Reformation 500 – Part 2

In the first part of this article, we’ve looked at the amazing life of Martin Luther and the games that commemorate it. Now we’re going a step deeper – both with in the history and the games.

First, I’ll discuss the factors that made Luther’s unlikely success possible. Then I’ll go into the Reformation outside of Germany and the effects it had on both Protestants and Catholics in the making of the modern world. Finally, we’ll have a look at the games that allow you to recreate this crucial moment in history.

Luther: Luck and Leadership

Here I Stand Printing Press.jpg

The printing press helped to quickly spread ideas – like an Early Modern Twitter. Image: Card “Printing Press” from Here I Stand (© GMT Games).

How could this little monk prevail against the combined power of emperor and pope? In short: Luther was incredibly lucky. Structurally, renaissance Europe was ready for a movement like his: The disappointment with the clergy, especially the pope, created a spiritual hole to be filled with a new theology. On the other hand, the princes fought for more independence from the emperor and the pope alike and were ready to support a movement that promised them to take more control over their respective churches. This spiritual and political-institutional openness for a religious reformation were nothing new. Luther, however, could exploit it much better than previous religious innovators (think of the Cathars in the south of France in the 14th or Jan Hus in Bohemia in the 15th century) because the invention of the printing press allowed his ideas to spread much faster and reach many more people.


This, however, was also helped by the grave mistakes Luther’s opponents made in dealing with him. The first of these mistakes was the slow reaction of both papacy and empire to the 95 theses. While the papacy underestimated the impact this little treatise by a monk from a faraway city could have, the emperors (Maximilian I before his death in January 1519 and Charles V afterwards) were mostly concerned with ensuring a smooth succession.[1] Once Luther’s theses spread like wildfire, they tapped deeply into the papal insecurity about its own authority. Therefore, the papal theologians condemned Luther strongly instead of trying to find an amiable solution and shifted the debate away from the relatively harmless topic of indulgences and instead to the matter of papal authority. This just magnified Luther’s standing and the attractiveness of his teachings.

While Luther was extraordinarily lucky, the Reformation would not have been possible without his own wide-ranging talents. He succeeded in making the Reformation attractive to the common population by the power of his Bible translation as well as his works of sacral music, to the theologians (and urban laypeople) by the power of his theology, and to the princes whose religious commitment would protect or suppress the new form of faith by his astute political leadership. Luther was in his way an example of the early modern multidimensional genius.

The Reformation Outside of Germany

The Reformation spread from Luther’s Germany. Especially Switzerland had a host of religious reform movements of its own: Huldrych Zwingli created a more radical word-and-Scripture-centered theology in the city of Zurich. A group to be known as the Anabaptists (Greek for re-baptizers) split from Zwingli and emphasized adult baptism as a conscious decision for church membership and the communal owning of property. Finally, John Calvin introduced strict religious rules under the framework of councils and elections in the free city of Geneva. Zwingli’s persecution and killing of the Anabaptists and Calvin’s moral policing of his fellow citizens (including searching their houses for Catholic items) and severe punishments if they were found lacking showed intolerant sides the new faith could have.

Sola Fide - Henry's Divorce.jpg

Who needs to be friends with the pope when you can marry Anne Boleyn? Image: Card Henry’s Divorce from Sola Fide (© Stronghold Games).

In other countries, the Reformation set in later and was mostly a top-down project of the local rulers. The kings of Denmark and later Sweden introduced Protestantism to their not fully enchanted subjects partly out of theological consideration, partly to increase their control over the church. Henry VIII, king of England, founded the Anglican church when he couldn’t obtain a divorce from the papacy. As the head of this church, he was free to remarry, which he would go on to do an impressive five times.

After Luther: Religious Cohabitation and the Making of the Modern World

In 1546, emperor Charles V thought his chance had come. He was finally free from challenges elsewhere and pounced on the Protestant princes in the Empire. This conflict (called the Schmalkaldic War after the Schmalkaldic League of the Protestant princes) ended with a resounding military victory of the emperor, but little changed in matters of religion. Protestantism couldn’t be physically extinguished anymore. A few years later, in 1555, the emperor and the princes agreed to the Peace of Augsburg to settle religious matters in the Empire by the formula of cuius regio, eius religio – “whose region, his religion”, that is, the princes were to decide the faith of the subjects in their territories. This officially accepted the plurality of confessions and church structures and was the first step in the movement to remove religion from politics in Europe. While the Thirty Years’ War (1618—1648) was an echo of the religious wars of the 16th century, its outcome confirmed this process of the primacy of politics and the sovereignty of states.

Here I Stand Society of Jesus

The Jesuits’ educational institutions were instrumental for the counter-reformation. Image: Card “Society of Jesus” from Here I Stand (© GMT Games).

Outside of politics, however, the Reformation revitalized religious faith – not only for the adherents to the new faith of Protestantism. New Catholic orders – the Capuchins and the Jesuits – were founded. Especially the Jesuits with their commitment to education would prove an effective tool in (re-)converting people to Catholicism. Catholic doctrine and tradition were also confirmed and strengthened at the Council of Trent, so that both confessions rested now on a contemporary theological fundament. This new Catholic religious impetus had the most far-reaching consequences in the New World, where the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors did not only claim the land and the resources for their kingdoms, but also went on to (often forcibly) convert the natives to their religion. Today, Latin America is the home to the largest number of Catholics.

