Published: 27 August 2016
Editor's Note: Maiyannah's copy of Rogue State was provided free of charge as a gift by a friend.
Rogue State is a narrative-driven management simulation developed by LRDGames, Inc and published by Black Shell Games. I almost gave this one a pass once I saw who published it, because to say Black Shell Games has a sketchy reputation as a publisher of independent games is like saying that Electronic Arts has a reputation for being kind of shit - massive understatement. Left waiting in the doctor's office for some couple hours yesterday and wanting something to while away some time playing something I could easily get away with streaming to my iPad without a lot of fuss, though, I gave it a chance, and I have to say I was surprised to find a game that's fairly competently designed, but it somewhat languishes under an interface that goes the speed of molasses on a cold day, and some fairly significant bugs, including one that probably would have kept me from completing the game.
Core gameplay mechanics mesh fairly well,
even if they are somewhat uninspired
Rogue State's gameplay consists of a few components: You can assign simple economic policies to affect your popularity with four different social groups (Patriots, Capitalists, Fundamentalists, Liberals), you can build a small variety of infrastructure projects for different costs and benefits, you manage minister requests and your support in the parlaiment, you manage the military forces and if need be defend against or invade neighbours, you manage clandestine intelligence missions that give intelligence on different foreign powers that provides a variety of benefits, and you manage the country's budget. Additionally, every so often, you manage the response to certain events, and less often (every ingame year), you give a speech to your country that can give you a boost to relations with those four social groups.
Essentially, the core gameplay comes down to a sort of "Democracy 3 Lite" - you make policy changes, executive decisions, and budget changes to appease those four groups as best you can. While they do often end up somewhat at odds with one another (especially with Liberals versus the other three), it's not terribly difficult to find a balance that appeases all three within a few goes at bat, and once you do, you can pretty much sail between crisis times or minister requests which require you to change things. I can't complain overmuch though - there's enough challenge and enough of a curve ball thrown by the random events you have to make executive decisions on that keeps things interested and a certain moderate amount of skill required to keep up with things.
There is a military aspect of the game to add an additional dynamic, but it mostly went unused in my play-throughs of the game. The times you do get invaded even when I had what was a significantly advanced force compared to what I started with (several fighter jets, tank platoons, etc), you still seem to get utterly pounded on if an enemy invades you, and invasions only happen if you flub foreign relations to begin with. You can essentially avoid invasions altogether by having an active Foreign Minister (who provides a per-turn boost to foreign relations) and not taking any choices in your executive decisions that piss off the three local foreign powers or the United States. It's easy to avoid it. The military aspect basically has two points: procuring troops for your military (infantry, tank battalions, rocket batteries, fighter jets, and if you have the tech, drones), and then stationing them - either "inland" to defend the country, or at one of the three neighbouring borders as a safeguard against invasions - invading forces have to get past your border guards first - though if you station a token force it will easily get overrun. That said, as I mentioned previously, it seems like if they are invading, its because that state knows it has a clear and decisive military advantage, and you get pounded into the dirt. Since this is so easy to avoid, however, I find it kind of like complaining about the combat mechanics in a stealth-centric game - you're only really there if you fucked up to begin with, so I'm not sure I really mind the game curb-stomping you a bit for screwing up. That said, an invasion or two that had no chances of succeeding against you that happened anyways might have kept things interesting.
The final major mechanic at play is that executive decision one. You get a certain amount of actions per turn - starting with 4 but you can increase this with research - and then the turn ends. At the end of each turn, an event happens. Sometimes this is just a thing that happened it informs you of, such as finding additional or less money in the budget, but most of the time, it's something that involves a choice, and these choices have repercussions which the game informs you of in the tool-tips for each choice. An example of one of these choices is having to chose to support or reject a motion pushed by Fundamentalist religious leaders to ban hair dyes and "Western" hair styles, which essentially comes down to choosing to please the Fundamentalists that are against such things they see as vices, or choosing to please the Liberals, which see this as an attack on their freedom of expression. Most of the choices are much more complex than that, and sometimes you're just going to have to piss off groups to make a decision that's best for the country in general (like not spending a whole bunch of money on popular celebrations or other things when you have very little finances available.) This is how the game keeps things interesting, and to be fair, it does a good job of it, although it wasn't too many hours in before I started seeing repeated events, so it perhaps could have done this more so.
That said, while the core gameplay mix is fairly cohesive and works well, it could not be called particularly "inspired." I called it "Democracy 3 Lite" earlier and while that's not a bad thing it seems very apt - the game could easily be described as a sort of much more casual and accessible Democracy 3. If you're looking for a game that does something different, you really aren't going to find it here, unfortunately.
The interface really bogs the game down
Most of this takes place through a series of different screens, and while the screens themselves are typically laid out well and intuitively enough, the problem is that the getting to them can be a bit of hassle. This essentially comes down to the fact that the developer was making a game in a tool that's not really made for the kind of game they were making, which is to say, it's a management sim, but it is based on the Adventure Game Studio engine. Now, AGS is something familiar to a fair few of my readers because it was somewhat brought to popularity by being the means by which popular video game critic Yahtzee Crowshaw made his Chzo mythos games, but the defining difference between those fairly excellent adventure games (Well, other than Seven Days a Skeptic, but lets not go there), and Rogue State, is that genre gap.
