If you want a design’s corners sanded smooth, Tom Russell isn’t your man. For a perfect example, look no further than his recent game about the Peace of Westphalia. The version you learned in high school was likely abridged: Westphalia concluded the Thirty Years’ and Eighty Years’ Wars, hammered out the first inklings of international state sovereignty, and upheld that one Latin phrase from the Peace of Augsburg that you forgot by the time the test rolled around. Three points. With an introduction and conclusion, that’s exactly enough for a standard five-paragraph essay.
But Russell isn’t writing a five-paragraph essay. His Westphalia is molded after the complicated historical version of events, the one that featured over a hundred delegations that never met at the same time, yet still wheedled over the table while stabbing each other under it. Why? Because they were terribly in debt. So it goes. This is history with its corners left unsanded. Eight million dead, years of prevarication, and all because everybody’s credit cards were maxed out.
In order to depict this dire state of affairs, Russell doesn’t divide his players into one hundred delegations. He doesn’t even require more than two hours. Instead, he presents a negotiation game that’s both spare and expansive, clunky and elegant. And it all begins with the setup.
Brave Little Belgium, about the violation of Belgian neutrality by Germany at the outset of World War I, positions itself as an entry-level wargame, perfect for teaching newcomers the ropes of this rich — and often intimidating — sublevel of the board games basement. Beginners can expect to learn:
- The basics of point-to-point army movement and the value of scouting.
- How chit-pull activation works.
- That more seasoned wargamers will laugh when you complain about paper maps.
- Precisely what qualifies as “solitaire suitability” among grognards.
Not bad! Let’s evaluate how well it succeeds.
In October of last year, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly mentioned in an interview on Fox News that “the lack of the ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” Perhaps he was thinking of Henry Clay’s Missouri Compromise of 1820, Compromise Tariff of 1833, and Compromise of 1850. Because, hey, they all had the word compromise in them, and likely postponed the war for years! After all, according to Senator Henry S. Foote, had there been another Great Compromiser like Clay in 1860, the Civil War might have been averted.
Except we’re talking about the same Henry S. Foote who served in the Confederate Congress, which promoted a treasonous war to preserve the enslavement of nearly four million people — a practice that violated human bodies and freedom, abused the rights of citizens and states alike, and turned to violence the instant the tide of public opinion shifted against them. The nation was torn asunder despite decades of compromise. Because that word has dual meanings. Too many compromises and you begin to compromise yourself.
Such is the thesis of Tom Russell’s This Guilty Land, stated without reservation or hesitance: slavery was morally poisonous, any compromise that allowed it to continue was unsustainable, and the American Civil War was inevitable.
If you want to see an example of what a board game can accomplish, while also being something I’d never recommend as a birthday gift, look no further than Erin Lee Escobedo’s Meltwater. It’s unflinchingly brutal and despairingly perceptive both at once.
Brace yourself. I have thoughts about this one.
As the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius was inclined to philosophy over military matters. So much so that he was given the totally unique nickname, “the philosopher.” But sadly for Marcus, his reign was quickly marked by trouble. When Roman soldiers brought home a nasty bout of plague from Parthia, it wasn’t long before Germanic and Sarmatian tribes took advantage of the weakened empire and begin their advance across the Danube and into Gaul. And no quantity of stoicism was going to solve that one.
Robert DeLeskie’s Wars of Marcus Aurelius covers a decade of brutal frontier fighting from 170 to 180 CE. And much like its source material, it’s full of hard decisions, infuriating reversals, and some slogging through the muck to get to the good stuff.
Despite the fact that Charles I spent the majority of his reign warring against one foe or another, it’s hard to imagine how Tom Russell’s Charlemagne, Master of Europe could have been anything other than a solo game. After all, who could stand as a worthy opponent to the Pater Europae? The Lombards, Moors, Saxons, or internal Frankish plotters who ultimately found themselves bulldozed as Charles became king, then king of a second kingdom, then eventually Emperor of the Romans?
Actually, the answer is those dang dice and those dang cups. By the conclusion of a session, it’s apparent that they’re the real enemies of the Carolingian Dynasty.
It’s appropriate that Benjamin Franklin’s chopped-up snake should emblazon the box front of Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777. Historically, Franklin’s 1754 political cartoon JOIN, or DIE represented the fragmentary nature of the colonies chafing under British rule. In designer Tom Russell’s hands, the image takes on a second, more immediate meaning. It’s one of transmitting biscuits and bullets from one place to another, of connecting or severing the head from the tail, of your own winding snake and its integrity.
Here, the image communicates the need to string together your logistics. Everything in Supply Lines of the American Revolution is about the all-important distance between your supplies and the soldiers who need them. Join them together, or die. After all, as Jesus of Nazareth once uttered, “Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.”
For the first time ever, the Space-Biff! Space-Cast! is all about Dan Thurot’s uncertainty about Cole Wehrle’s paternity, the definitions of sandbox games, as well as a number of Great Games, from Pax Pamir to Pax Renaissance and An Infamous Traffic. Great Games: in these hands alone, that’s a pun intended only for the cleverest of humans. Perhaps you’re among them. Perhaps.
Every time I’ve taught a group of friends how to play An Infamous Traffic, Cole Wehrle’s sophomore design and a sort of thematic follow-up to his astounding Pax Pamir, we reach a point where someone lets a nervous chuckle slip out. After explaining our role as British opium sellers, forcing our product on a nation whose authorities would very much rather we leave them alone, I begin describing the game’s take on supply and demand. We’re the supply, crates of dried poppy latex from India bumping around the holds of our ships. And the demand? Well, we’re that too. By inserting smugglers and missionaries into the workings of the Qing Dynasty, we spread the word and create an enthusiastic population of buyers.
It’s the missionaries that do it. Where I live in the heart of Zion — Mormon country to outsiders — a large quantity of young men and women serve eighteen-month to two-year church missions. For the most part, these are well-meaning acts of service and devotion. Those obnoxious pairs who knock on your door and smile a little too wide? That’s them. They’re also the ones mending fences, working in care centers, and going caroling in August. To that service-oriented mindset, the idea of peddling an addictive substance — other than the opiate of the masses, depending on your perspective on the matter — is nothing short of appalling.
An Infamous Traffic is a game with a lot on its mind. And one of those things is that certain trades pollute everything they touch, no matter how well-intentioned the people engaged in it.