Does this sound familiar?
Humanity reached greedily for the stars. As we sought to tame the unfeeling cosmos, our greatest vices found purchase on new, fertile soil. Now, the ragged, war-torn descendents of mankind live out their miserable lives as slaves of corrupt megacorporations and petty warlords, who exploit their citizens and their worlds with unbridled zeal and malice.
Well, guess what – that’s everything Goatee Games’ The Viceroy isn’t. No evil overlords. No apocalypse. No dystopia. No dying of dysentery.
So then what is Viceroy? That’s a much harder question to answer. Back in our 2015 year-in-review article, I said that if Viceroy were a 4X, those Xs would stand for “eXploit, eXploit, eXploit, and eXploit.” That, in retrospect, was a mistake, because it meant I used my best line 7 months ago. But as mistakes go, at least it was an accurate one.
The Viceroy is primarily an economic simulation. As the eponymous Viceroy, the player’s task is to rehabilitate humanity’s greatest disaster areas. To that end, your inflection points mostly revolve around influencing the production, infrastructure, trade, and technology of an interstellar territory in an attempt to restore it to its former glory. Is that enough to make for compelling gameplay? Let’s find out!
According to Viceroy, the future isn’t so bad after all. War and poverty are fading memories. Economic prosperity and social harmony are the new norms. Even human mortality is an almost alien concept in this post-conflict, post-scarcity status quo. But of course, without any problems, there would be no tension to drive the game. Viceroy presents two: Disasters and Rebellion.
Disasters take a variety of forms. Some, like the aftermath of war or political dysfunction, are intentionally or unwittingly caused by humans. Others are natural phenomena. Each different Disaster (and there are a lot of them!) presents nine individual Challenges. In turn, each Challenge has a lasting negative effect on a Territory’s districts, worlds, or even entire systems. Players can tackle these Challenges by building up scientific infrastructure, allowing them to research each Challenge’s Cure, which can then be administered to the affected regions. However, it’s not necessary to solve every one of them – players may opt to ignore some Challenges entirely. For example, if a Challenge reduces the agricultural output of affected districts, instead of curing it, you could simply build trade-cost-reduction improvements in the afflicted districts and improve the farming output elsewhere.
Even the most able ruler can’t assuage every fear and placate every lost soul. Try as you might, many of your citizens will turn on you and throw in with the local Rebellion. These threats should not be taken lightly, as a Rebellion can unseat a complacent or negligent Viceroy.
How do you keep your people happy, your navy strong, and your economy chugging along? What else but the weapon of choice of enlightened autocrats everywhere: social engineering!
As Viceroy, the player’s power is supreme. But it’s also very limited in its breadth. The game’s heart – and also its head, and its limbs, and most of its gray matter – is a micro production/consumption system. By skillfully developing the economy, players generate more production, consumption, and trade. This means greater quality of life for the citizens, and more tax revenue to fuel further developments. Do well enough, and you will restore the territory to its former splendor and honor the Empire. Do poorly, and you’ll be stripped of your position faster than you can say, “How much of a pension do I get for my 2,000 years of service?”
Viceroy’s economic simulator is simple but elegant. Every citizen produces goods according to the job they are assigned. Then, citizens will use their money to consume goods produced by other citizens. As citizens grow more affluent, they will slowly increase the general level of wealth for their district, which stimulates consumption.
Of course, as the Viceroy, it’s only fitting that you share in the prosperity. The more your citizens spend, the more taxes you can collect, letting you further improve the territory. (What, you were expecting to funnel it to your Swiss bank account? This is the Empire of the Elect, not Tropico!) In turn, you can spend your money on development projects in order to improve agricultural production, cut trade costs, increase science capacity, or boost happiness.
However, your rule is short-lived by nature. Looming over every decision you make is the spectre of bureaucratic overhead: aka, the percent of your tax income that goes down the drain every turn. It increases a little bit with each turn that passes, and it increases by a lot for each improvement you build. Some facilities can slow the losses down or set them back a few points, but no matter what you do, you will eventually have to release the territory before the overhead overwhelms you and undoes everything you’ve worked for.
The bureaucratic overhead and rebellion mechanics are critical to the way the game unfolds. They combine to give you a soft cap (and eventually, a hard cap) on how long you can remain on any assignment before relinquishing control of the territory.
Aside from moving citizens around and developing districts, a Viceroy can shape a territory by setting policies. You can fiddle with numbers like investments, tax rate, and fleet spending, but you can also adjust some discrete variables like military and social policy.
Finally, each territory is home to several independent, enigmatic societies called Neighbors. They work a lot like traditional minor factions, remaining outside player control and not contributing directly to your territory. Instead, they add bonuses to your territory if you steer it in a direction of the Neighbors’ liking. While none are essential to completing your assignment, the bonuses they provide are often worth going out of your way for.