This manifests less seriously but most pet-peevishly in the fact that the character has to walk to (at slow walking pace) and animate before going to each screen, and this makes flipping back and forth between different screens a nightmare. It's the way it's unnecessary and adds to the time it takes to do anything that bothers me most - the animations add nothing to gameplay except time taken to do things and I suspect that if it weren't for this you could probably complete a whole play-through in less than an hour. This comes to a particular head when you have to wait for the Parliamentary Adviser to do the Ten-Second Shuffle over to your desk just to tell you something exploded or there's some sort of ongoing crisis, and it kind of builds up into an increasing intolerance for what are otherwise perfectly fine game features, because I ended up wishing the game would just get on with it.
Second and much more fundamentally, the ways in which different policies affect various things like crime rate and such is not well elaborated, and there are quite a few things that you have to basically keep track of yourself. While most of these are fairly tertiary and thus it won't be any real detriment to forget them, one of them - the approval of ethnic Qarafii - is important, because at some point there will be an event where they want to secede from the country, and man, I bet you kept track of how your actions affected them up to now to know if holding a referendum is a good idea or not, since the game offers no real inherent way to track that social group's approval.
Rogue State is fairly buggy
The only other problem I had with Rogue State, really, other than the interface, was what I can only call a general sort of mild bugginess. Things don't always seem to work as they should. Sometimes the reaction tool-tips work, others they don't. Sometimes it shows the positive and negative effects of a policy change, others it doesn't As of time of writing though, there's two really rather major bugs that deserve mentioning since they both break the game pretty significantly.
Firstly, there's a pretty major, in some instances game-breaking bug with the budgeting system. If you go to policies and then the budget (or any screen that recalculates the budget, and then the budget, really, as far as I was able to ascertain), the game will add a 100m $ "Other" expense as a result of what I can only imagine is some sort of underflow error. Since most countries are going to be making around 30m to 40m revenue a turn in my experience this can pretty easily sink you. Sometimes you can get it to sort itself out by going back to that previous screen, but not always. And this also means if your taxes are in a bad way when this is happening, you'll be unable to fix them, without running into that error. This will essentially kill a play-through if you *need* to adjust taxes at that time, such as to be able to survive the Financial Crisis event where you need to bail out several industries and thus need the tax revenue. If the bug manifests then, you might as well just quit and start over, since there isn't a proper save system, and as such, that bug just wasted your last 30 minutes or so.
There's other rough edges too that seem to be slightly dodgy game logic or perhaps the engine coming a bit undone being used for something it's not really intended for. The Crisis events when they come up seem to cause the game to pause for a moment when they come about, and sometimes it pauses to process logic and just never resumes. This came to a particularly annoying head when it kept doing this consistently on my first play-through's coup attempt. To explain the coup attempt - you assign cabinet ministers for passive bonuses like I mentioned - and one of the pool you always have to assign is your brother Farouk, who basically is out for himself and the "endgame" confrontation is having to put down an attempted coup by him. I'd say that's a spoiler but the game basically lampshades from the very beginning that this is a thing that's going to happen. I had particular issues with getting this to work, since it not only causes the game to freeze but seemed to trash the save - it saves right before this happens, but if it hanged the once it will pretty much always consistently hang, so you may as well just start over. I was about ready to call it and review the game without having technically completed it when it finally managed to work the fourth time I tried it.
Replay value is sorely lacking
The major design issue I have with Rogue State is that it didn't take long to start seeing repeats of events, and while most of them have a touch of humour to situation or responses (or both), even the best joke well-told gets a bit tired when you keep hearing it over and over again. There's a handful of major crises (literally) and maybe about 80 it felt executive decision events, and it didn't take long before those motifs started repeating. Considering there's 60 turns in the game, that about 80 events it has (estimation by the way) don't seem like near enough a large enough pool to reasonably avoid tiresome repetition.
An attempt is made to somewhat alleviate these concerns with an XP system that allows you to unlock additional scenarios that have special circumstances and the like, but these don't do much to address the core problem, and since XP is only accrued at the end of a session you only get to unlock those if you run the thing to completion, which means if you do want to get to the additional content you're going to have to stick with "deadman walking" scenarios and play through the miserable drawn out end of the game. Very rarely does the game fail you out of the blue, which is generally a good thing in this sort of game, but you can get yourself locked into certain situations where recovery is not possible and you still have to see things through to the end. If a Crisis came up on turn 30 and you have to still play through 30 more turns, that can be pretty miserable.
The bigger over-arching thing here is the lack of variety, though. Most of the situations have that sort of Tropico-brand tongue-in-cheek humour about the dictatorship you ostensibly run, and to be fair to the game, it does them fairly well, but with so little of it, it runs thin very quickly, which ultimately is a bit of a shame, because I can't say that I didn't enjoy the game, outside of that bugginess.