His Glory Shall Be Dung and Worms
This one is going to take some explaining.
Our story begins with Alexander the Great. If he were the archetype of a Civilization player, he was the guy who scouts and attacks in only one direction, conquering much of three continents while leaving his capital city way back in the rear. Upon his death, it was unfathomable that anyone could administrate a kingdom that stretched from Macedon to India, so his generals spent the next forty years warring over the pieces. Alexander’s empire was fragmented, but his successors spread Greek culture and language and warfare across the known world. The Hellenistic Period was now in full swing.
Jump forward a century. One of Alexander’s many acquisitions had been Judea, claimed during his war against its former overseer the Achaemenid Empire. The encroachment of Hellenistic culture chafed at the Judeans, but they managed to endure the oversight of one Greek successor state (the Ptolemaic Kingdom) until a second state (the Seleucid Empire) claimed their suzerainty during an invasion of the former. The Judeans were now under the rule of Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who took a somewhat more liberal view of his rights within their territory, including the capacity to dictate local religious practices. When ordered to sacrifice to the Greek gods, a priest named Mattathias expressed his disagreement rather sharply by stabbing the king’s representative. This act of disobedience sparked a general rebellion under Mattathias’s son Judas Maccabeus, a years-long conflict that concluded with Judean victory and the founding of the Hasmonean Dynasty.
That revolt against the Seleucids is where the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah comes from. Less importantly but more relevantly, it’s also the topic of Robin David’s Judean Hammer.
As far as wargames go, Judean Hammer’s rules are comfortably familiar. The forces of both the Maccabees and the Seleucids are represented by cubes. These will march and fight to claim ground and inflict casualties. Every so often the status of the war will be tallied as victory points, with each of six regions awarding a point for whichever side holds the majority of its cities. This being Judea, Jerusalem is the bull’s eye of the entire conflict. It’s a region of one — and therefore a victory point that requires only the seizure of a single space — as well as a crossroads of supply routes and the jewel that will almost certainly need to be captured for either side to manage victory.
But if the overall structure seems overly straight-faced, not to worry: a pair of details set Judean Hammer apart from the crowd.
The first is the asymmetry between the game’s factions. Of course, asymmetry has become such a buzzword that it’s almost meaningless. Moreover, plenty of wargames manage asymmetry by dint of even minor details such as starting positions on the map. At first glance, the same could be said here. Cubes are cubes, each counting for a single strength and consuming one casualty when removed. They move similarly, depend on a draw from the deck for their battle outcomes, and must occupy cities to control regions.
That’s where the similarities end. Because Maccabean units are at home in the Judean countryside, they can move three spaces at a time rather than the two that limit the Seleucids. Furthermore, the Maccabees can lay ambushes to hamper Seleucid movements, potentially halting those already-limited moves and possibly inflicting the odd casualty here and there. Oh, and since they’re locals, they don’t need to import supplies. This last detail soon shapes their entire approach. They begin the game outnumbered almost two to one, on the back foot, localized in Mattathias’s home province around Modin. But because the Seleucids are so reliant on supply lines, a few careful incisions can soon leave them encircled and bleeding manpower.
The result is a tantalizing scenario. The Seleucids are simultaneously occupiers and defenders, difficult to dislodge but gluttonous to keep their routes open. The Maccabees are centralized but nimble and quick to spread — encircled, but eager to become the encirclers. And neither side has much room to work.
The system that drives the game is familiar. If you’ve played a card-driven wargame sometime in the past decade, it’s almost certain you’ve encountered it. Every round deals four cards to each player. These can be played for their event or used as action points for recruiting and movement. When you play a card that features an opposing event, your enemy will have the chance to use that event after your turn.
Like I said, familiar.
What’s so different about Judean Hammer is that you don’t often want to play your events. This isn’t because they’re bad. To the contrary, events are profound temptations. Maccabean troops appear for free in the wilderness to sever supply routes! Greek reinforcements relieve your besieged army! Heroic battles are waged with significant +2 modifiers! Here, though, succumbing to these temptations too often will soon deplete your ability to perform in battle. Cards not only represent historical events and action potential, but also the modifiers to every battle and every ambush. Combat isn’t resolved by rolling a die. It’s resolved by drawing a card, checking to see who’s favored, and adding its modifier to the proper side. When cards are used for their action points, they’re placed in the discard pile, soon to be shuffled back into the deck. When used as an event, they’re removed from the game — along with those precious modifiers.
