Another Land War in Asia
“For once, you should fight a land war in Asia.”
That’s how I concluded my review of the first edition of Pax Pamir, Cole Wehrle’s razor-loaded take on imperialism and the Great Game. It promoted Phil Eklund’s Pax Porfiriana into the Pax Series, boggled a fair number of minds with its interlocking spheres of influence and enigmatic victory conditions, and — at the forefront of everybody’s minds, surely — was my top game of 2015.
Now Wehrle is crafting a second edition, one he hopes will be more accessible without becoming divisive the way, say, the second edition of A Study in Emerald was. Little hope of that, I’m afraid. This new edition is indeed more approachable, while recapturing much of the bite, intelligence, and adventure of the original. But fans of the first edition may not want to sell their copies just yet.
For the uninitiated, let’s set the scene.
You’re an Afghan tribal leader in a whirlwind era of great change. The native Durrani Empire has recently collapsed, leaving your territory a sprawling power vacuum. Into that void flood rival nations: the expanding frontier of a thirsty imperial Russia up north, the British desperate to form a buffer state to protect their interests in India down south. Against such raw might, you have little choice but to pick a side and engage in the Great Game. There will be armies and cannons, yes; but also bitter politicking, spies and counter-spies, and strangleholds on the mountain passes that enable trade and commerce.
In Pax Pamir, these spheres of influence are more than mere fluff. Early on, your actions are limited to the basics of buying and playing cards from the market. But every acquisition adds — well, a whole darn lot. Each of the game’s four suits deploys their own units into the fray, gives your chieftain a bonus, and provides new actions for future turns. For example, economic cards deploy roads, shelter your rupees from being plundered by rival taxmen, and offer economic actions. Intelligence cards, on the other hand, deploy spies who travel from card to card, even into opposing tableaux, holding rival cards hostage or even killing them off entirely, while also increasing your hand size. So it goes for the remaining suits. Everything matters in far more ways than one. Maybe that’s why it hurts so badly when your linchpin politician gets assassinated.
Not that it takes an assassination. Even commerce and espionage can sting as badly as a bullet. Local tribes make it costly to play cards aligned with their location, while spies extort cash before you’re allowed to use the card they’re squatting on. In Pax Pamir’s closed economy, there’s no traditional “income,” and rupees are often earned at somebody’s expense.
Making matters even tougher, you don’t wield direct ownership over many of the pieces you deploy. The spies and tribes loyal to your chieftain aren’t going to be flipping sides, but armies and roads answer to one of the game’s three empires. So do you, in fact. As a supporter of Britain, Russia, or the dream of a resurgent Afghan Empire, your goals may be shared by other loyal players. Some of your rivals will be warring against you, while others pledge ostensible allegiance to the same cause.
But make no mistake, none of them are friends.
These interacting allegiances and rivalries lay the foundation for Pax Pamir’s peculiar political conundrums. Just because you helped assemble the Army of the Indus in Punjab doesn’t prevent a fellow British loyalist from marching them into a hairy situation in Kabul, perhaps with the intent to swap sides to Russia once the massacre has run its course.
The resulting dynamic is fraught on all sides. You’re working to forward the aims of whichever empire you’ve thrown in with, while also working to undermine anyone else favored by that empire. Cue lots of backstabbing, tax robbery, and sending gifts to your favorite imperial governor in order to secure their esteem.
For veterans of the series, this will sound familiar. That’s because it is. But as the proverb I made up goes, just because you’re traveling by the same footsteps doesn’t mean you’ll arrive at the same destination. That’s certainly the case in Pax Pamir. And it all has to do with what all those squabbles and battles are for.
