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.
A complimentary copy was provided.