Allow me to introduce you to Ramiro Vazquez. Reader, this is Ramiro. Ramiro, reader. Ramiro is a member of a small nameless organization hidden deep underneath the machinery of government, yet profoundly involved in the affairs of state. A “deep state”, if you will. Our secret brotherhood pulls the strings that run the world. Yes, it’s a brotherhood. We don’t allow girls into the club. This is the 1600s. Think of it as a pre-Kassandra Ubisoft game.
Let me show you what Ramiro can do.
Right now, Ramiro is hanging out in France. He’s one of the six dudes I move around the map, ranked by their job in the club. He’s Treasurer. Not as glamorous as Worshipful Master, but not as lame as Secretary. Like my other five dudes, he can do 104 things. Literally. I’m not just making up a number. 104 sounds like one of those numbers you might make up, but in this case it’s the number of unique actions available to Ramiro right now. Look at what happens when I click on him:
You might think each of these is a thing Ramiro can do. You’d be wrong. Each of these icons is a category of things Ramiro can do. Clicking one of them opens another ring with his actual options. Have you played The Sims? It’s like that. All told, there are 104 actions one layer down from here. Fortunately, Ramiro is alone in France. When my brothers hang out in the same country, they stand around in a ring like they’re playing hacky-sack.
I might try to click on Rufus Davidson to send him to Bavaria, but Tristan Goldman thinks I clicked on him, so I accidentally tell Tristan to go to Bavaria. Oops. Going to Bavaria is just the start. Among the other things Ramiro can be told to do are infiltrating the government of France, or spending between one and eight days (I choose!) siphoning money from the national treasury, or setting up a diplomatic meeting to strengthed ties between Anspach and Mainz, or suppressing the development of the military, or throwing a parade because everybody loves a parade, or pushing for a pay raise for intellectuals (intellectuals get paid?), or creating a boom market for mining industries owned by the clergy, or encouraging the import of gourmet foods, or lobbying for a decrease in the export tax rate, or inciting a capitalist panic over agriculture futures, or assassinating the leader of the royalists, or making a new political party out of a whole list of values, or convincing the king of France to become a general in his own army, or spreading an epidemic to kill off the population.
Ramiro can actually do far more than 104 things, because many of these actions let me set parameters from drop-down menus. When I tell Ramiro to spread an epidemic, I choose which of France’s 31 districts to infect. When I tell Ramiro to encourage imports, I choose among 27 different goods. When I tell Ramiro to push the government for subsidies, I choose from among 17 different industries. When I tell Ramiro to set up a diplomatic meeting, I choose among 49 other countries, and then I choose whether the meeting should improve or degrade relations. Ramiro has a huge bag of tricks, which is the point of Secret Government. Six men, running around Europe, doing things to change the state of affairs. And there are two big reasons this doesn’t work as a strategy game.
The first is the interface. These 104 commands are all delivered with equal emphasis and a confusing lack of organization. It’s easy enough to figure out that the shaking hands is the icon for setting up diplomatic meetings. But what about the epidemic? Which icon is that? Which category even? What about convincing the king to lead his army? What about getting better pay for intellectuals? There is nothing that gives any weight to the more common commands like moving, siphoning resources, or hiding from the authorities. I have six guys, probably scattered around Europe, each with this ring and its subrings. That’s 624 possible actions to sort through, and they’re all on the exact same layer, two clicks down. They are all equally accessible, and I will probably never use most of them, and I will invariably have to hunt around for the ones I do use.
For instance, there’s an action called Hide From the World. I pay a little wealth to hide my dude from the authorities. I’ll use this frequently, and I’ll even eventually learn its location (Brotherhood actions at 12 o’clock on the ring, then Hide From the World at about 10 o’clock on the ring, then click “assign”). This element of the game, which is a cornerstone of the whole “secret government” conceit, should be easier to access. It should at least be on the first layer of the ring, if not its own button on the main screen. It should probably even be a hotkey.
