Class Warfaire

Pictured: More social unrest than Hegemony is actually comfortable presenting.

Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory, brought to us by veteran designer Vangelis Bagiartakis and newcomer Varnavas Timotheou, is the sort of game that invites criticism right out of the gate. As a medium, board games have a knack for modeling complex situations and structures. Those models, however, are only as sturdy as a designer’s understanding of the topic under reconstruction. And there aren’t many topics as complicated — or as prone to disagreement, even by very educated people — as class conflict.

When they're standing upright, they're locked into a job. Lying down, they can move onto greener pastures. The state's unemployment rate does not factor into this decision.

Labor belabored.

Let’s set the scene.

There are four classes in Hegemony, each determined to remake their nation-state in their image. At times these remakings are wobbly, the province of countless spills of victory points rather than, say, ushering in a socialist revolution or establishing a bear-terrorizing libertarian hell-village, but each class’s behaviors are amicable enough to their real-world counterparts that there’s very little need for anything more than the shorthand version.

The most familiar to those of us in the cheap seats are the Working Class and Middle Class. This familiarity is largely thanks to the day-to-day pressures these classes face. Their goals, in rough order, wend from find jobs and get paid to feed yourself, go to college, buy the latest essential-to-surviving-in-society gadget, and marginally improve your living conditions despite the meddling of the Capitalist Class.

No, really, that’s the gist. Early on, when Hegemony was first announced, there was some speculation that the game would shoot for a “balanced” perspective, allowing any of its factions to come across as the heroes of the story. While it’s true that the game’s Capitalists aren’t presented as pig-nosed demons, the game’s sympathies lie squarely with the underdogs. They’re the most interesting factions to play, for one thing, balancing their labor pools alongside class-specific considerations. The Middle Class can establish small businesses to compete with public-sector broadcasting and soulless corporate malls, finding themselves caught up in the struggle between fighting for higher wages for their own employees, while simultaneously trying to squeeze the Working Class folks who work at their boutiques and tutoring centers. Meanwhile, the Working Class occasionally comes together to launch strikes and demonstrations, or maybe found a co-op to make food affordable. There’s an art to playing as these classes. Their very existence is a constant drain, prosperity ratings ticking steadily downward and expenses piling up. Once, our Middle Class took out a loan to pay for taxes. Another time, our Working Class took out a loan to pay the interest on a previous loan. Check-cashing centers, anyone?

By contrast, the Capitalist Class and the State are surprisingly traditional. Even, dare I say it, somewhat dull. The former is all about maximizing their profits, churning revenue into capital into victory points, a process that requires a lot of buying low and selling high. They become more interesting once they intersect with the public at large, especially once they start throwing around their outsized influence in elections, but they never have quite as much to do as the classes whose labor they’re bent on exploiting. The State, meanwhile, is thankfully not portrayed as some deep-state boogeyman, but rather as a well-intentioned but self-interested civil service that courts public opinion at all turns. Inveterate people-pleasers, their whole shtick is balancing the budget, handling the occasional crisis, and tossing enough favors to the other three classes to beef up their legitimacy and earn points. If they happen to be somewhat repetitive and soul-sucking to play, let’s call it verisimilitude.

I don't actually get into it in the text of the review, so here goes: you either activate an event or you toss one to take a standard action. Yep. That's why I didn't get into it in the text of the review.

The cards bend the rules.

These four classes are only the first layer of Hegemony’s simulation. There are still levers aplenty, sinews and gears that join everything together and provide the pressure points that everybody is hoping to pinch. Everyone uses the same card system, lifted wholesale from card-driven games like Twilight Struggle, and it’s an effective way of injecting some spice into the proceedings without leaning on too many special rules. The real highlight, though, is the broader economic and legal system itself, especially once it brings its classes into collision.

The obvious example is elections, a system that’s part bag-building and part bidding war. Every faction but the State can toss voting cubes into a shared bag, a rough but functional blend of lobbying, social awareness, and whining about your kid having to read a book they didn’t like in school. When an election rolls around, only a few cubes are drawn — elections are wily and unpredictable affairs — but then everybody also gets a chance to bid influence, hard-earned abstractions in their own right, to effect their proposed change.

Yet again, that’s only one of many layers. Each of the aforementioned steps requires further consideration. Voting cubes must be thrown into the bag, but this is tougher than it sounds when you’re working nine to five. In game terms, “nine to five” usually means “allocating your workers.” Each player only gets five actions per round — more if you count “free” actions, although these are also strictly metered — and it isn’t long before there’s more to do than can ever be done. When you need to launch a strike, assign workers to a friendlier business, and make time to swing down to the store to buy food and healthcare, it’s a rare round that leaves enough room to be politically active. Hegemony’s best points are those that arise naturally from its systems. Demonstrating why ordinary working people often lack the time and energy to get involved in politics is one of those points.

