There are a few global political simulations available to computer gamers—perhaps the most ambitious of them all is Rulers of Nations: Geopolitical Simulator 2, by the French simulation and serious games company EverSim. In it, players are presented with a truly overwhelming number of choices: c170 playable countries (plus their various regions), online or solo play, more than twenty scenarios (and a very active modding community), and many hundreds of potential decisions to make (budgetary allocations and spending priorities, legislative initiatives, fiscal and regulatory decisions, capital investments, public sector wage rates, potential meetings with domestic political figures or fellow world leaders, public pronouncements, political campaigning, military strategy, and lots more beside). We first asked in-house PAXsims playtester David Brynen to play around with the game for a couple of weeks, and then we offer our own thoughts below.
First, what did David think? As an undergraduate political science student, he is precisely the sort of potential player that the game is pitched at. On the other hand, as you may have seen from his previous reviews here, he’s not one to let serious games get off lightly on the “gaming” angle: if it bores him, he soon says so. In this case, however, his overall assessment is very positive:
Eversim’s Rulers of Nations is an absolutely massive game. This geopolitical simulator allows they player to take just about any country in the world and manage in any way they like. As ruler a player can decide on small things in their country, such as the monthly wages of medical personnel or the construction of new sports stadiums. They can also do much more important things such as declaring war, changing laws, and signing trade and military agreements with other countries.
There are many positives about the game. First off, the sheer size of Rulers of Nations and amount of options makes it an extremely enjoyable challenge to play. The attention to detail is impressive: in addition to the obvious global map, anthems, and flags each country has realistic default laws in place showing that Eversim did their research. For example, homosexuality is illegal in Iran but legal in Canada. Similarly you will find that freedom of speech is fully respected somewhere like the US or Ireland, but restricted or suppressed in other countries. I think that in a game with up to 170 countries, it would be easy to overlook or make mistakes on little details like this, but I couldn’t find any.
There are around a dozen scenarios that deal with contemporary problems like the ongoing War in Afghanistan or the global financial crisis. My personal favorite, and where I think the game shines the brightest, is open play mode, where you pick from one of 170 countries and rule it how you like for as long as possible. Since one can choose from so many countries and make adjustments to countless policies, no two playthroughs are alike. The size and virtually limitless amount of combinations is what really make this game great. As if this weren’t already enough, there is a large modding community that makes extra downloadable scenarios to play as well, ranging from realistic real-world situations to those that are humorous or satirical in nature.
Another positive of the game was its interface. While some reviewers have criticized it, I found it much easier to use than the interface in other so-called “serious games” like People Power and Fate of the World. The world map is clickable making it quick to switch from region to region and each sector of the government is presented with large buttons and hierarchical menus. Going from financial policies to military operations only takes a few seconds, is intuitive, and does not require the navigation through numerous intermediate steps. Advisors constantly pop up to warn you of challenges or urge courses of action (although they often offer realistically conflicting advice, or squabble among themselves). The game has a decent (if somewhat incomplete) tutorial, and I had little difficulty playing it without consulting the online instruction manual.
Without a doubt the biggest potential problem of Rulers of Nations is the very same complexity that makes it so interesting. With so many choices, it is rather difficult to determine what actions are having what effects, and how quickly or slowly these effects are being felt. In part for this reason, mastering the game can also be quite difficult. As leader of a country in Rulers of Nations, the largest indicator of success is measured by your popularity percentage at the top of the screen, which begins at 50%. Despite ruling both Canada and the Netherlands as thoughtfully as I could, my popularity often dropped quickly and I would find myself deposed as leader within about a year of game time, or sometimes even less. Contributing to this was seemed an excessive number of scandals from within my cabinet and all too frequent terrorist attacks. Interestingly, I did a play-through in which I controlled the United States and began by declaring war on Iran and North Korea, which within a month spiraled into a WW III pitting the West against China, Russia and the two aforementioned countries. While in real life the decision to declare war on these two countries would be an extremely unpopular decision (one hopes), my popularity actually skyrocketed from the starting point of 50% to around 70% in a few weeks.
