Friday 23 February 2024

Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory

The Game

Hegemony is a game about class struggle. It is a heavy Eurogame for 2 to 4 players. If two are playing, one will be the capitalist class, and the other the working class. With three players, the third one will be the middle class. With four, the last player plays the state. The four factions have different ways of scoring and different actions they can perform. This is an asymmetrical game. 

This is the game board. It is mostly for laying out companies (owned by the capitalist class and the middle class) and the government departments (owned by the state). These companies and departments are where workers of the middle class and the working class find employment. 

This is the working class player board. The player boards of the four factions differ. The working class player board keeps track of the number of working class workers and also the prosperity level. Increasing prosperity is an important way for the working class to gain points. You have to spend money on education, healthcare or luxury goods in order to improve your standard of living, i.e. prosperity. To make money, you send your workers to work. You make money. You will need to spend money on food. That's the basic necessity. If you don't have enough money to buy food, you must borrow. 

There are some things which only the working class can do, e.g. going on strikes and staging demonstrations. You do these to pressure the other classes to give you what you want. 

The core engine of the game is cards. Every faction gets its own deck. Every round you will have 7 cards, and you get to play 5 of them. You either use the card for its power, or you ignore the power and perform a basic action instead. Normally the card powers are better than the basic actions, but they may not be useful in all situations. You'll still often use the basic actions. 

This is the middle class player board. The middle class has features of both the capitalist class and the working class. They have workers who need to find employment, but they can only be entrepreneurs and create startups. The middle class, like the working class, also wants to increase the prosperity level of its workers. At the same time, like the capitalist class, it can produce goods and services to be sold for profit. 

This is the capitalist class player board. It doesn't have workers, only companies. It's primary objective is - profit! It can mass produce and export. It can adjust worker wages. It decides which kinds of companies to start, and to close down. 

One big part of the game is taxes. Yes, taxes. Companies and individuals pay different types of taxes. Taxes are income for the state faction. Feels too real? 

Money on the left, and working class workers on the right (in overalls)

These cards are companies. The colours of the cards represent different industries, e.g. green is agriculture (produces food), red is healthcare (produces healthcare services). The pawns on the cards are the workers employed by the companies. A company operates only when it is staffed. No staff, no production. The little transparent cubes mark the wage levels. Companies must pay their employees. 

The employees in the red healthcare company lying down means something. They are still under contract. The company may not adjust wages, terminate employment or close down. The employees may not resign or go on strike either. A contract only lasts until the next pay day. 

This is the politics table. It shows 7 government policies, each with 3 different settings. In general, the settings are good for the capitalist class at one extreme, and good for the working class at the other. So you want to manipulate the policies to your advantage. You propose a change, and whether it takes effect depends on an election process. There is some luck in the election, but there are ways you can improve your odds.  The black markers indicate the current policy. The markers in player colours indicate a proposed new policy. 

Policies affect many parts of the game, e.g. minimum wage, the cost of healthcare and education provided by the government, the number of immigrants and the number of government departments. At game end, you score points based on how well the policies fit your agenda. This can be a lucrative source of points. Here the middle class has some advantage. The capitalist class and the working class will be pulling the policies in opposite directions. The policies may just end up in the middle ground, which benefits the middle class. 

Every round, the international market changes and there will be demand for goods and services. The capitalist class and middle class can sell their products and services overseas to make money. On the import side, only food and luxuries can be imported, and usually they tend to be more expensive than what's available locally. 

The game is played over 5 rounds. With 5 card plays per player per round, that means you only get to play 25 cards for the whole game. It's not really a lot. You do have many different actions to choose from. The factions work differently. When I read the rulebook it was like reading an economics textbook. The concepts in the game are about politics and economics, so they sound academic. I must admit getting through the rulebook was challenging. When we planned to play the game, we decided up front who was going to play which faction. We read the rules relevant to our factions in detail, and only skimmed the rules of the other factions to get a general idea. 

The Play

I did a 3-player game with Han and Allen. I was working class, Han middle class and Allen capitalist class. We almost got a fourth player, but he couldn't make it so we didn't have anyone playing the state. That should be interesting, because the state plays very differently from the other three factions. 

The working class and the capitalist class are natural rivals, and tend to want to go in opposite directions. However there are times they need to rely on one another. When the capitalist class starts companies, they do want workers from the working class, so that the companies can operate. The working class does want the capitalist class to start companies and create jobs for its workers. No job means no income, and no income means no money to buy food, healthcare, education and luxuries. The middle class is in an awkward situation, partly like the capitalist class and partly like the working class. However it can also deftly game the middle ground and try to leverage both the other factions. 

As the working class, I focused my energy on two things. I bought healthcare and education to improve my prosperity, and I formed as many trade unions as I could. 

Only the working class can form trade unions. It's a good thing because trade unions give you points and influence. Influence help win elections and turn policies in your favour. To be able to form a trade union in a particular industry, you need to have at least four workers in that industry. There are five different industries in the game. I kept watching out for opportunities to have at least four workers in an industry, and once that was achieved, I trained a worker to be trade union leader as soon as possible. 

