Alone in Nubia
Each Monday, I share a list of the past week’s played titles on social media, along with a few short details and a picture of each. When it came to sharing a snapshot of Wes Erni and Ben Madison’s solo wargame Nubia: Egypt’s Black Heirs, I suffered from a rare moment of hesitation. Like the last of Madison’s games I covered here, The White Tribe: Rhodesia’s War 1966-1980, Nubia is frank about the racial dynamics of its topic. Unlike The White Tribe, Nubia might not be sturdy enough to shoulder that weight, at least not quite as levelly. To examine why, we need to talk about slaves — both the broad history and the in-game tile.
As an American, slavery isn’t my first choice of polite dinner conversation. Part of that has to do with the immediacy of the topic. In a country that suffers from the lingering fractures of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the entanglement of state’s rights with the right to own another human being — a debate that’s wildly inconsistent in the most stable of times — broaching the issue is an invitation to strong feelings. Doubly so on social media, where soundbites gleefully masticate any attempt at conversation.
The unfortunate reality is that many of us originate from a cultural background where it’s difficult to unpick the American definition of slavery from other historical definitions. Yet when we’re talking about a game like Nubia, it’s necessary to broaden our understanding of what precisely is being treated. Not entirely to the level of Pax Emancipation, wherein serfdom and taxation are also counted as species of slavery, but rather to a degree that’s rooted in older history than the Spanish encomienda and the precedent of forced labor it introduced to the New World. The easiest distillation would probably be, “Prior to the Atlantic Slave Trade, slavery was more about religion than race.” There are exceptions, but this remains a useful contextualization. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Christians were increasingly discouraged from enslaving other Christians, Muslims were forbidden from enslaving Muslims, and neither group gave two fluffs about enslaving those who worshiped another deity.
Nubia is about a trio of Medieval African kingdoms: Alodia, Nobadia, and Makuria, often united under a single rule. As is always the case with history, these roots plumb deeper than any passing statement can entirely capture. Inheritors of Kush and Meroë, the Nubian kingdoms were heirs of Egypt’s upper Nile, including their pantheon and cosmology. At around the same time Kush was being conquered by the Aksumite Empire — which persisted for around seven hundred years — the Aksumites were also swapping out their native Arabian polytheism for Christianity. A change in regime often provides a good window for conversion, as the Nubian kingdoms’ later defeat by Islam would reinforce. The result was something that might strike many modern readers as paradoxical: a trio of dark-skinned African Christian kingdoms, far removed from the councils, schisms, and literature that customarily occupy timelines about the spread of Christianity. And in a time when the Holy Land was being struggled over by successive Crusades, these kingdoms were both an embarrassment to and a thorn in the backside of Saladin’s newly unified Ayyubid Dynasty.
Madison captures this precarious situation with appropriate urgency. Increasingly pressed in by pagans and Ayyubids, plus the occasional deterioration of culture and traitorous (read: converting to Islam) nobles back home, the Nubian kingdoms are a panini on the verge of having their cheese crushed out. Rather than coming across as Islamophobic, it feels more accurate to say the setting is Islamo-anxious. Given the subject matter, fair enough. If nothing else, Nubia serves as an evocation of a particular kingdom’s historical concerns, and examines how a Christian kingdom situated “behind the lines” during a landmark sequence of holy wars might have shuddered to glimpse the yellow banner of their foes.
Much of that framing is due to the game’s mechanical genre, States of Siege, which is well-established in how it positions the player as the epicenter of a whirlwind of enemy aggressions. Like other entries in the genre, Nubia features a handful of tracks traversed by opposing chits, here called “meks” after the Sudanese word for a warlord. These meks gradually approach the capital of Soba from the periphery of the map, growing or waning in power and threat. Meanwhile, events and disasters spring up with alarming frequency, eroding the core assets of the Nubian kingdoms. Making matters testier, your “effort” — the game’s word for action points — are determined by a combination of the bishops and kings currently in charge of Alodia, Nobadia, and Makuria. When the Coptic Pope bothers to send a competent bishop down from Cairo and your dynasty’s loins produce a capable heir, you’ll earn a tidy heap of effort to spend on dice rolls for shoring up your kingdom or warring against your aggressors. Other times, a combination of weak ecclesiastical and royal leadership might make the lifting of a finger inconceivable. At least unless you spend something precious.
This process of spending is where Nubia’s most interesting details appear, and also where the issue of slavery comes to the fore. When in dire straits, usually when your king is weak, it’s possible to trade away particular tokens to either block the movement of aggressive meks or earn additional effort (and therefore extra rolls of the dice). Most of these present some measure of risk. Sending your crown prince to defeat an incursion means a positive modifier to your roll, but a failure will permanently remove your heir from the game. Nubian archers and monasteries can temporarily impede movement, but the former are sacrificed in battle and the latter, if sacked, will undermine your religious morale.
