Oligarchy was an indie CCG set in a slightly more dystopian reality than our own. If Paul Verhoeven wrote and directed a film about 2020, you’d be pretty close to where this game is aiming. As the name suggests, you are a powerful (possibly evil) oligarch and it is your ambition to crush all who oppose you on your way to complete world subjugation. Like any oligarch worth their salt, your power base is derived from (at least) 1 of 8 types of societal institutions; criminal, governmental, ecological, religious, the media, corporate, the military and the Illuminati.
Oligarchy follows the ‘Magic The Gathering’ formulae pretty closely, insofar as, you play unit and spell cards onto a battlefield area and try to reduce each others life points to zero, but of course Oligarchy’s naming conventions change to ‘characters’, ‘items’, ‘resources’, ‘incidents’ and so on. But, the main area where Oligarchy differs from the norm is with it’s economy system. Oligarchy uses the same 2 types of economy cards, irrespective of faction; namely Affluence and Influence cards. Depending on which factions form your power base, you’ll likely rely on one of these types of currency more than the other as your card engine starts to kick into gear. Going further off the beaten track, these resources don’t disappear at the end of your turn, instead you keep track of how much AP & IP you accumulate with a neat little spinner dial.
A turn (known as a Sphere) is also ‘Magic-esque’ in Oligarchy. A sphere is broken down into carefully structured but seamlessly flowing phases, beginning with the draw phase, I.E. you draw a card from your “Life Pile” (more in-game jargon), followed by the development phase where you play an Affluence or Influence card and start building your empire, which then takes you straight into the deploy phase (does what it says on the tin), and finally a turn crescendos with the ‘power struggle’ phase where you use abilities and attack your opponents Power base with characters you have in play.
Another twist in the tale comes in the form of the ‘power base’ itself, AKA your life points. Your power base represents how much respect you command within a particular faction. You may utilise as many factions as you like, as long as your total power base tallies up to 12 (which is also kept track of with handy spinner dials). Characters usually have a passive or active ability you can trigger as long as you have enough of a power base with that characters faction. So for example, if you want to use ‘Bruiser Bills’ ability, you’ll have to have a minimum of 2 power base with the crime faction.
Combat is as straight forward as you’d expect, with the active player choosing attackers and your opponent deciding if they want to throw their bodies at you in defence. However, that’s usually just the end result of a long war of attrition. The game does a really great job of showcasing the different factions areas of expertise. The base starter set comes complete with 4 different decks with variations of faction makeups. The Crime/Corporate deck uses deeply underhanded tactics; Eco/Religion deck distracts you with passive units; Military/Government has excellent fighting capabilities, while the Illuminati/Media deck controls and mills you to death.
I feel like Oligarchy had a lot of potential to grow but didn’t get it’s fair shake. It landed just as Fantasy Flight Games LCG poster child ‘Netrunner’ imploded and was prime to fill the cyber-noir gap for discerning card gamers. It even had a small competitive scene for a time! The dystopian near future is a surprisingly unused theme in the card game genre, particularly when it’s less focused on out-and-out guns blazing action, and for better or worse, card games that veer off the Tolkien path tend to be viewed with ED-209 levels of scrutiny. Oligarchy’s vision was appealing enough for some to take a chance, but for many, it’s just not a safe enough bet to start wading through the murky depths of the CCG model.
Distribution models aside, our games of Oligarchy always lead to fantastic moments. When we started to see the synergies between cards pop, we couldn’t help but instantly drop our faux poker faces and let out audible “Ohs!” And although the game has a slightly higher than average learning curve (mostly due to wrapping our heads around the games jargon) it’s also a very streamlined experience when you get down to it, with cards referencing when they can be used all along the way. So you know exactly when you missed an opportunity to play something.
All in all, Oligarchy is a decent slice of dark fun. The game dares to depict a satirical world view where there are no white knights, which is a stark contrast to the cliched narrative of most fantasy games. You’ll look at the cards in your hand and think to yourself, “You’re a bad guy huh?” And then realise the game is entirely made up of maniac Illuminati chefs, corrupt cops and car bombs. Even Netrunner posited the idea that hackers are a rebellion against evil corporations. Oligarchy just goes, “Nah. Screw em!”, and proceeds to set your house on fire with the dog locked inside. There’s an almost Charlie Brooker level of gleefully sinister social commentary about the game. If you’re a MTG fan that’s sick of the Fantasy shtick, or if you never liked MTG but want a game with a unique theme, you can’t go wrong with Oligarchy. And remember….