Less subtle, but no less effective, is what all those elections are for. Rather than delving into the particulars of party politics, your nation-state’s political spectrum is represented by seven policies across two axes. These cover a range of issues. There’s the labor market for governing the minimum wage, a policy of taxation, healthcare and education, foreign trade, and immigration. The three classes all have their own vested interests, trending toward socialism, centrism, or neoliberalism — the other axis, globalism versus nationalism, is a little stickier — and meanwhile, the State is striving to meet ever-changing benchmarks based on the whims of an off-stage current administration. These policies are the hub of Hegemony’s wagon wheel, sprouting consequences in every direction. The cheaper your country’s healthcare and education, the more often the Working and Middle Classes will be able to bump up their prosperity, but business taxes will skyrocket to cover the costs, earning the ire of the Capitalist Class and, at times, a Middle Class that needs a break for its own ventures to thrive. It’s simple enough, all things considered, but avoids coming across as too simplistic. While the Working Class leans left and the Capitalist Class leans right, there’s enough wiggle room that hard stances aren’t always reliable.

Like, so much class consciousness. I'm not even sure what class I'm in. These folks, though, are reliable. At least nobody is under the illusion that a working class dude is going to become a billionaire.

Class consciousness.

By now it should be obvious what Hegemony is, and perhaps more importantly what it isn’t. While its central class conflict is carefully drawn, it’s tempting to evaluate it not only by its inclusions, but also on its omissions. To be clear, they’re sizable. The game comes with a generous booklet explaining its conceptual framework, a worthy undertaking that would have been clearer had it dug deeper into its own assumptions. For a game that takes Max Weber’s first statement about states as gospel — namely, that states are entities that hold a monopoly on violence — it bears a marked absence of coercion. There are cards that allow the Capitalist Class to squirrel away its funds in offshore accounts, and “fake news” rears its dopey head on occasion, but for the most part the game’s broken norms are white-collar only.

I mentioned earlier that Hegemony is at its best when its observations arise naturally. There are plenty of examples, sparking with little crackles of static electricity whenever they appear. The Capitalist Class promotes free trade to access additional import deals, only to suffer when the market is flooded with knockoffs. The Middle Class is so terrified of their shrinking privileges that they’re hopelessly vacillating whenever an issue is on the table. Strikes and demonstrations are bought off with cheap worker perks like pizza parties.

At the same time, the game’s tendency toward toothlessness makes itself known on the regular. For every perceptive inclusion, there’s a gaping hole. There’s an old joke about how the one agreement between socialists and capitalists is that materialism is the sole arbiter of reality. In the same vein, Hegemony is a resolutely materialist game. No non-economic ideologies make themselves known. There’s no charity, no religion, no class betrayal or voting against one’s own interests, no race or sex or marginal groups, no old-world resentments or new-world sins that have gone unaddressed for so long that they’ve turned infected. There are no populist lies, no foreign wars, no collapsing cash crops, no terrorism, no military-industrial complex pulling strings, no police state blues or aristocratic whites, no lobbying for industrial deregulation, no consequent pneumoconiosis from working the mines without sufficient PPE, no billionaires promising to transport their fanboys to Mars. In their place, Hegemony offers Rational Choice Theory incarnate, the bulk of this nation-state’s citizens little more than avatars of self-interest according to some economist’s idea of rationality.

Of course, this evaluation isn’t fair. I don’t even mean it as criticism. Rather, it’s an evaluation the game invites. By covering so much ground and positioning itself as a unifying Theory of Everything, the gaps in the theory become all the more prominent. By so effectively streamlining its handful of materialist considerations and putting them in a vacuum, it comes across as a screaming demonstration that none of these policies and elections and class conflicts, when we return to the real world, occur in a vacuum.

I don't wanna

For a fun time, evaluate where your government sits.

Hegemony seems aware of this fact while simultaneously not quite knowing what to do about it.

For instance, multiple sessions have resulted in a peculiar situation where the Working Class is absolutely stacked with cash while also suffering from crippling unemployment. Now, there’s a way to combat this. The Working Class can launch demonstrations when there are too many unemployed workers. This potentially robs the other factions of points if new jobs haven’t been provided by the end of the round. Except the Working Class likely has plenty of money, which they’re using to buy services and goods to increase their prosperity, so they don’t have a strong incentive to actually hold the demonstrations for more jobs. Their incentive, when you get right down to it, is to drain opposing points. An odd carrot indeed, breaking the game’s fourth wall and representing… what? Resentment? Jealousy? It seems like there could have been more tangible ways to depict the quality of living gap than an appeal to the scoring track. Meanwhile, all those unemployed workers incur neither penalty nor obligation. As an entity, the Working Class’s approach to its clients is all positive contribution, no responsibility.