To put it gently, victory in the original Pax Pamir was difficult. The game could conclude within thirty minutes or three hours, for one thing. For another, the appearance of a topple card — which, when purchased, set into motion a potential bid for victory — tended to drag the game to a halt as everybody counted up, well, everything. Your spies, roads, tribes, and armies all contributed at different times, dependent on the current “climate” of Afghanistan. And I’m not talking about weather. I’m talking about the current tone of the Great Game. During an Intelligence War, a chieftain needed a bunch of spies to win, whereas during Political Fragmentation it was tribes who ruled the day. Every piece on the table mattered, and holding a card that could change the climate at the last minute was often the key to success.
That’s all been stripped out of Pax Pamir’s second edition. And along with it, both the game’s most complicated tabulations and a significant chunk of its appeal.
Dominance checks — the fancy new word for a topple — no longer have anything to do with climate. Instead, they’re almost entirely focused on imperial superiority. During a check, if an empire has deployed four more roads and/or armies than either of their foes, then that empire is dominant. Every chieftain loyal to that empire now scores points according to their influence. So if Russia has endless miles of roads and hordes of armies, the player who sucked up to them most comprehensively will earn more points than those who didn’t hire enough patriots, assassinate national enemies, or send enough rugs to the governor’s wife. And in the event that no empire emerges supreme, the chieftain fielding the most spies and tribes will earn the points. As in life, so in art.
Put another way, rather than pursuing flashpoint supremacy in espionage, military, and so forth, you’re now striving to accumulate victory points.
This reformed approach to victory is a mixed bag, both tremendously streamlined and flatter in execution. Until now, the Pax Series has reveled in the surprise win, even when it relied too much on some players misreading the play state’s convoluted arithmetic. There was a subtlety to pulling it off, a combination of manipulating the climate, defending your pieces, and playing a long con against your rivals. By contrast, glancing at the track of empire cubes is trivial. Gone are the days when a player could win by having the right pieces rather than the most pieces.
Climate still matters, since it dictates which of your cards are free to activate. But it’s one less thing to contemplate during the game’s climactic moments. Without the prospect of a surprise victory, Pax Pamir tends to drag along from one dominance check to the next, even to the point of outlasting its stay. It certainly doesn’t help that the board and (usually) everybody’s tableaux are totally swept away after dominance. If the first edition halted the action while everybody parsed the victory conditions, this one regularly hits the brakes to rebuild everything from scratch.
On the other hand, this variant is more efficient by a Khyber mile. Winning because of superior play — rather than because somebody failed to notice those five spies hiding the corner — feels notably tidier, and certainly prompts less grousing. Most crucially, the original game never really sold the concept of switching allegiance mid-war. Now it’s a constant consideration, letting you ride somebody’s coattails for a few points, then turn coat to another empire for the next dominance check, and on and on until somehow you’ve risen to the top of the whole damn conflict. It’s the very definition of weaseling your way into success, and it feels great.
These trade-offs, however, carry the weight of a devil’s bargain. Gone are many of Pax Pamir’s idiosyncrasies, in particular the slippery calculations and machinations of its climactic topples. The result is far more approachable, perhaps even the better area control game — but also not as much of a Pax game. More strategy, less plotting. More visible, less niche.
Yet as divisive as the second edition of Pax Pamir may prove, it doesn’t entirely retrace the harried retreat of Major-General Elphinstone in 1842. For the most part it replicates many of the same moments I adored three years ago, while adding some bite to espionage and heft to those shifting alliances. Extorting a region with tribes or successfully decapitating a rival tableau with spies feels as terrific as ever, while swapping sides in the quiet moments between dominance checks can upend the status quo. Over the years it’s been drilled and dieted into leaner, fitter form, and will likely appeal to newcomers and those who were attracted to Wehrle’s vision of the Great Game but found the original edition’s sensibilities too serpentine. It even makes for a simplified entry point to the Pax Series.
In short, the second edition of Pax Pamir represents a seasoned designer returning to his freshman effort, and the result is superior in many ways. But as is often the case with translation, it sheds a portion of its subtlety. A considerable offering, loaded with reversals and clever card play — but fans of the original may want to hang onto their copies.
The second edition of Pax Pamir will be appearing on Kickstarter next week.
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