The Roman Ludi Saeculares of 248 were an astonishing spectacle. Featuring exhibitions of hundreds of animals ranging from giraffes and elk to lions and rhinoceroses, as well as gladiatorial matches, banquets, and theater, the commemoration of the thousand-year existence of the city was intended as the greatest expression of Roman longevity ever shouted from the rooftops.
But while these festivities represent a date historians would eagerly dial into their time machines, the Roman Empire of 248 was anything but triumphal. The host of the games, Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus — more commonly known by his epithet Philip the Arab — was beset by scandal and whispered rumor. Not only had he overseen the death of his predecessor while serving as his bodyguard (awkwaaard), but he had also paid the Sassanids of Persia a tribute of half a million denarii to leave the Empire’s eastern border alone. In the same year as the millennial games, dissatisfied legions rose against Philip to appoint a new emperor of their own, spurring opportunistic Goths to flood across the Danube. Philip the Arab died in battle after fewer than five years as emperor. And that was considered an above average tenure for an emperor during the Crisis of the Third Century.
Barbarians. Famine. Civil war. Plague. Assassination. Inflation. Any game about Rome’s half-century of near disaster will have to grapple with a wide range of issues. And even though Wray Farrell and Brad Johnson’s Time of Crisis somehow touches on all of them, that’s only the second-best thing about it.
Churchill is a game I’ve wanted to write about for almost two years. It takes a sky-high view of World War 2, pitching you as the Big Three in their efforts to break the back of the Axis Powers. Yet it couldn’t rightly be described as a wargame. Rather than emphasizing the strategy or logistics of war, it’s about the interactions between Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt (and later Truman) across multiple conferences as they divide the responsibilities and risks of beating Germany and Japan — and eventually divvy up the world itself. It’s a game of politics, of give-and-take, of hard expediency in the face of crushing reality. It’s about working hand-in-hand with your ideological enemies and hoping you have enough clout to avoid triggering yet another war once the current one is wrapped up. It is, in a word, bold.
One of the great difficulties in creating any work of game-as-history is the sheer potential bulk of the thing, where the subtle complexities of real-world conflicts must be modeled as rules, endowed with appropriate exceptions, and tested for some semblance of balance. Take the Battle of Sekigahara, for instance. Set in the autumn of 1600, this was the final step in a years-long campaign by Tokugawa Ieyasu to bring the warring daimyos of Japan under his thumb. During the course of this seven-week campaign, clans and generals swapped sides, cobbled highways and back-country fortresses alike played important strategic roles, firearms and cavalry disrupted the usual order of battle, and some dude held a fortress against all odds through the sheer weight of his respectability.
The beauty of Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan — and I don’t use that word lightly — is that it’s perhaps one of the least demanding games I’ve ever played from GMT, somehow managing to capture the drumming tension of its subject matter without ever once sacrificing depth for simplicity or simplicity for depth.
Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series represents one of the best board game systems ever designed. But don’t take my word for it — wait, no, that’s exactly what I’d like you to do. Head over to the Review Corner, where I’ve outlined every volume in existence thus far, pick out whichever one sounds most compelling to you, and dive in. Whether they’re featuring the war for control of post-Escobar Colombia, the Cuban or American Revolutions, or even the military campaigns of a little-known dude named Julius Caesar in Gaul, these are some of the best simulations of complicated conflicts on the market.
“Where have you been for the last couple weeks?” you’ve undoubtedly been asking. Wedding, wedding, new baby (not mine), work, school, wedding. That’s where.
Oh, and I’ve also had a few articles published over at Miniature Market’s Review Corner. First up, Michael Barnes and I debated the merits of Cuba Libre as an entry point into the excellent COIN Series, followed by a discussion about our reservations about Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar, and why despite those reservations it has become my favorite volume of the series. Meanwhile, I also reviewed Star Trek: Frontiers. Long story short, it’s Mage Knight in outer space with an extra dose of talking. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” indeed.
It’s been a very Cuba Libre kind of week. Following on the heels of Dan Thurot and Michael Barnes’ duel of wits over at Miniature Market’s Review Corner, listen as Dan, John Barton, Taylor Webb, and special guest Mark Henderson ponder their most recent attempt to control the destiny of Cuba, the COIN Series in general, and which of them best resembles Fidel Castro.
One of my favorite books on the topic of the Vietnam War is Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. In it, FitzGerald posits that the United States didn’t lose the war out of failed military achievement or lack of determination, but rather owing to the incompatibility of American and Vietnamese cultures and values. The Vietnamese had weathered a literal millennium as part of Imperial China before regaining their sovereignty — after that, how long could any power expect to remain in Vietnam?
The board game version of Fire in the Lake, the fourth entry in Volko Ruhnke’s lauded COIN Series, has its own answer: about three to five hours, give or take.
It should already be apparent that I’m a huge fan of Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series. It even led to the formation of my gaming group’s “COIN Collecting Club,” which is our way of code-talking that we’re going to play COIN games all Saturday afternoon. See, the real genius lies in the fact that certain people at our regular game night think it’s a club for the collecting of metal currency, when really we’re betraying each other and occasionally getting pissed about it.
To those certain people, who I’m aware read this site: I apologize. It couldn’t be helped. We just really didn’t want to play with you more than once a week.
Anyway, the COIN Series has already taken us on a tour of drug-war ’90s Colombia and Revolutionary Cuba, and today we’re talking about its headiest subject matter yet: the still-ongoing war in Afghanistan.
As you may remember, I’ve been working my way through Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series (COIN for “counterinsurgency,” though my little group goes by the “Coin Collector Club” to sound barely less nerdy), beginning with the first volume, Andean Abyss. I liked it quite a lot, but felt it was a tricky entry point to a series that’s known for its complex asymmetrical conflicts.
As though on cue, the second volume of the series bursts through the door, dressed in an army jumpsuit, drab olive field cap, and underwear over the top of the pants. It’s Cuba Libre, here to save the day!
Space-Biff! has been quieter than usual over the past couple weeks. Apologies. Couldn’t be helped. After all, I’ve been devoting most of my board gaming attention to figuring out Volko Ruhnke’s formidable COIN Series, which, if you haven’t heard of these behemoths, are all about insurgency and counterinsurgency — guerrilla warfare, hearts and minds, that sort of thing — and they’re endlessly and utterly compelling. The first volume, for instance, is called Andean Abyss, a four-way conflict over the jungles, mountains, and cities of Colombia, and it’s possibly one of the most thrilling, deep, and disheartening board games I’ve ever experienced.