When looking at Rogue State conceptually, the first that comes to mind is “dictator simulator.” Even the game’s official trailer highlights the naughtier things it entails – developing a nuclear arsenal, assassinating foreign leaders, etc. – over more diplomatic options. While it is true that you control a Middle Eastern nation immediately following revolution, an excellent breeding ground for totalitarian government, that title is a little misleading. For the most part, Rogue State encourages diplomacy (and arguably left-wing politics) just as much as its underhanded alternatives, the dictatorial element acting more to simplify the legislative process than anything else; how it does this is both refreshing and limiting.
But let’s back up. Rogue State is something of an interesting idea in its own right. It doesn’t pretend to have the complexity that drives other turn-based diplomacy games like Democracy. There are councils, constituents, and parliament, but you are by no means required to listen to any of them. Instead, the challenge comes from managing the opinions of these various groups, along with maintaining relationships of some variety with local powers and the United States, in addition to combating the continued sabotage of your brother-antagonist, Faruk, while holding supreme executive power. That means it could just as easily turn into a game of how to get away with everything you want to do.
Naturally, failing to consider these factions will bring on negative ramifications, but this can also pose a calculated risk; building nukes, for example, is very likely to incur the diplomatic wrath of the US, but can offer a huge advantage over competing local nations who are much, much more likely to invade you. For fans of diplomatic strategy games, this shouldn’t be anything new, and the lack of oversight in your actions might even seem a little simplistic. It is, but that’s kind of the point, as there is some truth to the “dictator simulator” moniker after all. It’s definitely looking to be “easy to learn, hard to master.”
To some extent, this is absolutely the case. Almost everything in the game, from infrastructure decisions to taxes or military deployment, is pretty easy to wrap your head around. The UI is effective in its simplicity, if crude (much like the graphics); you’ll rarely have to dig for a necessary stat. The key variable here is just that: variability. RNG matters a lot more than you’d think it would, and when you start off you have very little at your disposal to counteract it. Your exports, which are essentially make-or-break early game, are randomized, as are their prices and the willingness of nearby nations to import them. You could start a game with only one viable export of minimal value or with two of disproportionately high value.
The same is the case for the surrounding nations, so your access to certain key early decisions – such as building an oil pipeline – is entirely dependent on luck of the draw. In that sense, it acts more like a rogue-lite, which might be good or bad depending on taste. While the questionable design decisions are, for the most part, executed surprisingly well, one of the most basic aspects of diplomacy is horribly botched: conversation. You’re given the option to talk about ideology with local leaders in the hopes of gaining their favor, but the shifts are almost nonsensically dramatic. If you manage to have a really good or really bad conversation, you might find yourself best friends or going to war overnight. The positions of each leader are random, of course, and your initial lack of intelligence regarding their allegiances make it akin to taking shots in the dark.
Thankfully, outright misfires like this are few and far between, but it’s often simple conceptual mistakes like this that keep the game from really fleshing out its full potential. Not to mention that this doubling down on randomness is compounded with the fact that you have a massive technological and militaristic handicap versus your neighbors starting off. That really shouldn’t be all that unexpected seeing as you’ve just survived civil war, but it does contribute to reliance on chance. The constant push to innovate infrastructure, whether you’re developing a counter-terrorism group or just turning the water back on, while also contending with the often-absurd requests from councilors (among others) means it’s going to take quite a bit of risk management to get the upper hand by end-game, assuming you make it there. This does give the game an added urgency, and is somewhat representative of the design decisions as a whole: tough but fair, assuming the RNG gods are smiling on you.
Most of these complaints could be offset though, if only there were more variability to the options handed to you. You’re basically split between policy decisions – limited to a dozen sliders – infrastructure upgrades, long-term projects, and/or warmongering, and really only the first two options are viable early on. Long-term projects can be a serious boon late-game, but often by that point your government has stabilized or collapsed. Warmongering is also essentially out of the question at first, as every army seems to have more military strength than you, though you can never be sure until you seriously beef up your intelligence budget…something you’d only do after at least a moderate amount of stability. Crises stir the pot a bit mid-to-late game and might rattle your caucus even if you’ve managed to create a utopia, but they’re just about the only check against the late-game droll that so often maligns strategy games.
I’ve given Rogue State a hard time for its many questionable but mostly small design choices, so I should emphasize that it absolutely fulfills its promise of using simple mechanics to develop complex situations. It’s a very solid strategy game with a great concept that rarely misses the mark, and nearly everything that can be said against it are to taste (if you hate randomness, this might not be for you) or are simply things that could have been done to make a good game better. It might not be the prettiest thing to look at, and there are certainly more in-depth strategy games out there, but it’s a unique idea executed right where it needs to be.[review]