Two Minds about Here I Stand
Today on Two Minds About…, Brock Poulsen and Dan Thurot are here to discuss Here I Stand, the only game about the Wars of the Reformation and the Reformers (and Pope-friends) who fought them.
Brock: It was an event five hundred years (give or take another two) in the making.
Dan: Five hundred years of song.
Brock: I love that one about the bulwark, especially. To commemorate the most iconic bulletin board post in all recorded history, Dan assembled a team of nerds to devote a whole day playing Ed Beach’s Here I Stand. While we’re not doing a proper review today, we did want to discuss some of our impressions, share a few experiences, and maybe finally unravel the state of souls in purgatory.
Failing that, Dan, why don’t you tell us a bit more about Here I Stand?
Dan: Here I Stand is basically my jam. Ever since the cinematic masterpiece Luther featured Joseph Fiennes as Martin Luther screaming at a wall, my fascination with religious history was cemented. For example, this one time I collaborated on a paper about how the average inhabitant of the Holy Roman Empire was less motivated by zeal than by geographical proximity to their elector-prince, who—
Brock: So it’s Star Wars, is what you’re saying. History is your Star Wars. Martin Luther, reformist = Luke Skywalker, plucky rebel. I’m following.
Dan: No. But what’s so cool about this game is that it captures the dynamism of this age that shaped our modern understanding of the world. Pretty much everything in Europe was in flux. New ideas about millennia-old assumed doctrines were taking hold. The Ottoman Empire was living a golden age and testing the boundaries of Christendom. The New World was being explored and colonized. Dynamic personalities were inadvertently awakening the lower classes to unfathomed heights of self-awareness and mobility. It’s crazy, Brock.
Brock: I know you’re being the tiniest bit facetious, but I wasn’t joking about this being your Star Wars. It’s a realization I had after thinking, “Maybe this game isn’t for me,” and then thinking, “Well clearly it’s precisely the game for some of my friends.” The fun of a game like this is similar to the fun of a game like Star Wars: Rebellion, in that it lets you control and reframe familiar story elements. What if the rebel base were on the remote planet of Kashyyyk, guarded by a platoon of Wookiee warriors?! Well, what if Henry VIII produced a male heir with Anne Boleyn? Whaaat? It’s the thrill of living out historical events — real or fictional — with familiar characters in novel ways.
A lesson that I keep being taught by a certain sci-fi western franchise is that this particular thrill can only carry you so far. What’s the game actually like?
Dan: Maybe the first thing I love about Here I Stand is that it captures that at this powerfully personal level. Rather than casting you as some faceless dynasty, you’re immediately thrown into these very relatable roles. Weirdly, the period opens with the rise of a bunch of vital young rulers. Leo X was a Medici Pope with a pet elephant. Henry VIII was that fat guy with the wives. Martin Luther and Suleiman the Magnificent you probably know. Charles V inherited just shy of the whole world. Francis I had a name that makes it easy to remember he rules France. France-is. Yeah.
Brock: France-is, indeed! For my buck, France was the perfect role for a first timer without much knowledge of the history. In the grand tradition of ruling families, it allowed me to perform unremarkably and still be pretty successful. I often find card-driven games intimidating, with their multiple paths and nebulous victory conditions, but I felt like I had a decent idea of what I was trying to accomplish.
Though maybe that had something to do with the 15 pages of emails you sent teaching us all how to play.
Dan: It was 32 pages not counting pictures! I know because someone asked me to compile them into a single file so they could also teach the game via email.
You mention that it wasn’t too bad, though, and I’d love to hear you evaluate that some more. Because one of the things that surprised me is that there’s a lot going on — you’d have to be a savant to think otherwise — but it isn’t nearly as bad as I expected.
Brock: Your email (all 41 pages) was tremendously helpful, but I think that France is good for a chucklehead like myself. Every round I could try to build a chateau, for example, and if I succeeded on my chateaux roll (a thing as real as England’s pregnancy roll), it would give me a victory point. And as long as I didn’t march King Francis I into battle and get him killed, I was virtually guaranteed a success!
And that is just one of the clear methods of gaining victory points. Expanding France’s holdings into key locations or bullying other players into suing for peace also net you points. They’re all speaking the language of other troops-on-a-map games, but with the wrinkle that each player has their own agenda and unique set of tricks.
Dan: Part of that, I think, is that each faction only has to learn a few unique rules. The Ottoman Empire does piracy and fields cavalry, but nobody else has to worry about that outside of, “Oh, look, some horsies and black flags.” Luther and the Pope bellow at each other over whether nescience is exculpatory and how many fingers God has upon His hallowed right hand, while everybody else gets glassy-eyed and focuses on their armies instead.
Brock: To belabor the point, another way in which this is your Star Wars is that when I play Imperial Assault I make jokes about Bothans or Salacious Crumb, and our game of Here I Stand was seven hours of cracks about indulgences and Papal elephants. I’m not complaining; it was incredible.
But you’re right about each faction’s singular drive. The Pope starts at the top of the heap and wants to stay there, both in political and religious terms. So they bolster their numbers and engage in religious debate, and maybe burn a heretic or two. The Protestants, on the other hand, are the underdogs, chipping away at the Catholic monopoly. As early as the Diet of Worms (not at all what you’re imagining), they’re building steam and are on their way to turning the hand-hewn German tables.
Dan: My faction was the Hapsburgs. Thanks to Charles V’s loaded papa, loaded mama, loaded uncles, loaded grandfather, and another loaded grandfather, he inherits like half the map right at the beginning of the game. He’s fighting the Ottomans in Hungary in addition to squabbling in France and Italy, trying to rein in this religious dispute in the Holy Roman Empire, and sending ships to the New World. But by and large he doesn’t have to worry too much about special rules. It’s a lot, but it’s all regular stuff.
