There’s a phrase we use in English, one meant to strike upon its hearer the importance of a topic or the need to keep an atrocity close at heart for fear of its repetition. You’ve heard it before, cast in somber and memorializing tones: “Lest we forget.” The irony, of course, is that we’re a fastidiously forgetful species. We forget things all the time. As a defense mechanism, forgetfulness is unrivaled. In the rare occasion that we don’t forget, we do our damnedest to afflict ourselves with collective amnesia. Lest we recall.
John Clowdus’s history trilogy plays like variations on a theme. Its three titles, Neolithic, Bronze Age, and The Middle Ages, are mechanically similar. They’re all about excavating cards from a deck and then using those cards to build toward a brighter future.
They also express something deeper: cultural memory, in all its complexity and simplicity.
One of my favorite questions to ask fellow historians is “When did the Roman Empire fall?” Not because I have a firm answer — it’s a harder question than you might think — but because our answers say a lot about how we conceptualize historical narratives. It’s easiest to respond with a year. Say, 410 or 476. If we remember Constantinople, maybe 1453. A conclusive final chapter. The end of an era. The opposing answer is that Rome didn’t fall so much as transition; that the Merovingian and Carolingian kings who fancied themselves emperors had no less of a claim than the string of weaklings who had ruled the Empire for centuries. This narrative is more meandering, but still, in its own way, unsatisfying.
And then there’s the answer that one aging professor offered in a course many years ago: “Why are you asking when something imaginary ended?”
I spent a good two years trying to figure out what that meant.
Is a game worth its asking price? The question comes up so often that I’d be surprised to hear that this isn’t also true for other reviewers and critics. Most recently, two reviews in particular drew a lot of attention: Radlands from Roxley Games and The Shores of Tripoli from Fort Circle Games. Both are beautiful titles with noteworthy production values. Both are also shorter games, which understandably raises questions about their longevity. And of course, both are priced toward the high end. Hence the questions.
I get it. When I’m curious about a new game, what do I do? I check to see if anybody’s reviewed it. That’s why I spent years happily fielding these types of questions. Isn’t that what a review is for?
More recently, my policy has shifted. Now I refuse to answer questions about price. For today’s Talking About Games, I want to discuss why that is — and why other reviewers and critics might consider the same.
Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Cole and Drew Wehrle and Travis Hill for a (digital) play of the latest build of John Company’s second edition. I’m not prepared to discuss any details; the game isn’t finished, and anyway the version I played was a departure from the build Cole had shown before, even among playtesters. Drew and Travis were as unprepared as I was for what happened over the next two hours.
But with both John Company and An Infamous Traffic soon to receive new editions — and given Cole’s tendency to revisit the statements made by his work, as discussed in my examination of Pax Pamir’s two editions — this seems like a good time to sit down and crystallize a few thoughts about what his games argue and how they argue it.
Let’s begin with a question. Imagine two different board game settings. The first is a goofball portrayal of piracy, complete with silly names, outrageous violence, and plenty of plunder. The second is a goofball portrayal of colonialism, complete with silly names, outrageous violence, and plenty of plunder.
Which bothers you more?
This was supposed to be a short piece.
You’ve heard the refrain before. “Stay objective.” “Keep politics out of it.” “I just want to hear how the game works.”
Fine, you caught me! Nothing gets past you. Those are three refrains, not one. Except… aren’t they the same thing? All three complaints ultimately come down to a single expectation, that game reviews should conform to some sort of master code, a Strunk & White’s Elements of Style to gather all forms of criticism, bring them together, and in the darkness bind them. Objectivity all over again.
I know what you’re thinking. Haven’t we been here before? True, a few installments back I talked about objectivity and subjectivity. But that was principally about defining those two terms and examining how they sometimes bleed into each other thanks to some complicated linguistic history. Today, I want to travel in a different direction by talking about some of the advantages of subjectivity. Namely, why is it better for everyone when our game critiques are as subjective as possible?
Morality has become a strange notion. Part of the problem is the mental imaging it tends to conjure: at odds with science and ethics, possibly relative, very likely handed down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets, definitely something to do with a scarlet letter. The term seems anachronistic, a throwback to a simpler age. And by “simpler,” I mean either “more enlightened” or “more backward,” depending on one’s assumptions about history.
Let’s set those images aside. Instead, I want to talk about morality as a function of art, and the role of both artists and critics in crafting and evaluating moral statements. In this regard, morality deserves a hopelessly hand-wavy definition of its own — that it’s preoccupied with the well-being of individuals and societies. Vague! Don’t worry, we’ll return to this.
At a more specific level, today we’re talking about one of the crucial delineations in evaluating board games on moral terms; namely, the difference between portraying and endorsing. And it all begins with a brief pamphlet entitled Histriomastix.
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.
Deep breath. Let’s talk about something controversial.
If you’re a hobbyist board gamer, there’s a good chance you’ve heard about Tom Felber’s farewell article, “Tom Stops! 10 (Not Just Nice) Things He Wants to Say at the End.” It’s sparked plenty of angry words, both in support and in repudiation, some defensive and others thoughtful. It probably doesn’t help that the original is in German (Felber is Swiss), which, as those of us who speak the language can tell you, tends to come across more frankly than English, especially in translation.