Games

'Suzerain' Is a Political Strategy Game that Shows Why 'Unity' Is a Trap

A choose-your-own-adventure political drama with sharp historical insight and commentary on the politics of today.
February 8, 2021, 2:00pm
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'Suzerain' screenshots courtesy of Fellow Traveller

My two worst moments in Suzerain: first, there was the time I sealed my borders with a fascist state while it carried out military operations against an ethno-nationalist terror group, effectively assisting an ethnic-cleansing campaign. The second was also the moment of my greatest triumph, as I passed massive constitutional reforms and firmly broke with the dictatorial past of the nation of Sordland. It was a stunning success, but I knew that one of the prices I had paid to accomplish it was the betrayal of my best friend and political right-hand. 

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I don't know if I had to do either of those things, but Suzerain made me feel like I could not afford to find out. The nuanced dilemmas it presents, set against a detailed and convincing backdrop of mid-20th century history in a fictional world, make it one of the most fascinating political strategy games of the past several years. Embracing the opportunities and straining against the limits of choose-your-own-adventure interactive fiction, it is an essential game that speaks not just to this moment, but the paths that lead to and from here.

Suzerain takes place in the mid-1950s in the fictional country of Sordland on the continent of Merkopa, whose history mostly suggests Eastern Europe but also invites analogies to South America or the Middle East. You take the role of Anton Rayne, the newly-elected president of a "unity" party as the country attempts to move on from a legacy of civil war, a long dictatorial repression, and a short-lived economically liberalizing presidency. The country is riven with lingering ethnic tension, a strong fascist movement and a weaker socialist one, and is saddled with a moribund economy that is partially-privatized and partially state-owned and fully crony-capitalist. Sordland is surrounded by nations with similar problems, all of whom are trying to navigate a cold war between a liberal, capitalist bloc of nations led by the US-like Arcasia and a socialist bloc led by the nation of United Contana, which stands in for the Soviet Union.

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While you'll spend much of the game looking at a map of the country, and the interface will give you a sense of how your economy is doing, how much money the government has to spend, and how much money you personally have in your family coffers, the similarities to other strategy games end there. Your "government budget" number will oscillate between -4 and 4, and each unit of the budget effectively gives you the ability to fund a new initiative like building rural hospitals, or undertaking a huge infrastructure project. That, in turn, mostly opens the door to new events, decisions, and most importantly, conversations.

It's through interactions with the enormous cast of characters in Suzerain that you govern and create policy. You have your inner circle of political advisors, a fractious cabinet of ministers who have very different political visions and personal goals, a broader landscape of important politicians and leaders, and an international community full of fellow heads of state. Your minister of health wants to modernize healthcare and extend access into the impoverished countryside, but he's also committed to privatization. Your justice minister is a hardcore nationalist but also a ruthlessly ambitious bureaucrat. Your defense minister is also an ardent nationalist but a dedicated professional with ambitions to reform the military along modern lines, which puts him at odds with an equally nationalist but firmly conservative and statist officer corps. Most decisions you make will occur after hearing your ministers and advisors argue their sides of an issue, and then you have to make a call.

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My game largely centered on three crises. The first was that that country's constitution effectively gave its supreme court, a rearguard group of holdovers from the dictatorship, the power to nullify and rewrite laws at will. The second was an economic collapse that I may have caused by pushing socialism into the headwind of a recession. The third was the growing danger of an aggressive neighbor and intensifying superpower conflict around Sordland.

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My strategy in response to all this was to broadly embrace the symbols of nationalism while working to destroy the nationalist party, to push free healthcare in rural areas, and to paralyze the oligarchs by always being on the verge of full nationalization, but also by privately holding out the possibility of favoritism to those who supported me. In the end, I broadly achieved all my goals: the country's major business leaders turned on each other instead of me, the reactionaries were largely broken, and while my "unity" party splintered I was buttressed by huge support among marginalized groups, rural communities, and progressives. The ends probably justified the means… but let's talk about those means for a second and what it feels like to play Suzerain.

The economy went bust just as my first health and public works initiatives were getting going. I forged ahead with deficit spending, but kept both my treasury and health ministers at bay when it came to their eagerness to allow privatization, which would have eased some of the financial burdens on the state. Ironically, one of my major supporters here was my agriculture minister, who saw the potential gains to rural wealth and the agricultural industries he was personally involved with as outweighing the value of economic liberalization. My health secretary ultimately put access and quality of care ahead of his economic preferences, but it did mark the beginning of a rift with my hard-working treasury secretary, an honest and brilliant technocrat who executed pivots toward a planned economy despite his own grave reservations.

