The Dignity and Indignities of Comanchería
Across the span of 1700 to 1875, the Comanche carved an empire into the American southwest roughly the size of modern-day Texas. Their instruments were both legendary and notorious: open-handed trade, remorseless warfare, unparalleled horsemanship. “Comanche” means “the people.” To outsiders, it came to signify “the lords of the plains.”
Comanchería, as their empire was called, would not survive. Between outbreaks of smallpox and cholera, the extermination of the great herds of buffalo, and continued incursions, the Comanche gave ground, then dwindled, then accepted the treaty that consigned them to a reservation. Far from the cataclysmic fall of a great empire, it was a succession of small cuts, gnawing infections, and inflicted indignities.
Joel Toppen’s Comanchería: The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire captures every excruciating detail. It is one of the finest historical games I have ever played. It also represents one of the hardest gaming experiences of my adult life.
The Comanche lodged in tipis. Made of wooden poles and softened buffalo hides, tipis were perfectly suited to the nomadic lifestyle. Heated by a fire, they were warm in the winter. In summertime, they could be partially rolled up to admit the breeze. Most importantly, a band could pack their tipis within a quarter hour. Sometimes, such speed was necessitated by the hunt. Other times, it enabled a band to melt into the landscape before their pursuers could catch them.
The lodging for Toppen’s Comanchería is a four-era structure that can be played in single installments, as part of a larger scenario, or strung together to create a many-hours-long campaign that covers the entire rise and decline of the Comanche people. The first two eras chart the migration and expansion of the Comanche into the region that will become their empire. Although these years couldn’t be described as easy, they’re filled with ample opportunities and unsuspecting foes, largely in the form of a distant and failing Spanish Empire. As Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the United States enter the scene, the game’s final eras are marked by incursions both deliberate and incidental. When the campaign concludes, the success of the Comanche is a question of independence — whether the people who colonized the plains have escaped full colonization themselves, remaining free to inhabit their lands without being wholly relocated to the reservation.
The reservation. That’s the setting of my own lodging, however temporary. Between 2005 and 2006, I lived among the Crow Nation of Montana, where I worked as a Mormon missionary. My feelings about that time are complicated. Some of those memories are deeply important to me, formative as they were to how my naïve nineteen-year-old self framed the world. Others are dangerous to touch. That’s why I’ve owned Toppen’s Comanchería since its release in 2016 but couldn’t bring myself to crack the box until a couple of months ago. From the game’s first moments, the flood of memories was nearly overwhelming. More than once, I found myself sitting at the table, exploring the past the way a tongue might probe a canker sore. Sometimes delicately. Sometimes pressing into the wound to bring the pain to the surface.
Whenever I’ve mentioned Comanchería on social media, the big question is whether it treats its subject matter sensitively. We’re speaking, after all, about a culture that’s been the recipient of multiple forms of colonization. Not only literal removal, but also a removal of perspective. The tendency to sand away history’s rough edges isn’t limited to the American Indians, but it’s hard to ignore popular media’s propensity for reducing native cultures to either wholly savage or wholly hippie, either villain or deuteragonist, and, above all, interchangeable.
When it comes to the Comanche, Toppen is tackling a subject that refuses to be pinned down. Much of the Comanche’s success was found in their willingness to trade horses to their neighbors, which they did with all comers. At the same time, this policy of openness was often overshadowed by their reputation in war. The phrase “Comanche moon” referred to the stretches of full moon when the Comanche would ride into Mexico to raid for firearms, horses, cattle, and captives. Slavery was a hallmark of Comanche expansion. Captives were sold to the Spanish or used for labor; in other cases they were adopted, integrating into the Comanche ranks and providing much-needed manpower.
Toppen’s approach is best described as frank. Although abstracted at points, he presents the entire story, refusing to reduce the Comanche to stock villains or victims. Instead, they emerge as a complicated and dynamic people, both generous and vicious. Above all, it’s a story about a people who insist on retaining their dignity even if it means declaring war on the entire world. Unsurprisingly, even the slightest accommodation to the game’s enemies becomes a tragedy.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The standout detail is Comanchería’s rhythm of play, which is deeply entrenched in both the behavior of the Comanche and their many rivals. At the risk of framing the story around the game’s antagonists, they provide a natural starting point that illustrates how Comanchería functions both as a game and as history. Think of this as the farthest point in our orbit of the Comanche, a panoramic view that will grow closer with each passage.
Whether we’re talking about Spain, Mexico, Texas, the United States, or the disparate tribes who serve as early fodder for the Comanche, the game’s many opponents function according to a rubric that initially seems opaque but adheres to a strict logic that soon becomes second nature. Each rival aligns with a point on the compass. Early on, Spain sits to the west and south, with other Indians situated to the north. As time passes, these rivals are subjected to politics far beyond your ability to influence. Mexico will break away from Spain, then Texas from Mexico. The United States slouches into view, slowly at first and then suddenly. Indian politics are preeminent, then a vague memory.
