I appreciate any game that makes an argument. Even — perhaps especially — if I don’t agree with that argument. Even rarer is a game that makes multiple arguments for the price of one. All the better if some of those arguments are at odds with its other arguments, like a hydra snapping at its own throats.
Cole Wehrle’s Pax Pamir is one such game.
Across two editions and an expansion, Pax Pamir makes three distinct arguments from two separate authors. Those arguments have been both criticized and applauded, sometimes fairly and sometimes reflexively. Because this is the internet, both the critiques and the celebrations have often been painfully simplified. It would require an essay apiece just to deconstruct them fully. Rather than doing so, I want to touch upon all three so as to examine something tangential to their specific stances on the subject of the Great Game in 1823-1845 Afghanistan — namely, how differences of framing prompt divergent readings of Pax Pamir as a cultural artifact and historical argument.
You’ve probably heard of Cole Wehrle. But have you heard Cole Wehrle arguing? On today’s episode of the Space-Biff! Space-Cast!, join Dan and Cole as we talk about argument and simulation in board games, explore a few deeply accusatory questions about second editions, and settle the conundrum of how Rome fell. Or did it?
Pax Pamir is one of those historical games that doesn’t demand you perfectly understand its context before you play. The broad strokes will do. Here’s Afghanistan, its dynasty peeling at the edges. There’s Britain, looking to unite local warlords into a buffer state against its rivals. Speaking of which, here comes Russia: expanding rapidly, voraciously hungry, hoping to consolidate their frontier. Three sides, three agendas, one tract of land standing at their intersection.
The twist is that none of those competing agendas are your own. Instead, you’re a tribal chieftain, the local hotshot these empires must rely upon to achieve their aims. Scouting, navigation of local customs and courtly procedure, information and advice — the lay of the land, both literally and figuratively. But you have aspirations of your own. Perhaps even aspirations that might be realized by aiding the right empire at the right moment.
The Great Game, in other words, except played by its middlemen rather than its kings and queens. And although I’ve written about Pax Pamir three times before, Cole Wehrle’s official second edition is different enough that it warrants an entirely new treatment.
“For once, you should fight a land war in Asia.”
That’s how I concluded my review of the first edition of Pax Pamir, Cole Wehrle’s razor-loaded take on imperialism and the Great Game. It promoted Phil Eklund’s Pax Porfiriana into the Pax Series, boggled a fair number of minds with its interlocking spheres of influence and enigmatic victory conditions, and — at the forefront of everybody’s minds, surely — was my top game of 2015.
Now Wehrle is crafting a second edition, one he hopes will be more accessible without becoming divisive the way, say, the second edition of A Study in Emerald was. Little hope of that, I’m afraid. This new edition is indeed more approachable, while recapturing much of the bite, intelligence, and adventure of the original. But fans of the first edition may not want to sell their copies just yet.
As I wrote last week, the “sandbox Euro” of Feudum is a handsome but troubled youngster. It’s got some great ideas, a slick sense of style, and knows it’s clever. But maybe that’s the problem. For everything it does right, it comes parcel with two exceptions, fussy rules, or instances where it stubbornly refuses to be streamlined.
Still, it’s hard to deny that this dizzying blend of movement puzzle, player-driven feudal holdings, and market manipulation taps into something desirable. The freedom of a sandbox game can be intoxicating, trusting players to pursue their goals with unusual latitude. Where most games offer an intensely curated experience, it’s a joy to be set loose within a set of systems and trusted to sink or swim, boom or bust.
So, as an alternative for those who might be thirsting after something a little more open-ended than usual, what follows are a bunch of my favorite sandbox-style games, ranked in order of their ascending complexity.
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.
In more ways than one, Pax Pamir is essentially my Platonic Ideal of a board game. It was even my favorite game of 2015. It’s deep and multifaceted, yet lean. Political, but careful to prevent alliances from lasting more than a few moments. Mean, but… well, it’s mean. That’s a good thing. Victory in Pax Pamir nearly always meant you had stripped everyone else’s aspirations of ruling Afghanistan to the bone, one assassination and taxation and military campaign at a time. Ruthless.
And from now on, I’ll never again play Pax Pamir without its expansion, Khyber Knives. Let me tell you why.
In the second quarter of the 19th century, the crown jewel of the British Empire was unexpectedly placed under threat when the Russian Empire began a period of aggressive expansion into Central Asia. India had been the linchpin of the British Empire’s interests abroad for nearly a hundred and fifty years, so the prospect of a Russian frontier bypassing the khanates and the Afghan emirate that had previously stood as a buffer zone between the British Raj and the Russian Empire sparked a flurry of activity. Spies, armies, diplomats, and traders poured into the region. Just like that, the tribal leaders of Afghanistan found themselves squeezed between two desperate empires.
Welcome to what came to be known as The Great Game.