Alone in Nubia

That's much like the hat I wear when taking my long walks.

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.

Yes, it's the real estate. Landlords are parasites, etc.

Can you spot why I was hesitant to share this on social media?

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.

On the walls of Faras cathedral, long buried first by sand and then by water, it notes that one of the great struggles of the Nubians was my tendency to mockingly refer to the "royal ASSets."

Nubia’s troubles aren’t limited to the external.

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.

The actual event. It makes the Ayyubids do a big monster invasion. I had them at bay, and then I almost lost. Lame Ayyubids.

I strongly dislike this event.

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.

Battlestar Galactica.

Mosques, meks, feudal lords.

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.


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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on April 29, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Now this is why I read Dan’s reviews. Thanks for opening my eyes to some of the specific context surrounding the time and for giving me a sense of whether this game is appropriate for me.

  2. This is excellent, Dan. A level-headed, thoughtful piece about both game play and its contextual basis. Great work.

  3. A nice review. I didn’t know anything about this period of history but it certainly sounds interesting.

    Here’s where I struggle with this. A good game mechanic should, we might argue (err I may have written a book arguing this…), submerge its players into the psyche of the role that they represent. In other words, that game is best in which players find themselves grappling with the same kinds of problems and considerations that the person in their role would have felt.

    If we accept this (at least for the sake of argument), then it clangs with the idea that games should depict slavery and colonialism as bad things. Because to do both, we have to presuppose that the players represent people or entities who believed that these things were bad but did them anyway. That seems highly dubious to me, and looks more to me like we retrojecting our own modern-day sensibilities onto the past. In other words, if a Nubian king would feel no compunction about selling a nomad into slavery to protect his own (hide, kingdom), should we expect the game to create compunction?

    Here’s a totally different way of asking the question. Taming of the Shrew is rather sexist by today’s standards. So our options are (a) Don’t stage it ever again, (b) Stage it as written, straight-up, (c) stage it in over-the-top campy fashion to make it clear that we disagree with it. Which do we choose? It seems to me that this is an artistic choice and I don’t know what the right answer is; I think the company has to decide for itself. I think there are pros and cons to each approach. But I guess I don’t like (a) quite as much, for the same reason that I don’t like things like “Never ever again shall Song of the South be shown, because it has racist stuff”. I don’t like the idea of telling the audience what it can and can’t handle.

    • That’s a good question, Jeff. To make my position as plain as possible, I’m always on the side of understanding history rather than repairing history. However, that’s actually the core of my argument. I’m not asking for a morality play — say, for the game to deduct points every time you employ slavery. I’m asking for verisimilitude, either mechanically, in which the historical disadvantages of slave trading are written in (slave uprisings have been a popular pastime for as long as slaves have been traded), or textually, with the omission of drawbacks better explained in the rulebook’s notes. Games are deliberate models, whether historical, social, moral, or otherwise. In Nubia’s case, I’m pleased that Madison decided to include slavery, but curious why nearly every element carries the possibility of biting back — except for slavery, which is advantageous all the way down.

    • Is Taming of the Shrew really an apt comparison? Altering or suppressing one of Shakespeare’s works would be revision. Commenting upon it, as Dan has done here, would not be. The role of a critic is to comment upon his experiences in an informed way. That’s exactly what this review does. If I’m reading him right, Dan is even defending the inclusion of slavery, not attacking it.

      • It wasn’t meant to be an analogy for this review, it’s a way of thinking about the past from the creator’s side. Is it the creator’s responsibility to comment critically on the past, or to present the past as those who would have been involved in it would have seen it? Are we trying to understand the past or sit in judgement over it (or more charitably, “learn from it”), or both? That’s what I was driving at.

  4. Hi, I wanted to respond to Jeff’s comment about “submerge its players into the psyche of the role that they represent”… immediately I would argue that all design (game but also creation in general) is the expression of the designer, and infused with their assumptions and prejudices. We learn so much more about the viewer than what is being viewed. Which is why no matter where the setting white male designers seem to almost exclusively create games that overwhelming express settings, actions, and view game pieces from a perspective of privilege. Another reason for an all round lack of games exploring the collective, the bottom up democratic, or the anti-oppressive. (Where are the games about the Zapatistas, or the Rojavan revolution, or the Black Panthers, or…? or…?) Games are often an extension of power and from euros to (supposed) co-operatives to trash: the play/action is individuals and domination/use/abuse of pieces/populations/resources. Further I would argue that players rarely enter the psyche of the setting characters they are offered, players often (though not exclusively) are their own fashioned “queens” or “warriors” or “bureaucrats”. Again the players actions tell us much more about them than their games setting. Re-enacting many of the dominator and oppressive behaviours listed above.

    • Oh, I don’t think I agree with very much of that at all! But what I was talking about was simply that your decisions in a game should map on to the kinds of things a person in your role is deciding between. So, if you’re a race car driver, you should be deciding things like how fast to go or when to get more fuel; a turn mechanic where you have a hand of initiative cards and you bid for movement might be a cool mechanic but it would probably feel rather abstract.

      And this is why (as I’ve said to Dan) I struggle with summoning interest for the nature games (Wingspan, Evolution) so much — it’s not clear who you are supposed to be, so correspondingly what you are deciding between also doesn’t really make sense.

      • Let me try to re-state why some people may find your line of reasoning difficult, or might indeed be upset with it.