Each rival is controlled by a column of instruction chits. Peace sees that rival striking a temporary truce. War places a column on the map, which beelines from enemy territory to the nearest rancheria, the principal concentration of Comanche population. Those are the big ones, but they’re underscored by smaller instructions: small settlements on the perimeter of your territory, the subjugation of tribes you’re fighting anyway, buffalo herds wiped from existence, the gradual erosion of Comanche culture.
In all cases, these instructions are governed by two principles. First, you can see what’s coming, but only imperfectly, like the first wisps of a storm on the horizon. For example, it’s possible to know that the Republic of Texas intends to declare war sometime in the near future, after a period of buffalo hunting. But when Texas activates — itself an uncertainty determined by the roll of a die — one of its instruction chits is flipped at random. Perhaps its upcoming hunt will transform into a preemptive bid for peace, nipping its warmongering aspirations in the bud. But it’s also entirely possible that one of its flipped chits will result in a column of soldiers marching through your lands far earlier than you anticipated.
With the right investments, it’s possible to manipulate these outcomes — although, again, only imperfectly, flipping a chit here and there. Hardly enough to offset a determined foe. The surer method is violence, which brings us to the second principle: that your enemies are heavily reactive to your actions. Prospective paraibos (chiefs) will soon discover that the easiest way to stem the many incursions into your territory is by raiding settlements. Whenever a raid is successful, a “ravaged” marker is inflicted on its target. The next time that settlement’s owner would activate a chit in their instruction column, they pay its original action cost, but then attempt a Recover action in place of their original instruction. They’re busy dealing with the fallout of your raid: putting out fires, searching for survivors, mounting minor expeditions, that sort of thing.
This might sound like a good thing for the Comanche. Preemptive attacks paralyze your rivals! Why would you ever do anything else?
About that. First, your raids must be successful. Every time you attempt one, you draw from a cup filled with chits that either indicate success or grant additional action points to whichever enemy randomly activates at the end of the turn. In effect, failure to deal a staggering blow only invigorates your rivals. Further, when you draw successes, they’re assigned to your mahimianas (raiding leaders) or temporarily moved out of play. Your odds of success decrease with each victory as your opponents get wise to your tactics. The more bruises you inflict, the better your victims get at blocking.
This reactivity is at the core of Comanchería. The result is a seasonal rhythm, not unlike the full moons that struck fear along the Mexican border. When on the warpath, your actions must be swift and decisive, inflicting as much damage and making off with as many captives as possible. The rest of the time, softer footsteps are in order. Hunting buffalo, trading with nearby towns, ensuring your culture doesn’t dwindle to nothing. Each possible action is important, but the greatest moments of transformation come when Planning or allowing the Passage of Time. Both of these actions represent a shift in direction. In the case of Planning, the headmen who run your rancherias may gain experience from the success chits they’ve earned, but your bands will decrease in size. During the Passage of Time, new generations arise to take the place of the old and culture can be spent on new techniques and tactics to stay one step ahead of your enemies, but unspent successes are forgotten and older headmen may die to make space for younger but more inexperienced leaders.
Don’t mistake this for an easy rhythm. Even the quietest season can be interrupted when far-off enemies decide to enter your lands with blood on their thoughts. Such moments intrude into the player-driven rhythms of play, like a rifle shot startling birds to flight. Warfare is a testy proposition. Enemy war columns sometimes march and sometimes remain in place. They suffer attrition or don’t. A flipped card presents a temporary advantage — stealing poorly protected mounts, trading captives for peace — or even sees the war column double-timing their pace to ambush one of your camps. Opportunities are fleeting. In the best of times, you’ll evade and harry and ultimately triumph. Other times, a weakness will expose itself at the exact moment you can’t take advantage of it.
The effect is disquieting. Like the Comanche, you know the broad strokes. You understand what your opponents might do. You know that by launching a raid or leaving nearby settlements alone, you might minimize how far they intrude into your empire. You know the rules.
But the application of those rules can be unevenly applied. Not only in the sense that a raid fails or a roll doesn’t go your way. Rather, in the sense that peacetime can give way to brutal warfare without apparent warning, or careful diplomatic overtures can go ignored, or quiet coexistence can prove impossible. Sure, you know the rules. But your neighbors only follow them at their convenience.
I lived in Hardin, the port town to the Crow Nation. Our most rewarding work revolved around service: splitting firewood, moving homes, visiting the sick, helping with community events. We were directed to baptize, but since most folks were entrenched in their congregations, we mostly waited for people to approach us rather than proselytizing. At one point, a family of occasional members asked us to teach and baptize their nine-year-old son. The only local congregation was located in Hardin and staffed by whites, with a bishop who didn’t think much of the Crow. We were required to cooperate with this bishop, as there was nobody else who could host the baptism. There were always rumors about the congregation in Dunmore, one of a small string of towns administered by the Crow, which had been shuttered years before. According to this bishop, the closure was due to the unsuitability of the Crow to leadership. When we left his office, I overheard him or one of his counselors mutter about how we were bringing more “prairie-nigger welfare cases” into the fold. The others laughed.
