Talking About Games: Pax Pamirs and Framing
I appreciate any game that makes an argument. Even — perhaps especially — if I don’t agree with that argument. Even rarer is a game that makes multiple arguments for the price of one. All the better if some of those arguments are at odds with its other arguments, like a hydra snapping at its own throats.
Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir is one such game.
Across two editions and an expansion, Pax Pamir makes three distinct arguments from two separate authors. Those arguments have been both criticized and applauded, sometimes fairly and sometimes reflexively. Because this is the internet, both the critiques and the celebrations have often been painfully simplified. It would require an essay apiece just to deconstruct them fully. Rather than doing so, I want to touch upon all three so as to examine something tangential to their specific stances on the subject of the Great Game in 1823-1845 Afghanistan — namely, how differences of framing prompt divergent readings of Pax Pamir as a cultural artifact and historical argument.
I. Framing in History, Framing in Board Games
Before we dive into Pax Pamir, let’s talk about framing. Specifically, what does that word even mean?
The two standard meanings of the word are useful. When framing a house, a carpenter is arranging the structure it will ultimately conform to. When framing somebody for a crime, a criminal arranges the scene just so, with evidence designed to point to their innocent patsy. In both cases, framing is about giving a tangible shape to something theoretical.
For the sake of this essay, framing in board games is the rhetorical package a game wraps its argument in. I draw this (somewhat reductive) definition from the social sciences, notably sociologist Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis, in which individuals and groups align their perceptions of reality according to shared word selection, images, rules, values, and other priorities. Put another way, this is how we take our subjective experiences and blend them into something that can be communicated more universally. An example would be that when I say “chair,” although you won’t picture precisely the same chair I mentally envisioned, we still land on the same page. Mine is wooden, four-legged, with an arched back supported by rounded columns, and swivels 180 degrees before clacking to a stop. Your chair will almost undoubtedly not be the same. Even my more detailed description is riddled with ambiguities, such as the type of wood or the specific sound it makes. Yet we both know what we’re saying, to enough of a degree that you wouldn’t look at my chair and go, “No, that’s an Ottoman.” The theoretical has helped us speak meaningfully about reality.
Framing is one of those concepts that’s both familiar and unsettling to historians. Familiar, because all of history is theoretical. History is a story we tell ourselves about the past, whether allegedly true or fictional, whether accurate or gobbledygook. Sometimes those delineations are fuzzier than we’d like to admit. This is the source of many historians’ discomfort, if for no other reason than because accuracy has only come to be prized within the past few centuries — and still only sporadically. More often, history is not only a story, but also a useful story, whether it’s an autobiography leaving out the sordid parts or outright propaganda masquerading as the official backstory of a nation. History is essential because it defines the parameters of current societies by the societies of the past, individual values by the virtues or failings of the deceased, traditions and shibboleths by the democracy, or perhaps tyranny, of the dead. History can be fun, but don’t fool yourself: history is required study because it often isn’t telling the truth. If that sounds dire, most historians would agree with you.
This is doubly appropriate because historical framing is a major component of the topic behind Pax Pamir, and the stories being unearthed, pieced together, and sometimes fabricated by dozens of conflicting historians on the topic of colonial power across the past two centuries. We’ll return to this bold claim in a moment. For now, it’s useful to mention how this intersects with something as mundane as a board game.
One advantage of board games is the degree to which they act as crystallized artifacts. Although a game’s intention or argument might be obscured, it leaves little wiggle room as to its intended function. Nearly everything “tangible” about a board game, short of errata or the absolute first step — “read this rulebook” — is spelled out as plainly as possible. Helpfully, many designers even take the next step and explicitly state their intentions, as we will discuss momentarily when we dive into Pax Pamir’s first argument.
What remains? There’s artwork, and the framing inherent to artistic decisions that might prioritize fantasy or history (or both, in the cases of anachronisms, false portrayals, or historical fiction), characters imbued with an emotional state that informs how the players should approach the game, or even the choice of font to indicate a period or mood. There are choices of language and format, placing the rules in first- or second- or third-person, masculine or feminine or neuter, arranged like a conversation or an index, filled with examples or left up to the reader’s interpretation. These can all be indications of a game’s framing.
