Best Week 2022! Corrective Tradency!
When it comes to the transmission of culture, board games are an uncommon medium. Partly literary, largely oral, and entirely ludic, we’ve yet to see many games leverage their particular strengths to communicate effectively. Every so often, though, one shows up: a game that uses its language of play to set the record straight.
Today is about the best titles of 2022 to act as tradents of culture and history, leaning on their unique advantages as playthings and tablebound artifacts to open a clearer window to the past.
#6. Crescent Moon
Designed by Steven Mathers. Published by Osprey Games.
Close your eyes and picture a medieval European village. If you’ve played many board games the odds are solid that you can do so without much effort, and with relative accuracy. Now picture a medieval Near Eastern village. Apart from being browner, what does it look like? Steven Mathers’ Crescent Moon does for the Near East what hundreds of predecessors have done for medieval Europe. Crescent Moon is at times obtuse and persnickety, but it’s also a compelling dip into the political realities of Europe’s neighboring sultanates and caliphates. While it isn’t explicitly historical, it paints a portrait that’s both vibrant and all too novel.
#5. Stonewall Uprising
Designed by Taylor Shuss. Published by Catastrophe Games.
Social history is rarely covered in board games. To a degree that’s to be expected; as plenty of commentators have noted, it’s easier to model the outcome of a battle than the slow wheels of progress. Yet progress and gradual change are precisely what Stonewall Uprising excels at depicting. Covering three decades in the struggle for gay rights, Taylor Shuss paints a portrait that’s both affecting in its courage and distressingly reflective of our own decade’s pushback to social movements. Alternately gut-wrenching and inspiring, few games are this demanding — or rewarding.
Designed by Trevor Benjamin, Roger Tankersley, & David Thompson. Published by Salt & Pepper Games.
Settings are often easy to overlook underneath all the math. Such is the shortcoming of many a board game. Resist! adopts a different approach, placing its people front and center. As the leader of a group of Maquis freedom fighters, every round revolves around a single mission, with your fighters potentially exposing themselves through their actions. It’s a simple but effective conceit, folding espionage and government rats and the perils of leading double lives into a relatively straightforward card game. To the bitter end, it never strays from its humanistic focus.
#3. Red Flag Over Paris
Designed by Fred Serval. Published by GMT Games.
Now and then a game will open a gateway into a previously overlooked corner of history. While the Paris Commune is hardly obscure, none of my American schoolteachers ever touched on it, and until recently it’s apparently been something of a taboo in French classrooms as well. Fred Serval’s Red Flag Over Paris functions as an eminently playable crash course, introducing the actors and events of the Commune while also sporting some of the sharpest card play in a card-driven wargame. As an introduction or supplement, it brings its time and place to life, and in the process prevents them from sliding over the edge of memory and into forgetfulness.
#2. The Acts of the Evangelists
Designed by Jeff Warrender. Published by Belltower Games.
Even as more and more designers plumb the possibilities of history, only the scantest handful bother with historiography. The Acts of the Evangelists, Jeff Warrender’s masterpiece to date, is all about the craftsmanship of history. As the author of a Gospel, it’s your task to gather traditions, interview eyewitnesses and their successors, and edit edit edit until you have a workable story of the life of Jesus. The final message lands somewhere between devotion and skepticism, equally hopeful that its events transpired as written and fully aware that no work of history escapes the redactor. This is one of the finest expressions of the historian’s craft — and the historian’s dilemma — ever put to cardboard.
#1. John Company: Second Edition
Designed by Cole Wehrle. Published by Wehrlegig Games.
As an intervention, few designs can compete with the second edition of John Company, and that includes its first go-round. Cole Wehrle’s work in the historical space is well known, and John Company pushes his chops to their limit, offering a game that turns a stern and uncompromising eye to the jaunty colonialism of its peers. John Company is the tale of the East India Company, unvarnished and raw. By charting a direct connection between English balls and English pillage — and even implying a subtler line to our enjoyment of parlor games about distant climes — Wehrle has crafted one of the most incisive takedowns of an entire genre, while still understanding why we fell in love with stories of distant adventurism in the first place.