“Republic, Socialism, Humanism”
The story of the Spanish Maquis is a long one, laden with setbacks, betrayals, and defeats. First formed as a guerrilla force in the waning years of the Spanish Second Republic’s fight against the junta that propelled Francisco Franco to power, the resistance was soon displaced to France. There they spent time in Vichy concentration camps, fought alongside the French Resistance, and eventually returned to their homeland only to be abandoned yet again when the Allies declined to finish the job of rooting out fascism. The Maquis continued to wage a losing war for years to come, buoyed only, as cartoonist and onetime soldier Josep Bartolí i Guiu put it, the possibility of “Republic, socialism, humanism.”
Resist!, co-designed by David Thompson, Trevor Benjamin, and Roger Tankersley, is a solitaire game about the brave men and women who strove to retake Spain. I’m tempted to declare it the best portrayal of a resistance movement ever put to cardboard. Here’s why.
If you’ve been paying attention to some of the discussions here and elsewhere about how war is portrayed in board games, you’ll recall that some of the big questions are real whoppers. These include: “How can we represent victory conditions when real life doesn’t have them?” and “How do we depict atrocity?” and “How do we make these conflicts more personal?”
Ask a wargame designer to solve these problems and you’ll get insightful answers. Better maps, maybe, that account for rough versus smooth terrain, urban versus open fighting conditions. Perhaps a form of influence in addition to raw control, all the better for expressing the ideological undertow that carries along the tanks and rifle companies. Multiple stages for removing resistance fighters; they can’t be eliminated before they’re spotted. A broader geopolitical context. Logistics. Fog of war. Chits and tracks for every errant detail.
These are perfectly good answers. But they’re the sort of answers that appeal to people who think in maps. You know, the sort of people who might feel comfortable working at Belfer or RAND, spending their days thinking about nuclear deterrence and how to sidestep the consequences of mistreating Latin America for a whole-ass century. Most of us don’t think in maps. Even those of us who were trained to read maps generally don’t staple ourselves to mental geography. We think in relationships. Near and far. Spheres of proximity. Degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. Which grocery store stocks the peanut butter we like.
Which is why Resist! needed to be designed by a team with one foot in the realm of wargames and the other back here on Earth where we occasionally think about topics other than geopolitics. It doesn’t contain a single map. Nor does it feature any tracks. It barely even has numbers.
Instead, it’s a game about relationships.
At its most surface level, Resist! is about managing a group of resistance fighters as they undertake missions to undermine the Francoist dictatorship. Beginning with a stack of Maquis cards, you draw a hand and choose one of four missions to tackle. Each card shows its own character, lovingly illustrated by Albert Monteys. There’s Abel, the priest who cannot in good conscience support this regime despite its national Catholicism. Benigno, unassuming camarero, willing to poison the drinks of fascist officers. Soledad, the socialite with fine taste in jewels and a soft touch when picking locks. Jacinto, schoolteacher, good with books and maps. Marcelino and Domingo, whose advanced age should see them enjoying the sun and their grandchildren, not stalking through the forest. Celia, child, invisible to patrols on her bicycle. A child. My God, a child.
I want you to notice something. With the last paragraph, I set out to describe Resist! at its most basic. Even then, I couldn’t help but segue back into describing the people. Every turn asks you to stare into their faces. To consider their occupations. To consider their lives. Often, to reveal them to the authorities.
Every turn unfolds bit by bit. You draw your hand. Now you begin planning. Abilities come in two flavors. “Plan” abilities come before the actual attack. This is the legwork that goes into a successful mission. You’ll reveal which soldiers are guarding which objectives. Sort your Maquis pile. Draw new cards. Maybe remove an enemy via distraction or righteous murder. When you choose which mission to tackle, you switch to “Attack” abilities. These are more immediate. Higher combat strength. Last-minute cards. Sniping the engineer you just revealed. Your total strength is tallied, then used to remove enemies and destroy the objective. Most of the time, there will be stragglers. Repercussions.