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However, that didn't solve the budget crisis. I had an offer to accept economic aid from either the capitalist bloc or the communists, and opted to throw in with the communists in exchange for fleet basing rights. It reduced (but did not solve) by budget deficit, and raised huge flags with my anti-communist military and police.

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With a moribund economy, a neighboring fascist country approached me with an offer. I could assist them in a campaign against an ethnic terror group that was attacking targets in both our countries, in exchange for a favorable trade agreement and regional investments from their state bank. The left and center of my cabinet were uneasy at best and horrified at worst with the deal, but the right was supportive of the crackdown and at the idea of tighter border controls.

The situation was ambiguous. The terror group was quite real, and had carried out a lot of horrific violence in Sordland. But they were also the militant side of a political movement to gain recognition and rights for an historically oppressed minority. While I stopped short of offering military assistance to the crackdown against the terrorists, my foreign secretary and treasurer were both horrified as the reports came in of war crimes on the other side of our border, with civilians unable to escape through my military cordon. A few months later, however, that region was enjoying an economic boom as the outside investment poured in and the favorable trade deals bore fruit. It would haunt the rest of my term (the game only covers one term in office, but the question of re-election and term limits comes up frequently), and I'd spend much of it attempting to rebuild a connection with the leaders of that minority movement… and ultimately succeeding due to those same economic gains and socialized medicine and education.

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Almost concurrent with that, I had to martial a huge political alliance around constitutional reforms. Given that I'd outlawed the fascist militias and turned my weakened police forces loose against them, the nationalist party was in full opposition. So I had to make common cause with conservatives, capitalists, and my own more progressive and socialist supporters.

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It was probably the most tense part of the game, as I took meeting after meeting with people I knew were either opposed to most of my suggested reforms or would become opposed to me once my policies emerged into the open. I was grateful I'd staked out maximalist positions in public so that I was able to work compromises that left me the bulk of what I wanted. Ironically the conservative wing of the party asked the least of me, possibly because I'd fought the capitalist reforms they had rejected. Or maybe they just didn't fully see what I intended yet.

Ironically, it was the liberal reformers who were most skeptical of me, and even though they commanded only a fraction of the votes I needed, they drove the hardest bargain. I met with the up-and-coming politician Albert Clavin, a telegenic idealist who gave me strong Trudeau-Obama vibes: ambition wrapped in a political brand, possibly hollow at the core. He had a very simple request, in the end: he wanted to be my next Vice President.

The problem is that, at the start of the game, your best friend from university and early activist days is your VP. Petr Vectern, a sharp political strategist in the process of dropping the "high-functioning" modifier from his alcoholism. As VP he was becoming an increasing liability: his insight remained keen as far as I could tell, but his ability to show up and do his job was in jeopardy. Plus, he'd developed a taste for the good life of the elites that was both bad politics and trending toward outright corruption. But… more than a friend, his family was close to the Raynes, and his contribution to the cause and his loyalty were undeniable.

I sold him out. I made a private deal to oust him as VP at the next election, and then read the description of a parliamentary vote that was as nail-biting as a high-stakes boss battle. Last minute chaos erupted as political forces emerged from beyond the grave to intervene, the fascists appeared confident that something was bound to break their way soon, and the members of my coalition were starting to get pulled into abrupt meetings on the floor of the house. But when the dust cleared, I'd smashed the opposition. Petr and the rest of the inner circle gathered to celebrate on the balcony of the legislature, and the two of us shared a moment to appreciate how far we had come and how proud we were to have achieved it together. I knew he absolutely had to go, but the contrast between the elation of the moment and his impending political doom was one of the grimmest moments in a frequently bittersweet game.

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But the combination of the personal and political is what makes Suzerain feel so sharp. There's a truism that personnel are policy, that who implements a decision is as important or more than exactly what the decision is. It's not that everyone needs to agree with you, but they have different breaking points. The messy history and politics of Sordland likewise reflect something important: policy preferences don't neatly map onto a single axis but are pulled between different poles of personal, political, and professional values. Unity is a trap because it's built on nothing, but at least in the world of Suzerain, your own ideals are probably too narrow a foundation to build something strong.

The last act of my game probably involved a few too many long, speech heavy scenes on different political stages, but they did serve as a way to showcase the decisions I'd made and the options they'd opened for me. They occurred against a series of events that also showed how many doors I'd closed, and how many enemies I'd made. Some of my political projects fell apart, some of my dearest friends and allies in the game turned against me. I'd done a little evil, I'd engaged in a lot of deceit… but I'd demolished the most reactionary factions in the game and build a new coalition around broad ideology rather than a wishy-washy commitment to identity. I think, after a dozen hours of thoughtful storytelling and decision making, it was a good ending. Just not a happy one.