Board games are fantastic at modeling complex situations. I suspect that just as music is the art of sound, film is the art of directing, and literature is the art of fantasy authors using italics to tell me when their characters are delivering moody internal monologues, board games are the art of reducing models to their most digestible format.
Volko Ruhnke is no stranger to setting cardboard and counters to this purpose. Best known for the COIN Series, which depicts asymmetrical insurgencies, revolutions, and ideological contests throughout history, Ruhnke has now delivered a second system. This one is called Levy & Campaign, its first volume is Nevsky, and it’s an exemplar of how to deploy incentives and constraints to teach us something about history.
Mark Herman’s Fort Sumter was a lean, rangy filament of a game. After initially falling for its charms, I soon found its leanness and ranginess a little too emaciated, with not nearly enough muscle and fat beneath the skin. One of the reasons I play historical games, after all, is to see how the history is modeled, not to merely see it sketched out as the titles of locations and cards.
Enter Red Flag Over Paris. Designed by Frédéric Serval, it uses the system and leanness of Fort Sumter while still piling on, well, everything else. Its topic is the Paris Commune, the brief but fierce revolutionary outpouring that would prove so influential on Karl Marx — and become a stain on the early days of the French Third Republic.
One of the things I value about the COIN Series, which stepped onto the scene back in 2012 with Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss, is its ability to fill in the gaps of history. The Finnish Civil War was a bloody three-month conflict that left lingering scars for decades, yet it’s one of those wars that’s usually only mentioned in passing, more notable for how it impacted the foreign policies of its larger neighbors, especially Germany and Russia, rather than for the sovereign republic it ultimately birthed.
No longer! As the tenth volume in the Coin Series, All Bridges Burning is the first published design by VPJ Arponen. Never mind that. His confidence with the subject matter is evident in the game’s finest details. I’d even go so far as to call this one of the series’ most radical entries.
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?