Cheapskate Reviews: Liberal Crime Squad

It’s a leap year, which means it’s time for a presidential election here in the U.S. of A., and this year has seen extraordinary voter turnout in the primaries.

If you’ve caught the political bug and want to translate it into game format, your obvious choice is 270soft’s President Infinity. If and when I get a new computer, I’ll pick it up, as I had a lot of fun with the 2008 edition (look for my 1940 election scenario on their site).

Of course, this review series isn’t about games that cost money, even if they’re as cheap as President Infinity (only $19.99, less than I donated to a SuperPAC this year!). If you’re reading this review, you’re looking for something you can download and play for free. And so, I give you 2004’s bizarre political satire game, Liberal Crime Squad.

LCS was developed by Tarn Adams, who’s better known for creating the freeware hit Dwarf Fortress. Like Dwarf Fortress, LCS is a roguelike: a game with simple graphics (text-only in LCS’s case), randomly-generated events and obstacles, and lots and lots of ways to die. Unlike Dwarf Fortress and most other roguelikes, LCS has a modern-day setting, which is… well, it’s nuts.

In the near future of 2009, a conservative sits in the White House. Both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court have conservative majorities. (I can see some of you trembling behind your computer screens as I write this.) The only recourse left for decent progressives is “direct action,” or, less euphemistically, to answer H.L. Mencken’s call to “spit upon [one’s] hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

The game begins with the creation of the leader of the Liberal Crime Squad. Sadly, you can’t just type in whatever name and hometown you like. The game chooses them randomly from a list, and you have to hit the key to generate new names and hometowns until you come up with one you like. You can also choose from three genders: male, female, and “It’s Complicated.” Once your character is created, you can pick a nom de guerre if you really want to be Bernie Ilych Castro or whatever.

On the other hand, sometimes the random name creator produces something truly majestic. I don’t know why there isn’t already a TV series about Fabio Justice of Miami. Can’t you just see him now, in his turquoise suit and his ponytail?

Then you set up your character’s tragic backstory, which led to their rejection of The Man. I made Fabio a smooth talker, which is probably the best option: if your founder gets killed, it’s game over, so you want a character who can recruit other people to do all the dangerous work for you. Some people might call this “exploiting the proletariat,” but I call it “sharing the glory.” If my revolutionary compatriots get imprisoned or killed for the cause, then they get to be the martyrs, not me! Once you’ve finished creating your character, you’re plopped down in your hometown with the opportunity to set your slogan. I went with “Immanentize the eschaton!,” but if you can’t come up with something, you can always raid the Make USA Bot Again twitter.

Your leader starts alone in their hometown on January 1 of 2009. Each turn lasts a day, and during each turn, you have two choices for each squad member. You can have them do a recurring task, such as soliciting donations, painting graffiti, writing to newspapers, or learning new skills. Your other option is to send them out into the world to buy (or steal) things, meet new people, and smash up buildings. The first order of business for most leaders will be recruiting. I sent Fabio Justice to the Internet cafe to find some programmers for the squad. They’re useful because they can steal credit card information for money, and because they can swipe secrets from enemy servers.

Wade Reed’s high Computers skill will be useful, but I’m worried about his low Heart: this means he might rat us out if he’s caught.

Once the Liberal Crime Squad had a pair of programmers committing credit card fraud, we had no trouble getting cash, so the next step in the Revolution was to look for other potential revolutionary vanguards. Some useful squad members include musicians (when you equip them with guitars, they can play folk songs in combat to turn your enemies liberal—“this machine kills fascists” indeed!), artists (graffiti gets positive attention), writers (the public in this game actually reads the Letters to the Editor), fashion designers (they can sew disguises for your sneakier members), and, of course, professional thieves. The latter appear in disguise as someone else, so it’s hard to find them. The easiest way to track down a professional thief is to go to the crack house and track down anyone who looks out of place. An art critic in a crack house is almost certainly in disguise.

Alternately, when you recruit a new member, you can leave them in their current job as a “sleeper agent.” Sleeper agents can pass along secrets, steal money from their bosses, or simply promote your cause. Lawyers and liberal judges make fantastic sleeper agents because they’ll help you avoid punishment if you get arrested. Or if you find a blue-collar worker at a conservative institution like the AM radio station or the corporate headquarters, you might consider hiring them as sleepers to pass along information.

Fabio Justice’s team of programmers was coming away with lots of secrets, but I had no idea what to do with them until I looked at the Liberal Crime Squad Wiki. It turns out that you can’t just give them to a journalist or to a Russian spy like in real life. No, you have to buy a printing press, install it at one of your two safe houses, and start your own newspaper. (It’s called the “Liberal Guardian,” and if it’s liberal in comparison to The Guardian, it’s very liberal indeed.) Send a writer to this location and they can publish the secrets in your newspaper at the end of the month, riling up the enemy but inspiring the public.

