Pax Polemical

hoo boy

Phil Eklund’s Pax Series has always sparked controversy, although never to the extremes of Pax Emancipation. Its mere announcement prompted concerns ranging from the assumption that it would defend the practice of slavery (it doesn’t) to wondering if Phil’s libertarian worldview would color the game’s approach to history (duh). The game itself was almost secondary.

In person, there’s nothing secondary about it. Pax Emancipation stomps into the room with all the bashfulness of a rhinoceros, demands everybody’s attention, and proudly proclaims its views on a whole range of topics. And then, like an actual rhinoceros, it makes a big steaming mess on your carpet.

And when I say "naturally," PaxEm means that it's Natural Law that freedom is inevitable in the enlightened West, but impossible without intervention in the ignorant East. Which is... certainly a stance.

Early successes in the West. Naturally.

The difficulty with talking about Pax Emancipation is threefold. First, it’s a defiantly complicated game, a problem that’s exacerbated by Eklund’s footnote- and glossary-heavy pair of rulebooks. Second, it’s a defiantly opinionated game. Even its definition of “slavery” steps away from the traditional interpretation, encompassing concepts like serfdom and intellectual bondage along with the usual transatlantic slave trade. And third, while some games lend themselves to discrete mechanical or historical evaluations, Pax Emancipation’s various elements soon entangle with one another. What begins as a discussion of the game’s systems — for instance, how the Evangelical player’s agent can easily infiltrate far-flung regions like China, but before long will require naval protection from the Parliament player — soon spins outward into a conversation about what those pieces and targets represent. In this case, a Christian foothold that will spark the Taiping Rebellion and multiple Opium Wars, the realities of which are far “stickier” than the game’s lofty message about spreading liberty to every corner of the globe.

So let’s start with Pax Emancipation at its most basic, stripped of adornment: you have three goals, and all must be met before the concept of “score” even matters.

Here’s the reductive version. Each of the game’s ten regions contains one or two chains, with each space along these chains representing millions of slaves. Certain actions place freedmen into those spaces, liberating the enslaved populations. Of course, this addresses neither the presence of slave-makers nor the cultural problems that permit slavery; for those, sterner stuff is required. In the first case, boats packed with marines can rid the shipping lanes of offending ships. In the latter, expanded citizenship and suffrage eventually eliminate a region’s “barriers” to freedom. Between personal liberation, military intervention, and gradual social change, the moral stain of people owning people can be eliminated.

And by "competing for space," PaxEm means that Western ideas will always displace Eastern ideas — except when they run dry, at which point all those junky surplus Eastern concepts return like a mouthful of backwashed root beer.

The marketplace of ideas competing for space.

It will surprise precisely nobody familiar with Eklund’s work that the journey from slavery to liberation isn’t exactly straightforward. Nor should it be straightforward. Where the dense interactions of previous Paxes were driven by player conflict, most of Pax Emancipation’s playtime is largely cooperative, with everyone collaborating to spread influence across the map, secure safe passage into dangerous territory, and ultimately reshape the world. Without the challenge of a human opponent (again, most of the time), the game has to pick up the slack. And it does this in two broad ways.

The initial challenge is that nearly every action is burdened with its own requirements, validity checks, and market limitations, all of which must be evaluated in relation to limited actions and resources. Consider the process of freeing a single slave. There are two major ways to place a freedman on the map: westernizing, which requires that you already have an agent posted on a region’s chain — and posting them requires money and another preciously limited action — or manumission, in which you simply purchase and then free the slave outright. In both cases, you’ll first need agents in the marketplace to “unlock” the proper method of freedman-making, proper management of the game’s financial system, and crossed fingers that your preparations won’t be undone by a random event.

As a side note, random events are necessary to prevent the struggle of liberty from being realized too readily, but they also contribute to the game’s occasional fragility. For the most part they’re carefully executed, focusing local pushback wherever your abolitionists have been meddling. But they can also result in exterminated followers, a faction plunged into crippling debt, or massive preparations ruined by a single roll of the dice. Unlike other Paxgames, where events were ultimately subject to player manipulation, here your actions often bring unwanted attention. Entirely appropriate, and exciting in how dangerous broaching a new region can be, but sometimes depressingly deflating and beyond your reach to control.

By establishing the KKK and Reign of Terror, they ensure that everything will remain in their player color forever!

They mean well.

Then again, even the whims of fate aren’t enough to unsettle your course in the basic game, which requires a lot of bustle for frankly very little payoff. If anything, despite its many twists and provisos and snake’s hands, success remains too trivial. Factions always play to their various strengths, for one thing. Parliament’s marines will always clear the trade lanes, the cheap labor of the Philanthropists bullies their way into tidy market niches, and Evangelist missionaries wash up on distant shores begging for martyrdom. Some of the details will change, but every effort feels roughly the same as any other.

That’s where the advanced rules come in. Although they represent yet another jump in complexity, they’ll see you sparking and supporting revolutions, passing legislation, and even competing against your fellow abolitionists to secure a future that’s friendly to your ideology. The result is a much more varied game, one that might see Parliament massaging the American Revolution, Philanthropists and Evangelists establishing competing client states across the globe, or total failure of your shared goals thanks to infighting.

