Narco Guerra plays like Risk, though the map is contained to Mexico, and territories are divided up into provinces. It reveals that the war on drugs can’t be won through force, adding nuance to complicated issues by subverting traditional game systems. Unfortunately, Narco Guerra eventually succumbs to the same oversimplification it seeks to thwart.
As chief of police tasked with wiping out the drug cartels, you’re given a budget and the ability to decide how many units to deploy, how much money to spend on internal affairs to stem the tide of corruption among the force or even deploy satellites to reveal how many units cartels have garrisoned in regions beyond your borders. Once you units are purchased and placed, you roll the attack dice to defeat cartel armies and seize every territory on the map.
I like Risk for its neatness. Solemn armies guarding my borders, I play Narco Guerra on easy as a power fantasy at first, pushing forward in a wave, consolidating armies and sending them to the front lines. I am a general, and I accept nothing less than a world bathed in my uniform colour.
But Narco Guerra is not a power fantasy. The indie iOS game developed by Game the News pulls apart our preconceptions about the drug war in the sparse narrative, but it’s how they subvert expectations through gameplay that left an impact.
The variable street value of illegal drugs acts as the cartels’ budget; the higher the going rate, the more gunmen opposing you on the street. Your own salary does not depend on the regions you control, but your government issued budget. On top of that, money must be committed to internal investigations to stem the tide of corruption that if left unchecked turns policed controlled states into upstart cartels.
In a game of Risk, game pieces are loyal; red chunks of plastic don’t change their colour. It’s hard to feel powerful when my largest army suddenly changed from blue to yellow. I never allowed corruption to rise above 1%, no matter how much internal investigations cost. I sat in mild disbelief at the kitchen table when my deputy Jorge Chavez, who acts simply as a tutorial guide, is mowed down by cartel members on his way home from work.
I understood in theory that drug prices go up with demand, until I felt my enemies breathing down my neck and breaking through my defenses, even having my ally killed off-screen that I began to “feel” the weight of fighting a non-traditional war like the one Mexican officials fight with no end in sight.
I can pay huge amounts of money to sway government elections to support a traditional candidate, to buy more guns and men, or to support the young upstart seeking to legalize drugs.
The politics, morality and human element of drugs, never knowing whether your allies are working for you or your enemies is like fighting ghosts in the dark.
The news and information swirling around the “War on Drugs” in Mexico are often confusing, frightening and politically charged, but Narco Guerra does a fantastic job of offering up vital nuance. If only the game had ended there, it would’ve remained a haunting, unforgettable experience. But they didn’t.
Instead, the game succumbs to black and white rationales in their ultimate “message” and prescription on how to win the war on drugs: legalize them.
While game systems subvert, they can also enforce. If you want to win the game, legalize drugs as soon as possible, every time. When drugs become common and cheap, cartels bleed money and I overpower them. The country is cleansed.
But shortly after this “victory,” doubt began to gnaw on me. There is no unforeseen consequence to the Mexican police for opening legal meth clinics. The market saturation keeps prices and cartel profits low. If you want to win, there’s not really a choice here.
Narco Guerra could’ve been an ambiguous game that encourages the player to see the world in shades of grey, to empathize with the men and women on the front lines of a new kind of war and the human lives caught up in the conflict. Instead we get a game that stumbles at the finish line by offering a pat solution.