Talking About Games: Excavating Memory
There’s a phrase we use in English, one meant to strike upon its hearer the importance of a topic or the need to keep an atrocity close at heart for fear of its repetition. You’ve heard it before, cast in somber and memorializing tones: “Lest we forget.” The irony, of course, is that we’re a fastidiously forgetful species. We forget things all the time. As a defense mechanism, forgetfulness is unrivaled. In the rare occasion that we don’t forget, we do our damnedest to afflict ourselves with collective amnesia. Lest we recall.
John Clowdus’s history trilogy plays like variations on a theme. Its three titles, Neolithic, Bronze Age, and The Middle Ages, are mechanically similar. They’re all about excavating cards from a deck and then using those cards to build toward a brighter future.
They also express something deeper: cultural memory, in all its complexity and simplicity.
Here’s the quick rundown.
In each of Clowdus’s history games, you play as someone trying to elevate your culture. It’s the stepladder theory of history. Whether you’re the chief of a stone age tribe, the king of a mercantile power on the cusp of ironworking, or a petty lord desperate to escape the squalor of the 14th century, your goal is the same. Two points of divergence give each title its own texture.
First, there’s the method. Neolithic functions like a worker placement game. You deploy villagers to a row of offerings, each with its own method for picking up cards. Hunting, for example, lets you draw three cards and keep any duplicates, while Gathering lets you store two dissimilar resources. Bronze Age is more of a buffet: there are three piles of cards, any of which can be freely plundered. The Middle Ages emphasizes the leanness of its era. There’s only one pile to draw from, but there are many ways to plumb more deeply into its wellspring, including the occasional trade between neighbors.
Second, there are limitations. Neolithic sees your tribe competing against another clan for picked-over resources. Understandably, you’re apprehensive about making contact, so a rival laborer on one pile means you’re forced to visit another. The result is an arms race. Or, perhaps more accurately, a breeding and consuming race, in which tribes compete to out-eat, out-reproduce, and out-innovate one another. Bronze Age puts you on the verge of a massive collapse. There’s some competition between rivals, but the real threat is external, a looming event that you first weather and then dig yourself out from under. The Middle Ages is the most explicit in that every card contains one of three crises, each of which demands some mitigation lest you suffer its consequences. How you respond to a betrayal is entirely different from how you handle a plague, which in turn is nothing like the terror of facing too many peasant uprisings all at once.
Put those together and you get three compact tuckboxes that can crowd into the pocket of a man’s trousers — that’s a ding on whoever’s designing these useless women’s pockets, not on any actual women — and are among some of my favorite small card games. That these are among Clowdus’s most approachable designs is a bonus.
I love this stuff. Not only because they’re enjoyable games in their own right. And not only because they show how much can be folded into a single deck of cards thanks to some clever and attentive design. But also because they constitute a masterclass in how we enfold history into the things we make. Sometimes the outcome is deliberate. Each of these games says something straight out of John Clowdus’s understanding of these three topics. In designing these games, he’s acting both as a designer and a historian. Other times, it exposes as much about ourselves as it does about the game. Sometimes even more. Because these are more than just games. They’re acts of recollection. Histories in miniature. Which, in turn, allows us as players to become archaeologists.
Let me give an example of what I mean.
On the surface, Neolithic depicts a broad understanding of prehistorical humanity. Early on, your goal is to accumulate icons that represent hunted and gathered resources such as meat, wheat, barley, wood, clay, and so forth. As these pile up, they enable you to play better cards and more advanced icons, such as domesticated animals, huts, fields, and innovations that range from pottery and cooked meat to bread, sculpture, better housing, and beer. It’s a story we’ve heard countless times before, including in fellow games like Peter Rustemeyer’s Paleo. In this telling, humanity is soaring on an upward trajectory. From the mud to brick houses, as it were.
