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.
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.
Today on the Space-Biff! Space-Cast!, Dan is joined by Tom Russell, who answers questions about his controversial title This Guilty Land, discusses research and responsibility in crafting board games, and answers the two most difficult questions of them all: what is your favorite dinosaur, and what is art?
Did you know that Ireland’s track gauge isn’t very common? 1,600mm. That’s rare, apparently. Not that you’d know it from Tom Russell’s Irish Gauge. Some games fill you in on what they’re about. Scratch that, most games. Some go the extra mile by holding forth on the ancient lineages of their elves. Irish Gauge doesn’t warrant a paragraph. Not even a blurb in the rulebook. The back of the box says something about puffs of black smoke and braking steam — real scene-setting stuff — but nothing about why Ireland requires such wide tracks. You’d think that’d be an American thing.
Not that it matters. If Irish Gauge is presenting one of Russell’s systemic arguments, it’s silent on the topic. Instead, this is a design of sharp edges and barbed hooks. And it peels its way under the skin with only a single sheet of rules.
Today marks the 500th anniversary of the conclusion of the 1520 summit between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France. The purpose of this summit was nothing less than the leveraging of the scales of power in Europe. Long story short, Francis was the sovereign of one of two European superpowers — the other being Charles V of the Hapsburg Empire — and as such, he hoped to recruit the up-and-coming Henry VIII as an ally. Instead, they feasted and jousted and showed off fancy clothes for over two weeks, caused the site in Balingham to be named Camp du Drap d’Or, and, after frittering away unthinkable wealth, failed to produce an alliance when England hopped into bed with the Hapsburgs anyway.
Tom Russell’s The Field of the Cloth of Gold is an appropriate commemoration. Unlike the actual summit, this outing is a trifle, a game designed briskly and minimally. Yet its frivolousness is all the more fitting for the real event’s excesses, a chuckle at the peacocking its sovereigns would undertake in the name of an alliance that never materialized.
In other words, this is a wonderful send-up of the absurdities of Medieval gift-giving — and also point-salad game design. Different epochs, perfect bedfellows. And Russell has his tongue firmly embedded in his cheek as he officiates the marriage.
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.
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.
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.