In other words, every action is barbed. As the conflict drags on and more opportunities are seized, your deck withers along with your morale. This is a masterstroke of gamification and compression. With barely any overhead, the revolt’s larger considerations are codified into every action. It’s the age-old decision between pushing for imminent victory but risking fatigue if that victory doesn’t materialize. Appropriately, the scales can’t tip too far in either direction. Use too many events now and your forces will quail later. Use too few, and the conflict could swing too far into the opposing camp’s favor. After all, there’s no point to all those bonus modifiers if you don’t have soldiers who can make use of them.
What interests me most about these twin details, the game’s asymmetry and its gradual deck-withering, is how they inform Judean Hammer as both a plaything and an act of gamifying history.
In the first case, it’s easy to come away with the impression that the whole thing is too light, too airy, too prone to rewarding a few established moves over surprising or clever plays. It’s easy to see how Judean Hammer could have been… not better, but heavier. More complicated supply lines, better for picking apart the Seleucids one segment at a time. Something like the COIN System for modeling irregular guerrilla actions. Crud, even modern area control, with units occupying overlapping spaces, would have permitted more granularity.
Except the straightforwardness is the point. It takes all of ten minutes before the rules wriggle out of the way and let you get on with the act of playing. That play, meanwhile, is so fast and impactful that it’s hard to imagine swapping it out for something more laden with particulars and exceptions.
This isn’t to say I’m without qualms. Jewish tradition portrays the success of the Maccabean Revolt as the result of divine intervention. I’m almost convinced that the game’s Judeans require similar condescension. I’ve seen them win, but their approach is necessarily more delicate, requiring careful positioning and ambush-setting. No action or event can go wasted. This is a stark contrast with the Seleucids, who can seemingly bungle twenty percent of their moves and still awaken to find themselves in possession of their least favorite suzerain. There’s a broader discussion about balance that’s been had countless times before, which Judean Hammer has stepped into either wittingly or unwittingly. In this case, the concession almost seems to be toward, well, scripture. The Judeans are given the harder opening position because particular sources argue that their task was, in fact, impossible without the intervention of Hashem.
Speaking of which, the game’s historical lens is also informed by these details. Of course, I’m delighted to see Jewish history receiving any treatment at all, and doubly so for a game that casts Jews as protagonists rather than footnotes. More of this, please! At the same time, certain details make my eyebrows quirk with curiosity. For example, the rulebook opens with a passage from First Maccabees. The scene is a deathbed speech by Mattathias to his sons, a genre that’s common throughout Judeo-Christian scripture: a list of faithful prophets, a call to action, faithfulness contrasted with the temporary allure of sin. Oft-repeated stuff, but no less rousing for it. The rulebook’s title page cites the source as “the apocryphal 1 Maccabees.” For those unfamiliar with the topic, that word, “apocryphal,” is doing some heavy lifting. It bears the weight of assumption the same way words like “orthodox” and “faithful” do. It’s bound up in the millennia-long conversation (even conflict) over which books are considered “real” and which aren’t. Both of the books called Maccabees are indeed what we might call apocrypha: Protestant Christian denominations don’t regard them as canon and Jewish sects don’t include them in the Tanakh. But Catholics consider them canon. So do Orthodox Christians. Historians employ them as biased but useful sources.
It’s a small thing. A single word. But it’s enough to make me wonder about the game’s focal points. How it presents the Maccabean Revolt as a struggle between idolatrous Greeks and righteous Judeans, rather than as a Greek intervention into a civil war between idolatrous/reformist Judeans and traditionalist/conservative Judeans. Or how it seemingly bypasses the wider implications of the conflict. The Greek successor states were weakened by Antiochus IV’s humiliation at the hands of a suzerain, and Judas Maccabeaus struck the Roman-Jewish Treaty with the ascendant Roman Republic. Are these omissions or exclusions? Were such details beyond the game’s scope or overlooked? To be absolutely clear, none of this is to Judean Hammer’s discredit; I’m grateful to play anything that sparks conversation, even one held only within the confines of my own brain. Here, I was thrilled to stumble upon a discussion over how we approach a document like First Maccabees as both face-value accurate and apocryphal. To sum it up more neatly, is Judean Hammer presented as both true and not quite true? That tension is present whenever we discuss something that finds its way into some books of scripture but not others.
If you couldn’t tell, I’ve loved my time with Judean Hammer. Playing it, getting frustrated with it, reconciling with it, and thinking about the assumptions it makes about the Maccabean Revolt and even the sources we rely upon to give us some sense of how the world operated well over two millennia ago. All the better that it operates so fluidly as an expression of a conflict that, as far as I know, hasn’t received any attention before. May historical games always prove so expansive.
A prototype copy was provided.