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.
As those who know me can attest, I abhor repeating myself. Which is why I can’t even begin to fathom doing individual reviews of all the new editions, deluxe boxes, and standalone expansions appearing on shelves this time of year. Thus, rather than subject myself (and you) to a plodding second refrain of things I’ve already covered in the past, what follows is a breakdown of six excellent new versions of older games. Take a look.
By this point in their evolution, most dice games have become kindly creatures. Gentle, even. They want you to have a good time, to roll some bones and chuckle at your fortunes, to relax and have a straightforward and undemanding evening. They may have descended from wilder ancestors, but they’ve become tame, domesticated beasts along the way.
Neanderthal, the prequel to Greenland, is anything but that sort of dice game. It doesn’t care about staying late. Nor does it plan on playing fair. It embraces player elimination — or, perhaps worse, making the unlucky player sit around for rounds at a time with nothing to do. It’s complicated, rough, talks loudly about sex at inappropriate moments, changes the rules halfway through, and sometimes slaps you on the back so hard that you end up with Dr. Pepper charring your sinuses. In short, it has no interest in seeking mainstream appeal. And that’s precisely why I find it so fascinating.
Like so many of Phil Eklund’s games, including the hit Pax Porfiriana, the cards transform after a couple games. At first, they’re cluttered with text and competing symbols, so many that they’re nearly impossible to parse. After sending your tribe to hunt polar bears, you’ll reach out to pick up your failed rolls for another try, only for another player to bark at you, “What are you doing? You can’t reroll those.”
“Yes I can!” you’ll insist. “It says so right here.”
“That’s a Sage,” they’ll point out. They might even reach across the table and tap your tribe elder card. “Your Sage lets you reroll fours, yeah, but only for metallurgy rolls. See? See the difference? You’d need a Tracker to reroll fours while hunting on land.”
After a while you’ll spot them, the tiny symbols that represent metallurgy and land hunting. You’ll nod slowly, staring at the cards spread across the table. Then your opponent will clear his throat. “Oh, and hey, threes mean the polar bears ate your guys. So you just lost two hunters.”
If that makes you picture that darn video game series, get out. Right now. Just git. If, on the other hand, you picture something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, windswept and sun-beaten, rolling clouds of dust over shimmering broken earth, set to the hum of lawlessness and opportunism — well, then you just might be the sort of person to appreciate Phil and Matt Eklund’s Pax Porfiriana.