Across the span of 1700 to 1875, the Comanche carved an empire into the American southwest roughly the size of modern-day Texas. Their instruments were both legendary and notorious: open-handed trade, remorseless warfare, unparalleled horsemanship. “Comanche” means “the people.” To outsiders, it came to signify “the lords of the plains.”
Comanchería, as their empire was called, would not survive. Between outbreaks of smallpox and cholera, the extermination of the great herds of buffalo, and continued incursions, the Comanche gave ground, then dwindled, then accepted the treaty that consigned them to a reservation. Far from the cataclysmic fall of a great empire, it was a succession of small cuts, gnawing infections, and inflicted indignities.
Joel Toppen’s Comanchería: The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire captures every excruciating detail. It is one of the finest historical games I have ever played. It also represents one of the hardest gaming experiences of my adult life.
Not to go all historian on anybody, but I’m going to say something that may prove contentious: matters of history are only settled when they stop mattering, whether through consensus or lack of interest. The corollary, of course, is that very little about history is ever settled. This is magnified when the topic occurred recently enough that people can trace a line from former circumstances to ongoing considerations. It isn’t hard to find examples. How often have you heard it said that slavery was sure terrible, but also a necessary evil? Or that Christopher Columbus shouldn’t be judged by present-day standards? Never mind that both statements can be torn to shreds. They aren’t said because they’re factual. They’re said because they point toward a moral framework that’s mutable. If yesterday’s suffering can be dismissed as necessary or chalked up to changing values, then today’s suffering can be similarly dismissed. It’s history as comfort food, carefully mashed so that no teeth are chipped and no stomachs are unsettled in the process of digestion.
The 1919 Treaty of Versailles no longer lingers in the historical vernacular, but experts in the field continue to debate its implications. We occupy a world shaped by its outcome, from modern political boundaries to the concept of a global governing body. Later conflicts, including the Second World War, may have been directly spurred by its approach to war reparations, and while the independence movements of the 20th century came of age after WWII, Versailles is where they were brought kicking and hollering into the world.
Which means that Mark Herman has now designed two games about shaping the past century through treaty-drafting. The first, Churchill, represents more recent agreements. But in its own way, Versailles 1919, which Herman co-designed with Geoff Engelstein, seems like the more relevant of the pair.
Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta’s Imperial Struggle is a challenging game. In two senses, really. As a successor to the famous Twilight Struggle, it has significant boots to fill. As a meditation on the colonization of the wide world for the sake of empire — well, that’s a taller order in 2020 than in 2005, for better and for worse. It’s the sort of game that might easily spark a hundred think-pieces.
For my part, those dual challenges, heritage and setting, are the clearest lenses for framing what Matthews and Gupta have accomplished.
My grandfather was a bomber squadron commander in the Army Air Corps in WWII. I went most of my childhood without knowing that. He didn’t speak of his time in the Pacific until late in his life, and then only sporadically, quietly, with great effort. He saw friends die and planes fall. His own plane fell. He spent months in recovery before resuming combat missions. The first I heard of his service was at a family gathering. My cousin loaded up a flight sim, undoubtedly rudimentary but photorealistic in my memory. Grandpa watched, hands on hips, frowning in disapproval. One of my uncles told us to turn it off. That it was bothering grandpa.
Grandpa jabbed a finger at the screen. “No, that isn’t it. It’s all wrong. You don’t hit a bridge there. They’d rebuild it in a week. And you need to approach from a wider angle. Out of the sun.” And then he told some stories. Just the silly ones. Running alcohol, almost crashing into a mountain, the fellow squadron commander who died to “friendly fire” for always assigning his own plane in the lead position. The ones that haunted him would wait until we were older.
And then there’s solo wargame Skies Above the Reich by Mark Aasted and Jeremy White. Guess I should probably talk about that.
Know how you can tell I’m a phony wargamer? I don’t play against myself. Sure, I’ll play solo, but that’s a different thing entirely. I’m talking about playing both sides. Working against my own interests. White knight takes black bishop. Simply can’t do it. What if I need that black bishop’s services next turn? As sure as rain makes pavement smell better, I’m picking a favorite and leading them to victory.
That is, until Mark Herman’s Peloponnesian War. First published way back in 1991 and only recently given a fresh printing, it’s possible that this is the finest play-against-yourself solo system ever crafted.
The ninth volume of the long-running COIN Series, Bruce Mansfield’s Gandhi: The Decolonization of British India, steps into a setting that likely needs no introduction. What may need clarification is the ways in which it stands apart from the remainder of the series — and how it remains locked in orbit.
Today on Two Minds About…, Brock Poulsen and Dan Thurot are here to discuss Here I Stand, the only game about the Wars of the Reformation and the Reformers (and Pope-friends) who fought them.
Brock: It was an event five hundred years (give or take another two) in the making.
Dan: Five hundred years of song.
Brock: I love that one about the bulwark, especially. To commemorate the most iconic bulletin board post in all recorded history, Dan assembled a team of nerds to devote a whole day playing Ed Beach’s Here I Stand. While we’re not doing a proper review today, we did want to discuss some of our impressions, share a few experiences, and maybe finally unravel the state of souls in purgatory.
Failing that, Dan, why don’t you tell us a bit more about Here I Stand?
Given this hobby’s churn of new releases, it isn’t often that I get to stick with a single game long enough for an expansion to roll around. Wray Ferrell and Brad Johnson’s Time of Crisis is an exception, and has reappeared on my table regularly ever since its release nearly two years back.
Good thing I waited around, because The Age of Iron and Rust may be one of my favorite expansions, adding three modules that transform this into one of my absolute favorite deck-building hybrids — and a considerable solo offering to boot.
It never stops. That seems to be the central theme of SpaceCorp, and not only because a single play can easily consume three or four hours. We span an ocean, only to seek a river passage across the continent on the far side. We meet our neighbors, then decide that we should probably also meet theirs. We pen Here be dragons on the fringes of our maps, but never for long. If SpaceCorp didn’t have an ending in mind — a self-aware arbitrary ending that could be considered little more than an intermission — it might go on forever.
Every time an undergrad asks What if?, a history professor gets her tenure. Yet there’s an undeniable appeal to that question. What if Hitler had been shrewder about invading Russia? What if the United States had gone all-in on the Pacific rather than entering the European Theater? What if both Axis and Allied powers had teamed up to battle aliens? There’s no way to know, man.
Other than that last one, those are the questions at the heart of Cataclysm: A Second World War, Scott Muldoon and William Terdoslavich’s take on the devastating twentieth-century conflict. And they’re also the questions that arise approximately every two minutes while playing.