Perhaps the most important element of framing, however, can be found right back where we started, with the rules. Except we aren’t limited to the rules as written on the page, but rather the ways those rules are actualized by the people following them — how those rules animate particular behaviors once they set the game’s components into motion. It’s been said that actions speak louder than words, and that seems a reasonable metric for a medium whose entire purpose is to encourage action. It’s in the process of play that a game’s fullest sense of framing emerges.
II. The Absolute First Step: “A Defense of British Colonialism”
As I wrote above, the absolute first step of any game is “read this rulebook.” Not for everybody; in my own gaming group the roles are divided so that one person reads the rules (me), one person plays Angry Birds (Geoff), and everyone else listens. Even in that case, the first step has occurred as surely as one person has unfolded the board for the benefit of everybody. Thanks to the primacy of this first step, it has the unique position of being a player’s opening encounter with a game’s framing, and can poison or bless the well. Perhaps this is the reason for the hubbub surrounding Phil Eklund’s essay, “A Defense of British Colonialism,” in the back of the first edition of Pax Pamir’s rulebook. This is the first of Pax Pamir’s three arguments, and it rears its head before the actual game draws its first breath.
For context, Phil Eklund co-designed Pax Porfiriana, the first title in what is now considered the Pax Series, and acted as publisher to Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir. How much of a hand he had in developing Pax Pamir is unknown to me, as are any points of friction between him and Wehrle; anyway, it would be impolite to ask. In any case, the game that unfolds on the table and the game discussed in this essay are two separate things, with separate arguments and foundational ethics.
Eklund’s essay opens with a zinger that prompted stark reactions: “Although much maligned, British Colonialism had significant advantages for its colonies, as evidenced by how well some of them turned out. The USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Singapore are among the most civilized and best places to live today. Why?” He proceeds to cite four factors: the introduction of the British legal tradition, which included separation of powers rather than tribal justice; British rule providing a century of stability and peace that was “marred only by the localized 1857 Indian Mutiny”; the British abolishment of the slave trade; and British industry and global trade raising the quality of life in India.
These examples are positive, to be sure, but they’re also impressive for their careful curation. Eklund’s selection of nations is especially choosy, picking the handful of colonies that became more prosperous than their former colonial parent while ignoring dozens of colonies across Africa, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia that failed to thrive in similar fashion. What was the defining feature of the successful colonies versus the unsuccessful? In general, they were those in which indigenous populations were removed to make way for white settlers. Elsewhere, natives were suborned against their own cultures. Class divisions were emphasized, with previous minorities elevated to positions of privilege or reigning elites given the additional advantage of British military and naval backing. In both cases, these new rulers were now entrenched via colonial power and granted refuge from the ills inflicted by the British themselves. These were numerous. Famines were common under the British Raj, exacerbated by the replacement of food crops with indigo and opium and the forced exportation of wheat even during crises. The cost of failed rebellions and East India Company stockholder losses became public debts, adding to the heavy burden of financing British adventurism and proxy warfare as far away as Egypt, the latter of which depleted as much as a third of India’s treasury annually. Meanwhile, although the slave trade had been rightfully dismantled by the British, significant quantities of indentured servants were transported across the empire, and new outcasts, today known as subalterns, were removed from the orbit of colonial power structures in both India and England. Taken cumulatively, millions starved, millions trafficked, millions robbed of their language and culture, and millions transformed into a legally sanctioned caste of outsiders seems a high price to pay for British beneficence, especially since many such acts were solutions to problems they had introduced or exacerbated. If these are the tradeoffs of colonialism, I’m going to have to invoke Cool Hand Luke: “I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Captain.”
