Alone(ish) Against the Umayyads

Confession: when I requested this game, I thought I would be playing as the Arabs! Now that I've played it, that would have been the duller proposition.

The First Jihad is a shout of defiance — in more ways than one. Designed by Ben Madison and Wes Erni, it’s a long-in-the-making riff on the States of Siege formula, that old hallmark from Victory Point Games that saw lone players fending off encroachments along multiple lanes. Here, however, the concept is turned inside out. Rather than defending a central entity, you’re cast as up to fourteen different empires, city-states, tribes, and kingdoms as they weather the long century of Islam’s expansion under the direction of the Umayyad Dynasty. Less siege, more doomed containment.

Breezy stuff. Fortunately, Madison and Erni have a keen eye for how to capture the sweep of an era with a paper map and some chits.

I love looking at images like this after I've played a few times. "I learned this!" That makes me happy.

If it seems like a lot, that’s because it is.

If you’re staring at the above image like a deer contemplating two miniature suns sweeping toward you on the highway, let me offer some context. Beginning in 632, a short while before the founding of the expansionist Umayyad Caliphate, The First Jihad offers only a brief moment of calm before upending the status quo with all the reverence afforded to shattered polytheistic idols. Islam is a youthful and energized faith surrounded by old guards. The Christian realm to the west is oppressive and brittle, strongest where it’s least unified, and endlessly bickering over theological disputes. The Persians to the east aren’t faring any better, exhausted from a string of disastrous wars against the Romans in Constantinople and ill-suited to newer military developments. Scattered in between are tribes and city-states, some mighty and others minor, awaiting the crush of missionaries and warriors that will soon flood out of Mecca.

Right away, The First Jihad presents a solution to its shakiest conceit. Namely, how are its fourteen protagonists coordinating a coherent defense when they’re scattered across the map, adhere to divergent faiths, and in many cases act as enthusiastic enemies? One of the traditional advantages of the States of Siege genre is its sense of unified command. Because you’re the authority at the game’s center while the raiders fraying your borders are divided by geographical reality, it’s possible to marshal your inferior resources to where their concentration will have the greatest effect. It’s the principle of the infantry square, whether quasi-literally (as in Zulus on the Ramparts) or more broadly.

The rose is such a great way to convey information at a glance.

The cards drive the game, metering out attacks, actions, and special events.

This isn’t possible in The First Jihad, so Madison and Erni furnish another approach. Each of the map’s lanes out of Mecca — four in the basic rules, six in the advanced — produce their own tug-of-war for territory and religious conversion. More importantly, each has their own set of action points, with only limited wiggle room for shifting resources from one place to another. Early on, both the Byzantines and Persians command two roads out of Mecca and are therefore permitted to share their allotment of actions with their other portion, a representation of economic and administrative offices responding to distant threats. On a more international scale there are also trade routes, some more limited than others, which allow states to pass actions around the map. But as empires splinter into smaller factions under the pressures of Islamic expansion and trade routes are shuttered by passing armies, this flexibility devolves into rigidity. The threads that once tied the world together come unstuck, forcing the game’s factions into deeper insularity.

And it isn’t as though you’re commanding fourteen teams all at once. Rather, you command one active faction per lane, each one’s territory expanding and contracting in the oft-narrowing space between the factions behind them and the advancing Muslims in front. On the Mediterranean path, a steadfast Byzantine army begins stationed in Alexandria on the Nile Delta and gradually cedes territory until it has withdrawn to its fortress in Carthage. Giving another inch will fragment the Byzantines; at that moment, the army behind them springs to life. In this case it’s the Exarchate of Northern Africa, Catholic Christians now freed of Constantinople’s oversight. Galvanized by the collapse of the empire that was previously acting as a buffer between them and the Umayyads, the Exarchate becomes your avatar along that path, resuming its predecessor’s wrestle for territory. The same continues: when the Exarchate fails, the Visigoths take up arms in defense of Spain, then the Franks in France, and perhaps the Berbers will eventually revolt and retake portions of North Africa depending on the timing of an event.