The same goes for the others as well. The Capitalist Class is the board’s main generator of new businesses — until a switch is flipped and it halts the growth, for no in-setting reason whatsoever. For no in-game reason, either, except that they’ve maxed out how many points they can earn from cash. How cool would that be, if the world’s wealthy suddenly decided they’d made enough scratch? The Middle Class is vacillating and unsteady — until the last round, when suddenly they’re pushing for centrist policies. The scoring track is always oppressively close at hand. I’m loathe to say it, given this game’s magnitude of currencies and tokens, but hidden points might have gone further in grounding the game’s moment-to-moment considerations.

By their very nature, board game scoring systems intrude into the magic circle, but rarely do they highlight such a brittle model. I don’t believe I’ve seen a single session of Hegemony conclude with what feels like a “natural” state. It isn’t always a rich but unemployed Working Class. Sometimes it’s a State with a bunch of empty businesses, or a Capitalist who barely founded any companies, or a Middle Class that never once bothered to claim some free healthcare. Whatever the cause, Hegemony struggles to connect its underlying model with its outward expression.

No, really, it's fine. They don't even mind.

This is fine.

It certainly doesn’t help that everyone’s approach has been carefully placed on rails. This problem is worst for the Capitalist and State, the latter of which can sleepwalk through the game, startling awake to resolve each round’s crisis cards but otherwise retreating into a stupor of repetitive decisions that might as well be automated. When played with three players, they are automated, and without much loss.

But everybody suffers from the same rigid hand-holding to some degree. The Capitalist and Middle Classes both display the businesses they might place on the board. This allows the Middle and Working Classes to train specialized workers who can occupy those upcoming slots. Apart from that, most businesses are carbon copies of one another. The whole board soon blends together. A purple business is a purple business. An orange business over here is pretty much the same as the orange business over there. There’s no need to assess whether your workers’ needs are being met at one company over the other. Apart from striving for a vague balance between sectors, business owners will never fret over which one to put into play. The same goes for business deals, which the game talks up but feel largely samey. For such a hefty game, with so many little bits and bobs to consider, the individual bobs and bits are so often indistinguishable from one another.

In one sense, this snaps Hegemony into focus. This is a high-level game, one that’s most interested in sketching an impression of the interactions between its four actors. It succeeds in that endeavor. From sixty-two miles up, it leaves a compelling impression of how its classes intersect. Yes, that’s a reference; sixty-two miles up is where our atmosphere bleeds into the vacuum of space. Snark aside, there’s value to seeing something from that distance. Stripped of particulars, Hegemony offers an enlightening sandbox portrayal of class conflict.

At the same time, it’s so burdened with paraphernalia — individual businesses, individual crises, individual business deals, individual workers, all those dozens of event cards, the specificity of payments and counting out change whenever taxes are paid, benefits are delivered, or classes complete a transaction. Oh, don’t get me started on making change. If this game’s myriad currencies could be automated, it would scratch a good fifteen minutes off the back end. That’s Hegemony in a nutshell. It isn’t about counting change, but by damn you will count change until your fingers are covered in cardboard dust. For a game that presents the big picture, it’s still hung up on minutiae.

Impressive but maybe not something I need to see twice. Like the world's largest vat of flat cola.

It might seem overwhelming, but Hegemony is an impressive distillation.

Make no mistake, Hegemony is a fascinating artifact. It’s impressive and brittle at once, like some beautiful but fragile creature that’s wandered into rough waters. It’s a joy to witness in action, to theorize over, to discuss. Its moments of perception are significant.

As an object of play or serious study, however, its joys are dulled. While it showcases how board games excel at modeling, it also illustrates why those models are contingent and inherently limited. It’s full of niggling omissions, eye-watering inclusions, and moments that shatter the illusion it works so hard to maintain. Cap that off with a daunting playtime and a whole lot of accounting, and the result is a game that approximates the drudgery of a career a little too closely. It’s reminiscent of how a Renaissance faire evokes the Renaissance. The costumes are painstakingly crafted with an eye for detail, but the beers come in bottles and there’s a dude talking your ear off about how ninja stars made their way to Europe. It’s a good time. But it’s a sketch. And one that’s a relief to pack up at the end. I’m glad to have played Hegemony. But this is one faire I won’t be revisiting.


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Posted on May 25, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Amazing review, thanks a lot. Do you know of other games trying to model class struggle? Seems like a great (if daunting) match to board games… but I cannot think of a game that turns around this, besides perhaps models of overt military “class” struggle a la COIN.

    • Not directly, although somebody mentioned that Crisis covers some similar territory, and the Pax series gets into the nitty-gritty of class at times. (Not to mention, a Pax-based class struggle game would probably work.) For now, this is probably the vanguard.

