In my very first course after changing my major to history, my midterm paper came back with a scrawled note in purple ink: “Good writing, good argumentation, but too polemical.”
Too polemical. I’ve been waiting to drop that one on some unsuspecting victim ever since. You could even say it’s one of the reasons I was so eager to write about Ben Madison’s solo game The Mission, which charts the history of Christianity over its first thousand years. “From the Crucifixion to the Crusades,” as its subtitle goes. Sounds polemical to me! Brace yourself, Ben Madison, for thou art—
Medium polemical? Somewhat polemical? Acceptably polemical? Certainly not polemical enough for “too” polemical. If any “too” should be deployed, The Mission is too preoccupied with being playable. A difficult charge to make stick in court. If it please your honor, The Mission is guilty of being too good to be polemical. First-degree playable, second-degree polemical. And here I’d expected those to be the other way around.
The First Jihad is a shout of defiance — in more ways than one. Designed by Ben Madison and Wes Erni, it’s a long-in-the-making riff on the States of Siege formula, that old hallmark from Victory Point Games that saw lone players fending off encroachments along multiple lanes. Here, however, the concept is turned inside out. Rather than defending a central entity, you’re cast as up to fourteen different empires, city-states, tribes, and kingdoms as they weather the long century of Islam’s expansion under the direction of the Umayyad Dynasty. Less siege, more doomed containment.
Breezy stuff. Fortunately, Madison and Erni have a keen eye for how to capture the sweep of an era with a paper map and some chits.
Each Monday, I share a list of the past week’s played titles on social media, along with a few short details and a picture of each. When it came to sharing a snapshot of Wes Erni and Ben Madison’s solo wargame Nubia: Egypt’s Black Heirs, I suffered from a rare moment of hesitation. Like the last of Madison’s games I covered here, The White Tribe: Rhodesia’s War 1966-1980, Nubia is frank about the racial dynamics of its topic. Unlike The White Tribe, Nubia might not be sturdy enough to shoulder that weight, at least not quite as levelly. To examine why, we need to talk about slaves — both the broad history and the in-game tile.
The word “wargame,” like most board game genre definitions, is a nebulous thing. Do political sims count? What about games about the weeks and months leading up to war? What about wars by other means? It’s this conundrum that makes me propose an alternative: a wargame is that which contains a rulebook that’s alternately impenetrable, opinionated, and insightful.
Ben Madison’s solo wargame The White Tribe fits at least the last two descriptors. In one sense, it operates in the same headspace as Tom Russell’s This Guilty Land — politically charged, critical of racism and the systems that support it, and deeply conscious of how legislation is passed, employed, and sometimes abused. But if it’s a mirror, it’s an inverted one. Where Russell’s approach was pessimistic, casting the U.S. Civil War as inevitable and compromise as poisonous — a view Russell supports quite well, as I wrote last year — Madison charts a careful course between terrible extremes and concludes that, sometimes, collaboration is the only way to keep from plummeting into the abyss.