What does this have to do with the game’s setting? Everything. And to Eklund’s credit, his own calling-out of some of Britain’s bad behavior in India often goes missing from the discussion, whether thanks to the structure of his essay — there’s a reason your thesis should be stated up front — or the aspersions readers cast upon anything that seems pro-colonialism. Pax Pamir is not set in India; its topic is Afghanistan, which Eklund emphasizes was a buffer state between warring empires. As dismal as colonialism proved for those who existed outside its power structures, Eklund asserts that “Afghanistan’s legacy as a plaything of superpowers has left it as one of the world’s worst places to live.” Unlike Britain’s colonies, to which they owed at least the appearance of responsibility, both Britain and Russia approached Afghanistan with an attitude that was all take, no give.
In other words, fertile soil for Pax Pamir, a game about eking out survival as a chieftain teetering between forces too large to care about their wellbeing. As framing, this casts Pax Pamir in two very different ways. The first is a work of apologetics for the failures of empire and colonialism; unfortunately, this is what many people took from Eklund’s essay, withering their interest in the game before they had a chance to actually experience it. The second is comparative and hardly even controversial, although it’s still principally interested in the story from the perspective of empire than the indigenous: better British colonial rule than Spanish or Belgian, and certainly better than being relegated to a buffer state and having your soil churned as a playground of empires.
III. The Play’s the Thing: Pax Pamir
If Eklund’s “A Defense of British Colonialism” is textual framing, and slightly misleading in format and title alike, then actually playing Wehrle’s Pax Pamir provides a more experiential framing. For one thing, player avatars are clear from the beginning. You are a chieftain, your homeland is being overrun by multiple belligerent empires, and a person in your position has little choice but to support one side or the other.
Further, your chieftains are tasked with both expanding imperial power and securing their own place in a tumultuous Afghanistan. This is done by purchasing cards from two market rows. Each of these cards depicts the pieces that will be added to the map and your tableau, and the actions it will permit once you own it. A particular military leader, Hari Singh Nalwa, adds two armies to Punjab, and then, once nested semi-securely in your tableau, allows you to march those armies on campaign or levy taxes. That same card might prove vulnerable to an adventurer like Eldred Pottinger who adds spies and then permits those spies to travel across multiple tableaux and assassinate rival cards.
This interconnectedness offers commentary of its own. Success in the Great Game — as the contest between the British and Russian Empires in Afghanistan would come to be called — isn’t only about strength of arms, but also strength of espionage, economy, and political control. This broad view of power stands in marked contrast to the usual “might makes right” viewpoint adopted by games of military conquest. True enough, right in Pax Pamir is still determined by strength, but that strength is multifaceted. Even, at times, subtle. Further, such multifaceted strength is essential to victory. Winning in Pax Pamir is a testy proposition, and is often difficult for new players to wholly grasp until they’ve seen it in action. As such, I’ll give the general impression rather than expounding on the rules in much detail.
At its most basic level, each player stands in support of an empire, whether the British, Russians, or fledgling Afghan Empire. It’s possible for players to switch allegiances, but the costs of doing so are prohibitive and turning coat is therefore rare. By adding cylinders of a particular empire to the map, whether as armies or “roads” that represent economic control, one empire may become supreme over the others. This dominance is tested when somebody purchases a rare “topple” card from the market. If the appropriate conditions are met, one empire is declared supreme and wins the war. If not, the conflict continues until another such topple card is purchased, and so on.
Remember, however, that multiple chieftains may be acting in support of any given empire. This is where the game’s subtler elements come into play. In addition to cylinders, players are also allowed to add cubes representing either loyal tribes (when placed on the map) or spies (when placed in their tableau). These cubes, along with a few other sources such as patriot cards and gifts to your patron, increase a chieftain’s standing with the corresponding empire. When that empire wins during a topple card, whichever chieftain is most influential within it will also win, ostensibly becoming a comfortable puppet sovereign for that empire’s interests.
