The game takes place in the aftermath of an international invasion of a unnamed but thematically Middle Eastern country. With the fighting in the chosen region over, the player is assigned as the governor of that area. The goal of each mission is to develop and stabilize all the zones of that region, while dealing with insurgents and keeping your reputation from dropping to zero.
The player has a choice of governors at the start of each scenario. They are unlocked as each scenario is beaten on medium difficulty with the latest governor. Each governor has certain advantages and disadvantages. For example, the Economist is given an annual budget at the start of each year but has to watch out for inflation and must remember that there won't be any more cash influx until the next year; the Warlord can quickly convert his old militia into the national army units, but will have to either pay them a bonus regularly to prevent unwanted behavior or disband them altogether.
Each region consists of urban, rural, and mountainous/forest zones. The level of access in each zone determines which civic initiatives will be applicable to it. As zones receive aid and recover their economy, the governor's level of support in that zone grows. When it reaches maximum, the zone is considered to be stabilized. When all the zones are stabilized, the game will be won.
Shortly after the start of the game, the player will have to start dealing with a new challenge - insurgents. They will usually start in a rural or mountainous/forest zone and expand from there, securing control over zones and destroying any improvements done to them by the player. Combating insurgents requires training and deploying troops. Initially, the player can only deploy Coalition troops (blue), unless you use the Instructor advisor. They train quickly and are strong fighters from the get-go, but tend to antagonize the local population and have a limited deployment time. At their end of their tour, they can either be recalled (which boosts insurgent morale) or asked to stay on for one or two more tours (at the cost of reputation). On the other hand, national troops (green) don't disappear but take forever to train and are fairly weak from the beginning. It takes several more initiatives to turn them into an effective fighting force. If the "Garrisons" initiative has been enabled, the game will periodically suggests sites for a garrison at a small one-time cost. Garrisons help secure a zone and aid any nearby forces in combat. If insurgents are defeated in a zone, they will attempt to flee to the nearby zone, making it hard to destroy them for good. The only way to do it is to make sure all adjacent zones are either occupied by your troops, a garrison, or there is some natural barrier that prevents crossing (e.g. edge of the map, river without a bridge). Insurgents can occasionally pop up in un-pacified (or even pacified) zones. The maximum allowed number of military units is 9: 5 Coalition and 4 national, although a random event may net you an additional 2 Coalition or 2 national units, even if you're already at maximum.
The player can also request air support in the form of bomber strikes and recon drones. Neither can be controlled directly (unless you use cheats). Air strikes have a chance of causing civilian casualties, the chance will be increased if the player passes heavy ordinance initiative. In that case, the player may choose to either apologize, try to cover it up or downplay the effects. Drones provide intelligence and can also be used to increase troop strength on the ground with combat support.
Various events pop up throughout the game, requiring action from the player. Each event has two or three choices, depending on the event and the current funds.
There are two possible ways of ending the insurgent threat: destroying them completely after stabilizing the region or signing a peace treaty with them which causes them to disband. The latter still requires a strong military presence, since they will refuse to negotiate if they are winning and any insurgent units still alive at the end of the negotiations will cost the player's reputation to disband.
Like Plague Inc., this game also has three indicators on the bottom: support level (green), inflation (orange), and corruption risk (red). Support level indicates how fast your influence spreads through the zones and how fast they are pacified. Inflation is the result of enabling initiatives and will raise the cost of all initiatives as it grows. Inflation will slowly drop over time, encouraging spreading out your spending. Corruption will result from new initiatives, certain random events, or normal growth. High corruption will cut into the support level and may even affect your reputation. Corruption is dropped by passing anti-corruption initiatives and arresting corrupt officials (which provide one time reductions for corruption).
Similar to Plague Inc., you can select previously-unlocked advisors prior to starting a game (genes in Plague Inc.). These can provide certain bonuses (e.g. Tribal Elder will delay the start of the insurgency, Logistics Expert will increase travel speed of soldiers through stable zones), although some seem more like hazards (e.g. Impulsive Shopper will waste your money on random initiatives, the trained monkey will choose a random choice for events when the time is up). There are six advisor slots with five options for each. A random advisor is unlocked every time you beat a map at any difficulty level.
The game provides examples of the following tropes:
- 0% Approval Rating: Once your reputation drops to zero, you lose the game.
- Attack Drones: Played with. While drones are only used for reconnaissance, an additional initiative can also have them boost any of your troops in the vicinity by providing combat intel.
- A Commander Is You:
- Civil Servant - default option. No special abilities or penalties.
- Economist - receives the entire yearly budget up front. Can reduce inflation.
