Review of Statecraft, or Do You Want to be a Political Scumbag?
Last night, in the quiet Monday night buzz of Thirsty Meeples, I sat down to try a prototype copy of Statecraft. I knew little to nothing about it, armed only with the knowledge it was a politically themed card game, and a mug of tea. Nonetheless, I was fairly excited, and I don’t think that it was preemptive. We see a lot of games in the cafe, week after week, and I see lots of games missing the mark or failing to stray from the beaten path. And whilst political games have been done before, often they are fairly heavy or long affairs, even the success stories like Democracy and Tammany Hall. Statecraft promised to be so much more than that. So yes, I was excited.
Statecraft is a scenario-based hand and tableau management game. Let’s take a look at those terms more closely. When I say its scenario-based, what I mean is that each game, you will use a different scenario card which determines how the game ends, who wins it, and may add additional rules into the mix. In Statecraft, these represent different political struggles that go on across the globe, everything from your standard democratic election, to coup d’états and revolutions. These cards determine also how easy it is to acquire politicians to your team and how big the population of supporters is to rally behind your cause.
On your turn in Statecraft, you will be managing your hand, because you can do any number of things in your turn (or even nothing), but everything has to be paid for with cards in your hand. And there are four things you can spend these on:
- If they are action cards, you can play them for their effect, whether that’s pulling out more supporters from the woodwork with a Social Media Campaign, or put another party’s politician out of commission with a vicious Slander Campaign.
- You can recruit politicians by spending a card, each with different specialisations.
- If they are policy cards, you can add them to your tableau of politicians – this is where the game happens. Policies earn you points in the games important four metrics: Authoritarianism, Anarchism, Capitalism, and Socialism; the things supporters care about. You will try and play policies that help you acquire the supporters that are out there (a beautifully dark depiction of reality), but each policy card comes with two options sides – two ways of interacting with each issue. For example, one card might be a call for Strict Border Control on one side, and the other side might be a policy of Random ID Checks, each side boosting certain stats.
What makes these cards are the possibilities and restrictions. Each politician in your team can only handle certain types of policies – say, health or infrastructure – and your overall budget must square (a major issue if you’re going heavy on public spending). At the same, you can have your politicians denounce policies, moving you down on trackers you might have gone too far on, or earning you back some delicious budget.
- You can garner supporters by spending a card – the real aim of the game. Each time you do so, you must fulfill their individual preferences, be that at least 5 spaces up the Capitalism track, or at most 3 of anarchy. But you can nab these off your opponents too, either at the cost of an extra card, or at the normal cost if they no longer make their supporters happy. It’s easy to persuade the disenchanted!
There is only one more element that makes Statecraft. At the end of each turn, you will be drawing cards to replenish your hand, but when you do, you also come across events that affect everyone – maybe there’s a Recession, or a Global Pandemic, all of which might mean everyone faces penalties or opportunities. What’s neat about these, is that regardless of the situation, whoever’s in the lead, ‘the Incumbent,’ faces additionally hard penalties – a built in and thematic catch-up mechanic.
Statecraft, from its title to clean graphic design to easily understandable and interlocking mechanics, is a slick and delightful game. It nails the difficult task of gelling theme with mechanic, and gives you story hooks all the time – it’s just a blast. I must admit that part of my admiration comes from the choice of theme, and not everyone will be as excited by funding heavy public spending on healthcare with a capital gains tax to please supporters who, despite not being named in the prototype version, I was utterly convinced were student Trotskyists.
But you don’t have to be a politico for Statecraft’s theme to grab you, because you’re going to immediately realise that you are going to give up any sense of integrity in a series of impossible compromises just to please everyone. And it’s just hilarious watching the contorted situations you and the people you are playing with end up with, if not also a little uncomfortably close to the truth. But these arrive not from the theme, but from a game that forces you to make tough decisions, like any decent hand-management game should. Should you go for those supporters, even though they are so fickle? Can you really afford another fiscally expansionary policy?
I look forward to seeing the proper game, with the artwork I was shown, and with the proper names and titles for supporters and politicians. These can only strengthen the experience. I do wish I had more time to try out the game, with different player counts and in different scenarios, and I say that for one reason only: I am curious to how the luck/strategy balance plays out in the long run. In the game, it felt fine most of the time, and the turns where you couldn’t achieve anything substantial were just another reason to laugh, but I don’t know how typical that is or if it would become tiring.
Statecraft is a solid and elegant game with a fantastic theme, and I am not sure I will be able to stop myself from backing it when it hits Kickstarter.
Filip Falk Hartelius, Head Game Guru, Thirsty Meeples Board Game Cafe