Ramiro has a secrecy rating. It starts at 100 and degrades as he does things that might arouse suspicion. To the game’s credit, it’s easy to see this number at all times, and when I tell Ramiro to do something, its secrecy cost is clearly indicated. I can see how close he’s getting to alerting the authorities. So as this number reaches the danger zone, I have to pull Ramiro back and let him sit idle for a while. I have to let his secrecy slowly recharge. Alternatively, I can spend a little wealth to refill secrecy more rapidly and get him back in the game. Seems like a smart use of wealth, since it directly affects how frequently my brotherhood can act.
But it’s not a smart use of interface time. It’s a lot of micromanagement to constantly monitor and manage six brothers’ secrecy value, jumping through hoops — literally! — to do the Hide From the World action. I also have to do this for my organization in each country. As a brotherhood, we have an awareness value, which is basically our collective secrecy. Awareness is managed the same way, with a Hide Signs of Activity action. Which, in turn, costs a brother’s secrecy. It’s all very tedious, naggingly constant, and unfortunately a central part of Secret Government’s premise. The developers seem to think the tension between being revealed and being active makes for solid gameplay, and they might be right. That’s how stealth games work. Do I work fast or quiet? But sneaking feels sneaky. Clicking through to the Hide From the World command for the umpteenth time feels like busywork.
I appreciate that Secret Government is trying to be like a stealth game, but micromanagement isn’t a good way to do it. Especially when there’s not a lot to be gained. Ultimately, Secret Government doesn’t feel very different from other games about tweaking the values on a spreadsheet empire. The main selling point here seems to be that you’re no single country, that you exist at some extra-national level, without the limitations of a mere king or prime minister. But how is that different from most strategy games, where the player hovers godlike over the map, with the ability to command the machinery of his country’s government, directly manipulating its armies, its economy, its people, its culture? Secret Government’s stealth limitations feel more like putting the brakes on what you can do than freeing you from the supposed shackles of controlling a single country.
Instead of controlling a single country, you get structure and goals in the context of your brotherhood. The overall objective is to build your brotherhood’s agenda on a set of three opposing values: war or peace, prosperity or equality, and authoritarianism or freedom. You get missions to work your way along a kind of tech tree for each value. You also eventually run afoul of another brotherhood with competing values to lend a bit of direct conflict. But you’re mostly just managing your own dudes, accumulating the resources you’ll spend to do your actions, all in pursuit of whichever goals you’ve been randomly given. It can feel awfully arbitrary, and it feels even more arbitrary digging around the spreadsheet values to tick off the boxes on whatever quest you’re chasing.
Again, the interface is an issue. And here’s the second reason Secret Government doesn’t work as a strategy game. As a set of systems representing Europe on the verge of the Enlightenment, this game is a mess. A clunky complicated mess of numbers presented in terrible ways on poorly organized screens. Let me just dig a little to give you an example. Here are some of my dudes standing around in Denmark.
I can see some basic information about Denmark in the window on the right. I can click the buttons along the bottom of the window to get information about Danish society, economy, diplomacy, and laws. Here is its society, which apparently consists of “Estate Support for the Parties”.
I thought I was looking at Danish society, but instead I’m looking at estate support? This eventually makes some sense, since estates are segments of the population, much like Paradox’s Victoria games. So what we’re looking at here is how much each segment of the population supports one of the three Danish political parties. Each of those little disks with a picture of a person inside is a class in the overall population. An “estate”. Which is not the term I would have chosen for an English translation, but I’m not a game designer. The size of the disk is, uh… I’m still trying to figure that out. I eventually figured out it’s not the amount of population in the estate, which brings me one step closer to knowing what I’m looking at. If I get there, I’ll let you know.
Clicking the political parties on the list on the right side of the screen arranges the disks by support of that party, with disks closer to the center supporting the party, and disks on the outside not supporting the party. We see most folks support the royalists. But if we click the aristocrats, a bunch of the disks move outwards.
Seems the aristocrats aren’t as popular. Let’s click on one of the disks. Let’s try the fellow at 12 o’clock who’s really not into aristocrats.