- General - can start training troops immediately (all others have to wait for insurgents to first show themselves) and comes with a free garrison. Can further increase national troop strength. Civilian initiatives more expensive. Can also institute martial law.
- Banker - receives interest on unspent funds. Can print money at the cost of inflation and can hire lobbyists to increase reputation. Receives a smaller budget.
- Smuggler - receives extra cash from high corruption. Can make additional money at the cost of lower national troop strength. Can train troops faster at the cost of their strength. Can bribe insurgents to lower their activity. Can temporarily decrease corruption.
- Warlord - national troops are the Warlord's private militia (can train them quickly and cheaply, but they will periodically ask for more money or get rowdy). Can also act like a dictator. Can only be unlocked by beating each map on Brutal difficulty (or by paying real money).
- Tank Commander - the first coalition unit and the first two national units you deploy are tank divisions, which are substantially stronger than normal but cannot gather intel or be deployed in rough terrain, additionally they can decrease support in regions they operate in. Can decrease corruption by running over corrupt officials with tanks.
- Development Director - can deploy civilian experts to prioritize zones for development.
- In addition, your government can be customised and given various bonuses with up to 6 advisors divided by color, with 5 possible advisors in each role : green (military strength) note , blue (military bonuses) note , yellow (civilian matters) note , pink (law enforcment and diplomacy) note , orange (intel and PR) note and purple (game modifiers) note .
- Adam Smith Hates Your Guts: Everything you do causes prices to increase due to Inflation, and reduces your income. Once the insurgents show up, you have to outsource your military while you build up your own. The outsourced military has a time limit, and extending the limit becomes progressively more costly. Your permanent military is probably still weaker by the time this happens, and has a considerable training time to boot.
- Awesome, but Impractical: Yeah, tanks are cool. Yeah, in open terrain they'll roll right over the insurgents. But they're useless in a support role, and what's worse, they can't go into battle in the mountains to take the fight to the insurgents. The loss of support they cause is just the cherry on top.
- Black and Gray Morality: While the game is intentionally vague about the cause the insurgents fight for, they bring nothing but trouble in the area. You're trying to bring back order, reopening schools and hospitals to reach that goal... But look at all the morally questionable (at best) and outright morally bankrupt (at worst) decisions you took while solving any Random Event that pops up, and can only justify by claiming you couldn't afford to piss off some people or groups at the time you made them...
- Briefcase Full of Money: The Flavor Text for the 4th Anti corruption initiative implies an attempt to make it a Defied Trope, by banning the printing of high denomination currency.
- Death from Above: Air strikes cannot be stopped. There is nothing insurgents can do about them, except make you lose the game by dropping your reputation to nothing. Bombers will weaken any insurgent forces in the zone and destroy any located training camp.
- Early Game Hell: The 2nd map and the economist become this. The map is heavily weighted in favor of the rebels: it's a mountain range that features two huge cities on opposite sides of the map with only a single road connecting them. Mountainous regions are harder to collect Intel (and thus begin Initiatives in) from and take longer to move through. The economist is more complicated to manage, and doesnt bring any practical advantages, with the main gameplay change being that she simply gets her annual budget in lump sums rather than monthly payments. The subsequent maps are significantly easier, and the leaders have far better traits to work with.
- Easy Logistics: While the game certainly restricts the player with regards to funding Initiatives with the Corruption and Inflation mechanics, once purchased they require no additional upkeep for the rest of the game, and units remain ready to fight regardless of where they are or how bad their battles are going. Units can't even be destroyed.
- Election Day Episode: One of the initiatives will start the election event chain, after giving you a small reputation boost. An event then will pop up asking you if you really want to hold an election. You can agree for a small fee, demand that it take place ASAP (costs more), or postpone (reputation hit). You will be periodically asked if you want to hold an election, with each option showing the likelihood of insurgents disrupting elections. If you hold an election and it's disrupted, you incur a reputation hit, while holding a successful election will gain you reputation points.
- Geo Effects: Rivers can't be crossed by insurgents when fleeing a lost battle, allowing your forces to destroy them if they're surrounded on other sides. Each province is also classified as either urban, rural, or remote, with progressively higher movement costs and lower intel gathering rates in that order (movement costs can be lowered by investing in roads). Likewise, the first bonus map involves caves, used by the Insurgents as camps. Without the proper initiative to teach soldiers how to clean them up, an Insurgent-occupied cave acts as a beefed-up camp immune to airstrikes.
- "Get Back Here!" Boss: Defeated Insurgents will always flee to a nearby zone where they'll start sowing dissent afiter a short while. To destroy them, they must be either beaten when stuck somewhere they can't flee (they can't cross the edge of the map, your HQ's zone, garrisoned zones with the proper upgrade or rivers without bridges) or surrounded by soldiers.
