The Lonely Rhodes Scholar
The word “wargame,” like most board game genre definitions, is a nebulous thing. Do political sims count? What about games about the weeks and months leading up to war? What about wars by other means? It’s this conundrum that makes me propose an alternative: a wargame is that which contains a rulebook that’s alternately impenetrable, opinionated, and insightful.
Ben Madison’s solo wargame The White Tribe fits at least the last two descriptors. In one sense, it operates in the same headspace as Tom Russell’s This Guilty Land — politically charged, critical of racism and the systems that support it, and deeply conscious of how legislation is passed, employed, and sometimes abused. But if it’s a mirror, it’s an inverted one. Where Russell’s approach was pessimistic, casting the U.S. Civil War as inevitable and compromise as poisonous — a view Russell supports quite well, as I wrote last year — Madison charts a careful course between terrible extremes and concludes that, sometimes, collaboration is the only way to keep from plummeting into the abyss.
Here’s The White Tribe’s thesis in miniature. Pay attention, because it frames everything that comes afterward.
You’re the prime minister of Rhodesia in 1966, a racist state ruled by a white minority and besieged both from within and without by agitators of all stripes, including a black majority with little access to its own government. The problem, and the reason you can’t accept a solution as simple as Well, stop being racist, then, is that your opposition is similarly racist, both against other black tribes and your own white countrymen. Land seizures, violence against whites, an imploding economy; it’s the sort of bulleted list one might expect in a white nationalist pamphlet. Ben Madison, however, is no white nationalist. It’s just that there are no good guys here, no rosy-cheeked abolitionists to counterpoint the slave-holding landowners of the American South. Instead, your role is morally compromised from the very beginning. You’re the benefactor of a racist regime that cannot last, terrified of the ascendancy of another racist regime that will surely revel in its newfound power the instant the tables are turned.
The solution is an improbable one, and gifted the benefit of hindsight: the expanded biracial republic of Zimbabwe Rhodesia, staffed by figures both light-skinned and dark, and given sufficient international recognition to allow for its survival. Considering that the real-world Zimbabwe Rhodesia lasted only half a year before it was replaced by Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian regime, this is a tall order, requiring you to navigate a minefield of competing interests, work alongside your opponents to foil your enemies, and weather the assault long enough to cobble together a compromise that will ensure sustainable survival.
Expect a mess and you won’t be disappointed.
The beauty of The White Tribe — and I’m talking about the game here, not a personal preference for skin pigmentation — is found in the way its systems directly support its thesis at every level. The view from twenty thousand feet reveals two halves, both of which are crucial to manage well if you hope to be presiding over a coherent state come 1981.
The more visible half is the map of Rhodesia itself, where troops and projects are deployed to safeguard your borders from communist insurgents, placate the concerns of the Rhodesian black majority, and occasionally launch operations into neighboring countries. These actions will prove familiar to wargamers. Troops and air power are an investment, both in terms of actual money and because you can’t be certain where insurgencies will pop up. Left to spread their ideology, insurgents are horrifically damaging, sapping infrastructure and the confidence of local blacks. Your recourse, however, is fraught. While you can spread around your available troops, too thin a deployment could mean losing critical assets, which must then be repurchased. The temptation to push into neighboring countries in order to “pin” insurgents there — and hopefully wipe them out on somebody else’s turf — is tangible, but risks international outrage.
Thankfully, these processes are straightforward to execute, if not to predict. Dice are rolled against a battle table, casualties or retreats are inflicted, unmitigated insurgents raise hell, and there you go. The importance of these maneuvers has less to do with fiddly operations and more with how they interact with the general health of your transitioning country. And for that, we need to talk about legislation.
It’s rare that a turn track is the sexy part of any game. The White Tribes enshrines it as both heart and mind. It tracks the usual stuff, the current year and the weight of your bank balance. Far more important, however, is the year’s legislation, plus any for future turns or those you neglected in the past. It’s here that The White Tribe benefits fully from hindsight. While these events aren’t locked into their historical order, they’re usually situated in the general chronological proximity, letting you make decisions on the basis of their upcoming appearance. No need to patronize local spirit mediums if the locals are already happy, or bet everything on the Pearce Commission when your black majority is already pacified.
Still, framing every turn around a single piece of legislation is a masterstroke. Proposed policies tend to favor either the conservative white minority or the congealing black majority, but often to some detriment regardless of who is proposing the bill. The composition of your government often makes one or the other harder to pass, prompting you to treat your own support base like a seesaw, hopping between one political necessity to another in order to ensure that the best policies make it through. Even more perceptive, some laws are outright damaging — but even inaction has a price, riling up that policy’s supporters. Balance is key, rewarding those who build consensus through placation and compromise. Sometimes a step forward requires two steps backward, at least temporarily.
This balancing act is as difficult as it is opinionated. In the first case, because The White Tribe isn’t only about lawmaking; it’s about lawmaking while waging a war of survival, and sometimes waging that war illegally. This cuts to the quick of both The White Tribe’s commentary and why it’s sometimes infuriating to wrestle with. In short, you aren’t in control of much. While you’re cobbling together functioning military units and passing laws, the neighboring clients of the Portuguese Empire could be falling into disarray, or South Africa withdraws its military support on the cusp of an invasion, or the attempted bribery of a black opposition leader might leave you without either cash or support, or pesky American and British liberals might decide to levy sanctions on your already-starving economy. The same goes for those extralegal incursions into neighboring countries. Sometimes your troops creep into havens of insurgency and root them out; other times your actions are revealed on the world stage, prompting a severe backlash. At least that’s the consequence of something you did. Your prime minister has no effect on the outcome of foreign elections, but they can scuttle you anyway.
The same goes for the procession of events that will birth the new republic. From a liberal constitution to co-opted black leadership to passing the Quenet Commission and earning international recognition and support. A to B to Zimbabwe Rhodesia. No room for deviation.
Of course, that infuriating lack of agency is also the point. The leader of Rhodesia wields far less authority than the near-omnipotence of the executive branches of world powers. Perhaps if you had more funding, or more troops, or a more flexible support base, or just some room to breathe, you could navigate this minefield. You could tolerate a looser grip. You could charter a Zimbabwe Rhodesia that would last more than seven months. Maybe. But you don’t have those things. You have a support base that’s racist and an opposition that wants to kill you. If one of those things seems marginally less intolerable than the other — well, it has to plenty of others, even if it led to disaster in the end.
It’s easy to forget that The White Tribe is ultimately an optimistic game, at least as far as anything can be optimistic when it’s about how a theoretical outcome might have been better than actual historical occurrence. Yet there it stands, arguing that an even mix of sternness and compromise could have produced a biracial republic that ceded the power of Rhodesian whites without succumbing to the human rights atrocities of Mugabe. The result is a tremendous piece of design, both masterfully crafted and unflinching in either its judgment or intermarriage of the real and the ideal. As both a game and a historical musing, The White Tribe excels.