This accomplishes at least two things. We’ve already touched upon the first: that power is far more dynamic and fluid than most board games portray. In Pax Pamir, economic power might be worth a lot or a little. The same goes for military might, the capacity to remove a nettling administrator in a rival’s court, or sheer control of the people. For that matter, the wider war between empires and the quiet intrigues of multiple chieftains bickering for position within those empires are both essential to success. Power isn’t only about navigating the battlefield; it’s about navigating hearts and loyalties and trade inventories. Similarly, while the game’s Afghan chieftains are pawns in someone else’s game, they’re imbued with the agency of the player. It isn’t possible to tell the empires to shove off, at least not if you want to win within the game’s parameters. But given the bum hand you’ve been dealt by geography and birthright and adjacency to bellicose armies, your allegiance to those outside forces allows some degree of latitude, or at least sympathy.
This isn’t to say that Pax Pamir pulls off its aims entirely. To some extent it’s unfair to critique the game’s message when Wehrle effectively updated his own thesis with the second edition, and Pax Pamir’s limitations are easier to evaluate in retrospect than they were when the game first released. Still, with the benefit of hindsight, by focusing on a sole flashpoint and connecting victory to a single empire, the game’s emphasis is placed on the empires themselves. Chieftains are reduced to bit players in their own narrative, there to service the ambitions of foreign offices in lands they will never visit. This is all a function of the game’s mechanical framing: every action you undertake furthers either an empire’s goals or your standing within that empire, to the extent that imperial pieces on the table eclipse the importance of your own, often expendable cubes.
By contrast, both the expansion and the second edition recontextualize the entire conflict by asking a single question: what happens when the imperial armies finally march for home?
IV. Orientalism: Khyber Knives & Pax Pamir’s 2nd Edition
Let’s return to history for a moment, and to the way the stories we tell about our past — and further, pasts besides our own, the pasts of our ancestors and our countrymen — can define how we behave in the present.
At the core of British colonialism in India — indeed, the core of British colonialism all over — was a story. The story told to British subjects was one of the distant Orient, populated by people who were primitive and in need of civilizing. These savages were irrational and mystical, suffered under despotic rule, and resorted to violence at the slightest provocation. The first fracture in this story appeared with the solution: because of those foreigners’ irrationality, their despots, their violence, it was necessary that the British should marshal their own forces, their own navies, their own despots, and undertake some violence of their own. When this violence was accomplished and the savages were subdued, the story shifted into one of their martial prowess, their right to conquest through militant superiority. As one officer of the East India Company put it, “The British nation have become the conquerors of Bengal and they ought to extend some part of their fundamental jurisprudence to secure their conquest. The sword is our tenure. It is an absolute conquest, and it is so considered by the world.”
But while this story was useful for intimidating the recently defeated, it wasn’t useful for keeping an entire subcontinent in check across decades. The story began to alter its wording. Loaded terms like “despotic” became the more universal “medieval.” The “rule of law” became the more benign “modernity.” British history became Indian history, not only by erasure, but by the prioritization of the things British people valued — in theory. Naturally, those things were not actually offered; the Empire hungered for subjects, not peers. Thus the story of Britishness was also un-British, a promise of citizenship always withheld, bound up in traditions and virtues and even sports that did not truly exemplify English living. The colonial subject was expected to be both savage and civilized, violent and peaceable, lazy and uniquely suited to labor, to inhabit multiple positions on a timeline whose start point had been carefully rewritten.
Here’s an example. When discussing colonialism, there are those who offer a rejoinder: “Yes, terrible things happened under colonialism, but…”
That “but” carries the crushing weight of assumption. But train networks. But industry. But globalization. But the protection of the British military. But the legal system. Yet these are only additional paragraphs in a story that has long been cast as unalterable history. They neglect reality’s peskier details, such as the improving standards in India throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, which produced staggering quantities of luxury goods and sold them for tremendous profit. The sophisticated Indian textile industry was diminished by a variety of factors, many colonial in nature: British tariffs and machine manufacturing imposing lower prices on imported goods than those domestic, control of agricultural output and trade, the dissolution of the Mughal Empire by the East India Company and later the British Raj, to name a few. The result was deindustrialization, a collapse of Indian productivity, not the development of it.