- Green Hill Zone: The Saffron Fields are a bunch of plains with a single mountain area up in the corner that's easy to blockade. It's not too difficult to set up garrisons and troops just outside the mountains to hem the insurgents in and either stabilize the rest of the map before coming in to clean up, or sign an easy peace in your favor.
- Killer Rabbit: On brutal difficulty, its possible to reduce insurgents to a tiny red spec. Not all of them are set to flee to the mountains. Some will turn Super-Persistent Predator and containuously reach for the headquarters. If you lack the troops to completely block / surround it, then you have what amounts to a single immortal insurgent who mysteriously destroys everything in its path and single handedly trashes your reputation to death.
- Magikarp Power: National troops take forever to train and are weak early on. However, if you continue training more of them and invest in a number of initiatives, they can grow in strength to the point where they rival Coalition troops. As a bonus point, they don't antagonize the local population and don't disappear after a while. Taken Up to Eleven if you choose the General as your governor, as he has additional initiatives that arm national troops with high-end weapons. The air force random event can even further boost national troop strength, sometimes at the cost of Coalition troop strength. There is also a random event wherein you have to address soldier desertion, with one of the options being to pay more money for salary and training, thus increasing troop strength even more. This trope is even more in effect if you choose the Smuggler path and activate the initiative that speeds up national troop training at the cost of their effectiveness.
- Men of Sherwood: National Troops evolve from a Redshirt Army to this towards the mid to late game. Standard upgrades are enough to put them on par with Coalition troops, if not better in some aspects like intel gathering, not antagonizing locals, and not requiring Reputation to keep in-country. Random events also give opportunities to increase their power further, Advisors can offer bonuses as well, and the General and Warlord can buy more upgrades.
- Military Alphabet: Zones are given designations in the NATO Phonetic Alphabet, such as Alfa Uniform.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: Giving NGOs a free hand will randomly give you free Initiatives (much like the mutation mechanic giving free traits in Plague Inc.) but increase Corruption and Inflation by a large amount. Inflation increases costs and can prevent you from buying Initiatives, while Corruption reduces your Support and Reputation. The only way to get Inflation down (if not playing the Economist) is to just simply wait, while anti-corruption Initiatives are either a one-time reduction or also take time to work. Thus, international aid can trap the player into a doom loop where they either have to just watch as their Reputation and Support levels drop, or purchase Initiatives and waste money since Inflation is so high while making Corruption and Inflation get even further out of control.
- Likewise, the "Universal Justice" initiative (which makes you pledge to arrest and trial criminals no matter their wealth or background) can backfire quite badly in terms of support and Reputation if you choose to let go or reward corrupt judges or violent police leaders, as people realize the governor lied to them.
- No Woman's Land: Downplayed at first; two of the seven governors (Economist and Banker) and several of the advisors are women, but the area is clearly very conservative towards women. Spending money on education initiatives will also trigger an event that allows the government to pass laws to guarantee gender equality (at the cost of angering remote areas, deemed more conservative) and the Coalition soldiers include female soldiers (revealed in a random event). Ends up averted if you supported gender equality reforms, with the national airline hiring it's first female pilot and a TV channel aimed towards women becoming a big success, which raises support since both the pilot and the TV host claims in an interview this couldn't have happened without your intervention.
- Operation: [Blank]: Similar to choosing a pathogen name in Plague Inc., you can choose the name of your operation. You are given two randomize buttons for the two-word name, allowing for names like "Swift Falcon" or "Old Thor". You can also enter your own name.
- Peace Conference: You can opt to start peace negotiations with the insurgents, if you feel that you can't defeat them militarily. They will refuse to even start the negotiations if they feel that their position is stronger than yours. Once they do, there are several stages, during which you have to choose one of three options: one that favors you (e.g. insurgents lay down all weapons), gives you reputation, but is likely to antagonize insurgents; one that favors insurgents (e.g. insurgets get to keep all weapons) but costs you a lot of reputation; and a compromise (e.g. insurgents only lay down heavy weapons), which loses you some reputation and has only a small chance of antagonizing insurgents. After all that, you can agree to the deal, demand more concessions, or restart negotiations. Once the insurgents agree to a treaty, you will likely incur a massive reputation hit (sometimes enough to make you lose the game), depending on how many zones they control and how many troops they have left. On the other hand, all zones then pacify in a matter of (in-game) days, so the game is pretty much won at that point.
