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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Game Day: Neocolonialism

Why, yes, Boston does have a thriving independent game dev community, full of excellent people making excellent games . This particular game I've been curious about since I first heard about it at the start of the year, and since its release was earlier this month I'd like to share my experience with it.

Neocolonialism is about unabashedly being a bastard in a way that's smarter and more topical than any other recent game seeking smart and topical.

But you're ruining everything in a way that benefits you so it's ok.

As the head of a multinational corporation, you use your clout to buy parliamentary votes in countries worldwide. These votes let you elect prime ministers from among the players, who in turn present proposals for the parliament to vote for. Collectively, you'll propose and ratify mines and factories, set up free trade agreements, intervene in international crises, and build up your political power, letting you buy more parliamentary votes in other countries, slowly bleeding the world dry. After twelve turns of this, the game ends; before then, you'll want to liquidate as many of your parliamentary votes as you can, funneling the money into your Swiss bank account. Whoever's account is flushest at the end of the game is the winner, triumphant amid the ruin of the rest of the planet.

The play itself is simple, with a few choices spiraling out into a lot of possibility and nuance. Each turn has three parts. In the investment phase, players taking turns buying or selling parliamentary votes around the world until no player can or wants to make another move. In the policy phase, players vote on issues in each region in turn, and if they're the prime minister of that region, they can make proposals, including mines, factories, and free trade agreements, that affect the value of votes in that (and possibly other) regions. Because multiple players may benefit from a region, and no player collects income on a region if it has no prime minister, it's sometimes in your interest to cede power to another - especially if you can set up a shady backroom deal with them over it. In the IMF (International Monetary Fund) phase, some national crisis - a strike, a collapse - occurs in a region, possibly changing the value of resources in that country. Each turn, one player gets to decide what intervention, if any, should take place there. This can ruin strategies or open up new ones if you're clever enough to find them.

The map is upside-down.
I'll admit that I haven't had a chance to play against actual humans - I've only gotten to play against AI opponents with names like Thatcher and Reagan, whose policies the game is an obvious parody of. That said, it's a lot of fun - there are a lot of different strategies to take, a lot of different ways to conspire with and against the other players. The tutorials are a little dense, but helpful for the uninitiated - once you're through them, you'll have enough to play a game or two and get the hang of things. At first it just seems like getting as much income as possible, but by the end of the game, when there's a lot of money to throw around and not that many votes left to buy, you'll wish you'd cashed out some parliamentary votes a little earlier - just don't make the mistake I did of selling too much too early and watching in horror as the other players swallowed up the free votes I left behind. Even once you hammer out a strategy you can still get thrown for a loop if some unexpected disaster blows a hole in one of your investments. There's a lot to account for, but when things work out it's immensely satisfying to burn through all your votes on the last turn and watch your bank account fill up.

Help or hinder another player for personal gain, to set a trap, to strike a deal, or because why the hell not?
So far my favorite thing is the deadpan sense of humor combined with incisive politics. It's a clever presentation of insidious policy that is, unfortunately, all too real across regular, right-side-up maps. It's not just "corporations have too much influence;" it's "the policies of money infiltrate, manipulate, and ruin more nations than the ones where they originate." It's a statement not only about how we screw ourselves with our financial and electoral decisions, but about how we screw everybody with those decisions, which is a much less comfortable truth. It's not being said loudly enough in any medium, and seeing such an excellent representative in video games, which are often behind the times on social issues, is satisfying as hell.

In summary: Support it because it's important, play it because it's fun.

Subaltern Games website: http://subalterngames.com/

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