PeaceMaker Review - Part 1

Peacemaker Review - Part 1

Hello, all - I'm that long-winded infidel character you may have seen in comments around here. Grim recently received an invitation to play a new computer game, and proclaim its vices and virtues in this Hall. He has done me the honor of handing this task to me, and I hope to give satisfaction.

The game is called PeaceMaker, and it is a short strategy game based on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I intend to review it in three parts: first to discuss it as a game, then to discuss its limitations as a model of a real conflict, then to talk about the useful lessons that it can teach. Before I proceed, there are two things you should know:

1 - There is already an excellent review from a gamer's standpoint at Gamasutra. I will not be so thorough.

2 - I have to tell you: I played the game several times, but I didn't pay a penny for it; I received it as a free download. If you decide to buy it, you must pay $20. And the company that made it, Impact Games, plies its wares on the Pajamas Media network.

Now, on to the game aspects -

PeaceMaker is a turn-based strategy game; a single game takes 1-2 hours (if you're slow like me). You can play as either the Israeli Prime Minister or the President of the Palestinian Authority. The game tracks two vital opinion scores that start at zero: what the Palestinian population thinks of you, and what one other group thinks of you (the Israeli population if you're Israel, the "world community" if you're Palestine). If both scores reach 100, then Israel and Palestine reach a two-state solution, and you win a Nobel Peace Prize and the game. If both fall below -50, a "third intifada" sweeps the land and you lose. If the opinion of the people who elected you (Palestinians if you're PA, Israelis if you're Israel) falls well below -50, you are removed from office and you lose. The game also tracks the opinions of other entities (the UN, the US, Jewish settlers, Arab militants, etc.) and polls that measure your performance in different areas -- such as economy (Palestine), leadership (Israel), or security (both).

There's a medium-sized list of actions that you can take. Every turn, you click on one action. It has its result - including any effect on the opinion scores - then random events occur (if they do), and it's the next turn. The available actions depend on which side you're on: they include security actions, like sending in the Army (Israel) or training the police (Palestine); political actions like making speeches to the world community (either side) or asking the UN for foreign aid (Palestine); and economic actions like offering medical care to the Palestinians (Israel) or asking the EU to fund agricultural projects (Palestine). Some of the actions Should Never Be Taken.

As noted in the Gamasutra article, the results are not as simple as you might expect. If you're Israel, a suicide bomber strikes, and you send in the Army, your Israeli popularity will go up a little bit - but your PA popularity will go down a lot, and as a result there will be more attacks, which will lower your Israeli popularity, and the situation spirals. The temptation is to play see-saw-Margery-Daw, doing something tough to please the Israelis, then making a conciliatory gesture to please the Palestinians, then getting tough again. But the non-player entities see through that and it doesn't help you at all. You can find the right strategies with a little experience.

I played the game without a manual, and believe it should be sold that way (there is a tutorial to show you basic gameplay mechanics). Part of the game's appeal is the way you flail at first, looking for anything that'll fix your numbers quickly. If the designers tell you what effects the actions will have up front, the game is reduced to a pointless exercise. Of course, this means some of my statements about how the game works may be in error; I am going by how it looked to me when I played it, and not by any documentation.

The game is intended to be educational. At the beginning, you can click on a "timeline" of major events in the Israel-Palestine conflict. It's written in very neutral language: "1948: Israel declares independence and the first Arab-Israeli war ensues," or, "1968-80: Jewish settlements emerge in the West Bank and Gaza." (As if no human choices were involved in these acts...) There's a map, and you can click on the cities to see their populations and little notes about their significance, but the map has no effect on gameplay; every action you take is "nationwide."

To be blunt, if you're looking for a strategy game to play just for fun, this one is not for you. It has very little replay value. Once you have figured out the right basic strategies, there is little pleasure in repeating them. There are higher levels of difficulty, based on how often bad random events happen, but by the time you play those levels you know how to beat the game. Unlike other strategy games, this one doesn't let you see the things you're building, count the money you're making, or watch your tactical plan come together. Given the frustrations and the educational nature, this game could actually be used as punishment for a difficult adolescent - stay in detention 'til you beat PeaceMaker on Tense level, and then there's a short quiz on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Other notes: The game is highly accelerative. Once you get the scores above 50, attacks have fallen off so much that the rest of the game is a breeze; conversely, if they fall below -25, you might as well restart the game. Thus, the hardest part of the game is easily the beginning. It can be frustrating - you get the numbers to creep up to 11 and 6, a suicide bomber strikes and makes them fall to 4 and -2, you get them to creep up again, there's an atrocity and they fall...but once the numbers get well above zero, you can notice how much easier it's getting.

You don't see how much money you have - the PA does have an "Economy bar" - but the economic side of the game is important.

I respectfully disagree with the Gamasutra reviewer on one thing: I thought the Palestinian side was the easier one to play. This may be because the right actions were more obvious to me.

The remainder of my review will focus on the strategic and moral sides of the game, and what it can and can't teach.

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