- Police Brutality: one random event is the nomination of a new militia leader who vows to take a hard line against crime and Insurgents, raising concerns. If left alone, another event will happen where the militia is found guilty of abusing his powers. You can choose to arrest the leader (militia becomes less effective at slowing down Insurgents) or let it go (support loss).
- Police are Useless: Averted. The basic militia slows down Insurgents at the cost of lowered support, but upgrading the militia into proper cops boosts supports as they are actually trained to uphold the law. And they slow down the Insurgents even more.
- Private Military Contractors: The Smuggler is able to turn their national soldiers into a full-blown mercenary company, generating money for each unit on the field at the cost of rising Corruption.
- Random Event: The game will occasionally pop up a random event that requires you to make a decision. You can hold off on making the decision for a few game months, but eventually the game will pause and won't resume until you do make a decision, unless you have chosen the Trained Monkey as one of your advisors, at which point the game will randomly make the choice for you.
- Reformed Criminal: The Smuggler is a retired Arms Dealer who can bring in their unique skills at exploiting chaos and corruption to fund their operation, at the expense of being much more sensitive to the negative effects of corruption, precisely because they a former criminal.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The game is essentially a Captain Ersatz title about fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Iraq. While the country is never named directly, the game begins in April 2002 in the aftermath of an "invasion", with a "Coalition" of forces trying to help the government gain control of the country. There are also other references: the Troop Surge random event can occur if the game goes long enough, with the Coalition leader giving the player 2 Coalition units to end the war once and for all. Another event sees the Coalition distracted with an unnamed other war where they request one of the player's Coalition units to be temporarily withdrawn, probably referring to the division of resources between Iraq and Afghanistan.
- There is also a random event in which you must respond to the insurgency blowing up ancient Buddhist statues, referencing the Taliban doing the same in Bamyan in 2001. While it could be interpreted as a reference to similar acts of destruction by ISIS, the reference to Buddhism puts it squarely in Afghanistan.
- Samus Is a Girl: One random event involves angry locals claiming Coalition men are molesting local women during security check-ups, while the Coalition claims women are only checked up by female soldiers. You can either tell the locals to deal with it (lowering support in the long run), ask the Coalition to stop security checks on women (giving Insurgents a boost) or send envoys to watch over the soldiers during their operations (which costs money). Chosing the last option reveals that locals didn't knew about the female soldiers due to their heavy military gear and helmet, solving the issue peacefully.
- Spiritual Successor: To Plague Inc.. A game about counter-insurgency operations and nation-building might not seem like it has anything in common with a game about eradicating the world population with disease, but the mechanics and goals are remarkably similar. Both games involve the player trying to change members of regional populations to a certain state (dead or supporter) in order to completely dominate the map with zones of a certain state (dead countries or stabilized regions). To this end players must strategically purchase modifications to their disease/operation which modifies one of three core variables (severity, infectivity, and lethality vs support, inflation, and corruption) and which spreads outward from a single starting point (operation HQ or starting country). In addition to having mechanically identical win states, failure comes when a crucial variable (cure progress or reputation) reaches a certain point.
- Super-Persistent Predator: If insurgents appear near your headquarters on brutal difficulty level, these wont run back to the mountains like most cases. These will always take a path that gets them closer to the headquarters. If you lack enough troops to surround / completely block its approach, then its effectively immortal and doesnt stop. As it moves between stable regions, it will wreck your reputation down to zero.
- Tank Goodness: An update adds the Black Caves region, with an optional ability to requisition a tank unit; and the Tank Commander leader, who can utilize tanks in other regions. Tanks are much stronger than normal units, but cannot gather intel, provide support to adjacent units, or pursue insurgents in difficult terrain as well as lowering support without proper initiatives (as they basically roll over everything including houses). The Tank Commander can also reduce Corruption by having corrupt officials run over by a tank.
- Unstable Equilibrium: Reputation affects income, and it spirals down if you don't stabilize the country soon enough. Good luck getting out of that hole with reduced means to turn the tide.
- Unwanted Assistance: Once you enable international assistance, the game will ask how you want to handle it. If you choose to allow charities and NGOs free access in the region, they will occasionally perform some of the improvement initiatives at no cost to you. However, this will significantly raise inflation and corruption. You can refuse their aid, asking them instead to give donations to you. You can also take the middle ground and allow some aid.
- What the Romans Have Done for Us: One of the methods to increase Reputation and Support Level is to provide the locals with modern infrastructure, education, and economic opportunities to the region, which in turn would drain support away from insurgents.
- You Lose at Zero Trust: At zero Reputation, you're fired and the insurgents win.
- Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Some of the local population will support insurgents. That number can be mitigated by raising support for your policies.