But even as the advanced rules reshape Pax Emancipation into a version of itself that would boast one hell of an intriguing e-dating profile, they add new frustrations as well. In one recent play as British Parliament, my agents smuggled enough literature into Japan to begin the Satsuma Rebellion, then passed the right laws to create a manifesto that gave me exclusive guidance of the rebels. Our uprising ultimately concluded with a pacified and slave-free Japan, brand-new factories ridding the East Indies of malaria, and local policies that positioned Meiji as my puppet emperor. In other words, a calculated and thrilling win for my faction, but utter gobbledygook to anyone who hadn’t spent a few hours learning the game’s intimidating vocabulary.

Meanwhile, the bigger issue is that Pax Emancipation embraces one of the most incongruous player spaces ever devised, pitting its players alongside and against each other at the same time.

At times PaxEm seems to be arguing that Europeans are nasty little meddling grandmas.

Exporting revolution.

I’ll give you an example that should be fairly digestible. I’ve mentioned how each region contains “barriers” representing local policies and factors that inhibit local freedoms. The caste system in India, a Dutch trade monopoly in the East Indies, hereditary serfdom in China — all can be removed, often slowly and painstakingly, in order to achieve full emancipation.

In the Thirteen Colonies — which may later become the United States after a successful revolution — there are three barriers in two colors, red for Jim Crow Segregation and Fugitive Slave Laws, white for the Ku Klux Klan. These barriers are color-coded because certain factions want them in place, either at the end of the game or when a revolution “locks” the region. Everyone is still working together toward global emancipation, and the game will crash to a stop if it isn’t achieved; but you’re also seeking to win individually by having your version of emancipation be the most prominent when the curtains are finally drawn. In this case, Parliament’s idea of acceptable liberty for America includes oppressive legislation, while the Evangelists don’t mind hooded vigilantes keeping blacks in their place. Playing counterpoint, the green Philanthropist faction always wants to remove every barrier, because unfettered businessmen obviously have everybody’s best interests at heart. This is, after all, a game by Phil Eklund.

On the one hand, this is fascinating, casting its actors as ideologically dynamic — and often hypocritical. With the same hair-prickling turn of phrase, two factions might be speaking about very different kinds of liberty; in the same breath, a person might be talking about liberty for one person but not for another, or shades of liberty, or liberty for the sake of their own gain. Even the player colors seem deliberate: white for Evangelicals, a royal bloody red for Parliament, cash-green for the Philanthropists. Here is your god, writ upon your forehead.

On the other hand, though, I’m not convinced it entirely works, or at least that it isn’t a little too dysfunctional for its own good. Just as the cooperative game is rather easily gamed, the competitive game is oh-so-quickly derailed. The rulebook recognizes this and asks players to refrain from intentionally scuttling the vessel just because they can’t captain it, but it goes without saying that competing factions will quibble over agent placement, bicker over laws, and squabble to conclude revolutions in their favor. The result is a game that’s cooperative sometimes and competitive other times, but doesn’t often draw readable lines around those states.

Like I said, it’s fascinating. Also frustrating.

Personally, I think it's interesting that slave spaces represent "population" rather than "entrenchment." The effort of liberating one space of slaves is always functionally the same, even though "liberation" would mean different things to different factions. Part of this is represented by the red/white barriers (or absence of them if you're playing green, because apparently businessmen have no reason to keep any cross-segment of the population in servitude), but this seems strangely inadequate. Like much of PaxEm, unfortunately.

The world at large.

For the first time in the history of the Pax Series, I’m not convinced that Pax Emancipation is a great game. It’s certainly ambitious, and graced with the elegance of a tangled ball of yarn, in that any thread you tug will lead somewhere, even if it looks like a mess all wrapped up like that. In fact, that messiness is precisely what makes it so compelling even as it makes me want to get the whole thing over with. It’s a brash expression of Eklund’s view of global emancipation, a quagmire of competing ideas and systems, both game-wise and historically.

A grand, fascinating mess. Now let’s clean up and be done with it.


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Posted on January 26, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Great review. Looking forward to hearing from others.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

  3. A nice review. “Pax [Whatever]” seems like bad Latin to me. Is there an equivalent word for “franglais” that applies to Latin, one wonders?

    I had the thought years ago that a game on this subject could be interesting if it narrowed the scope down to something really specific; in my case it would have been passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Thus it would be a political game at its core. There’s the danger that the slave trade just becomes a MacGuffin, I guess, but perhaps this game shows the opposite peril: that trying to make the scope too expansive risks the author’s views taking center stage, because how can it not when you are trying to pull so many disparate threads together?

    • I agree that anything this broad will put the designer’s views on display, but I don’t necessarily view that as a bad thing. With a topic like this, perhaps that’s inevitable. This Guilty Land largely succeeds by narrowing its scope to a laser focus… but that’s distinctly a Tom Russell game and not a Phil Eklund one. I’d much rather see Eklund doing what he does best: opinionated, ambitious games that swing for the fences. Sometimes it won’t work out. Other times, we get Pax Renaissance.

  4. This is a fair review for what is my most ambitious game. High Frontier was a boyscout outing compared to a semi-cooperative game about possibly history’s most controversial subject, while encompassing almost every aspect about how the entire world became modern. And you are painfully right to say that the speed bump for a game that begins cooperatively and ends competitively is something I underestimated and still do not understand well.

    • Thanks for weighing in, Phil, and for your willingness to follow your design ambitions wherever they take you. Despite my reservations, I stand by everything positive I said about PaxEm — it’s a fascinating design on multiple levels, and I’m glad I got to play it. It sounds like the game’s unusual play space is something you’re still mulling over, and I’m excited to see where those thoughts take you in your future endeavors.

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