Oh my, seems these are the actual aristocrats. Only 17% of them support the aristocrat party. 67% support the royalists. The final 17% support unrest. What we’re looking at now is a display of values important to the aristocrats. The display is arranged into three pie segments, one for each party. This is supposed to explain why the aristocrats prefer royalists by showing the values that matter most to them and how they compare to the party’s stance on those values. If we click on one of the disks — let’s try the gold medallion, which represents prestige — we get this gauge for the royalists.
Seems the royalists have a 30 in prestige, but the aristocrats want a 70. How aristocratic. We can confirm this by checking the tooltip.
Meanwhile, the aristocratic party is a little better on prestige, but still not a 70. No one is catering to the aristocrat’s desire for prestige. So let’s check another value where there’s a clear difference. Let’s look at the basket of food with the stack of poker chips next to it. This represents welfare. No, not that kind of welfare. Social services haven’t been invented yet. So, again, not the term I would have chosen for an English translation. Here is the aristocratic party on welfare.
The aristocrats want an 80, but this party is only giving them a 50. And its value significance of 2.0 is higher than prestige’s value significance of 1.7. Clearly, the aristocrats are not happy with the aristocratic party’s stance on welfare. So how about the royalists?
Ah, much better. The royalists are going above and beyond when it comes to welfare. No wonder the aristocrats love them. If we hunt around for more tooltips, Secret Government is usually helpful, but sometimes this happens:
Not the text I would have chosen for an English translation.
So what have we learned, besides the fact that Secret Government hasn’t been fully localized yet? That the aristocrats, who really support the royalist party, do so partly because the royalists cater to their predilection for welfare. So let’s say we wanted to decrease support for the royalists? We could send a dude into Denmark and dig into his hoops of icons to find the action that will influence the royalist party’s welfare needle. And we could spend the resources and secrecy to move that needle. This is the level of detail at work in Secret Government. This is the granularity of information and actions, and therefore your decisions. Here is the amount of digging and inference necessary to get the information to make those decisions. Here is the level at which you interact with this world.
And that’s one tiny vertical slice. There’s so much more, and so much of it is even more obtuse and inscrutable. You can see the state of mind of the developers in the ingame rules. It’s a big crazy splash of color and text, with two separate areas for text, and a bewildering flow chart of arrows and blobs, some of which you can click on and some of which you can’t.
It’s like the ruins of a Civilopedia abandoned while it was under construction. It’s the sort of thing a development team might put together on a huge white board festooned with post-it notes. But instead of applying any sort of intuitive organizational principles to make it easier for players, they just dump it into the game. They’ve been staring at it for months, and it eventually made sense to them. Surely it will make sense to the people who want to play the game. It’s the same with that ring of icons and the rings of icons underneath it. We figured it out, the designers seem to say, and we’re sure you can, too. Alternatively, you can slog through a story-clotted campaign mode that presumably teaches you the game, but if there’s one thing worse than having to watch some dude on Youtube teach you how to play a game, it’s having to suffer through some story told by whomever the designers saddled with writing duty.
I can’t help but compare Secret Government to Shadow Empire, a similarly inscrutable strategy game with a similarly torturous interface (reviewed here). But it’s much easier to get a sense for what’s happening in Shadow Empire because it’s played with borders on a map, military units moving to fight other military units, and cities brimming with different kinds of buildings. It’s got the structure of a 4X, whereas Secret Government has the structure of a spreadsheet.
Furthermore, Shadow Empire has tons of personality, playing with science fiction, apocalypses, resource management, RPGs, and card games. But everything in Secret Government feels like a dry imitation of a dry Paradox game. Shadow Empire also reveals things as you play. You learn clever systems that interact with each other in interesting ways. But playing Secret Government never goes beyond the feeling of tweaking values in a spreadsheet without any innovative interactions or even meaningful systems. Numbers, all the way down, lined up in rows and columns with all the expected interactions, in a game that lets you do a lot of little things that don’t matter much in the hopes that eventually something’s going to happen that might matter a little. All the while, make sure you keep Ramiro Vazquez’ secrecy topped off.
A secrecy management game masquerading as a global strategy stealth simulator about how Ramiro Vazquez' deep state ushered Europe into the Age of Enlightenment. Also, not ready for prime time.