The Great Game Plus
In more ways than one, Pax Pamir is essentially my Platonic Ideal of a board game. It was even my favorite game of 2015. It’s deep and multifaceted, yet lean. Political, but careful to prevent alliances from lasting more than a few moments. Mean, but… well, it’s mean. That’s a good thing. Victory in Pax Pamir nearly always meant you had stripped everyone else’s aspirations of ruling Afghanistan to the bone, one assassination and taxation and military campaign at a time. Ruthless.
And from now on, I’ll never again play Pax Pamir without its expansion, Khyber Knives. Let me tell you why.
When Cole Wehrle first mentioned that one of the goals of Khyber Knives was to inject some of the chaos of Pax Porfiriana into Pax Pamir, I was mortified. Not because Pax Porfiriana isn’t a good game — it most certainly is — but rather because the house that Pax Pamir built wasn’t the sort that required additional construction. Sure, its structure had benefited from a few post-publication rules tweaks, but the end result wasn’t about capriciousness of history, at least not to the extent that Pax Porfiriana was. This was a game where control was inherently tricky from the outset, both to grasp and to keep hold of. Since nearly every action was tied to the cards you could ensconce in your expanding tableau of political allies and assets, you started the game about as toothless as a newborn babe. It was only through shrewd acquisition that you could begin to take the actions that would shape your tribe and hopefully propel you to a governorship over your native Afghanistan.
Put simply, the danger of an expansion to this balancing act was dilution. Too many new cards could spell disaster if their inclusion meant you could never claim a military ally, set up a network of friendly tribes, or eke out an income. Getting all those things humming in a regular game of Pax Pamir was already tough.
Like the shrewdest of warlords, the success of Khyber Knives rests largely in the way it compromises. Because yes, a couple of the game’s additions do sow chaos. And yet the game doesn’t collapse in upon itself at all.
Headlines are the most significant offender, potentially upending the entire game state. You might be in the middle of outright war only for bad weather to delay any campaigns for the time being, or stand on the verge of locking down Persia only to watch its independent leaders declare isolation and lock the doors behind you instead, or watch from the Russian camp in horror as Lady Florentia Sale is kidnapped, spurring both the British and Afghans to devote more forces to the region. All sorts of things can happen, and they’re only rarely neutral. If they aren’t hindering you, they have a good chance of hindering your enemies.
Of course, in fine Pax fashion, it’s entirely possible to spend some time and money either sabotaging their outcomes or getting the word out prematurely. Bad news can be suppressed or highlighted, rioters appeased or provoked, the Afghan forces either flourishing or withering on the vine. Nicely, each side now begins with their own investment in the region, which may grow or decline based on the outcome of these headlines, giving everyone an even more compelling reason to pay attention to the news. Their initially inferior position also takes the native Afghan forces down a peg, which veterans will recognize as a deft bit of balancing.
At first glance, the game’s second addition also seems to sow more turmoil, but it quickly becomes one of the principal methods of increasing player agency. They’re called capabilities, and they bend the way your warlord operates. For example, setting up a Dungeon makes it easier to lock away enemy spies, and since those cubes are physically trapped on your dungeon card, everyone now has an entirely reasonable excuse to avoid your territory. Similarly, Jihad transforms your regular tribes into ferocious armies, Khyber or Sistani Pirates let you profit from an enemy’s commercial activities, and a tradition of Guerrilla Warfare can let a single army defeat an enemy without taking casualties. Not every capability toys so roughly with the rules, but all are worthwhile in some way.
As powerful as these are, however, there are two details that prevent them from breaking the game. The first is that each one comes with an activation cost. Ghilzai Outreach may seem incredible, letting you pay rupees to place new tribes straight onto the map — effectively cutting out the middleman of whichever card you would normally purchase to earn those tribes — but in order to use it, you’ll need to prove your economic stability. Most capabilities require a number of stars in your tableau, but some even require more dramatic activities, like switching loyalties or killing off a whole bunch of units in a single turn.
If you don’t want to bother with a capability’s activation, they can also be attached to regular cards, increasing their rank and therefore their effectiveness. Being stuck with nothing but flintlocks isn’t such a burden once you’ve boosted them to run circles around the Army of the Indus. Of course, spending precious actions nabbing and installing capabilities might see you falling behind in other areas.
However, the most empowering addition in Khyber Knives is the wazirs. Having control of a region gives you access to the local wazir, and, even more importantly, that wazir’s set of special actions. These guys will let you change the regime for a price, which any veteran of Pax Pamir will recognize as a tremendous boon. More often, you’ll use their consolidate action, spending rupees to place roads, armies, spies, or tribes in that wazir’s location. It’s never been easier to get out reinforcements. Provided you can retain control of that region, of course, since holding a wazir often means painting a target on your back.
Khyber Knives takes the Pax Pamir formula and elevates it to new heights, striking a careful balancing act between the mayhem of its new card types and the increased player agency afforded by the capabilities and wazirs. The end result is wonderful, introducing a new sense of dynamism to the proceedings as warlords adopt their own personalities, regions and empires grow and decline in power, and the news itself shapes the future of Afghanistan. For fans of Pax Pamir, Khyber Knives crafts the game into its finest form.