Le Temps des Cerises
Mark Herman’s Fort Sumter was a lean, rangy filament of a game. After initially falling for its charms, I soon found its leanness and ranginess a little too emaciated, with not nearly enough muscle and fat beneath the skin. One of the reasons I play historical games, after all, is to see how the history is modeled, not to merely see it sketched out as the titles of locations and cards.
Enter Red Flag Over Paris. Designed by Frédéric Serval, it uses the system and leanness of Fort Sumter while still piling on, well, everything else. Its topic is the Paris Commune, the brief but fierce revolutionary outpouring that would prove so influential on Karl Marx — and become a stain on the early days of the French Third Republic.
From its earliest stages, Red Flag Over Paris proves that it’s no mere copycat of Fort Sumter. In fact, it’s so far removed that the familial resemblance is limited to the cheekbones. Both partition their map into “crisis dimensions,” spheres of conflict that frame the ongoing struggle by providing periodic bonus actions and victory points. Here, however, those dimensions are further divided into military and political halves. Each operates according to its own character: where influence in the political realm is fickle, cubes entrenched on the military side of the board must be pried out, by the tip of a bayonet if necessary. The relationship between the two games only grows more distant from there.
And really, it does Red Flag a disservice to be compared too closely to Fort Sumter, not unlike a younger sibling who spent her upbringing on the receiving end of unflattering comparisons to an older brother, only to grow into a distinguished and qualified medical doctor who volunteers with inner-city youths and doesn’t wholly appreciate when she returns home for the holidays only for everybody to ask if she’s heard what Brian the bartender is up to.
Is my metaphor hyperbolic? Not as much as you might think. Where Fort Sumter was kinetic and brisk, so too is Red Flag, often wrapping up within half an hour. But Serval’s opening salvo also produces a great billow of thunder and phosphorus. Take, for example, the way cards are deployed. In typical fashion, cards can either be spent to trigger their event or for operations points; the latter won’t be quite as efficacious, but can be used wherever you need to shore up some support. It’s the classic duet between power and control. However, when an opponent’s card is played, it doesn’t immediately trigger in their favor. Instead, your foe can purchase it off the top of the discard pile by throwing out another card of equal or greater value. Meanwhile, cards can also be used to increase their side’s momentum, either furthering the zeal of the revolution or by tying Versailles more closely to the Prussians. The point is, there are plenty of options for each card, making them both relevant across multiple contexts and eminently spendable. It plays out rapidly, but Red Flag Over Paris never feels like an exchange of tit for tat. It’s a constant escalation of tensions.
Before we discuss the implications of those escalating tensions, perhaps it behooves us to discuss how the Paris Commune and its opposition at Versailles are represented.
Historically, the Paris Commune arose in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The capture of Napoleon III spelled the swift collapse of the Second Empire and the National Assembly’s formation of the Third Republic. Unfortunately, the new government was hastily arranged. As Paris was besieged by Otto von Bismarck’s Prussian army, the republic was staffed with conservative monarchists who elected Adolphe Thiers as their president. Thiers hustled over to Versailles to sign an armistice with Bismarck, leaving the National Guard and working peoples of Paris feeling betrayed and abandoned. The detonating powder keg would be, of all things, literal powder kegs. Paris possessed 400 cannons paid for and maintained by public subscription. Thiers wanted the cannons for the national army. The disillusioned National Guard defenders of Paris wanted them as a symbol of their resistance and independence. While Thiers snubbed Paris by moving the national government to Versailles, shutting down local newspapers, and letting the victorious Prussian army occupy portions of the capital, the National Guard moved the cannons into working class neighborhoods and began fortifying. On the 18th of March, 1871, the army moved into Paris to reclaim the cannons. After they were repelled, the National Guard seized control in the name of the people and hoisted a red flag over the Hôtel de Ville.
To illustrate the respective positions of Versailles and the Commune, Serval adds something that had gone missing from Fort Sumter: geography. At the outset, the Commune controls the heart of Paris, while Versailles must hurry to first control the forts surrounding the city before moving into the center itself. Meanwhile, the political arena is no less fraught. The Commune has an early monopoly on France’s social movements, but Versailles’ coziness with the country’s monarchical past gives it easy inroads to the National Assembly and the Catholic Church.
It’s a suitable setup for a game that’s both about bloody street fighting and impassioned articles in the press, but Serval doesn’t stop there. I mentioned how both sides have their own forms of momentum. These quickly define their differing approaches to the looming conflict. Limited in scope and cut off from the rest of the country, the Paris Commune rightly struggles to place cubes on the map. Worse, when removed, they tend to wilt away permanently. That’s where revolutionary momentum comes in, letting the Commune bank removed cubes for later placement, but requiring periodic nudges lest the public’s enthusiasm grow dim. Meanwhile, the government in Versailles is recovering from a devastating war. Their solution is to appeal to the occupying Prussians for extra manpower. The result is a sublime standoff, an arms race in miniature. Both sides are walking a razor’s edge between social and military concerns, and the slightest slip in any arena can present an opening to their rival.
The last import from Fort Sumter is the final crisis, a lightning round that has the potential for last-minute swings and consolidations. During regular play, each round leaves both players with one leftover card apiece. These are saved up for the final crisis, when they can only be played for their events. This lets players dump unfavorable events or bank powerful options, both with the understanding that these will become the linchpins of the game’s climax.
The Paris Commune fell two short months after it began. The “Bloody Week” began when the national army entered Paris and only concluded after intense fighting on the barricades, sweeping fires, and mass executions. As with some of the stories our American school system carefully edits around, this became a blank segment of French history, so shameful that schools declined to teach it until more recent years.
In Red Flag Over Paris, the Bloody Week is encapsulated by the final crisis. Where regular play sees players carefully upping the stakes, those last few cards usually take the game in the other direction: pieces swiftly removed and replaced, territory and public opinion flopping back and forth, the most impactful events detonating in sequence. Because these cards can only be used as events, there’s no more room for deliberation. There’s even some granularity as to whether the ill-fated commune survives thanks to two contrasting victory points, political and military. These are one detail among many, but they provide necessary texture both for the game’s historicity, which seeks to depict the conflict as more than a contest of arms, and as an essential consideration whenever it’s time to spread your influence. It may seem more prudent to secure the forts ringing the city, but withering politically can spell your collapse as surely as cannon shot.
When I first heard that Red Flag Over Paris would be using the Fort Sumter system, my interest was muted. It shouldn’t have been. Serval has created something dense and evocative, penning history and tragedy into every corner. The result is a game that’s coiled tight with an impressive array of ideas and insights.
A complimentary copy was provided.