Marcus Roberts is Deputy General Secretary of the Fabian Society.
Narrowing the field to just five games is no mean feat and sure to prove controversial, so please do let me know what additions you’d make, in the comments. With that, alea jacta est!
You start with a tribe in the year 4,000 BC. You finish with the United Nations declaring you Secretary General for life, or by reaching for the stars through your space project or, if you’re me, bringing the world to heel under your nuclear menace.
Yes, Civilisation is without question the politico’s computer game of choice. Encompassing civilisations ancient and modern, from Rome and Carthage to Prussia and America, you must guide your people through all history in the ultimate turn-based strategy game of military conquest, diplomatic manoeuvrings, trade deals and scientific progress.
Do you trade your tribe’s knowledge of ‘The Wheel’ for your rival’s new discovery of ‘Alphabet’? What need do you have for two sets of war elephants when one could be exchanged for quarried stone to assist in your pyramid building? On the other hand, dare you risk your rival gaining the ability to attack with chariots (thanks to the Wheel) or emulating Hannibal and crossing the Alps on elephants you yourself supplied?
Civilisation forces these choices upon you constantly, with only the canniest of free traders or the most militant of protectionists making it through the millennia to victory. For my money, Civ IV: Warlords was the best iteration (and it has awesome African music), but play around and try your hand at different versions. Just always beware the fateful words that have ended many an empire upon contact with your new foe: “I am Shaka, King of the Zulus. My words are backed with nuclear weapons.”
No dice. No luck. Only a map of Europe in 1900, you and your friends representing the empires of Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, Austro-Hungary and the Ottomans. That, and hours upon hours of whispered negotiation in crowded bathrooms, desperate huddles around the kitchen table and panic’d looks as orders are revealed. For Diplomacy’s dynamic is simple and brilliant: you gather round the map, you study your limited moves (usually just a choice of what to do with two army pieces and a navy to start with), and then you break off into groupings to discuss who will do what to whom. When you return to the table each of you writes down what your forces will do and there is a simultaneous reveal of orders. And then all hell breaks loose as the Austro-Hungarians back France in moving on Germany instead of supporting the Kaiser’s push on Constantinople (my brother Adam has never forgiven me for that one).
The game will take the whole day, so lay in heavy supplies of the national drinks of each empire and be ready to order multiple take-aways. But the experience is utterly worth it. There’s a reason why this was JFK and Henry Kissenger’s favourite game!
1960: the making of the President
To my mind, this is the most realistic election simulator I’ve ever played. Candidates, media, ground game, endorsements and events are all represented as you battle for control of the Electoral College. Do you go all in on the big states of New York, Texas and California, or play thin and wide spreading out your campaign across the Deep South and Mid-West to challenge your rival on multiple fronts? And then of course there’s the all-important question: are you the hero of PT109 or Tricky Dick (I tend to play the latter – I’ve always felt history was hard on old Milhouse).
The brilliance of the game comes in its main mechanism: the political capital bag. This is simply a bag full of cubes (red for the GOP, blue for the Dems) that you draw from and deploy to represent the purchase of TV ads, the deployment of field organisers and volunteers, or securing the backing of powerful regional interests in media, business and politics. The cubes you draw from the bag that are your colour count for you; those that aren’t count against you. Gaining the political initiative earns you more cubes to put in the bag thus tilting the odds in your favour. Likewise, falling behind leaves you scrabbling for political capital. And so it is in real life politics, for in the words of legendary GOP strategist Hayley Barbour: “in politics, good gets better, and bad gets worse.”
Labyrinth: the War on Terror, 2001 – ?
Another epic two-player duel. But this time it’s America versus al-Qaida in the War on Terror. Labyrinth covers the decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, the race to dismantle AQ Khan’s nuclear network, the tension between EU-pleasing soft power and ally-losing hard power actions and much, much more. Like 1960 it uses a card-based system of events (hundreds of them) to shape the narrative and force decisions at the worst possible moment for both the US and AQ player. My first game saw me lose to a former intelligence officer who masterfully distracted my forces in Somalia whilst sneaking in terror cells over the Canadian border. My implementation of the Patriot Act came too late and I lost the 2004 election, saw my policies dismantled and Western security collapse shortly thereafter.
This is a game that takes its subject matter seriously, and challenges its players to think long and hard about the trade-offs between security and liberty, peace and war in navigating the labyrinth of national security threats. A serious strategy game for serious gamers.
Invest in mass transit; raise taxes; avoid a teacher strike; expand highways; crack down on a crime wave; worry about the deficit; deal with soaring unemployment – it’s all in a day’s work for a decent mayor. And that’s before you switch ‘Disasters’ on and witness earthquakes, floods or even alien invasions.
Sim City is the finest policy-over-politics game there is. A simulator that channels public policy by the bucket load, with all of its triumphs and disasters from appropriations to zoning, this is a game in which you really can play out your urban planning fantasies at both strategic and neighbourhood level. Juggling decisions about the interplay between residential, industrial and commercial zones, high, medium or low density, and the correct balance of utilities is a joy to behold, even as it is a headache to master.
Buy it, you won’t regret it.