  2. Yes I was also thinking about the Pax series, in particular Pax Ren when taken as it is actually played as opposed to the illuminati bankers version of the footnotes :-). I think I would love a Pax that explicitly revolves around class.

    • Haha, right, there are two Pax Rens. One is the most cosmopolitan game about the Renaissance ever designed, covering religion and state-building and the making of capital and modernity and class… and then there’s the Pax Ren about merchant cabals manufacturing a jihad so they can take over the kingdom of Hungary.

  3. Fantastic critique. A pleasure to read. One of your best I think.

  4. Jesús Couto Fandiño

    Interesting. People have been praising this game a lot – and I’m waiting for my copy. Yours is the first “negative” critique I read. Which is of course great, that is what reviewing is about.

    I wonder if part of the “satellite view” of things and the omissions are precisely there to have a sort of “international” quality? I mean, the country in Hegemony ends up being a platonic ideal of a country (under a particular worldview of what a country is), and adding details that are absolutely crucial in real life would surely end up making it about one country in particular. Abstracted away, we can all see stuff we are familiar with in our political scene – even if in a simplified, almost completly theoretical form. If you include things like nationalism, then the particulars start creeping in, and my nationalism looks a bit different from your nationalism, my pet peeves about history and religion and stuff like that dont map to yours, etc…

    Of course that ends up in all probability feeling like, well, a computer simulation of the most abstract kind of relationships, and not a lived place. But the other option would be to do it about Greece, or Germany, or the US, or … and lose a bit of the universal view.

  5. Christian van Someren

    I’ve only played this solo so far, and I haven’t tried the State yet, but I do find the game to be a fascinating puzzle. Sometimes you might want to help an opposing class win a vote to prevent another class gaining a majority (big points at the end of the game), or even to grab a measly 1 VP for a vote you knew you were going to lose anyway. Sometimes you will propose a bill you know you can’t win, just to keep it from backsliding. There are so many little intricacies in this game, it just keeps pulling me back in.

    I do agree that the Capitalists are the most straightforward, but even here I think you have interesting choices. Just how far can you push the other classes to earn a few more bucks? Do you raise local prices so you can increase your exports, or focus on selling internally? Whatever you do, don’t hire so many working class employees that they can start a Trade Union (God forbid!).

    The solo system is also very well implemented. Just flip a card and follow a priority list, easy-peasy. But it still manages to maintain uncertainty and a lot of tension when it comes to voting on policies, which, IMO, is the real core of the game. Getting the right policies at the right time can make the game for you.

    The game is far from perfect (it’s pretty long, and making change is just annoying), but I find it very intuitive and I think it does a surprisingly good job of representing class struggle. If nothing else, I think it is a very well designed “game” which really pits the 3 roles against each other nicely, while encouraging temporary alliances. I should try playing solo as the State, just to see how they fit in, but they seem less compelling to me.

  6. Reframing some of the goals may help the game a bit. In particular, I don’t think the scores are supposed to be about how well off that class is doing but instead of measure of their relative political clout.

    One of the things we enjoyed playing this was discussing afterwards what it might be like to live in this country we just managed and what the standard of living might look like for the average citizen. From the games I played, quite possibly the highest standard of living for the working class came from a capitalist victory. The capitalist class largely ignored local companies, instead focusing on trade deals while the taxes on their revenue supported a large public sector and heavy subsidies of health and education. Luxuries were hard to come by, but the essentials were very easy to purchase.

    Conversely, the lowest standard of living definitely came from a working class victory. I had deliberately run up unemployment while the capitalists were strapped for cash from crushing taxes and low sales. There were constant demonstrations and occasional food shortages while healthcare was virtually non-existent.

    Viewed from the lens of the Working class player representing the interests of the working class, it was a game state and set of decisions that made absolutely no sense. Reframe it as the labor leadership being corrupt and far more interested in political power than helping their constituents and suddenly that does tell a cohesive story.

    It’s really easy to identify who the working class meeples are supposed to represent in life but that definitely isn’t who the working class player is supposed to represent.

  7. This is an a really interesting review. I recognise and understand very point you make. But I don’t entirely agree overall. I’ve now played Hegemony about a dozen times. Every game has been different, sometimes wildly. That’s interesting. My experience is that the ‘political corner’ is critical. The game system is unstable and small changes in policies have a substantial effect; the butterfly effect beloved of chaos theory? As my group and I have become more familiar, we spend more effort on ‘direct’ politics (actions to propose bills, put cubes in the bag and so on), but also ‘indirect’ politics (ie table talk and negotiation). This is interesting (fun)? I think that this is where the game lies, not in the relatively straightforward paths to victory for each faction. So, maybe, it’s actually political/negotiation game dressed up as an economic simulation? Anyway, thank you for your many excellent posts,

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