Look at me: I am your president now.
As much as I love Sid Meier’s Civilization, I’ve always felt like its broad approach to politics was far too outwards-facing and didn’t do enough to show some of the real crises that can come about during a leader’s term. I’ve definitely been waiting for a game that shows more of the goings on within a country’s borders and within the walls of its virtual White House. But the biggest thing I’ve been wanting? Something that shows intent — an indicator that shows not only the actions I’ve taken but the reasons behind them in order to truly flesh out exactly what kind of leader I am. All of these asks and more are fulfilled in Suzerain.
The first game developed by Berlin-based Torpor Games and published by Fellow Traveller (Paradise Killer, In Other Waters), Suzerain is best described as a text-based roleplaying game with strategy elements. Available on Steam for $14.99 with an introductory price of $11.99, Suzerain is certainly worth the pricetag due to its cerebral gameplay that offers a great deal of replay value. And with a “Very Positive” rating a day after its release with 132 reviews, it’s safe to say that the general populace agrees with this sentiment.
Suzerain opens up with players choosing their life up to their presidency, an incredibly detailed experience that spans decades. My character came from a wealthy family that lost their fortune during the country’s civil war. I spent my college years studying economics and joined a communist-leaning youth group afterwards. It was there I met my future wife Monica, who was as brilliant as she was beautiful. Before we could wed, I was conscripted; my time in the armed forces was short-lived, however, as I allowed refugees to enter the country on my watch. After serving out my punishment in the form of latrine duty I was discharged from the army, and Monica and I began our family together. It was during this time that my best friend, Petr, and I began to make moves within the government — the United Sordland Party ours for the taking. The two of us shot to the top, and it was only a matter of time before I was elected president with Petr as my vice president. The people have spoken: our time is now.
The craziest part about that last paragraph is that everything I described is just the prologue — there are plenty of other options to choose from that can make your character different than mine, but the fact that it’s so detailed really helps set the stage for what’s to come. Every person you speak to, every political party, neighboring country, internal or external organization, historical moment, ethnic group, and more has a detailed page in the game’s codex that allows you to take in more information about the region and its powerful figures. The nice thing about this is that it’s player-directed, so it’s not an onslaught of text at all times; it is, however, still a massive info dump whether you read it in piecemeal or all at once, so just… get your reading glasses and get cozy, because you’re not going anywhere for awhile.
Suzerain doesn’t start players off with a clean slate — Sordland’s recent history has been bloody and tumultuous, and it is the people’s hope that you, their fourth president, will bring balance between the government branches with constitutional reforms, bring the country out of the recession, address the crumbling infrastructure, and stave off any other internal or external threats that arise, such as epidemics, riots, and invasions. It’s unfortunate, but you have enough budget to tackle maybe three issues out of the many pressing ones, so your administration must make many compromises to keep the people, the businesses, and the politicians happy. Of course, there’s also your personal life to consider — don’t neglect your family, lest they stop supporting their presidential father and husband.
Keep in mind Suzerain is, first and foremost, a text-based game; expect little else than an overwhelming amount of reading with some images to put names to faces. It was to the point where I believe other much-needed mechanics fell by the wayside, such as a sort of happiness or popularity indicator or an actual economy. I gave women equal rights, raised the minimum wage, fought for minorities, gave stimulus checks, free healthcare and dental care, increased spending for education, rezoned agricultural areas yielding a wheat surplus for international trade, prevented a polio outbreak, implemented the Fair Trade Commission, taxed the rich and protected small businesses, brought the economy back into the green and steered us away from war while bringing down crime. All while supporting my politically-minded wife’s career and doting on my children. Not to pat myself on the back, but I literally did everything right; however I was constantly being told that apparently the people were mad at me. For what? I never learned.
Additionally, the text constantly mentioned cash injections that I never received, such as trade with a neighboring country. I also found it weird that my budget of “3” was supposed to somehow last me throughout my entire term of what I assume was four years. Surely I get a new budget every year? Then there’s the matter of the random events in the form of classified documents that arrive on my desk from around my country, telling me of protests or pandemics or other sorts of news that I wasn’t quite sure what to do with. At first I thought it was important information, but soon — like the news articles — I stopped paying attention to them because there wasn’t really anything I could act on. A shame, really.
Despite my complaints, I will say one thing about Suzerain: I still feel a little dazed from the experience, as if I had lived another life in the 15 hours I spent with the title. I chose to run the country transparently and with the people’s needs in mind, and I took responsibility for all my administration’s actions, good or bad. I was a considerate boss, a compassionate leader, and a caring family man. I did everything I thought was right. And in the epilogue, when I got to choose how to wrap up my life in a similar fashion to the beginning, it asked me if I had any regrets. Although I didn’t get re-elected and my wife became more popular than me, I was the catalyst for real change in my country, providing rights to the underserved and access to healthcare and education for all. Regrets? No. I met my maker with a clear conscience. And it felt amazing.
Suzerain is basically West Wing in game form, which is as awesome as it sounds. A game more akin to 80 Days than Civilization, Suzerain is a surprisingly compelling narrative that allows players to run a country with their own ideas about how things should be done to see if they’re right. I got to test out my theory of crime being a symptom of failings in other areas, pushing education and healthcare to the forefront; I was happy to see crime decrease as a response to increased access to necessary services. Suzerain may not seem exciting upon first glance due to its limited mechanics, but within minutes you’ll be hooked on Sordland’s history with a desire to shape its future. If you think you can run a country, prove it — grab Suzerain today.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Fellow Traveller; Developer: Torpor Games; Players: 1; Released: December 4, 2020; MSRP: $14.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Suzerain provided by the publisher.