Less than 3 years after overthrowing the monarchists and taking control, I’m sitting in my office listening to the braying mob amassing outside. The fundamentalists are incensed at my support of same-sex marriage, our neighbours in Chickenistan are threatening our borders due to my support of the United Nations, and I’m half expecting my own brother to overthrow me in a military coup. How did it all go so wrong?
Although Rogue State can make you sympathetic towards the plight of fascist dictators, such as Colonel Gaddafi, it allows you to experience the tumultuous life of a Middle Eastern leader. Will you choose the liberal path of universal education and human rights, subscribe to a rigid religious doctrine, or raise statues in your image on every street corner? There is no right or wrong way to play Rogue State, but each path is fraught with opposition and tough choices.
The game opens with an animated sequence showing your rise to power in the fictional country of Basenji. After toppling the ruling monarchy, your political party takes office and has to start rebuilding the country. Your brother, however (who the game forces you to put somewhere in your cabinet), has ambitions on your position, and won’t hesitate to overthrow you if given the slightest opportunity. Shortly afterwards, you are introduced to your office where you will spend all of your time. From here you can implement social policies, set tax rates, build Basenji’s infrastructure, conduct foreign affairs, and even go to war. To begin with, an advisor is on hand to guide you through these actions but, after a brief tutorial, you will become very familiar with these screens.
First impressions of Rogue State can be a little rough. After the title screen which features the Basenji national anthem (that amusingly sounds like it was ripped straight out of Borat) and a flashy introductory animation, the initial art style of the game is quite jarring. Your character animates like he’s a failed costume choice from Mr Benn, and the talking heads when you speak to other leaders over the phone are ugly and distorted. The perspective on people’s faces is totally off, meaning that most characters look disfigured (excluding the leader of Chickenistan, who looks appropriately like a chicken). Much of this can be brushed off with the general absurdist humour that the game surrounds itself with, so the visual presentation can be overlooked for the most part.
In stark contrast to this, the user interface is cleanly and cleverly designed. All of the important screens are available as items in your office, from the phone on your desk that starts foreign diplomacy, to the chart on the wall that shows your political representation, most of the objects in your office have a useful function. Those same options are also displayed in a menu at the top of screen, however, with every menu logically placed. The general ugliness of the art style takes a backseat to the well-presented screens that will become your main focus.
Most of your time will undoubtedly be spent on keeping your general populace happy. There are four main demographics to appease (patriots, capitalists, fundamentalists, liberals), and every decision you make will raise your popularity with some of these, while decreasing it with others. You can ignore and even ostracise certain members of your society while pandering to others, but this can often lead to civil unrest, which you will want to avoid. In one playthrough, I tried to be as centrist as possible, which meant I kept introducing the death penalty, then repealing it weeks later once my popularity with the fundamentalists and the liberals had increased either way. There are also bonuses that can be achieved through performing missions for your cabinet ministers. If you appoint a capitalist minister as your treasurer, for example, he’ll ask you to lower taxes by 5% in the next five turns, and doing so will net you extra loyalty from the capitalists. Micromanagement is one thing, but it can be expensive giving everyone what they want, not to mention that it takes up a lot of valuable time.
Time is actually a valuable resource in Rogue State. Every turn you are allowed 4 actions before the turn is automatically ended and time is advanced. In reality, you have as much time as you wish to make decisions, but every time you alter your policies, raise taxes, deploy troops, or create a trade agreement, a segment of your turn is taken up to represent the time it takes to implement your changes. Every 10 turns represents a year, at which point you will be required to give an annual televised address to the nation. This is a nice change of pace and gives you the opportunity to do some political point scoring with your four focus groups. Saying popular things on TV might raise the opinion polls, but you’d better make sure that you deliver on that promise to renationalise the railways or face the consequences.
Given this gameplay mechanic, sweeping reforms can take a while to implement. This is especially so in the early game, where you have to rebuild Basenji after the civil war. At this point you have to set up your basic amenities by bringing your power plants back online, starting the water pumps again, and cleaning away the debris. Rebuilding this damaged nation will take time (and a lot of money), but with your guidance, Basenji can start to heal.
While maintaining this balancing act is enough of a challenge to keep the game interesting, you will start to run out of things to do down the line. If you’re doing well and the public are content, then the only things left to do are to build the infrastructure projects that don’t really appeal to you or fit in with your politics. On one playthrough, after appeasing the Liberals with my universal healthcare and education policies, I found myself building faith schools and setting up chastity focus groups. I only implemented these because I had exhausted all other options, which lead to a confusing social policy to say the least. While this doesn’t cripple the overall game, Rogue State could strongly benefit from more infrastructure options that force you down more specific paths. This issue also means that the game lacks depth that would have desperately increased its longevity.
Rogue State is a game that is compelling for strategy fans and anyone who may be interested in geopolitics, or running their own dictatorship. If you have aspirations of power but no military behind you, Rogue State may be just what you need to satisfy your urges. Just don’t expect those urges to last long.
A Short Dictatorial Stint
Rogue State is a great geopolitical strategy title, but it seems that the UN have imposed sanctions on the art and the longevity of the game.