When you feel you’ve done all you can with a territory (or when you feel things are starting to slip beyond your control), it’s time to grant it independence. This ends your reign and returns governance to the hands of its local rulers.
The performance review is alive and well in the near-utopian future. How well you carried out your mandate is measured by your success in reducing the Weight of Misery, Weight of Mortality, and Weight of Ignorance. The greater your success, the more Influence you will gain from completing the assignment. Influence functions like skill points in an RPG. It’s the currency you use to buy perks.
It goes without saying that over the course of a 2000-year career, you’ll have time to take on plenty of assignments and heavily customize your character. There are the bonuses you’d expect to find, like increasing citizen output, reducing fleet maintenance, or boosting science output. One of the best features of the Influence system is that it allows you to specify the size of territory you’re comfortable managing. Within your first few assignments, you’ll automatically be promoted up from handling 50 districts to 200. If you still feel that’s not enough, you can spend Influence to grow the size of your Territories up to 400.
The Mote in Goatee’s UI: Yes, I Am Stretching At This Point
That’s enough of the minutiae. You don’t read reviews for dry forensic analysis – you come here for opinions. Sweet, succulent, subjective, divisive opinions.
So how does the concept of this game hold up? Well, like many indie ventures, there are some things Viceroy does really well, and others that it really struggles with. Like some primordial conflict between the legions of Order and Chaos, these two countervailing forces shape the entire user experience.
Let’s focus on the big picture first. This is where The Viceroy is at its best. Once you begin to get the hang of its complex, interconnected economic systems, pushing workers between sectors and developing your territory can be a lot of fun. After about 8 hours of play, I started slipping into an almost zen-like state. The game stopped being inscrutable and started being intuitive and fun. All the numbers and pictures just blended together into one fluid tapestry – all I had to do was stretch out my fingers and become one with the flow. Groovy.
The level of simulation is pretty detailed. Along with production, consumption, growth, and wealth, Viceroy also models trade on a district, planet, and system-wide level. It simulates inefficiencies and complications that can be overcome with the right application of technology. If that’s not enough, it also covers how each and every district interacts with the others on the level of production, consumption, and trade. Come for the micro, stay for the macro.
Speaking of macro, Viceroy’s worldbuilding is clever and interesting. Sure, I love a nice dark setting, but Viceroy’s genuinely positive outlook is a strong point in its favor. Along with being an appreciated departure from the tired and overdone gritty norm of 21st-century speculative fiction, Viceroy’s optimistic motifs paradoxically make the afflicted territories more troubled by comparison. Falling from paradise into despair is much more visceral than falling from from misery into greater misery.
The game needs a way of keeping the player from getting too cozy, and the bureaucratic overhead system provides exactly that. The mounting inefficiency forces the player to make some tough decisions by introducing an opportunity cost to every improvement. It also makes it impossible to indefinitely farm a successful territory for greater Influence scores, as eventually the overhead causes financial ruin and tanks your Influence.
However, the very economic simulation that is one of The Viceroy’s biggest strengths also holds one of its greatest weaknesses. Once you figure out how to maximize output and get the wheels of your economy turning, you’ve largely solved the game. The execution will still be entertaining to some, but Viceroy can be “solved” rather quickly. That’s not to say you can always run the same research orders and build sequences – the number of Disasters means there are too many variables for the same path to be optimal every game. But the formula of “activity X” into “activity Y” into “activity Z” becomes apparent before too long. The biggest hurdle to fluency is less about responding to emergent challenges than it is about simply figuring out what-in-the-flying-monkeys all the different words and numbers mean.
And trust me, it will take the average strategy gamer a while to figure out what’s going on. There’s not much to guide a new player through the steps of play, and the accompanying manual, while passable and appreciated, doesn’t go into much depth. The player has access to the University, which is an alphabetical encyclopedia of game concepts… But therein lies the problem. It’s an alphabetical encyclopedia. Nothing is grouped into categories and there are no hyperlinks. Just 275+ entries, listed alphabetically. This makes finding information needlessly daunting.
By far, though, my biggest gameplay gripe is the combat. “Wait, there’s combat?” you ask. There is. I haven’t mentioned it yet because, honestly, I went almost the entire game pretending that it didn’t exist. As time passes, the Rebellion will field ships, and if you don’t crush them, they’ll get in the way of your plans and ultimately overthrow you. Dedicating a portion of your income to military spending lets you build your fleet, which you can then use to crush the rebels. There’s even a ship-design interface where you can customize your ships’ weapons, defenses, and armor. Combat is handled in a hands-off viewer mode, in which the player’s input is limited to placing ships. (Side note: I wouldn’t fault a reader for hearing some echoes of Troy’s Apollo 4X review at this point.)