A single word can make a world of difference. Even in a board game. When I spoke to Wehrle last month about my perspective on how his two editions of Pax Pamir differed, he pointed out that one key change I had missed was altering “empire” to “coalition.” After all, your Afghan chieftains are not, in fact, joining an empire; they’re joining appendages of that empire, temporary visiting forces that intend to stay only long enough to secure their objective. With that single change of vocabulary, gone is the romance of the empire bringing civilization. They have no intention to do any such thing. They’re tourists. You’re the resident.
This is reflected in Pax Pamir’s second edition from the bottom up, a transition that began as an alternate victory condition in the expansion to the first edition, Khyber Knives. The broad strokes are unaltered: your role as an Afghan chieftain, the market decks, the basic interplay between armies and roads and tribes and spies, wars and court intrigues, friends and foes. What’s changed? The victory condition. At a glance, even that might seem unaltered. “Topple” cards have become “dominance” cards, but apart from that lexical alteration they’re still rare, still trigger a check to determine which empire has risen to the top, and still function as the hinge upon which the game turns. Here, however, there are two major differences.
First, victory is no longer tied only to imperial control. This feature is still present; as chieftains, players are aligned with one of three sides at any given moment, and those empires — pardon me, coalitions — are still interested in having more roads and armies in the region than their rivals. Similarly, becoming the most influential within an empire at the moment of its supremacy is still the route to success. At the same time, an alternative is present. Rather than supporting an empire outright, you can aim for their failure. If neither the British, Russians, or Afghan Dynasty can establish dominance, the game doesn’t putter onward. Points are still awarded, but they’re based on whichever chieftain wields the most personal control through spies and tribes. While this doesn’t send the empires packing right away, it does offer the player additional agency.
You may have noticed that I said “points.” This is the second change, and it’s arguably the more important one. Whenever a dominance check happens, it awards points rather than ending the game immediately. Whether you’ve supported the victorious empire or carved out a niche for yourself, you earn a handful of points and then something crucial happens — the game continues, possibly with the empires going home.
This changes almost everything about the design, if not mechanically then in terms of its prevailing argument. Rather than focusing on a single flashpoint, Pax Pamir’s second edition becomes a game about living in a perennial stomping ground of aggressive empires. You’re not only struggling to survive this conflict, but the next, and the next, until longer-term stability settles over the region. Further, this also has the benefit of recentering the narrative. Where the first edition cast its players as chieftains who were bit players in a larger tale of clashing empires, now the coalitions are the supporting cast. They visit, get into a dust-up you cannot help but step into, and depart, leaving you to sweep up the broken glass. Appropriately, it’s much more common to change allegiances, whether during a conflict or in between. This is more than base treachery; it’s necessity, born of circumstances you didn’t choose. The coalitions are here for the sake of a game. This is your home. Singular loyalty to an interloper doesn’t make the same sense it did in the previous iteration.
This is the advantage of careful framing. Even something as minor as an altered victory condition can have cascading effects — which is partially a joke, since victory conditions can transform similar games into entirely different beasts. But it’s also a testament to how the second edition of Pax Pamir exhibits careful attention to the details of the statement it’s making. Where the first edition was scattershot, in part because of the divergent historical priorities of its two authors, this version is assured. The story it tells is a useful one, even a timely one. It’s about how loyalties are cheap when they’re cheaply bought, how partisanship can leave you inflexible to change, and most importantly, how prevailing historical narratives are often too simple for their own good. Words and framing matter, whether in a game or in the stories we tell ourselves about where we came from.
In the next installment of Talking About Games, I’m discussing two controversial titles — Cards Against Humanity and The Cost — and what sets them apart in terms of portrayal and endorsement. In other words, what makes one “moral” and the other “immoral”? If you’re desperate to read it right this instant (and really, why should you wait?), it’s available to Patreon supporters right here.
Posted on June 29, 2020, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Cole Wehrle, Pax Pamir, Sierra Madre Games, Talking About Games, Wehrlegig Games, What We Talk About When We Talk About Games. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.