Social Democracy: An Alternate History

by Autumn Chen profile


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Antifascist Zeitgeist, May 15, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

You’ll probably go into this death-of-the-Weimar-Republic simulator expecting a titanic struggle against Hitler, pouring all your wits and intelligence into a duel against one of history’s greatest monsters. But it’s emblematic of the intelligence with which Social Democracy is made that Hitler’s only present in the game as a mostly-ineluctable fail state; no, if there’s anyone the game teaches you to hate, it’s Hjalmer fucking Schacht, the central banker who uses the credibility gained from his admittedly-impressive achievement of ending hyperinflation to take a meat-axe to any plans to fight the Great Depression with Keynesian stimulus. Doesn’t matter that your party, the Social Democrats, has the chancellorship and plays the leading role in the grand coalition governing Germany at the dawn of the thirties: this hidebound, reactionary asshole is here to prevent you from doing the obviously-right thing, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

(On reflection, maybe Schacht isn’t the most emblematic villain here, since if you’re up on history, or have your internal security forces dig into just the right scandals, you know he actually wanted the Nazis to win. But for purposes of the above paragraph let’s pretend he was just an asshole).

I wish I could report that things are better on the Left. Alas, the Communists are intransigent as all get out too – despite agreeing that the working class and unemployed need to come first, they’re not willing to look past your failure to kowtow to Moscow (and plus, any loss of support the Social Democrats experience will likely translate into direct gains for them). With plenty of wooing, they’ll at least go along with a truce between your respective paramilitary arms, but since they’re not willing to participate in bourgeois parliamentary government, you can’t work with them to form a coalition even if you do manage to eke out a Reichstag majority between the two parties (or at least, if you can, it’s well beyond my skills, even when notching the difficulty down to easy).

So yeah, as you ping-pong between inflation-spooked centrists and blinkered tankies, with election after election failing to produce a stable government, Hitler doesn’t need to do much: the Nazis just lurk in the middle distance, making greater and greater gains as this frantic, useless politicking discredits the idea of democracy in the eyes of a growing share of the populace. All historical games build an argument into how they frame their simulations, of course, and I think Chen has struck on one that’s insightful in historical terms, while also providing for engaging gameplay: Hitler’s rise was only possible because of the choices made by a whole host of people who nominally opposed fascism, and even 20/20 hindsight doesn’t make this an easily-solvable problem due to the strictures of politics. Even those with lots of power were tossed about by the whims of chance and the force of outside interruptions, limiting their ability to play out their intended strategies – which is why it’s apt that Social Democracy’s simulation is built as a card game.

The touch-point here is probably Fallen London, whose storylet-based design inspired the construction of the DendryNexus platform that powers Social Democracy. Rather than assuming the mantle of a specific character, the player is the animating spirit of the party as a whole (don’t call it a Zeitgeist….) A turn takes a month, in which you can choose to play one of three cards from your hand, each of which represents an opportunity or threat to respond to via a simple choice-based interface. You might be given the chance to invest your precious party resources in outreach to one of a choice of key constituencies, or weigh whether to make overtures to another party to improve relations, or have to decide whether to issue arms and military training to your citizen’s auxiliary; if you’re part of the governing coalition, you can also draw from a deck that contains cards allowing you to set policy on labor issues or address women’s rights. Most of the time, the presence of grayed-out options allows you to see the way that your choices are constrained, due to limited resources or inadequate party relationships or lack of support within your own party’s internal factions (briefly: tankies, squishes, teamsters, and lanyards) – a nice mirror of the way that those working in practical politics can see the path to a better outcome even if they can’t manage to take it. There’s some limited scope for proactive action – in particular, you pick a trio of core advisors who each have one or more special powers you can deploy at any time, though there’s a six-month cooldown that’s shared by all three – but the limited hand size and the pace of play means you’re always somewhat at the mercy of events.

This is never more obvious than at election time. As the game opens, you’re informed that the polls will open in only a few months’ time, lending the beginning turns a campaign rhythm that’s familiar enough to American players (the game also provides a nice hit of dopamine by setting starting conditions that mean you’re almost certain to have the plurality once the votes are counted). At that point, the next scheduled elections are four years away – again, so far so familiar – but once the ravages of the Depression begin to fray the bonds that allow coalitions to function, elections can come whenever a restive partner decides to call for a no-confidence vote. If you’re in the government, you’ve got some room to maneuver to fend these off, from offering policy concessions to straight-up bribes, but as the lines harden and resources become scarce, it’s easy to wind up in a Blitzkrieg of repeated elections, none of which deliver a decisive result and each of which drains you still further, as the Nazis make greater and greater inroads.

