HIDDEN AGENDA / Springboard Software / PC

Hidden Agenda was developed by Jim Gasperini and published by Springboard Software back in 1988. It was designed, as the ever-helpful Wikipedia puts it, "to simulate the conditions of a post-revolutionary Central American country."

The game casts you as newly elected Presidente of the small, fictional Central American country of Chimerica. Your country has just thrown off a bloody, repressive dictatorship and is in fairly bad economic straits. The game boils down to basically choosing sides on various political issues that are brought before you, and then dealing with the fallout of those results. You have three primary political parties in your country - a Marxist/Socialist faction, a faction representing the interests of the wealthy agriculturalists and industrialists, and a centrist faction mostly concerned with human rights issues. To complicate things further, at the outset of the game, sympathizers to the former dictator are lurking about in the military who must be dealt with, and if kicked out, will form a reacto faction that attempts coups, camps around your borders and raids civilian targets.

The "goals" are more or less whatever you set them to be - the only way to lose the game is to be killed or exiled in a coup. This happens only if you tend to skew heavily toward one side or another in terms of labor and poor versus the capitalist interests. You also have to consider outside interests - the U.S., U.S.S.R and Cuba all have economic and military aid to offer, but accepting anything from each raises complications, and they usually expect certain conditions contingent upon that aid, and the International Monetary Fund is always at the door with loan packages to offer.

The game sounds complicated at first, but it is really pretty simple. The first order of business is to appoint a cabinet. You have four positions - Agriculture, Defense, Interior Affairs and Exterior Affairs - and their job is to advise you on decisions related to their cabinet. There are three candidates available from each party for these positions, and you get a bio containing the history of each along with a summary of their policy positions. After this is done, most of the rest of the game consists of meetings with various people and groups in the country. They will propose some sort of government policy, and then you choose to either accept or refuse it, or consult with the related cabinet member on the issue, who may provide a compromise or alternative choice. The game is broken up into years, in which you have eight meetings of your choosing; however, depending on what you choose, urgent issues may come up that have to be answered immediately (and eat up one of your yearly meeting slots). A series of graphs keep track of how well you are doing over time in various issues such as government spending, trade, infant mortality and domestic food production, and there are a series of newspapers for each of the political factions that provide running commentary on your decisions.

Most players will probably be tempted to be a humanitarian populist and make all the "right" choices, but there are rarely black-and-white issues in the game. Disenfranchised farmers who had their land stolen by the dictator want the government to redistribute land; but as one advisor points out, "Give a mob of clamoring socialists land and, overnight, they form a Chamber of Commerce and turn into capitalists!" The people call for military leaders who worked for the dictator to be jailed and tried for war crimes, but they still have substantial followings in the military, enough to be let out of prison and form juntas that attempt coups and commit terrorist atrocities if prosecuted. The U.S. has ample aid to offer, but they want to ship military equipment directly to the military commanders who supported the dictator, and will cut it off if you insist that the civilian government approve decisions and control shipments. Domestic food production is needed to feed the people and keep prices down, but if you go too far with it, you have no exports and lose needed income for other sectors.

The game has wonderfully written dialogue. I am certainly no expert on the subject, but it sounds exactly like what I would expect to hear if reading political newspapers, interviews or hearing speeches from the region. The issues it raises also seem to be timeless, or at least still relevant nearly two decades later.

The only minor complaints I have with the game center on the choosing of the cabinet. You don't know it at the outset, but you can only confer with one cabinet member on each issue that comes up, which the game chooses for you. For example, on issues with overlap into say, both defense and external affairs, you can't confer with both or choose one, but get stuck with the one the game chooses for you. Every event gives you a choice of flat acceptance or rejection, with the only alternative being whatever the advisor proposes - you can't really make your own independent choices on issues. So, the choice of good advisors is really more important than you realize at the beginning, and crummy ones (or ones that are just not compatible with your philosophy of leadership) can really hamstring you down the road on certain issues, forcing you to make choices you don't want to when you see a better alternative that you could propose. Also, issues brought to you as "urgent" cannot be refused, and the way the game is programmed forces you into making a certain decision sometimes. For example, one early issue that always comes up is that food is too expensive. The solution proposed to this is to set government price controls on staple foods. If you do this, however, the producers protest, which creates an "urgent" event, where you are forced to strip the controls. Then, right after you strip the controls, that triggers another "urgent" event where the trade unions come and force you to reinstate them!

Minor issues like that aside, this is a well-crafted game, and I think it is great for introducing issues facing countries all throughout Central and Southern America. I believe it was initially a commercial release, but it is now freeware - author Gasperini simply requests that you send an e-mail briefly stating why you are interested in playing the game, and that you promise to donate $2 to one of a number of various philanthropic organizations that benefit the region, and he will then send you a copy in reply.

Links :

* Author website

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