If you keep your programmers moving around to avoid getting arrested, and keep publishing stolen secrets, you can win over plenty of converts to your cause. But frankly, this isn’t much fun. The real roguelike portion of the game comes from attempts to Cause Trouble, in which you send some of your team members raiding buildings to cover them with liberal graffiti, smash up machinery, steal equipment, and generally make a nuisance of themselves.

Raiding the Trebek Apartments. My character’s clothing is in yellow because it offers a plausible cover for being here.

Fabio Justice avoided raids himself in order to keep his criminal record clean, so he rounded up some misfits to do the job for him. He lucked out when a socialite turned out to be a professional thief in disguise, and was even luckier to recruit a fashion designer who assembled some pretty convincing costumes. Fabio’s flunkies executed successful attacks on a chemical factory and a genetics lab, but the raid on the sweatshop didn’t go quite so well. The guards caught on almost immediately, and opened fire.

You do not want to get in a fight in this game unless you have overwhelming numbers, or unless you’re up against an unarmed opponent. Security guards and police pack heat (unless you’ve been successful with gun control lobbying) and aren’t hesitant to gun down any criminal, even if they’re only guilty of vandalism. One gunshot can kill a character, and a couple of punches can cripple. Even if they survive the fight, they’ll be wanted for murder, and no matter how sympathetic the court and how talented the lawyer, they’re heading to prison (or the noose) if they’re caught. I recommend treating the raids like stealth missions.

May her sacrifice be long remembered.

After a few months (and a few deaths), the Liberal Crime Squad became a fixture in Miami politics, focused mainly on non-violent activism: publishing stolen secrets, painting murals about police brutality, and releasing rabbits from cosmetics labs. Public opinion was beginning to move leftward, taking government policy with it.

The government is a caricature of the American system: there’s a House of Representatives with 438 members who are all elected every two years, and a Senate with 100 members, a third of whom are up for election in any even-numbered year. They start in conservative hands, but a successful Crime Squad can push them into friendly territory by the 2010 midterms. Of course, controlling the legislature is pointless if the President vetoes your legislation, as the conservative incumbent will do until at least 2013. There’s also a Supreme Court that can issue opinions moving policy right or left, and a system for national referendums that doesn’t exist in real life.

There are several issues at stake, from animal rights to the death penalty to campaign finance, and policy on each issue can range from a Randian dystopia to an Atwoodian dystopia. If public opinion becomes particularly liberal, the people can pass constitutional amendments to stack the deck in their favor by expelling sitting members of Congress and by stripping the citizenship of unfriendly Supreme Court Justices. (You know, to protect free speech and open debate!)

Those dastardly small businesses are the antithesis of everything progressive!

It came to the point where Justice no longer feared arrest, because he had so many sleeper agents in the courthouse that he was bound to be acquitted. With the justice system completely subverted, the Powers That Be turned to a new set of heroes: the Conservative Crime Squad. Loyal, God-fearing, and armed to the teeth, the Conservative Crime Squad tracked down Fabio Justice’s outfit, besieged their safehouses, and gunned them all down. If you’re playing in a game where the CCS is active, you’re going to need to balance the risk of early-game capture with the certainty of late-game annihilation.

Like most roguelikes, Liberal Crime Squad is a very difficult game. You’re going to die a lot, and you’re going to die in lots of different ways. Even the very best strategy relies on a lot of luck—finding the best recruits, avoiding police attention, and killing the conservatives before they kill you. The text-based interface isn’t going to be a draw, but it’s easy to understand: unlike some games where you have to remember what an @ means when you see it on the map, people and things are generally spelled out in text for quick reference.

As a piece of political satire, Liberal Crime Squad is not particularly incisive. You aren’t going to find clever insights into the issues of the day. It is, however, even-handed. Both the left and the right are in for a skewering. For example, the liberals fight for animals to receive full citizenship, and the conservatives release violent criminals to imprison drug users. Liberals have a low Wisdom score, and conservatives have a low Heart score. I genuinely can’t tell if creator Tarn Adams is a liberal, a conservative, or somewhere in between.

Fabio Justice’s eleven-month reign of activism was one of the highlights of Miami history.

I recommend Liberal Crime Squad for anyone with a Windows machine who’s looking for a hybrid between turn-based strategy and old-fashioned dungeon crawling, provided that they aren’t the kind of people who get very angry when their political beliefs are questioned.

About the author

Patrick Alexander