On the Protestant side, the new faith and its success with the urban middle classes gave credibility to the early bourgeois order of individualism, especially pertaining to individual property rights (instead of the old feudal order or the communal alternative as presented by the revolting peasants or the Anabaptists). These links between religious beliefs and economical thought are famously presented in Max Weber’s seminal The Protestant Spirit and the Ethic of Capitalism. While the Reformation accelerated the advent of the Modern Age in this respect, it also delayed modernity in another way: The revitalization of religion emphasized faith over reason as the central aspect of life and postponed rationalism and secularization for another two centuries.

Games About the Reformation

Sola Fide Cover.jpg

Cover image of Sola Fide (© Stronghold Games).

So far, the games we’ve treated were a humorous game about the pre-Reformation period and some educational games launched for the anniversary in Germany that shy away from the historical process, its agents and conflicts. That this is not the only way to deal with the anniversary becomes apparent when comparing to another game designed for it, but aimed at an international audience and by two American designers. Sola Fide: The Reformation lets two players as Catholics and Protestants duke it out for religious control over the “circles” (political sub-units) of the Holy Roman Empire. Players draft cards from their individual decks at the beginning of the game. Afterwards, the game is spent winning over the nobility and the commoners of the circles as well as shifting the balance of power between nobility and commoners. Every won circle gives victory points, and, if there has been a disputation in the circle, a special reward. Despite the game being on the more accessible side (Board Game Geek lists it at 45min of play time), there is a fair share of differentiation between the players that mirrors the history – not only do they have individual decks of event cards, the Protestants also have an easier time making the commoners embrace their cause (and, conversely, the Catholics fare better with the nobility) and only the Catholics can take military action.

Here I Stand Cover.jpg

Cover image of Here I Stand (© GMT Games).

If that is not enough for you, look no further than Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation, 1517—1555. Ed Beach’s monumental game of Reformation-era military campaigning and religious conflict gives 2-6 players the opportunity to take helm of the major powers of the era and decide the fate of Europe (as well as the New World in one of the many subsystems of the game). Two of those major powers are the Papacy and the Protestants which are the main players in the Reformation subsystem of the game – which is not to say the other powers would not take an interest in that system as well (Henry VIII might be really interested in getting a divorce, and if the Pope will not oblige him…). Especially the Protestants, however, can be really taken up by their religious activities and spend entire turns without engaging in any kind of military campaigning. Here I Stand lets you do all kinds of fun stuff relating to the Reformation. Build St Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Translate the Bible into the vernacular languages of Western Europe and go on a proselytizing spree once your translation is ready. Have a disputation between a Catholic and a Protestant debater, and if the Protestant does badly, burn the infidel at the stake. The game is really committed to stimulating those little bits of historical knowledge in your memory. Therefore, it generously throws in events and individuals of the Reformation era and lets you use them to your advantage. More institutional and structural matters that do not do the same thing of “Yeah, I read of this dude somewhen, and now I’m going to use him to stick it to the Pope” are less prominent.

If you’re looking for a Reformation experience in a board game, Here I Stand comes with two caveats. The first is that is only partially a game about the Reformation. There is a lot of leading troops into battle in the great power struggles of early modern Europe. There is some exploration and conquest of the New World. There is piracy in the Mediterranean. Heck, there are bonus points for the French if they are generous patrons of the arts. Depending on which power you play, you might not be very involved in the Reformation at all – let’s say you play the Ottomans, then you’ll not really bother with that little schism of the Christians and just be happy when the pesky Protestants distract the Hapsburg emperor so you can try to assault Vienna again. Second, Here I Stand is not winning any prizes for the most accessible game ever. It has a player count of 2-6, but there is a broad consensus that it works best with six. The rulebook has a daunting 44 pages.[2] Board Game Geek lists the play time for one game at three to six hours (depending on the scenario), but longer games are not unheard of. So, Here I Stand certainly demands a level of commitment not every gaming group can match. Maybe it is best not to approach it from the viewpoint of “This is a board game like other board games” and rather “This is a unique shared historical immersion experience for me and my friends”.

Games Referenced

Sola Fide (Stronghold Games, Christian Leonhard/Jason Matthews)
Here I Stand (GMT Games, Ed Beach)

Further Reading

For biographies of Martin Luther, see part 1 of this article. An excellent introduction to the politics and theology of the Reformation that is both accessible and deep is Appold, Kenneth G.: The Reformation. A Brief History, Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, MA 2011.

If you want more information on specific aspects of the Reformation, be it events, countries, processes, the New Cambridge Modern History has you covered. Volume II deals with the Reformation from 1520 to 1559. The newest edition of this is from 1990, but if you can bear reading a bit older scholarship, the edition of 1958 is accessible online here.


1. The Holy Roman Empire was an elective monarchy, so successions were always insecure. While it was customary to elect the heir to the deceased monarch, this was far from an automatism and the Empire had seen its fair share of contested elections that resulted in two claimants to the title. Especially from the Later Middle Ages on, the electors also expected to be rewarded (usually financially) for their vote. In the election of 1519, Charles V’s claim was not only rivalled by the French king Francis I, but some of the German princes also weighed the candidacy of one of their own, Saxon elector Frederick the Wise. Charles finally secured the election by handing out the stunning sum of almost a million gulden to the electors – money that contained almost three metric tons of gold (worth over 120 million $ at current gold prices), or about 17,000 average annual wages in Germany (almost 500 million $ based on the current median wage in Germany).

2. To be fair, that’s partially due to its thorough procedural approach and depending on the power you play you can usually skip some passages – i.e., the Protestants don’t need to know about New World exploration or piracy. Also, the designer offers a handy introduction that promises to teach Here I Stand in 20 minutes, which is better than some other, lighter games I know.


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