One thing I was pleasantly surprised about was the game was easier to play than I expected. It was my first game and I still relied on the reference sheets heavily. We made some mistakes too. However the game flow was smooth, and the actions logical. I like how the actions are easily understood because they align well with the theme. The rules reflect society and how a country is run. It all makes good sense, so the game is immersive. 

These middle class workers wear ties and coats. 

At this point all the unemployed workers were middle class workers. They must be picky about jobs because all the working class workers were happily working. Among these unemployed workers, only one had specific skills - the orange guy, who had skills relevant to the education (orange) industry. Some jobs require workers with specific skills. Grey workers have no specific industry skills. 

Working class workers wear overalls. Male and female are presented differently. The ladies use lipstick. 

We had an unusual situation of the middle class starting more companies than the capitalist class. At this point the middle class (top left part of the photo) had 6 companies, while the capitalist class (top centre) had 5 companies. 

We had a major crisis at the end of round 2. Our government went bankrupt, and we had IMF (International Monetary Fund) intervention. Oh yes, this game has IMF. This sounds rather daunting, like I am describing a university level finance subject assignment. When the IMF intervenes, it forces the state to set all 7 policies in a specific way. This affects all the player factions in different ways. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. This was a major shakeup. Since we didn't have a state player, none of us properly took care of state matters. We should have been more mindful about the state treasury and how an IMF intervention would affect us. 

In the early game I drew a card which allowed me to add as many voting cubes into the voting bag as the size of my population. Voting cubes help increase the chances of winning at elections. I kept the card for a long time and only used it near game end, when my population had maxed out. I was able to put all my voting cubes into the bag. However, Allen as the capitalist class also managed to do the same. In the end, I didn't manage to get much advantage over him. 

In our game, healthcare and education was often cheap or free. This was good for me (working class) and Han (middle class). We bought healthcare and education to increase prosperity. Allen (capitalist class) struggled with taxes. He had to pay a lot in taxes. He also had to pay workers. It's not easy being boss okay. Han more often than not sided with me when it came to election time. We tended to want the same policies. Playing the middle class is challenging because you have split personality disorder. You have the needs, abilities and struggles of both capitalist and working classes. It's a little neither here nor there. 

We were not yet very familiar with the game, so we mostly focused inwards on how to score points for ourselves. We had not yet explored much how to sabotage and hinder our opponents. I didn't go on strike or stage demonstrations. Well, my workers were employed most of the time in decent paying jobs, so I didn't have a strong excuse anyway. Han (middle class) and I (working class) did have to compete. He had workers too so we sometimes needed to compete for job openings. Once he closed one of his companies, causing my workers to lose jobs. Because of that, I had fewer than four workers in that particular industry, which forced me to disband my trade union. That also meant my trade union leader lost her job too.  

The capitalist class and the middle class can adjust the prices of their products and services. They want to make money. Setting prices high when there is demand is very much a good tactic. As the working class I want products and services. If healthcare and education provided by the state is insufficient, I will need to buy from the capitalist class or the middle class. The factions in the game have reliance on one another while being competitors. 

When the capitalist class starts a fully automated company like this, it's bad news for the working class, because such companies don't offer jobs. Blue companies produce luxury goods, and the luxury goods icon is a smartphone. 

Near game end, unemployment got out of hand. Many of these unemployed workers had industry specific skills (i.e. non grey). At this point as the working class I could have staged demonstrations, but I was too busy doing other stuff. 

At the end of the fifth and final round, there were three policies which had to go through the election process. Normally to adjust a policy, you can only propose to move it one step. Allen (capitalist, blue) could propose a 2-step change because of a card power. The proposal still needed to go through the election, so it was not a guaranteed change. But if the bill was passed, this would be a big change. 

The Thoughts

The setting in Hegemony is certainly something fresh. I have not seen any other game about class struggle. I must admit reading the rulebook was challenging. Not that it was poorly written. Just that there was a lot to digest. The four factions have different actions and scoring criteria. The topic is a serious one and a complicated one. When I actually played the game, I was surprised to find it was easier to internalise that I had expected. The main reason is your actions in the game reflect real life. They are logical. They all make sense. It was easy for me to get immersed in the game. This is the real world. Not some fantasy world or some historical scenario. It is relatable. Of course I want a higher salary. Of course I want to send my kids to the best universities. Of course I want to buy the latest iPhone (or I should say the latest glitzy boardgame). All of this is very real. Now we do sometimes play games for the escapism. Hegemony reminds us of our real lives, but it allows us to take them with a bit of humour. We can relax and have fun with them, because it's just a game. 

Turning macroeconomics and politics into a game is no easy feat. Hegemony achieved this. The more important question is: is the game fun to play? I enjoy how immersive it is, and how the many different perspectives of the different factions fit together into a coherent whole. The factions worry about their own ways of scoring points. In some aspects you can't directly interfere with your opponents. The working class can't stop the capitalist class from setting high prices and exporting goods and services. However there is still plenty of player interaction. I have not yet tried the 4-player game, but my gut feel is that will be most interesting. Hegemony is a complex and challenging game about modern society. It is an engaging game experience. 

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