But the most interesting elements are those that represent significant trade-offs. For example, your royal household can trade some of its Nile-front property to merchants for additional effort, but depending on how the Crusades are faring this can wreck your army’s readiness. You also have daughters whose marriages can be arranged, either to someone harmless or “thrown to the wolves” — as in, the stereotypical crappy Medieval arranged marriage. Fortunately, Madison is smart enough to put some twang into this last option. Although marrying your daughter to some creep will permit a few extra rolls, the respect of your subjects is quick to decline. Even in the Middle Ages, people didn’t harbor much admiration for those who forced their offspring into abusive circumstances.
And then, of course, there’s that slaves token, which brings us right back to where we started.
Here’s how it works. Whenever your Nubians drive back a particular token — the Shilluk, migrating herdsmen from the south — you earn the slave token. When an Islamic mek would proceed closer to Soba, you’re allowed to hold them at bay by trading the token away, to be restocked at some later date. As a system and as a component, this is a godsend, letting you negate tougher incursions by defeating a weaker one. As a feature of the setting, it’s strictly accurate. The Baqt, the treaty between Makuria and Islamic Egypt, kept the peace and permitted regional trade for nearly seven hundred years. There was a tangible cost to this prosperity: three hundred and sixty slaves, produced annually, to be given to Egypt to maintain the agreement. In accordance with Islamic law, these slaves could not be Muslim. In accordance with their own beliefs, the Nubians preferred they not be Christian. Polytheistic nomads fit the bill, and tragically, the seeds of African slavery were planted.
Controversial topics like slavery often present designers with a catch-22. When omitted entirely, the game might be perceived as scrubbing history too cleanly, removing the very details that are necessary to understanding the topic at hand. There are countless titles that seem merrily oblivious to the grimier consequences of colonialism, for instance. While it’s unreasonable to expect that every entertainment be equally self-aware — Catan Junior shouldn’t be rewritten as My Little Genocide — it’s also likely that, through the accretion of too many rounded corners, the history begins to take on an entirely different shape, one distorted rather than simplified, populated by inconspicuous white chalk outlines where once stood human beings.
But this brings us around to the other side of the aforementioned catch-22: that when a designer goes to lengths to grapple with a subject’s less savory aspects, they open themselves up to an entirely different brand of criticism. This time, the sin isn’t that crucial details were removed, but misrepresented. After all, misrepresentation warps memory as surely as omission. Here’s an example: in referencing some of the same subject matter that Madison is working with in Nubia, I’ve heard this particular argument repeated on a handful of occasions: “Well, Africans were happily selling each other into slavery long before the white man ever showed up.” As an argument, this doesn’t hold much weight, if only because every parent has scolded their children about how two wrongs don’t make a right, never mind that it casts all black Africans as monolithically bankrupt of innocence or moral feeling. It’s a deflection, trying to ablate the culpability of the Atlantic Slave Trade by pointing out that someone else in some other place and some other time also engaged in something as dehumanizing and horrific as the capture and trade of human beings.
I’m not saying that Madison is making this argument. Quite the contrary. Nubia includes slavery as a horrible fact of its three kingdoms’ peace agreement with Islamic Egypt; even a cursory reading of the rulebook makes this plain. Rather, I bring it up for two reasons. One, because I have a great deal of sympathy for the plight of designers who are trying to represent something difficult, especially when that representation’s inclusion is important but no degree of sensitivity will prove sensitive enough for everybody. And two, because I’m not entirely convinced that Nubia was sufficiently robust to pull off a statement about the African-on-African slave trade. It’s peculiar that, in a game that presents the marriage of your daughters to unworthy husbands as carrying particular downsides, there aren’t any similar drawbacks to capturing slaves. If you fail to defeat the Shilluk, you are never burdened with the grave decision of enslaving your own people or violating the Baqt. Nobody is ever demoralized by the practice. The Shilluk never become aggravated at being traded into servitude. Insofar as I know, none of these were necessarily historical occurrences. But if not, it would have made for a useful explanatory note. Instead, the game’s slaves are afforded less consideration than burned monasteries, a daughter’s tragic marriage, or the sale of some real estate.
I regard this as an oversight, not a deal-breaker. Nubia: Egypt’s Black Heirs succeeds in many of its aims, offering a reminder of a historical moment that often goes missing in the map-folds. For hundreds of years, three black Christian kingdoms weathered pressure from every direction, and sometimes made choices we would consider ugly in order to survive. Today, their holy city lies at the bottom of a man-made lake. Whether that lends any perspective is anybody’s guess.
A complimentary copy was provided.