While this example shows how the game is sometimes unrealistic, it does have to be said that most of the simulation seems to behave in relatively sensible ways. If you cut pensions, the elderly protest. If you pass environmental regulations, the environmentalists will praise you. In countries with a parliament, laws must be voted on instead of just being passed instantaneously, illustrating the often difficult process of getting things done as a policy-maker. If you act recklessly, much of the international community will sanction or shun you. The UN can play a significant role as players may choose to ask for the authorization of force when contemplating an attack on another country or just decide to act unilaterally. Many historic tensions appear to be built into the game—North Korea, for example, frequently threatens South Korea.
In conclusion, this game is very good and will appeal to students who have an interest in domestic and foreign politics. What separates it from the other serious or educational games I have reviewed for PAXsims is that Rulers of Nations is actually fun to play. I would probably rate it an 8 out of 10, and certainly would recommend it for classroom use.
I too enjoyed the game. There’s quite a bit of humour built into it—one of my favourites being the head of the secret service, who uses bizarrely complicated mock-intellectual language to explain the smallest events, including espionage operations gone badly wrong. In international meetings you can make idle chit-chat with fellow world leaders, offering coffee or praising the beauty of their country. While I doubt it has any effect on actual game play, it’s a cute touch.
In a couple of my own playtest games I played as Iran and attempted to develop a covert nuclear capacity—yes, Rulers of Nations has that option, and will even inform you as to where you’re hiding your enrichment facilities and what level of enrichment you’ll need for weapons-grade uranium. Sadly, in both cases my efforts came to nought. In one, international sanctions began to cripple my economy (well, my successful covert assassination of the Israeli military Chief-of-Staff probably worsened my global isolation). In the second my generous welfare programmes ran into problems of fiscal sustainability (despite my efforts to finance them through an alcohol tax!), and my own party removed me from power. In the latter case I did try ordering the arrest of my own party leaders, but the computerized cabinet member responsible for homeland security rejected my order. In another playtest, I ran into the same problem as David in trying to work out how the game handled political stability: although my policies of social development in India (expanded education and public healthcare) won widespread public support and boosted me to 70% popularity, I was suddenly and inexplicably removed from power in a military coup.
How might this be used in the classroom? Here I’m at a bit of a disadvantage in evaluating the game, since I played it exclusively in solo/AI mode, and didn’t try it in its multiplayer version. However, Rulers of Nations certainly does rather highlight a range of important issues: guns-versus-butter trade-offs between the military and development; the costs and constraints of military force; the role of domestic politics in foreign policy decision-making; the challenges of fiscal and budgetary policy; the role of social groups, civil society, political factions, party competition, and political institutions in shaping government policy; even the dynamics of repression.
I can also think of a few pitfalls. As realistic as the game strives to be, the inevitable divergences from real global politics (failure to accurately model Iran’s theocratic political system, or the possibility of a military coup against popular government in democratic India) could, if not addressed, lead students to learn the wrong lessons. Competitive power politics games can also promote a rather narrowly realpolitik view of global politics, obscuring the extent to which norms, values, institutions, and ideology can shape national behaviour too. Finally, the private sector is rather poorly modelled, as is almost always the case in resource management games.
In a well-designed curriculum, however, these potential deficiencies can be compensated for by careful pre- and debriefing. Students can also be challenged to critically assess the games strengths/weaknesses and realism/distortions themselves, helping to assure that they bring a critical perspective to bear on both the gaming and learning experience.
In the end, Rulers of Nations is well-designed, engaging, and fun—while at the same time attempting to address real politics, and model current domestic and international politics. That, I think, gives it considerable scope for effective use as an instructional tool. Now, if I could only work out how to get my secret nukes…
* * *
Have you used the game in a classroom setting? We welcome your comments.