Period Piece

Board games can manipulate players by manipulating history

If history is the collection of stories we tell about ourselves, then historical re-enactments are a means to relive those stories and find our own place in them, as participants rather than observers. In a period costume with a replica of an antique gun, re-enacting a famous battle, one might easily feel absorbed into the theater of an event, but board games that aspire to historical simulation have different stakes, at an entirely different level of abstraction.

Board game simulations of history can seem quixotic. Such games as Here I Stand, about the protestant reformation, or 1989: Dawn of Freedom, about the popular revolutions against Communism in Eastern Europe, try to model events or eras accurately, but only in order to map various ways they could have been different. After all, why would anyone play a game whose outcome was predetermined? To make history into a playable game — compelling and comprehensive without being pedantic — demands that historical forces be abstracted and simplified.

But there is no way to translate historical movements and ideas into game mechanics and victory conditions without also importing the board game designers’ biases and preconceived notions, whether they intend to or not. This makes games at least as much about contemporary ideology as they are about historical re-creation. Nonetheless, board game designer Phil Eklund, creator of Bios:Genesis, a game about the beginning of multicellular life, and Neanderthal, about the origins of human culture in Europe, unabashedly believes his designs are worthy of being designated as historical. Not every designer sees their work this way. Many aim for entertainment more than erudition, but Eklund stands apart.

During a 2016 panel interview at Spiel, the world’s largest board-game fair, held annually in Essen, Germany, on the topic of history in game design, he said, “I think that games have great simulation power, and if they can distill reality down to their essentials, then they have predictive power.” Eklund told the audience that properly distilled games (like his own, presumably) offered insight analogous to that provided by what he termed the “science of history.” That is, they both looked at people by their past actions to judge what worked, what did not, and why. The shortcomings of the historical actors, and not the game designers, are purportedly revealed, while the ideological ends to which the designers are putting history are cloaked.

At their best, historical works are upfront in how they are subjective. At their worst, they obscure ideological forces

Framing the practice of history as science is a misleading, even dangerous, conception. At their best, historical works are upfront in the deliberate but subjective selection and evaluation of sources used to build narrative. At their worst, they obscure ideological forces influencing methodology and purport to make objective claims. Games cannot hide their subjective nature so easily, but their procedural nature and their apparent openness to chance may obscure how susceptible they too are to injections of ideological readings. The game can be “played fairly,” and this can suggest that the playing field is neutral.

At Spiel, Pax Renaissance, Eklund’s most recent game (designed with his son Matt) was unveiled. Set in the financial milieu of 15th and 16th century Europe, Pax Renaissance casts players as bankers from the era, such as Jacob Fugger or Cosimo di Medici, whose choices, according to the game summary found on back of the Pax Renaissance box, “determine if Europe is elevated into the bright modern era or remains festering in dark feudalism.” Jockeying for control over the ten empires that comprise the game board, players can simulate what is like to “finance kings and Republics, sponsor voyages of discovery, join secret cabals, or unleash jihads and inquisitions,” all within the span of two hours.

In the same interview at Spiel, Eklund described the game as an examination of “the birth of the modern world,” addressing this question: “how did the Western world become the capitalistic place of supermarkets, individualism, and how that differs from the East.” That motive — outlining the historical roots of the East/West divide — is immediately evident in the game’s design. Its 120 cards, in part, are split into separate East and West decks and depict personalities, social groups, and movements drawn from their respective geographical orientation. Players use “florins” — plastic tokens — to purchase cards and form the tableaux that represents their personal network of connections and influence. The cards permit players to execute conspiracies, ignite peasant or civil wars, or install republics over the ashes of autocracies.

Victory comes from achieving one of four potential post-Renaissance historical outcomes Eklund outlines in the rulebook: militaristic imperialism, trade globalization, theocratic absolutism, or sustained renaissance. But underpinning all the associated victory conditions is the idea that Western ingenuity makes such outcomes possible in the first place. Players exploit resources in both the East and the West to achieve victory, but they do for the exclusive development of Western culture.

In a designer diary posted to BoardGameGeek, Eklund claimed that the game’s distinct East and West setup, in the market cards along with the trade routes that snake through the game’s ten empires, “fundamentally defines the two as opposing philosophic and cultural dispositions.” In Eklund’s view, Western thought pursued reason as a means to understand the world, whereas Eastern thought relied on mystical interpretations.

Several footnotes in the Pax Renaissance rulebook also call attention to cultural differences that allegedly preclude Islamic societies from benefiting from Renaissance innovations in the West. He argues, for instance, that Islamic merchants relied on status hierarchies for trade while Western merchants developed “sophisticated” systems like double-entry bookkeeping and letters of credit to usurp such feudalistic norms and expand the possibilities of economic exchange. Western cultures began to “uphold the value of the individual,” while Eastern counterparts began to increasingly “suborn individuals to group and collectivist thinking.” As a result, he claims, “the Eastern idea of individuals sacrificing themselves for their society” continues to linger on in “today’s Muslim ideological war targeting Western values.” In the diary post, Eklund concludes that “in order to fight, those who believe in Western values must acknowledge we are at war.”