At times this can feel like playing six one-lane games in parallel rather than one game with six lanes. Each turn involves a single card, its instructions relayed via a “rose” that clearly spells out which lanes are attacked, who earns how many action points, and where jihads or other events will take place. The ensuing counter-clockwise procession around the map soon becomes familiar. In the Northern Mediterranean, the Byzantines shore up their defense of Palestine, appease the Bulgars with gifts to prevent them from aiding the Caliphate, and maybe try to prevent the loyalties of Cyprus from wavering. Meanwhile, their brethren in North Africa are on the retreat thanks to a jihad, and spend their actions hammering out the dents in their armor. Then the Nubians in Africa continue to kick butt, but only a little butt because they haven’t birthed a great king recently. Then the Persians go back and forth for a while, buying elephants and sacrificing them in battle. Then nothing much happens in the Caucasus because the Armenians decided to trade their sole action point over to Persia along the Silk Road. Turns tend to function in fragments like this, made up of smaller turns. There are the aforementioned points of connection, trade routes and wider empires, but these don’t always succeed in engendering collaboration between lanes.

It's the difference between boxing with a training dummy that sometimes flails at you, and a martial arts master who's playing nice until you accidentally graze his testicle with an errant kick.

With the advanced rules, the game actively pushes back against your efforts.

In order to witness The First Jihad at its best, it’s necessary to plunge into the deeper waters of the advanced game. This brings a wealth of options into play: two additional lanes, refugees, trade, an additional minor faction to parlay with, truces with empires and baqt treaties with minor factions, spiritual and military heartlands that can cause trouble or rally the commoners if lost, Sharia laws within Muslim-controlled territories, and, most importantly, jihads and mujahideen. But in order to understand why these matter, we first need to talk about how the game handles religion.

Much of the time, religion is necessary texture to the game’s rolls. When one of your armies attacks a territory, you glance at the color of their chit and the color of the land they’re entering. If these colors match, your army’s religion is the same as that of the region they hope to conquer. They’re hailed as liberators and you only roll one die; if they differ, your troops are just another set of occupiers, so you roll two dice and take the weaker result. Some factions, such as the Chinese in the east, don’t care about religion, so they always roll only once. Religious tolerance in action!

Islam has its own proselyting mission to fulfill. At the conclusion of each round, they get a chance to spread into any land they control militarily. Rather than marking control with an army, they control everything between Mecca and your front-line armies. This means that sometimes Muslim armies outpace the actual spread of Islam, while other times your own armies are tasked with marching into lands that were converted to Islam sometime after their retreat. In either case, this fills The First Jihad’s map with intersecting religious and military claims — effectively two fronts along each path, one enforced with blades and the other with holy books.

Enter the mujahideen. This token has variable strength, from a minor number of warriors all the way up to an empire-crushing jihad. Every turn, a set of circumstances are checked to determine whether and where the mujahideen will appear: first in any lands adjacent to Mecca, and then, barring that, anywhere converted to Islam that’s been subsequently occupied by infidels. This carries two significant consequences. First, it lets Islam react to your decisions. It’s often tempting to chase good luck or useful events by forging into Muslim territory to gain a chance at counter-converting a region. The presence of mujahideen gives pause to such maneuvers, threatening to overrun anyone foolish enough to enter into hostile territory unprepared. But second, because the criteria for placing the mujahideen are so simple, it’s also possible to manipulate their appearance. Since they gradually weaken themselves as they attack over multiple turns, launching a feint in Africa or the Caucasus, where the terrain and locals are hardy enough that Islam struggles to take root, can withdraw pressure on other fronts. In moments like these, with stratagems that bridge paths and linger over multiple turns, The First Jihad’s disparate factions begin to congeal as a unified front.

My favorite era is when the Umayyads are like, "Yeah, we care more about hanging out here than attacking you." That was fantastic. More of that, Umayyads.

Each of the game’s four eras has a slightly different feel.

It’s when all these systems and ideas are folded together that The First Jihad springs to life, not only as a surprisingly responsive board game, but also as a sound historical simulation of a world in the midst of having its soil turned over. It’s a blood-wet tilling, to be sure, as slippery and crimson as murder or birth, and the process pushes the States of Siege model until it creaks and groans. At times the game feels bound by its sequences and procedures, and struggles against its chains. At other times it brushes up against controversy.

