Yesterday we looked at €uro Crisis, a sharp-toothed economic game from Doppeldenkspiele with one heck of a political system and a jaw-unhinging dose of satire. Despite some reservations, I appreciated its unexpected edges and depth of play.
Its follow-up title, Claudio Bierig’s Plutocracy, rockets the financial power plays into the far reaches of the solar system. Unfortunately, despite being given infinite wiggle room, it largely sticks to one corner.
Welcome to outer space. When we left Earth, it turns out we took our problems with us. Humanity is now governed by a literal plutocracy. That’s the rule of the wealthy, not the rule of folks from Pluto. Pluto doesn’t even make an appearance in Plutocracy. Takes the wind right out of that pun’s solar sails.
On the surface, the parallels between €uro Crisis and Plutocracy are muted. Unlike that first game, Plutocracy adheres more closely to genre formula. In this case, pick-up-and-deliver. The five major planets of the solar system each produce something of value and require something else in return. These resources are color-coded: Mars needs oxygen, Saturn wants carbon, Uranus is short on green stuff, and so forth. As the owner of a trade freighter, you’re free to travel across the divide, picking up cargo and hauling it to its destination. Hopefully you’re buying low and selling high in the process.
As a straight pick-up-and-deliver game, Plutocracy has little to recommend it. Inhabiting a system devoid of hazards or opportunities, it’s Firefly by way of operating an actual seagoing freighter: all travel, no excitement. Once in a while, you’ll make port where the resources are cheap. That’s a good turn.
A great turn, on the other hand, requires manipulation of Plutocracy’s more unique elements. The first is that your destinations are always in motion. Well, not always. They’re periodically in motion. Turns are managed on a time track. Whenever you move, you count up the distance traveled, add two, and slide your marker along the track. The same goes for other events: price adjustments, elections, and the motion of planets. Think Patchwork or AuZtralia and you’ll get the gist. The result is a freeze-frame stutter: planets are stationary until they launch forward, then they sit there for a while, then they jitter around again. As an abstraction it looks funny, but makes for a reasonable concession that keeps the calculations from growing too complex.
This is also how Plutocracy receives its first breath of life. Rather than fly all the way to a planet’s current position, you can instead fly to where the planet will be momentarily. In such a maneuver, it’s possible to minimize how much time you spend in transit, perhaps even arriving “before” somebody who landed on the planet’s previous position. When you pull off such a trick, it feels amazing. Your victims will feel like calling bullshit.
That’s when Plutocracy starts to look a little bit like €uro Crisis after all. Like its spiritual predecessor, Plutocracy offers neither hand-holding nor parachutes, and will gladly lock players out of the game entirely if they aren’t careful with their finances. There isn’t a hard-coded failure state à la the debt floor in €uro Crisis, but it’s possible to back yourself into a corner by purchasing the wrong trade goods or parliament seats and never being able to claw your way back.
The same goes for the game’s victory condition. Just as €uro Crisis’s bankers had to climb multiple rungs to transform their debts into privatizations, Plutocracy’s trade is a means to an end. Your ultimate goal is to purchase a controlling interest in the Plutocratic Council. There are two ways in. The first uses the aforementioned parliament seats. Every planet has its own open parliament, where you can spend your hard-earned space euros to buy seats; periodically, an election will award a space on the plutocratic council for whomever controls each planetary parliament. Second, you can visit Earth, where four societies will award decreasing influence on the plutocratic council to merchants who accomplish particular tasks. These include gathering a bunch of cash, having multiple resources in your hold, having parliament members on four planets, or rescuing an alien from an asteroid before it plunges into the sun.
To be clear, Plutocracy, like €uro Crisis before it, is best when it’s throwing elbows. Revolving destinations, scooping rivals on good deals, having to gauge when to spend your hard-earned money on victory rather than reinvesting in trade — that’s the good stuff.
The problem is that it exists in a vacuum. €uro Crisis threw its players into the deep end of the pool with an elaborate and interesting economic system. Every part of the design brushed up against every other part, resulting in intriguing frictions and unforeseen problems. By contrast, Plutocracy is closer to a spinning wheel: it moves, but there’s not much to do but follow its course. The economy is simple and unvaried. The ports are lifeless. There’s no distinction between one trade good and another, one market and the next, or between any of the paths to the plutocratic council. Like space, it’s vast and empty. All that remains is the bean-counting of various flight paths. You aren’t manipulating an economy so much as passively dipping into one, the ripples from those dips sometimes lapping against the hulls of competing freighters. Lots of counting, precious little oomph.
After €uro Crisis, I went into Plutocracy expecting another skewering of moneyed politics, perhaps with an extra layer of polish to ease newcomers into the experience. I wanted its killer tagline to intrude into the game. “Space is time is money is power.” Whew! What a statement. More of that, please. Instead, it’s a sleepy pick-up-and-deliver game that never wanders afield of the marked path.
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A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on October 11, 2022, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Doppeldenkspiele, Plutocracy. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.
Yesterday I read your Eurocrisis post and I wondered if you knew they had a second game, because I had been asked to review Plutocracy as well. I think we generally agreed on the coldness of the game. Here’s mine if a peer review-esque look at how a duffer in the same review space as you looked at it.
Anyway, I really like your reviews, I hope sometime to have a style as fluent as yours, wish my editor didn’t keep cutting 500 words out of mine, but apparently brevity is the soul of wit.
Thanks for linking your thoughts, Andy! “Cold” is a great description. It feels like there’s so much more that could be done. Even €uro Crisis uses events to upset the marketplace and force players into problem-solving mode. Plutocracy just places its spinning wheel on the table and thinks that’s enough.
oops, I didn’t know I was posting on your website when I hit reply. Sorry for the email signature and such!
No trouble! Here, I’ll snip out the personal details.
Makes me want to try Eurocrisis – I liked Plutocracy but felt there was something missing, an alternative to running the best possible way from one market to the next. The societies are a welcomed break that makes you not just always doing the best path, but they are not enough.
I would love to see this system in a fuller system. More going on. More places to go. Something besides those societies distracting you from optimal pathing.
Dan, did you try the random setup? My first (and, to date, only) play was with the beginner setup and I felt very much the way you did, that with such a flat economy and no hidden or random elements, it was just a very public optimization puzzle. It felt like on one’s turn there was a single optimum move to take, obvious to everyone. Money and time are both extremely tight so you don’t have a lot of wiggle room to experiment.
I wondered if the randomized setup might help, but fear that a) if the goods need to be ferried in more circuitous paths then money and time become even more tight, leading to even less room for “suboptimal” play and b) there’s still no new information entering the game after setup so you’re back where you started.
There’s a good idea here but as you say, everything eventually boils down to the buying and selling and that’s just not terribly interesting or motivating.
The one thing that really puts a wrench in things is the decision to go to Earth, which in our game happened all at the same time. We were four players, so this scramble filled three of the four societies. So that one really interesting decision wasn’t going to happen again.
We tried it both ways, and while the random setup presents an alternate situation, you pretty quickly get a handle on where everything is and what the optimal pathing will be. Also, the planets potentially being far apart means you can’t do as much before the game ends.
I was afraid of that…