Brock: I felt largely the same about France’s regularness, which I think speaks to the strength of the design. The factions vary in complexity, but each one should feel like it slots perfectly into the larger machine. Other great asymmetrical games — Vast being the example foremost in my mind — accomplish this same admirable feat.
So within this embarrassment of historical riches, did you have a favorite moment? What about a piece of design you thought was particularly innovative?
Dan: Much like how a soul’s flight from purgatory and the possibility of speeding that flight through financial incentives might seem like the same question but are, in fact, two very different questions, you too are asking much, Brock.
I’ll start with my favorite innovation. The whole thing is card-driven. As in, everyone draws a hand of cards, which can either be used as action points or to trigger an historical event. The trouble is that you’re unlikely to find yourself in possession of the events that benefit you. To facilitate their appearance, every round opens with a diplomacy phase, where you’re allowed to bargain, threaten, and cajole for anything and everything, including your events.
The coolness of this phase is twofold. First, you’re allowed to depart into separate rooms. So you’re holding actual secret talks where you discuss who you’ll gang up on, what trades you’ll make, whether someone will ransom their leader, and so forth. It probably helps that Evan’s house is huge, because the Pope sure spent a lot of time in that bedroom with Henry VIII.
The second cool part is that you can’t actually trade cards, at least not directly.
Brock: It’s this clever way that the game codifies alliances. If you decide to help someone, you’ll be sacrificing one of your own precious turns.
Dan: Right. And rather than being sure trades, where you simply swap them from one player to another, they’re loaded with the tension of a crossbow. Deals become things like, “If you declare that you’re suing for peace and give me two victory points, I’ll vacate that fort and trigger this event for you.” Naturally, anything that happens immediately is binding. But that last clause, the one about triggering an event? Maybe I’ll do it, but only at the end of the turn after you’ve already spent all your cards. Maybe I’ll break my word and never get around to it.
Brock: My favorite moment — and this will sound like a joke — was the game ending. England was poised for victory, sitting pretty at the required 25 victory points. If no one spilled their tea it was going to be all over. So I did what one does: I declared war, spread some nasty rumors, and placed several of their cities in unrest. It knocked them down a few pegs, bringing the field back to level.
Then the Schmalkaldic League happened.
Dan: More like the Scheißekaldic League.
Brock: I understand you’re telling a joke in German. On topic, suddenly Protestantism wasn’t just a religious movement; it was a political one, and our underdog Protestant player was in charge of half the map. He leapt ahead, well past the point threshold, and we all just sort of looked shocked and impressed.
It was a cool moment. Unique, most likely, to a first play by inexperienced players, but I really enjoyed it.
Dan: I’m glad we preserved that sense of surprise by not learning the events beforehand. After all, it’s not as if real historical figures knew what was coming.
Although it does mean that there are very different “feels” to playing Here I Stand. We were tinkering in a sandbox, but future plays will likely focus more on trying to trigger particular events at useful moments. And preempting them.
Brock: I agree, but I think there’s enough variety and uncertainty — exculpatory nescience, even — that surprise endings are still going to be common. The Schmalkaldic twist isn’t just something that sounds like a cool mixed drink. It’s going to be on everyone’s mind in their next play, which will probably reveal other gaps in the armor. Maybe leaving room for France to sneak through with some kind of chateau-based dominance, or the Ottomans to lead a stinky pirate army to victory.
Dan: My favorite moment was one of failure. Remember when Charles V sailed an enormous army, including a bunch of mercenaries, across the Mediterranean to Genoa, and then failed to capture the city for three rounds straight? We were besieging that place for something like three years. It was both a perfect gameplay moment (because it meant I couldn’t conduct other important business) and a perfect historical moment (because besieging castles sucks; it’s why everyone built the things in the first place).
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the opposite topic. What didn’t you like?
Brock: The siege of Genoa is going to be taught in imaginary history books for centuries.
A tricky thing about a sandbox game like this is that so many things are possible. My erratic brain has a hard time focusing on one strategy, because so many seem like good ideas. I needed to expand my holdings, while also exploring the New World and protecting my borders, and ended up doing a little of each, none of them very successfully.
And while my game was fairly straightforward, it did seem like the Protestants and Papacy were having a different and more dramatic time, rolling lots of dice and wrestling for the very eternal souls of Germany. So it’s notable that some players are going to have a more dynamic time than others. It’s the other edge to the asymmetrical sword.
Anything in particular you didn’t care for?
Dan: This might sound weird for a game that bills itself as “Wars of the Reformation,” but I could have done with less reforming. It’s an issue with the turn order itself. You start with the Ottomans, who maybe move an army or do some piracy. Then the Hapsburgs put down an invasion or sail to the New World. Same goes for the English and French. But then the Pope and Protestants get their turns, and they undertake half a dozen reformation and counter-reformation checks in a single sitting, or launch a debate over supererogation that takes longer to resolve than a battle. It’s like going around a race track only to hit a corner that’s been slathered in meter-deep peanut butter.
And I’m not saying that stuff shouldn’t be in there. But it would bear streamlining.
Brock: Agreed! It’s a bit of a rough patch. The rest of the game is surprisingly brisk, especially for one that will necessitate at least one meal break.
I wasn’t expecting to like this game as much as I did, but I have found myself thinking about it even several days later. I could see it becoming an event game, shared by a group of like-minded friends and played when everyone has like a whole day to spare.
Dan: Next time we’ll do Virgin Queen.
Brock: Yeah, fine. I might as well get my money’s worth from this Renaissance costume.
A complimentary copy was provided.