One of the big questions in wargame design is how one ought to simulate the range of possible outcomes. Take the Battle of the Bulge. Should a designer concede to playability by pretending that the German Ardennenfront could turn aside the Allied advance? Or should they instead presume that German victory could only be measured by some other metric, such as days or weeks of delay? Press a little deeper and you get questions about balance and historical determinism. Maybe, just maybe, we can rethink what it means to “win” in the first place.
That’s exactly what Amabel Holland has done with Endurance. Right from the outset, her rulebook warns that the survival of Ernest Shackleton and the twenty-seven members of his crew is not a historical given. Their escape, in her words, was “a fluke.” It shouldn’t have happened. It nearly didn’t happen. Roll the dice a hundred times in a hundred parallel simulations and it might never happen again.
That’s the first thesis behind Endurance, but it isn’t the most essential of them.
Space-Cast! #23. Watch Out! That’s an Amabel!
Once again we’re joined by Amabel Holland. This year, we discuss her forthcoming freebie game Watch Out! That’s a Dracula!, along with legacy games, textually queer games, and a transition in the tone of her work.
Listen over here or download here. Timestamps are after the jump.
Draculas, Frankensteins, Woofmans
Every year, Amabel Holland designs a freebie game for Hollandspiele’s Hollandays sale. In the past, certain of these freebies have even been among the year’s best.
Watch Out! That’s a Dracula! might be my favorite yet. And not only because it treats Dracula like an absolute doofus.
Siege of Manatee
Sometimes I wonder why I play games. Not in a terminal sense. I’m not about to kick the habit. Rather, in the sense that certain games, in particular those about warfare or politics or society, are more than mere playthings. They’re possibilities for illumination. I play for enjoyment as much as the next person. But I also play to explore ideas and history.
Amabel Holland’s catalog is rife with such explorations. It’s also full of trifles. That isn’t meant as dismissive. Sometimes, though, the line is blurry, scattering my expectations into disarray. So it is with Siege of Mantua, Holland’s first block wargame, which zooms in on a crucial slice of Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign to break the first coalition’s efforts against the fledgling French Republic.
I suffer from panic attacks and poor health.
How’s that for an opener? I’m normally reserved about sharing personal details like that. But there it is: I’ve suffered from health complications my entire life, a handful of which have necessitated serious corrective surgeries and lengthy periods of recovery. Heading Forward, the solitaire game designed by John du Bois, makes sharing those details easier, or at least less frightening. Maybe those are the same thing. Empathy isn’t the first emotion I would expect to feel when playing a board game, but this demonstrates exactly how to express something deeply personal via a handful of cards and some punchboard spoons.
Of Aglets and Eyelets
I’ve always been jealous of people who could transform knotted shoelaces into elaborate cat’s cradles. Or, frankly, people who could tie their shoes without them coming undone five minutes later. There’s a reason I’m a socks-in-Birkenstocks kind of guy.
Amabel Holland’s Eyelet is a game for those folks. For me, it’s closer to therapy.
Space-Cast! #16. A Nicaea Conversation
Nearly seventeen hundred years ago, a bunch of theology nerds were called together to answer one simple question: what is the nature of God? Their answer has shaped the way we’ve thought about the divine ever since. That’s the topic of Amabel Holland’s Nicaea, plus an irreverent twist or two. Today, Amabel joins us to chat about orthodoxy, heresy, and the politicking that happened in between the extremes all those years ago.
Listen over here or download here. Timestamps can be found after the jump.
Nicaea, Now I Don’t
Ecumenical councils aren’t exactly the topic everybody stays awake for, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard of the Council of Nicaea. Flush with success after unifying the Roman Empire, the Emperor Constantine had made himself the patron of Christianity, a major turnaround after the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian only a decade earlier. But Constantine’s fledgling religious program faced one major problem: rumblings of controversy in Alexandria over the nature of Christ. To avert potential embarrassment — or worse, schism — Constantine convened his council in 325 CE, leading to the first sweeping statement of orthodoxy in Christian canon.
That’s the part you probably know. Less publicized is the base political nature of the outcome, all those long-held and supposedly sincere doctrinal positions wilting in the face of the Council’s pronouncements. Although the attending bishops began almost evenly split, in the end only three out of three hundred refused to side with the majority and retain their privileges and positions. A miracle, perhaps. Or maybe, just maybe, ambition and cowardice played as much a role as they always do.
So begins Amabel Holland’s Nicaea, an irreverent, boisterous, and gleefully blasphemous assault on the entire concept of orthodoxy. Expect some ruffled feathers and you won’t be disappointed.
The Vote Isn’t Interested in Compromises
It isn’t possible to discuss Tom Russell’s The Vote without invoking her earlier design This Guilty Land. In part because they both make use of the same game system, a masterclass of functionality that demands periodic trips back to the rulebook, though in fairness this year’s outing putters along more smoothly, less opaquely, and buoyed by a tighter narrative arc.
If only the similarities stopped there. Instead, the lion’s share are more thematic, and by extension more somber. This Guilty Land was designed to evoke frustration. With its systems, yes, but also with the injustices permitted by those systems — and worse, enabled by them. Features rather than bugs. In Russell’s hands, the gridlock that prevented emancipation is the same gridlock that prevented women’s suffrage. Which is a long way of saying that The Vote is a streamlined and more playable version of its former self. But as a metatextual continuation of This Guilty Land, it’s far more than that.
Home for the Hollandays
In a few days, Hollandspiele will be launching their annual holiday sale. True, I could provide recommendations. I could talk about how the games published by Tom and Mary Russell make consistent appearances during Best Week. I could talk about how it’s important to support independent publishers.
But I won’t.
Because instead I’m going to review some of the freebie games that Tom and Mary have included over the past couple of years — and the one they’ll be including this year. Oh yes.