As though any such game could get away without courting controversy. I noted in my review of Madison and Erni’s Nubia: Egypt’s Black Heirs some degree of Islamo-anxiety. The same could be said here, although not with much earnestness. It’s true that Muslims play the bogeymen. It’s also true that the player is thrust into a role they could not have occupied historically, omniscient across ethnic and cultural boundaries for the sake of containing Islam to the peninsula of its origin. Leaving aside the similar (if not quite as all-commanding) omniscience found in many other games about history, what insulates The First Jihad from hasty criticism is the sense of dignity and even wonder it reserves for its antagonists. Some of this is communicated by contrast; the foundations of the Christian and Zoroastrian old guard are rotten with schism and squabble. But the game’s vision of Islam is also vibrant in its own right. When the Arabs reach the sea, they overcome their fears and build boats. When their lands are pillaged, they take pains to safeguard what is theirs. When swords are blunted, they preach. When surrounded on too many fronts, they forge treaties. At times they are even merciful. By game’s end, empires and kingdoms have been swept away. Even the survivors are beat players in someone else’s production. That someone else is young Islam, as transformed as it has proved transformative. One acquires the creeping sense that we have been playing antagonist in another figure’s bildungsroman.

I enjoyed completing this play so thoroughly that I wrote down what the world's history would look like based on the outcome. Yes, I'm a nerd, MOM.

The state of the world after completion of the advanced game.

In other words, the payoff is worth the weight. And more than a bad pun, it’s worth the hours The First Jihad demands in order to learn and play. As with the rise of Rome or Christianity or any other ascendant force, Madison and Erni have provided a compelling slow-motion impression of an amber-encased world about to be struck with a hammer. Which of the shards will be swept away and which will remain is the basis for one hell of a story.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on July 7, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Excellent review, as usual. Thanks!

  2. I’m really curious about this, but I initially thought you were playing the Muslims, not fighting them. The Islamo-anxiety is concerning, but I can’t tell if that’s because I would’ve rather played as the Muslims, or if the game is actually problematic…Thanks Dan for noting what’s there & why it might not be concerning.

    • I thought the same at first. Having played it a few times, I do think that, in its current format, playing as Islam would have been really tedious.

      • When we first pitched this game to Victory Point Games nine years ago, Alan Emrich suggested that we do it from the Muslim perspective. I very quickly realized what you did — that would be a boring game where you just spend two or three hours beating up on helpless opponents. Some players may, of course, enjoy such an experience. But having your back against the wall in a desperate battle for survival is a much better (vicarious) experience than hours of (vicarious) bullying.

      • Makes sense! Thanks for the extra perspective.

        Earlier on social media, a few people mentioned that they would love to see this period receive extra treatment. Personally, I would love to see it treated in the same vein as Churchill or Pericles, pitting Constantinople against the Umayyad Caliphate against the Sasanian Empire. A kid can dream, right?

      • Avian Overlord

        Perhaps you could do a game about the internal politics of the Caliphate? This game does end with one dynasty overthrowing another.

  3. Thanks, Dan, for another beautiful review. This game has been in the works for about nine years, and one final (if difficult) push brought it to completion this spring. For those familiar with our design partnership, this is one of those games where I (Ben Madison) designed everything about the game except the game. Most of the color and history was me; the actual mechanics are mostly Wes Erni, and in some ways this is his masterpiece of mathematical balance and interlocking gears. We wanted a game that would really make you feel like the world was being shaken to its foundations, and the Rise of Islam was the ideal topic for such an experience. Dan’s review covers the scope and the feel of the game very well.

    • I’ll be picking The First Jihad up soon courtesy of this review. Just wanted to say well done, I’m a big fan of your work (and Erni’s work, of course!), and I can’t wait to spread this thing out on my table.

    • Thanks, Ben! It does make sense the game with Islam as the protagonist might not be as interesting. I’ve just received The White Tribe (a purchase I blame absolutely& entirely on Dan’s review, by the way). But I was intrigued by The First Jihad, & perhaps at some point I’ll give it a go!

  4. Great review. I’ve played several SoS titles and this one sounds intriguing. Even though it is an inverted pyramid, all SoS games are attempting to hold back the tide of an incoming assault. This seems no different. Don’t think it would have worked playing the Muslim horde. It’s also a theme that hasn’t been visited often in a war game. I think it’d make a great CDG, despite the slightly controversial connotations between the first and modern Jihad.

    I haven’t played a White Dog Games title yet. Both this and The White Tribe (enjoyed reading both reviews) are very appealing though. Must see if Vassal modules are available with PnP orders. I much prefer playing solo games via Vassal.

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