For all my experimentation with the ship builder, I never felt like my decisions had any real impact on combat. Because of the lack of transparency surrounding ship design and the seemingly random and arbitrary behavior of the combat AI, it never seemed like I had any real impact other than telling ships where to go on the strategic map: “You two go here, and then let’s you and him fight.” On top of that, the in-combat sound effects are absolutely unbearable. I had to mute my game after the first few battles.
After hours of struggle, I gave up and automated every combat. At that point, there were no decisions to make. Just spend enough on the navy that it can always outnumber the rebels, and play whack-a-mole every turn. Rebel pops up, move fleet, next turn rebel dies. It was as fun as it sounds.
Honestly, I believe Viceroy would have been better off without combat, instead letting the Rebellion function as an abstract numerical concept rather than a game-board presence. At least the auto-resolve was consistent enough that I could skip all the battles without ever losing a ship so long as I had one more ship than the Rebellion. But that didn’t stop me from feeling the combat system offered me a lot of choices without any real depth or impact.
Finally, there’s the graphics and interface. As you’ve probably noticed, The Viceroy’s looks won’t blow anyone’s mind. But honestly, I’m totally fine with them as they are. The graphics are clear, effective, and they just seem to fit. Heavier graphics would have been taxing to the player in a game that needs every cerebral cylinder firing for relational variables and crystallized data retention. I applaud Goatee’s choice to go with something light and undemanding. I’m sure not everyone will agree, but that’s my take.
As for the user interface, as basic as it is, it works pretty well. In the months after release, Goatee Games made some great quality-of-life interface updates that made pushing citizens between jobs and navigating between districts, planets and systems mercifully easy. It still takes some getting used to, but it gets the job done.
That’s not to say the interface is perfect. A wise man* once said about strategy games that in the late-game, you don’t want a traditional UI. You want a spreadsheet. And my god, does that ever hold true here. It’s hard remembering which districts have the highest base Cultural output per citizen plus high growth and good trade infrastructure when you’re only managing 50 districts. I can’t imagine what it would be like trying to keep 400 of them straight! Fortunately, you can scan through your districts one-by-one quickly with the keyboard shortcuts, but The Viceroy would benefit from a good inbuilt organization/visualization system. I know that Goatee wanted a micro-intensive game, and I understand that introducing too many high-level commands would go against that vision. But at the very least, a way of organizing the data would keep players from having to repeatedly scroll through dozens (or hundreds) of districts every time they forget which is their third-largest interstellar importer of industrial goods.
If you’ve made it this far, you probably don’t need me to tell you that The Viceroy has its fair share of brilliance and blemishes. As a production/consumption simulator, it’s quite good. As a full-fledged game, it’s not spectacular. Once I got over the learning curve and lack of transparency, I found there’s a good time to be had, and now I feel like we just had this conversation. What Viceroy does, it does really well, and it makes no apologies for doing so. However, the appeal of The Viceroy is quite narrow. If the core gameplay of economic optimization doesn’t appeal to you, there’s very little on which to recommend the game.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to play The Viceroy – I may even return to it now and then to scratch that zen/management itch that I never knew I had. I tip my hat to the folks at Goatee Games for pursuing their passion. They’ve stated that their goal in making The Viceroy was to make the kind of game they wanted to play, and in that they’ve been unquestionably successful. Just know going in that this is not a game for everyone.
TL;DR: Big on the 3rd X (eXploit), short on the rest, The Viceroy is a peculiar game of economic simulation. It will delight a very particular segment of the market and confound most others. Its longevity is hurt by solvable gameplay, but the variety of Challenges helps with replayability. If you’re willing to put in the seat time, and if the core economic mechanics are up your alley, it’s certainly worth a look.
You might like this game if:
- You’re into elegant minimalist gameplay with surprising depth
- You’re in the market for a strategy game that’s just different
- Pushing around digital workers and watching numbers go up gives you that woozy, lightheaded feeling all gamers know and love
You might NOT like this game if:
- You need compelling action to draw you into a game
- You’re looking for a traditional strategy or 4X game
- You wake up in cold sweats at 3:00 a.m. from data-micromanagement nightmares
- Games without strong feedback and robust data visualization give you that woozy, lightheaded feeling all gamers know and hate
Ben played for 16+ hours on an Apple MacBook Pro with Windows 7, an Intel Core i5-3210HQ @ 2.5GHz, 8GB 1600MHz DDR3 RAM, and an Intel HD Graphics 4000 gpu.
*The wise man in question being our very own eXplorminate community member Naselus in this thread back in November 2015.**
**Also, congratulations on reading past the system specs.