Best Week 2021! Reject Orthodoxy!
Orthodoxy. What is it, anyway? It will surprise approximately zero of my readers that I was raised in an intensely orthodox environment. But one person’s orthodoxy is another person’s heresy, and nothing challenges norms and traditions quite like going through a global crisis. Oh, there’s a way we’ve always done things? Institutions don’t like change? Have a plague.
For one reason or another, this year featured a number of very good games about challenging, rejecting, or otherwise giving orthodoxy a good poke in the ribs. Today we celebrate our hobby’s troublemakers, reformers, and heretics.
#6. Martyr: Bloody Theater 1528
Design by John Ratigan. Published by Anchors & Acrobats.
Of all the games featured in this year’s Best Week, Martyr is the most homebrew. Far from making it feel chintzy, its laser-cut pieces, smoky scent, and convoluted scoring give it the air of a devotional. Adopting the role of an Anabaptist being burned at the stake for heresy, and using your last breaths as a resource for delivering sermons and singing hymns to sway a crowd of onlookers, Martyr could easily come across as crass or disparaging. Instead, it formalizes a story of religious noncompliance, attempting to convey with cardboard what artists have done via other mediums for centuries. What is the divine? Here it’s a transparent Holy Spirit marker touching hearts as it passes among the crowd.
That’s the anthropological take. As a plaything, Martyr is undeniably most notable for its setting, but it still understands how to demand its players’ attention through shared incentives and careful planning.
#5. Pax Viking
Design by Jon Manker. Published by Ion Game Design.
Like every entry in the expansive and often controversial Pax Series, Pax Viking is about many things. Exploration, trade, parlaying with distant caliphs and princes, and sizing up the status quo as it saunters forward, offers its hand, and then goes cross-eyed when you plink your axe through its skull. You know who doesn’t mind a shake-up? Vikings.
Of course, there’s also an element of domestication. As your bands settle into a groove, claiming trade centers and allies and favorite corners of Europe, even they’re liable to get too cozy. It takes some deft footwork to keep the blood pumping. The game rewards flexibility, and nowhere is that more apparent than when it comes to religion. Hooking up with Christianity is an important step in any Viking’s path to legitimacy, as essential as ethnic ties or a strong jarldom. But one gets the sense that this particular conversion is more contingent than those bishops counted on. Before long, the Cross becomes one more means of spreading your influence to the far corners of the known world. Convert or die.
#4. All Bridges Burning
Design by VPJ Arponen. Published by GMT Games.
The COIN Series has always taken an interest in ideology as a function of internal politics. At its most relevant, it asks what happens when neighbors and siblings develop different ideas about the direction their country should take. The tenth volume, All Bridges Burning, presents that question in its starkest and most intimate form. Finland stands on the brink of civil war. But there’s a third side hoping to mediate some compromise between the Senate and the Reds. What’s the value of a Moderate when the world is falling apart?
Nowhere is the Moderate’s task more apparent than in the presence of the nations assisting both sides of the conflict. To the Germans and the Soviets, the Finnish Civil War is a proxy fight, worthy of some attention but not much direct intervention — and the more they invest, the more they expect in return. Victory isn’t only a question of beating the other side. It’s also a matter of escaping the looming influence of superpowers that intend to remake Finland in their image.
Design by Paul Abrahams, Luke Badger, & Andy Richdale. Published by Badgers from Mars.
Regicide never spells out its backstory. It doesn’t need to. Everybody understands that the assassins in your hand are righteous and good, the royalty are corrupt and oppressive, and the act of playing the former to remove the latter is no more morally complicated than helping somebody to their feet after they slip on ice. That understanding is remarkable. As a game, Regicide is devoid of any specific ideology. What exactly are you fighting against? What are their strictures? Their modes of oppression? There’s no telling, perhaps because oppression is always so mundane, so similar, so tedious. Its only ideology is one we understand as deep as bone. Sometimes the world must be remade. At the edge of a knife if necessary.
Also, it’s hard as balls. For a game that can be played with a standard deck of cards, its addictiveness is as remarkable as those rare wins.
Design by Alf Seegert. Published by Eagle-Gryphon Games.
Wow, that got heavy. “At the edge of a knife if necessary”? I anticipate a call from the fingermen at any minute. So let’s lighten the atmosphere by talking about a game that revels in benign wickedness. A sip of altar wine, sidestepping a superior, skipping out on a chore. Oh, and penning dragons and sword-wielding rabbits in the margins of the manuscript you’re illuminating. Why not? Transcribing that Bible in dim lighting is messing with your back and your eyesight. Life is toil. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a little bit of fun now and then.
Alf Seegert has a tendency to design games about the joys of harmless misbehavior. Illumination is his most sterling example. Rather than emphasizing the apprehensions of heterodoxy, this stroll between the lines is downright soothing. Because letters are too confining. Call it the spirit of the law.
Design by Amabel Holland. Published by Hollandspiele.
Tradition is the tyranny of the dead. With her latest deconstruction of negotiation and historical assumptions, Amabel Holland takes a hard look at everything that came out of that first Ecumenical Council in 325 CE and finds it wanting — but not without a sly wink to let you know that none of this should be taken too seriously. This is a game that refuses to accede any ground to orthodoxy. No canon goes unprodded. No theological argument is given its due. No political expediency is written out. No Arius is portrayed not shitting himself to death on the privy.
That’s the best part of Nicaea. In addition to featuring sharp negotiations and the possibility of somebody sundering Christianity for their own gain, its depiction of the formation of orthodoxy is so deliciously scandalous because it acknowledges the earthy considerations that don’t find their way into the hagiographies, politics and poop and all. It’s never felt this good to laugh at your own beliefs.