The systems make for nervy, engaging play, and with only a few concessions to the board-game logic running things (that limited hand of possible actions, the artificial constraint on advisor actions) it often feels more like a simplified version of history than a mechanical simulation. It’s possible, if not mandatory for any degree of success, to pursue an intentional strategy. Appropriately, the game’s difficulty isn’t tuned to make a total victory for democracy simple to achieve, even on the easiest setting. My first time out, I tried a no-enemies-to-the-left strategy that saw me punted out of the government early on but maintaining my base among the proletariat through staunch advocacy for welfare and stimulus; I was also able to work out a modus vivendi with the Communists (and came within one resource-spend of installing one of them into the presidency!) The endemic lack of a governing coalition meant that the Nazis were quickly ascendant, however, and while I was able to pivot to arming and training my auxiliaries while creating a united defense front with the Reds, that just meant we were able to give as good as we got in the devastating civil war that followed. The opposite path of sticking around in the government and avoiding snap elections by going along with austerity was even less successful – the workers flocked to the Communists as welfare cuts stifled the already-struggling economy, and after four years the Nazis once again sewed things up handily, except this time I didn’t even have enough of a base to launch any sort of armed struggle.

I found my best success with what I called my Belgian strategy, developing and pushing a massive public works program to maintain my support, while playing a waiting game on the governmental side of things: after each election I’d join the coalition and work on mending fences, but then I’d quit and trigger new elections whenever a proposal for cuts came down the pike. This somewhat-farcical cycle created just enough stability for me to kick the can down the road long enough for the economy to slowly improve, and temper the fires of crisis (I later attempted to replicate this half-success on the hard difficulty – lack of resources and lack of focus meant I failed once again).

If you are at all interested in history, this is riveting, riveting stuff – a story engine on the level of the Paradox grand strategy games, without the often-wacky left turns they often take. Indeed, while I’m usually a stickler for authenticity in games set in the past, I’ve got vanishingly-few complaints about Social Democracy, most of them simply just places where the game starts to push up against the limits of its implementation: each turn representing a whole month means that several times I’d resolve an election, work to influence the selection of chancellor, and click to start the next turn – only to immediately be told that Hindenberg had already cashiered the new guy and picked someone even worse. It’s frustrating, but might not be all that ahistorical – however, the event where I was told “Hindenburg’s camarilla has turned against Papen, and Hindenburg has dismissed the Chancellor, replacing him with the more reactionary Franz von Papen” seems like it’s probably a bug rather than modeling the long-suffering president entering a fugue state. In a game of this complexity, this is small stuff indeed.

No, my only substantive critique is that I think there are a few places where readability could be improved on the mechanical end, and more context could be provided on the historical side of things. As to the former, I didn’t notice any reminders of when the presidential election was going to happen, which meant I was woefully unprepared the first time it came up, and greater feedback for repeated actions would be helpful in a few areas to better indicate progress (I of course wanted to clean up the police force in Prussia before recruiting more members, but wasn’t sure whether I was having meaningful results in my efforts due to always getting identical feedback). It would be nice to know what the difficulty levels actually do. And perhaps this marks me as a Marxist, but I wanted a bit more visibility into material conditions – that unemployment ticker is arresting, but given that you have real-time polling data whenever you want it, it’s striking that there’s no other way of gauging the health of the German body politic.

As to the latter, much as it pains me to admit that the assholes of the left and center have reasons for their actions, I think the game may assume more player knowledge of the relevant history than is justified. Schacht was being all Schacht-y because of hyper-inflation, and he and his cadre sincerely feared that deficit spending would bring it all back, but the game doesn’t really spell this out. Similarly, there are only a few glancing mentions of the Spartacist Uprising and Rosa Luxemburg scattered through events that happen reasonably far into the game; knowing that within the past decade the Communists launched an armed revolt against the state, and the Social Democrat leaders condoned the extrajudicial murder of the party’s leaders, rationalizes their reluctance to form a coalition of the willing. There are similarly glancing references to the Stabbed in the Back myth that might be hard for some players to decipher, and I can’t help but wish some of the culture of the Weimar Republic could make an occasional appearance (maybe some Otto Dix paintings for particularly grisly event-cards?) I certainly appreciate that there’s a fine line to walk between providing enough information to the player to allow them to make solid decisions, and keeping the amount of text and background reading light enough to stay accessible, and I should emphasize that the game generally does quite a good job of this – there are just a few places where I think it could usefully go into a little more detail.

It’s impossible to review Social Democracy without being aware that it is a miraculously buzzy game – an example of the vanishingly-rare piece of IF that manages to get noticed outside our little community, and get attention from the mainstream gaming press. Sometimes lightning strikes for incomprehensible reasons, but this time the virality is entirely understandable and deserved. This is a masterwork of design by one of the scene’s most exciting authors, which makes the past come alive and feel immediately relevant – having been engaged in politics during the 2008 financial crisis, the failure to adequately respond to it, and the ensuing emboldening of fringe right-wingers, I grimaced at the familiarity of many of the scenarios I encountered. I’ll be returning to this one quite a lot after the festival is over, I think, if only so I can finally get one over on $%@# Hjalmer.

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