Board games are no strangers to political themes. Games like Twilight Struggle have become famous for simulating the complex geopolitical struggles between super powers, while a whole range of GMT titles have focused on everything from Vietnam to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Statecraft offers something much rarer - a political themed game that is both accessible and quick to play. As someone with a genuine interest in modern politics, I was excited to see Statecraft along with Sub Terra at UKGE earlier in the year, and more excited when the game was finally ready for a retail release.
Statecraft’s politics are not the global affairs from larger games but the more delicate, domestic kind. The politics in the game are modelled on a grid, according to the degree of Socialism/Capitalism and Anarchism/Authoritarianism.
What this means in practice is that players are trying to balance multiple, conflicting ideals in order to appeal to supporters, and the ideas presented in the game aren’t simply about the more classic ideas of liberal and conservative or ‘left and right’ politics. The game calls this system ‘innovative’ in its manual, though it’s basically identical to systems created as far back as the sixties to model similar ideologies.
Statecraft has randomised campaign objectives for each game, though the general gameplay remains reasonably similar. You’ll be hiring politicians and using them to enact policies in their specialist areas. Those policies can be anything from regulation of free markets, to how a country supports veterans, to whether medical research is privately or government funded. Each policy has two options, and either option will give you a certain amount of points in each of the four political ideologies.
The end goal is usually to gather supporters. There’s a pool of supporters that you can bring over to your side by fulfilling their political needs. Some supports simply want a specific amount of, say, capitalism, before coming to your side. Others will want a large amount of one ideology but have a limit on how much of another they will accept. If you meet the requirements on your turn you can take the supporter to your side. However, supporters can get stolen by other parties, and while a supporter won’t automatically leave you if you change your policies, once you no longer meet thier requirements other players can steal them more easily.
Alongside stealing, players can use events card to affect other players, forcing their politicians to resign, stealing their policies or even giving them a free chance to take a competitors hard earned supporters.
Policies, politicians and event cards are drawn from a single deck each turn, and players can perform as many actions as they are able with the cards they have, though some actions require you to discard cards to perform them. The victory condition will depend on the scenario you’re using, from simply having the most supporters to stranger goals like having the worst budget or the most extreme set of policies. These cards also change the length of the game, and how many supporters will be in play.
So, does Statecraft fill that gap in our hearts for a political game with both depth and accessibility?
The best way to answer that is to talk about what ‘politics’ really means in Statecraft. The people I were playing with were people I’d consider to be interested in politics. All voters, some registered members of the UK Labour party, all quite on top of major political news. Jamie was getting excited simply trying to match the art work to various UK politicians before we even opened the rules. My group was the exact type of people who would get weak at the knees when you say “Hey, want to play this political card game?”, and everyone of us finished the first game wondering what any of it had to do with politics.
As a political game, this is a very disappointing experience. Statecraft’s theme and mechanics simply never gel together, and if you take away the excellent art and design, the politics here are paper thin. You don’t win Statecraft by making political decisions, you win by matching colours and numbers in a tedious and far too random game of set collection.
You’ll place politicians down in Statecraft, but you won’t make political decisions. You’ll enact what sound like far reaching policies that never really feel like they mean anything. Every decision in Statecraft comes to down to balancing four different coloured tracks as best you can, with a great deal of simply hoping for the best. You can’t play this game hoping to make an authoritarian, dystopian society or a peaceful, democratic socialist utopia. You never feel like you’ve built anything cohesive at all.
Instead, if you want to win this game, you’ll pick whatever random policies you find yourself holding based on trying to get whatever supporter you happen to have the best chance of picking up and holding onto. You’ll spend far, far longer looking at your dashboard and doing basic maths to work out how to appease the highest number of supporters than you ever will thinking about the actual country you’re creating.
I could draw a cynical comparison here to modern political obsession with short term party politics over the long term interests of the country, but I don’t think this was deliberate on Statecraft’s part.
Even if the theme and mechanics had properly come together, Statecraft feels too safe as a political experience. It’s so careful not to push any particular political idea or stereotype on it’s players that it finds itself making little actual sense. Every supporter card in the game has thier political leanings generated randomly. This leads to you trying to appeal to Agricultural Labourers purely based on having a ton of anarchism policies, or trying to appeal to students with Authorianism.
In all fairness, it’s difficult to be able to give broad strokes to groups of people and not find someone offended, and it’s even more difficult to make those make sense in different countries and political climates. Still, it erodes the feeling of playing a real country with real meaningful political decisions even more. If you didn’t want to generalise real groups, why not make fictional supporters and give them a more fleshed our character? If you’re going to draw on real world policies and ideologies for your game, you need some actual real world sense to your supporter groups, as well.
Having individual, fleshed out supporters would mean unique cards, however. Another disapointing element of Statecraft is that it relies too heavily on using multiple identical cards with different stat changes which reduces the replayability of any already light experience. The different scenarios and unique politicians make some steps to lessen the repetitiveness but it’s still a shame considering the vast amount of different themes that the game could have drawn from.
Theme and design aside, the core set collection elements aren’t very enjoyable. Any strategic or tactical decisions are made redundant by the powerful Take That cards of other players and random events that can swing the game so heavily in a single turn.
In every game we played where the objective was the most supporters, the last 10 minutes of the game simply devolved into everyone using their turn to steal each other supporters in what felt more like a mosh pit than any model of a real political system.
Beyond theme and mechanics, Statecraft’s overall quality is excellent. The artwork on the cards is nice, the design and iconography are absolutely excellent. The components and the box itself are all top notch and up to the usual high ITB standard. Of course, mechanics come first, but this is not a game let down by its production.