Published on July 4th, 2013 | by Fraser Brown0
Ruining the world with Neocolonialism
If Neocolonialism was a political candidate instead of a PC strategy game, it would be described as running a negative campaign. It’s a Marxist economic digital board game that has players ruining the world while expanding their Swiss bank account. Rather than being an exploration of Marxist ideologies, it condemns selfishness and big business exploitation by making the players the villain of the piece.
Still in beta, it’s all a bit threadbare, relying on human interaction more than the extremely simple gameplay. Its unassuming presentation and the distance between players and the lives they are ruining doesn’t make decisions feel weighty, though I suspect that this is in part a deliberate attempt to show how tycoons and industrialists have carved up the world, ignoring the toll it takes an area’s population.
A strange, but not particularly complex game, then. But it’s one that I found myself getting rather sucked into. There’s psychological warfare to be waged, deals to be brokered, and alliances to be built and then betrayed — the meat of the game is in what happens between turns and outside of the interlocking systems.
The world has been turned upside down, literally. The global board that the capitalists players exploit has been turned on its head: north is south and south is north. Designer Seth Alter wanted to use the altered perspective to make players uncomfortable, but in my case I just assumed that I was sitting at the other side of the table.
Big, multi-national companies compete for global domination, manipulating governments, building industry and exploiting developing nations, but the real goal of Neocolonialism, the victory goal, is to skim the most money out of your company and have the beefiest Swiss bank account. It’s all about personal wealth.
The quest for fortune is split up into three phases. Each round begins with the investment phase, where players must purchase votes in regional governments. If three votes are bought — even if not bought by the same player — then a vote can be called to decide who becomes Prime Minister in the next phase. In a multiplayer match, the investment phase sees a lot of wheeling and dealing. Companies can team up to force a vote in on of the more wealthy regions, such as North America, or they can gang up on opponents, buying votes in regions they are clearly interested in.
In the single-player mode, the phase devolves into waiting for the AI to make up its bloody mind, turn after turn. The phase doesn’t end until all players select “pass”, which usually happens when they run out of money to buy votes — but not the AI. It jumps around, buying and selling votes, almost oblivious to the next phase, merely content with making it has a vote in every region where there’s another player. Thus begins a game of cat and mouse, with each AI company stalking the other ones, buying a vote, selling it when another company invests in the region, and then that company will follow it to the next one. It’s insufferable.
Phase two is the policy phase, where regions with three or more bought votes hold an election, with the players themselves voting. While it might seem obvious to vote for oneself, it’s not always in a player’s best interest to do so. In a region where several companies are vying for control, yet they all hold the same number of votes, everyone voting for themselves will lead to a draw, and the region will continue without a PM. This is bad for everybody. Without a PM, no decisions can be made that would otherwise bring in more money, and that affects all of the players with an investment in the region.
If one successfully becomes a PM, the next part of the policy phase begins. Each region has a small number of nodes, and on these nodes two things can be constructed: a factory or a mine. Each factory can refine resources from three mines. To maximise factory output, a free trade agreement can be reached with another region, and once ratified by both PMs, the two regions can take advantage of the other’s buildings. All these actions come down to a vote if other companies have bought them, so a weaker player can still put a spanner in the works if the dominant player needs to make a trade agreement or erect another awful factory.
The third and final phase is the shortest of the bunch. Each round, one player can be chairman of the IMF, which intervenes in a region when a crisis arises. This might be a natural disaster or a strike, and the IMF can construct buildings, made trade deals or even sanction a region.
Neocolonialism really depends on interacting with opponents, and without the human drama, bribery, back-stabbing and alliances of convenience, it’s all a bit dry. With other players giving into greed, arguing over elections and slicing up the map between them, the uncomfortable subject matter comes to the forefront in a way that it can’t do with the AI. It’s not really an economic board game, it’s a roleplaying game, with players stepping into the shoes of the villains. I feel a bit guilty, truth be told.