        So sure, sure, the mechanisms of a game about race car driving and making it more thematic, okay but this wasn’t a review about a race car driving game. It’s a game with slavery, and indeed slavery tokens (one could say the ultimate objectification). Now if we’re to follow your line of reasoning are we to then ask for games that contain slavery, and to just have them get on with it, if we’re “playing” monarchs or nobles in the game who enslave other people, then are we to want the game mechanisms to just deal with that brutality and oppression, the nuts and bolts of how it is done, and not want the designer interfering with opinions or morality mechanisms, and so on? Is that it? Can you not see how problematic and indeed offensive that is?

        Plus this whole topic completely involves privilege, or to put it another way: power – when, on the whole white people, design and put into the market games that play out slavery, or colonialism, and many other oppressive behaviours besides, often without any consciousness at all about the role of power in society that enables them to do this. Where is the market power that is seeking to address this?

        I am writing about this here because the game has slavery in it, and slavery is essentially connected to race and power. Basically yes a game should and must say that slavery and colonialism are bad things. (That was in direct response to you writing: “If we accept this (at least for the sake of argument), then it clangs with the idea that games should depict slavery and colonialism as bad things.”)

  5. Dan, besides your misgivings regarding the implementation of slavery in this game, I struggle to figure out how it plays and whether you otherwise liked it. I feel like the White Tribe’s review is more balanced between discussing the historical context and representing the mechanics of the game.

    • Mea culpa. For the most part, it plays much like other States of Siege games, but I shouldn’t have assumed that every reader would know the basics there. As for liking it, I liked that it made me think about a historical subject in a light I hadn’t considered before. As a game, I enjoyed my three plays but don’t intend to visit it any further; it’s shown me what it intended.

  6. Antlers: I don’t suspect Dan wants us to hijack his comment section with a protracted debate, so I will simply say: I disagree with you, completely and utterly. If you are interested in a longer form version of that statement, you might do a google search for “games are amoral BGG”, which will lead you to a blog post I’ve written explaining my own position more comprehensively.

    • Okay Jeff I’ll have a look at your post.

      Plus @DanThurot apologies for hijacking your blog I had no intention of doing so.

      • (Dan will have to say for himself but I think/hope we’re on level ground so far! I just know for myself that I can tend to get deep into the weeds; fine for a blog of my own but I worry about doing so in someone else’s!)

      • Oh, not at all. Converse away! I’m appreciating both of your perspectives.

      • Well, if we have Dan’s permission then we can proceed. I will try to briefly (which is not easy for me) expand on the arguments in the blog post I mentioned and direct them specifically at the questions of slavery and colonialism, per this discussion.

        I need to state up front, though, that I do not accept that power and privelege have the explanatory power that some invest in them, and I certainly do not accept that they confer moral obligations or provide moral clarity as is sometimes claimed. I do not believe that one’s skin color imposes any obligation whatsoever in how one behaves, and particularly not in how one designs a game. Designing a good game is a hard and nearly thankless task; let us not clutter that up further with additional requirements associated with things external to the game itself. This is of course a bigger and broader topic that goes beyond the discussion about slavery in games and I’m disclosing my views on this topic so you’ll know where what follows is coming from; I am not especially interested in having that bigger and broader discussion, at least not in the present context.

        Ok, so let’s talk about slavery and colonialism in games. I think the first thing we notice is that it’s always slavery and colonialism about which requests for more accuracy are made. Why is that? No one asks for more accurate rape and pillage mechanics in piracy games, more accurate worker exploitation mechanics in industrial revolution games, more accurate concentration camp mechanics in WW2 games, more accurate orgiastic revelry mechanics or child exposure mechanics in ancient Rome games, and so on. Why is it these two things that occasion such strong moralistic sentiment? I don’t know the answer but I am inclined to think that guilt plays a role. “We” feel bad that these things happened because “people like us” were responsible for those things, and “we” want to distance ourselves from that bad behavior, so playing a game that depicts (or fails to depict) those things makes “us” uncomfortable. I think that’s a bit selective, but let’s go with it.

        Viewed that way, then, we could establish four principles about how slavery and colonialism might be treated:

        1. If slavery occurred in the game’s historical setting, it should be part of the game.

        2. The game should provide an understanding about why slavery was used: what purpose did it serve to those doing the enslaving?

        3. The game should provide counterweights to slavery: there should be downsides to enslaving other humans.

        4. The game should convey a sense of moral guilt on players who enslave; you should feel bad, on an emotional level, if you use the slavery systems in the game and benefit from them.

        Now I don’t myself agree that any of these are obligatory, but to the extent that they were, I’d say that 1 and 2 seem ok enough. My argument about 3 is, what if there weren’t any such counterweights? Dan’s response was “then the game should say so”, which seems fine.

        But 4 is right out. I do not believe a game can deliver a moral gut punch like this, not without becoming an art project like Train. Games can convey emotions but I do not believe guilt is one of them. And, more importantly, if the person in the game’s situation wouldn’t have felt guilt over enslaving – if they thought they were actually doing a good thing – then trying to make the player feel guilty is actually poor design; it clangs against the immersion the game is supposed to be trying to create. That was my original point: that the game should give us decisions that reflect those a person in our role in the game would have experienced. “If I do this, I will feel bad about it” is a poor framework for such a historically-motivated decision if it’s the case that a person would not have, in fact, felt such guilt. But in any event, I don’t believe it can be done; what I’m questioning is whether it should be done even if it could, and I also think the answer to that is “probably not”, although it does depend on the historical situation in question.

        I hope this clarifies my views!

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