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Putting My Degree To Work on a Stupid List

May 12th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 3 Comments · Crispy Gamer

My recent feature at Crispy Gamer is mostly tongue in cheek, but I hope it provokes some discussion. (I sent a draft to my podcast panel before Sunday’s recording, so we talk a little bit about the idea. You’ll be able to hear it soon.)

Regular readers probably know that I think lists like this are fundamentally silly. In spite of Jim Sterling’s elegant defense of a well-made list (which boils down to “they sometimes take work and people like them”), I think a good list means one where the reader can figure out the author’s position and priorities. I doubt you could read either my games and foreign policy list (or any of the three movie lists I link in the introduction for that matter) and come to any conclusion about how I think games should present diplomatic options and communication or even about how I think international relations are best understood.

Though not as empty of calories as a hot dudes of gaming list, it’s a fair cop to say that this is a fairly light article. As I think on it, a “worst” list might have been both more interesting and more illuminating. And lists are also super easy pitches. Most of my feature pitches are two or three paragraphs. This one was a sentence and a link. Maybe they just trust me to do a passable job.

I will say that I enjoyed writing it, though, especially since I made the initial decision not to include a lot of games that self-consciously addressed foreign policy. Of the ten, only two have true diplomatic systems (Imperialism and Alpha Centauri) and only one specifically addresses a contemporary debate (Peacemaker). I could have easily tossed in Medieval 2: Total War (the relations with the Pope and demands of domestic nobles nicely reflect constraints on foreign policy) or any of the EU games (balance of power wars, I suppose).

Anyway, fill the comment section (here or there).


3 Comments so far ↓

  • frags

    Multiplayer Free For All Sins of A Solar Empire is a great example of natural sociology of us humans.

    Of course it isn’t balanced and it makes little sense to play a free for all but what normally happens is people gang up and start unofficial(or official) alliances with each other to remove one adversary.

    It is a scary lesson on human behaviour. A convenient allegiance to remove a common enemy. Before turning on each other.

  • Cautiously Pessimistic

    I was soured on foreign policy wonkish gaming by the first game I tried (Balance of Power (80’s version)). In my opinion, the game favored appeasement strategies, and harshly penalized any kind of ‘muscular diplomacy’. I read 20 yrs later that the designer had made the game as a sop to nuclear disarmament/peace at any price, and it makes me wonder if such games can be made to work when you pretty much have to adopt a foreign policy (or set of them) as being successful, with others being unsuccessful. If too many approaches are successful, the game isn’t challenging; but if too few approaches are successful, it just becomes hippie peacenik propoganda/warmongering baby killer fodder. Quite a balance to try to strike.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    Two suggestions from the golden age of DOS gaming:

    Conflict: the Middle East Political Simulator: This game sets you up as Prime Minister of Israel and gives you a secret agenda: to bring down the (hostile) Arab governments that surround you, either overtly or covertly.

    The challenge is that, at the start of the game, you are massively outgunned by most of your neighbors, so you have to undertake a delicate dance of appeasing the Big Boys (Egypt and Syria) for long enough to either build up a conventional army strong enough to defeat them, topple their governments via espionage, or deter them by obtaining The Bomb.

    Of course, your neighbors have their own agendas and their own nuclear programs as well, which can put you in a spot — if Egypt starts an enrichment program while you’re still weak, do you risk trying to knock it out with an airstrike, which might provoke them to start their tanks rolling? Or do you hold tight and cross your fingers that their research won’t pan out before yours does?

    While not 100% realistic (it requires you to act far more aggressively than any real-life leader would to win), it plays quick and turns a few simple-to-learn rules into a monstrously replayable game.

    Hidden Agenda: One of the all-time greats, this one gives you the keys to a fictional 1980s Central American nation that has just kicked out its imperialist overlords. You have to assemble a government and a policy agenda to satisfy the country’s three main power blocs — the landed aristocrats, the disgruntled peasantry, and the intellectuals — whose desires all run in conflict with each other. Tip the scales too far towards one and the others will start to make trouble, up to and including coup attempts. All this would be easy to manage if your country was rich and developed, but since it’s poor and war-torn you’re faced with hard decisions right out of the gate.

    Oh, and since it’s the 1980s you have the US and USSR courting you to join their respective power blocs as well. And each of them has groups of supporters within your country and even your Cabinet; turn down CIA aid too many times, for instance, and you start getting ominous visits from disappointed colonels in mirrored sunglasses. You can try to thread the needle by joining the bloc of non-aligned nations rather than choosing a Cold War side, but that cuts off all hopes of foreign assistance, which leaves you to try and rebuild a nation on a shoestring… like I said, it’s a classic.

    Both games run great in DOSBox, so they can be played on just about any modern system.