Rebel Inc: Escalation Review

Screenshot of Insurgent Camp being destroyed in Rebel Inc: Escalation
Destroying Insurgent Camps will greatly aid your efforts in stabilising the region

Quick Info
Reviewed by: Mark Goninon
Developer: Ndemic Creations
Publisher: Ndemic Creations
Release Date: 13 Oct 2021 (Full PC Version Release)
Time played: 6 hours

Modelling Catastrophes

James Vaughan of Ndemic Creations is no stranger when it comes to topical or controversial games, intentional or not. He and Ndemic Creations made a name for themselves in 2012 with the release of the hugely successful Plague Inc. on mobile devices and then Plague Inc. Evolved in 2015 on consoles. The game made its way to PC on 2016 and it currently holds a "Very Positive" rating on Steam based on 94% of the 45,601 Steam user reviews being positive. Plague Inc. Evolved is basically an RTS where you play the role of a virus that evolves to be so transmissible and lethal that the entire human race is wiped out before they have a chance to develop a cure. A few years after the PC release, when the world was combating the real pandemic that was COVID-19, the goal of the game seemed to be in bad taste for some, including China, who banned the game outright in early 2020.

This review is about the next game that Ndemic Creations worked on, a game that simulates the running of a country similar to Afghanistan in modern times. Rebel Inc. was released on iOS in 2018 and Android in 2019.The Early Access PC version was released later in 2019 as Rebel Inc. Escalation. In 2019, the real country of Afghanistan was a democratically-elected republic backed by many foreign military forces especially the United States since 2004. That would all change in 2021 when the last remaining foreign troops left the nation's capital Kabul, bringing the country back under Taliban rule.

Screenshot of Governor and Advisor Selection in Rebel Inc: Escalation
Choosing particular governors and advisors can give you the edge on certain missions

Running a New Country

It's important to provide a bit of context since what happened in 2021, is basically the game over state in Rebel Inc. Escalation: your job in the game is to ensure that doesn't happen. Each level you play is a map of a particular region in the country. The region is broken up into different sectors and the goal is to defeat the insurgents in the area. The Insurgency will compete with your government in securing sectors of the map and you'll need to employ a two-pronged approach of hearts and minds (i.e. providing roads, sanitation, drinking water, healthcare, schools, etc.), as well as decisive military action (removing insurgent camps). Insurgents can pop up almost anywhere on the map, similar to Barbarians in Civilization VI and eliminating insurgent groups usually involves surrounding a corner sector of the map with your own troops, reinforced by other troops in adjacent sectors. While it makes sense from a game perspective, realistically, insurgents would just retreat off the map into an adjacent country (similar to what the Taliban did in Pakistan).

There are many dilemmas you'll face as you play the game and there will be pressure for you to decide how best to use your limited resources. You have the international community to appease (who helped get you into power in the first place) but the ultimate goal of the game is to have a peace treaty signed and sometimes making some concessions with the Insurgency will make them more willing to lay down their arms. You also have to decide whether to spend more money on development or security (similar to the virus evolution trees in Plague Inc.). Do you develop a homegrown army or do you rely on foreign troops and their superior airpower? You can't rely on foreign support forever so finding the optimal time to make the switch is key. Too early and the Insurgency will easily take over the sector, too late and your international reputation will be ruined, which actually works as a kind of health bar in itself. Oh, and that superior airpower I mentioned before? You actually get the choice on whether to even use airstrikes in the first place. I rarely ever used them and only limited strikes when I did since I considered the risk of collateral damage to civilians too great: it probably would've made my job easier if I approved them but at what cost? It's dilemmas like these you will face while playing this game.

Eventually you'll unlock different governors that can totally change your playstyle. For example, you have the Economist which lets you spend an entire annual budget at once instead of receiving the pro rata amount each month. This gives you more freedom in how to spend your money but with more freedom comes the risk of overspending or causing inflationary spikes. Or you can choose a General as the governor which gives you some garrisons when you start the level but civilian projects become more expensive as a result. Each of the governors also have special research projects, such as the ability to procure underbarrel grenade launchers for your National Soldiers if you have the General as the governor. Later in the game you can even unlock Advisors which confer one benefit each (such as reduced training time for National Soldiers if you pick the Drill Sergeant).

The ability to negotiate peace in a war torn country with so many different options at your disposal makes this an addictive game for the peacemakers or political sim enthusiasts out there, but how realistic is the game?

Screenshot of Coalition soldiers planning to leave in Rebel Inc: Escalation
Coalition Soldiers will eventually want to end their tours and head home

What are They Really Trying to Teach Here?

I find it admirable what Ndemic Creations have done here since they have claimed that a lot of research has gone into the game and was developed with "leading regional politicians, business people and journalists as well as international charities, experts and governments". Even the Ambassador of Afghanistan to the UK commented on the game saying:

"Rebel Inc. is sophisticated and engaging. It shows the complexity of war and insurgency with interesting options to achieve success through stability and peace."

But even if that isn't enough of an endorsement for you, at the very least, the game does highlight the many challenging aspects of trying to bring democracy to a country ravaged by war and manipulated by foreign powers. It reminds me of "serious" games such as Fate of the World and indeed the predecessor to this game, Plague Inc. Evolved.

However, it must be said that things still need to be taken with a grain of salt. This game from the start takes the stance that the West are the good guys and that there are no ulterior motives in seeing Afghanistan prosper as a democratic and free nation. While many believe in this or hope that's the case (me being one of them) there are just as many that are skeptical and would find this a hard story to swallow (including those living in the West). As already mentioned, the game tries to take things from a balanced perspective, such as showing that foreign intervention is generally frowned upon by the local population but when you're running what is effectively a puppet government, it's not hard to see why skepticism exists.

Another problem is that since this is a game, it has to simplify some concepts to a series of numbers that can be tweaked with switches and dials. As mentioned, the end goal is to have a peace treaty signed and while the intention is most likely that you'll negotiate with the Insurgency from a position of power and even concede with some of their demands to sign a peace treaty, the game allows you to beat the enemy into submission or concede with almost every demand at the bargaining table to get that treaty signed (such as granting amnesty to all Insurgency leaders), since all you need to worry about is that your international reputation "health bar" doesn't drop to 0 and that you aren't completely overrun by the Insurgency. So in one scenario, it suggests that provided you throw enough troops at the problem, you can annihilate the opposition and achieve victory. The alternate scenario is you basically run the country as if the Insurgency were in power anyway by agreeing with all their policies: as far as the game is concerned, this is also another satisfactory path to victory.

Screenshot of Airstrike Rules of Engagement policy change in Rebel Inc: Escalation
Occasionally dilemmas like the above will crop up seeking your input


An addictive and entertaining RTS from the makers of Plague Inc. that shines a light on the political dilemmas faced in bringing about a liberal and free republic to a country ravaged by insurgents. While it makes assumptions that the West are acting in good faith, there is still value in playing this game regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum: its adept at showing how precarious a fledgling democracy can be when there are many factions hoping for it to die before it even gets a chance.

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