To play Pax Renaissance, then, is to not only re-enact the emergence of Western power but to celebrate it

This raises questions about what sort of Renaissance is being modeled in Pax Renaissance. Far from being a historical consequence that the game reveals as inevitable, the clash-of-civilizations framework shapes Eklund’s view of history from the outset and dictates the way players experience it through the game. To play Pax Renaissance is to not only re-enact the emergence of Western power but to celebrate it.

Ideally, a simulation game will allow for a wide range of outcomes; it tries to simulate the development, interaction, and resolution of pivotal forces, including ideological ones, over time. Simulative play can produce a constellation of counterfactual narratives that gesture toward history’s openness rather than its deterministic constraints.

Eklund tries to reconcile simulation with determinism through teleology. In the rulebook, Eklund rejects the “individuals and professors [who] routinely label the Renaissance as an irreverent and Eurocentric illusion of progress.” His belief in the simulative and predictive power of his design relies on his sense of history as progress — and thus his definition of what progress is. “Westernization replacing serfdom is a good thing,” Eklund writes in another rulebook footnote. The bankers players represent “vanquished medieval feudalism” and “steered the Western world out of the Dark Ages.” The rulebook’s examples extol the virtues of capitalist society’s “unsung middlemen” who wielded “no swords and no power” — the bankers, retailers, and entrepreneurs who generated the “vast majority of productive activity” through noncoercive transactions that benefitted all involved.

It is true that the 14th and 15th centuries saw the emergence of a dynamic European economy, thanks in part to increases of both population and newly mined precious metals from the Americas and Central Europe. But it also triggered inflation that, as historian H.G. Koenigsberger observed in Estates and Revolutions, fell disproportionately on wage earners and those on fixed incomes. He also points out that while the cash nexus reduced the importance of feudal relationships, it also increased the tyrannical power of autocracies.

Using period labels like “the Renaissance” assumes history is a process of eventual world improvement. But it is not so simple. As economic historian Witold Kula notes, every age exhibits a “co-existence of asynchronisms.” That is, one era does not rise at the conclusion of another. The development and spread of new ideas, new cultural norms, accelerates or shrinks in the presence of asymmetrical power wielded by individuals and society alike. Old ideas, old norms, remain in circulation long after the circumstances of their origins have passed. It is difficult to frame the 15th and 16th centuries as progressive in the face of the constant fixture of plague outbreaks, entrenched aristocracies, and peasant revolts. As Jacques Le Goff wrote in “For an Extended Middle Ages,” “the Renaissance was not a phenomenon marking the end of the Middle Ages but a recurrent feature of a very long period of time during which men were constantly seeking authority in the past, in a previous golden age.”

Indeed, periodization itself was a Renaissance tactic used to great effect by Italian humanists in the 15th century. Le Goff noted that Giovanni Andrea, the Pope’s librarian, coined the term Middle Ages in 1469 to affirm his era’s return to greatness. In this, Italian humanists, according to Le Goff, “were advertising nothing less than a cultural revolution.”

Pax Renaissance adopts this tactic and gives it a geographic as well historical spin, presenting a return to the origins of capitalism as both affirmation of our present era and evidence of the continued decline and degradation of the East. It masks the negative impacts brought about by the bankers it celebrates not only by cheerleading for them throughout the rulebook but also by making you literally inhabit their decision-making process and make their ends your own. You can win only by pushing capitalism forward, no matter how many Eastern resources and empires you exploit to do it.

It is not as if Pax Renaissance is oblivious to the negative consequences of capitalist-fueled militarism. Even two of the game’s victory conditions, militaristic imperialism and theocratic absolutism, suggest outcomes counter to what Eklund sees as the larger accomplishments of the West. But periodization allows Pax Renaissance to model the effects of such negative outcomes in the abstract, within the game’s mechanics, while mitigating and obscuring them at the level of history.

Ultimately, periodization allows Pax Renaissance to close the loop linking Renaissance glory with contemporary Western chauvinism. As players build networks of influence and shape the next historical period of European history in the game, they produce limitless counterfactual outcomes that, regardless of their nuances, all lend credibility to Pax Renaissance’s validity as a simulator, and thus, its validity ideologically. Play becomes a means of investigating the past to validate the present.

Toward the end of the panel interview at Spiel, Eklund discussed his disdain for games that simulate order from the top down. He called out games like Civilization that cast players as godlike figures who paternalistically shape their world. But in framing Pax Renaissance as an exploration into how the West became the land of “747s, skyscrapers, and Coca-Cola,” Eklund indulges in the same sort of fantasy, at the expense of history and the people the West has suppressed and exploited.

Jeremy Antley holds a PhD in Russian History from the University of Kansas and currently resides in Portland, Oregon. His most recent work on wargames and culture can be found at First Person Scholar and in Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming.