploits. As the show prepares to drag itself into a fourth season this March, it’s worth remembering not just how villainous Frank’s rise to power was, but also how ludicrously easy. The political journalist David Weigel once criticized the show for never exacting its proper pound of flesh in exchange for letting Frank succeed. It was as if every adversary was forced to confront him with one arm tied behind their back. As Weigal wrote, “Underwood’s enemies don’t seem to understand politics.”
For instance, in one of Season 2’s more outlandish moments, Frank can be seen poaching votes from the other side of the aisle in order to pass an omnibus bill supported by the President. Frank’s ability to bribe and coerce some of his Republican adversaries into changing their votes is plausible enough. What’s less convincing is that he’s able to do so at the last minute with limited planning, let alone invoke a series of unlikely parliamentary maneuvers in order to secure the bill’s passage once they renege. The outcome feels at once unearned and ad hoc.
Ryan Lambourn’s Whip the Vote, on the other hand, is less forgiving but more lucid. Inspired by House of Cards, the game tasks players with negotiating Congressional votes as a Democratic whip. Unlike the Netflix original series, however, the game never stacks the deck in your favor. Instead, it plays like a Machiavellian cat-herding simulator. Convince a Republican representative to switch his vote by ginning up the opposition in his home district only to watch a couple Democrats slip back into the undecided column. Corner a particular politician for too long, forcing them to make unpopular votes, and don’t be surprised if they’re eventually replaced by a hardliner unwilling to deal.
Unlike the Shakespearean drama that animates so much of House of Cards, Whip the Vote has no time for personal neuroses. Lambourn’s exploration of Congress strips away the arcane rules and messy humanity, reducing the institution and its actors to a series of varyingly randomized parameters illustrated with a slick, political cartoon aesthetic. As a result, politics in Whip the Vote are actuarial, like comparing stats on baseball cards. But while the calculus may be difficult to complete, or seemingly impossible to reconcile, the simplicity of it all offers a more clarifying approach to Washington D.C. than nearly anything in House of Cards.
The game’s politicians have clear priorities. For example, representatives who value the chance to vote their conscience are more likely to be swayed by the promise of campaign funds than by shifting public opinion polls back home. By allowing the player to see clearly the political landscape in front of them, and the rules governing different interactions, Whip the Vote offers some insight into how Congress could work, if only it were better designed.
Nowhere is this sentiment made more apparent than when losing a particular vote. Watching the various “Ds” and “Rs” you’ve spent 20 turns courting finally register in either the “Yay” or “Nay” column can be heartbreaking, but rarely frustratingly so. Even if success doesn’t come as easily as in House of Cards, there’s something refreshing in feeling like the system you’re navigating is governed by negotiation rather than rigid ideology. The latter leads to stasis while the former remains dynamic, full of possibilities and has the opportunity for change.
You can purchase Whip the Vote on itch.io.