That was the first time I’d heard an authority figure in the church speak the language of overt racism.
Saturday arrived, the scheduled morning of the baptism. It was biting cold even though it hadn’t snowed in weeks. The boy and his family arrived at the church only to discover that nobody from the Hardin congregation was there. The building was locked. No problem, we figured; we had the keys. Inside, the baptismal font was empty. While we hurried to fill it, two white members arrived. They sang a few children’s hymns and gave the boy a gift to commemorate the occasion. Right before we ushered everybody into the baptistry, we made one final discovery: the accordion door that separated the font from the rest of the room was locked tight. We didn’t have a key for that. I produced my cricket knife and what Mormons call a “quad,” a combination Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants. Chiseling away at the lock, I figured I looked either like Martin Luther at the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg or a total doofus. In my hubris, I secretly hoped the former.
The lock broke. The boy was baptized. We thought we’d done right. His family was all grins. Hugs all around, even though we were still soaking from the water.
A month later, we drove out from Hardin to where the family lived on the prairie. They’d lapsed again. The bishop took this as proof he’d been right all along. The father of the boy I’d baptized walked with me around the back of his double-wide mobile home, where his kids were jumping on a trampoline and pestering the half-wild rez dogs that were always hanging around the edges of anywhere people lived.
“Do you think I’m good for nothing?” he asked.
I sputtered. Of course not! Where had he heard that?
“At church. They think I’m good for nothing.” He paused a long time, looking at his boy doing tricks on the trampoline. The air was cold. It was always cold when I lived on the rez. He bit that air in anger with each word. His teeth were the color of the inside of a soda can. “I have a job. I went to school. More school than some of them.” There was no doubting who them were. The whites of the church in Hardin. My people. Me.
We shook hands. He slapped me on the back. I said goodbye to his boy and he gave me a hug. When we came back a few weeks later, the mobile was empty. There were no dogs hanging around. The family had moved along. I sat on the frame of the trampoline and felt that there was nothing in the whole wheeling universe. After a few minutes, my companion claimed I was being lazy, and we climbed back into the truck and drove to Hardin, where that night we joined a potluck at the church and listened to hymns about the love of Jesus. I pretended to have a sore throat so I wouldn’t have to sing along.
There is a sullenness to the realization that you have become the latest indignity in a string of them. I understand why we recoil from such statements. Nobody wants to hear that something they were told was good and right was truly something else. Nobody wants to be the person who throws out the rulebook as soon as something doesn’t roll their way. Yet that’s often the case. The same rules that strictly enforce one group can suddenly become guidelines when applied to another.
Who are the Comanche? Playing Comanchería, one is only presented with the broad strokes. The subtler lines are necessarily compressed. What their culture looked like. How their family units were organized. Who married whom, how childbirth was handled, how death. These are not malicious omissions. They’re the details that go missing from every game about big ideas and the sweep of history. In their place, the Comanche are marked by many descriptions. Hunters, raiders, horse-breeders, lords of the plains. Uniting them all, they are defiance personified.
Comanchería doesn’t offer a battle between good and evil. It does something far more difficult. It exhibits the task of empire-building from both directions. First, from the perspective of the conqueror as the Comanche displace their weaker neighbors, shore up their borders, and establish networks of trade, family, and defense. Second, from the perspective of the conquered. In place of a final stand, the Comanche are brought low by a hundred indignities. Diseases that wipe out entire bands. Dwindling buffalo that leave you without peaceful avenues of trade and growth. Passing wagon trains that deplete the land and keep coming no matter how many you run off. Neighboring empires who sign peace treaties only to break them. Who, at the last, consign you to the reservation, your headmen no longer able to raid or hunt, your bands trapped in place. This last indignity is the worst of them all, because it doesn’t come from the strength of arms. At least those defeats might have been hard-fought. Instead, this is the triumph of bureaucracy. Where guns and horsemanship and the long struggle have taken their toll, the pen delivers the final stroke.
It would be easy to double the length of this review. Instead, it seems appropriate to conclude here. Toppen’s Comanchería isn’t the most playable game about colonization, but it does seem to be the most honest. The Comanche made an empire through violence, slavery, and trade. In the end, their empire suffered many of the same indignities they had inflicted on others, and more besides. Comanchería refuses to engage in simple characterization. This is the story of a people, dignity and indignities intact, and it refuses to ease the telling for the sake of the listener’s comfort. None of the hours I’ve spent in its company have been easy. And I’m grateful to it for that.
A complimentary copy was provided.