Perhaps the hardest repercussion to swallow is that some of your Maquis will be revealed. Secrecy is the patron saint of the resistance fighter, and having a card’s cover blown means removing it from your deck. Yet revealing your fighters is a constant necessity. Every card is divided into two faces. The weaker side allows its Maquis to remain hidden, surviving the mission and maintaining cover to fight another day. The other side is tougher. Higher attack values, better abilities. But they’re revealed in the process. This is one of the central paradoxes of guerrilla warfare. You fight for the people. But to fight, you must sacrifice them. On more than one occasion, I’ve found myself staring at a mission that became unexpectedly complicated. Revealing a Maquis would make all the difference. We could accomplish our objective, safeguard civilians from reprisals, maybe liberate another partner in resistance. But who to give up? That their sacrifice will permanently weaken our gang is secondary to the loss of a reliable friend. Losing a card means severing a relationship. Will it be strong Ricardo, the carpenter and demolitions expert? Scheming Adela? Passionate Consuelo? Our inside man Adolfo? Not the child. Please, not the child.
The beauty of this system lies in how it folds little truths into its play, secreting harsh realities into an experience that otherwise seems harmless. It reminds me of Peer Sylvester’s The Lost Expedition, although the comparison is a limited one. Games about jungle exploration are also usually relegated to maps. Why not, when explorers are also necessarily cartographers? Instead, Sylvester focused his camera on the sights and tolls witnessed and paid by the explorers themselves. The Lost Expedition was not about a map. It was about slow starvation and infected cuts and running out of bullets. Where most games have us consider their topic from the perspective of its conclusion — the finished map, the scoring criteria set in stone, the potential boundaries clearly drawn — these games instead opt to confront the uncertainty of the lived experiences they hope to evoke.
Secrecy, sacrifice, and the gradual withering of the Maquis are the major details harrowed into Resist!, but they’re hardly the only ones. Resistance groups throughout history have been destroyed from within by government operatives, here represented by spy cards. In a more complicated game, spies would take some major effect. Here, they can prove devastating merely by appearing in your hand at the wrong time. More than once, I’ve been on the verge of completing a mission, only for my final draw to reveal one of those damnable traitors. The emotional response this achieves is nothing short of remarkable. Without adding any overhead to the rules, spy cards offer moments of betrayal, stretches of paranoia, even counter-espionage. When I’m holding a card that will rid me of a spy, they’re nowhere to be found. Eerie.
Similar touches are everywhere. The danger your activities pose to civilians in the form of counter-guerrillas who will merrily murder them for no reason at all. The abundance of women in your group. The difficulty, including a spike in severity soon after your presence is announced. Even the question of when the game will conclude. There are scenarios you can pursue, but those are optional. In its main mode, Resist! refuses to draw clear lines. After each mission, there’s a pause. In that moment of quiet, you’re asked whether to continue the fight or disband, likely into the obscurity of exile or settling for Francoist rule. There are victories to be had, but they’re long shots. This game is more honest in its appraisal, asking you to choose between one defeat and another. This is the reality the historical Maquis faced. By not letting players off easy, Resist! goes further in honoring the memory of its protagonists than a hundred maps.
That’s the important part. This isn’t a game that can be easily peeled into separate categories. There is no “setting” vs. “theme.” They are the same. Remove any one part and the entire thing collapses like ruined bricks. Over the past month, the world has watched in awe and horror as the Ukrainian people resist a savage attempt to destroy their selfhood. We remark on their grit, their resolve, their willingness to face untold horrors to manage their own destiny.
What we are really remarking on, though, is their ordinariness. They are farmers, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs, men and women, young and old. This is the truth of resistance. Every Maquis in Resist! is powerful, but the two with the highest combat numbers are telling. One is Nicolás. He is a laborer. He carries a pickaxe and a basket of stones. The other is Roberto. He is slight and bookish, with eyeglasses and a tidy vest. When the moment calls, they are both transformed into avatars of Ares. They are courageous and fearsome. They are the terror that robs fascists of their rest, because that strength may be concealed in anybody who refuses to submit to a bully.
Resist! taps into that transformation a dozen times in one sitting. It celebrates ordinary people, terrible sacrifices, even the losing fight. And it does so with a human touch that’s so often overlooked and so desperately necessary when we talk about war.
A prototype copy was provided.