I don’t want to say “except.” This isn’t about how Clowdus lacks an awareness of current theories on human prehistory. Nor is it about how Neolithic is a bad historical model. Neither of those things. Rather, this is about how we read history. In the study of history, one of the first things you learn is that when you read a history book you’re really reading two histories: the history the book is about, and the history of whomever wrote the book. The same is true here. When we play Neolithic, we glimpse our past. We remember that for the vast majority of human history, we wandered from place to place, gathering calories and living according to cycles of day and night, summer and monsoon, birth and death. It’s also true, though, that we view all that time — hundreds of thousands of years, millions of years — through the lens of Enlightenment thinkers who offered particular opinions about our “innate natures.” That we were warlike or peaceful. Socialist or market-oriented. Edenic or barbaric. Shrewd or simpleton. Settler or migrant. Those opinions were also loaded, informed by the rhetorical needs and goals of those thinkers. Because we haven’t quite broken free of those arguments, we still think about prehistory on their terms. Even all the doublets I offered a moment ago are loaded in ways I can’t see, so thick is the water I swim in. Instead, the more we learn about prehistory, the more we discover that the people we once were are much like the people we currently are. They experimented with a wide range of governments, trade styles, innovations, values, religions, civilizations. Some of them settled, some migrated, and some switched from settlements to migration or the other way around. There were doubters and followers and leaders and schemers, in all their variety. There was no singular trajectory.
TL;DR: When we look at Neolithic, we see a particular understanding of neolithic history, one which necessarily exempts a wide range of other interpretations.
The same goes for the other titles in Clowdus’s trilogy. Bronze Age proposes specialization as a means for surviving the mysterious Bronze Age Collapse. The solution is to retreat inward, focusing on particular colonies and cultural expressions over all others. This, too, is a loaded interpretation. How does one survive the end of civilization? By descending into the bunker, armoring up, severing friendships. Yet the Bronze Age Collapse also ushered in an era of flourishing relationships between cultures, blending lineages, and rising classes and ethnic groups. It wasn’t a collapse for everybody.
Again, the same is true of The Middle Ages. Its vision hews closest to the “Dark Ages” of Renaissance propaganda. You can hardly touch a card without considering whether it will transmit the Black Death through your fingertips. But the Europe of 1000-1500 CE was fairly peaceful. It’s true that there were big wars, and plagues and uprisings and pirates and everything else. For the most part, though, such events were sporadic and regional, not nearly as borderline extinctive as reports might make one assume. The Middle Ages is less about the Middle Ages, then, than it is about 14th-century France — a terrible title for a card game. Meanwhile, Clowdus also portrays the period as one of enthusiastic construction. The lion’s share of your points are likely found in hoarded treasures and crafted goods, but they’re also found in universities and cathedrals. This, too, reveals a certain understanding of the period, one where massive building projects rubbed shoulders with the Hundred Years’ War. Creation and destruction. Awkward housemates, those two.
None of this should be taken as negative. These three games are individually wonderful. They’re evocative in a way that most games wish they could be, and that’s despite being limited to 72 cards apiece.
Rather, what I’m trying to convey is that these are untapped avenues of discussion in our hobby. More and more often, I’m asked how we can apply critical methods to board games. Can board games merit discussion on the same level as film or literature? Might games one day qualify as art, culture, or history?
The reality is that they always have been these things.
Clowdus’s history trilogy illustrates why. These games encode history. They transmit subtle truths and repeat cultural tall tales. Perhaps most of all, they serve as stark reminders. In the aftermath of catastrophe and atrocity, we build memorials and reinforce education in the name of “Lest we forget.” But what are we choosing to recall? When we excavate the strata, we quickly discover that remembering is forgetting. The rough edges and abrasive textures are sanded away. The minor characters become composites. The uncertainties are turned grand and obvious. Memorialization is itself a form of selective amnesia. Whenever we choose to remember something, we opt to forget a whole range of competing memories.
Sometimes, though, those memories also deserve preservation. This is one underrepresented task of board game criticism. To excavate memory itself, alongside history, emotion, meaning, or whatever else of value we uncover in the rubble. To inspect. To sift. To become archaeologists and anthropologists. To dredge up the forgotten and overlooked. To investigate how these details are encoded, whether they were deliberate or accidental, personal or universal — all with an eye toward how they inform the game as a plaything, as an enculturated artifact that’s received and experienced as well as designed and crafted. There is so much to discover. The soil is rich and unturned.
Let’s get digging.
With special thanks (and apologies) to Matt Thrower, whose Twitter thread absolutely wrecked my intention to write about The Middle Ages on its own merits.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)
Posted on April 25, 2022, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Bronze Age, John Clowdus, Neolithic, Small Box Games, Talking About Games, The Fruits of Kickstarter, The Middle Ages, What We Talk About When We Talk About Games. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.
Thanks for covering this game!
This is fucking great, Dan. Lines up with your work, too. Hopefully we’ll see more and more of this as the hobby matures.
Thank you for this, Dan. I love these articles and the way that they make me think of games in new ways. These articles tend to be a highlight of the week for me. I think that the criticism that you are providing in the hobby is invaluable.
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