My dear readers,
The year is coming to its close. I’ll have a look back on its contents in history and gaming from a strictly personal perspective – what I enjoyed this year. Since I tend to be a bit behind the times (as befits the historian) there are not a lot of new releases (in any category) here, but maybe you’ll find some older gems. So, without further ado, here are some good historical board games, non-historical board games, historical non-fiction books, and historical novels. As a bonus, there are three of my favorite posts from this blog in 2017 as well. I’ll highlight one of them as the winner in each category.
Well, isn’t this what this blog is all about – board games on historical subjects from the beginning of times to our times? It is, but I’ll still give you a very narrow selection this year – three games about the Cold War. I’ve been writing my M.A. thesis in history about the depiction of the Cold War in board games this year, so my gaming choices have been a bit directed by that. On the plus side, I could classify some board gaming as “working through the primary sources”. Here are three games that didn’t feel like work at all:
This one offers a very bottom-up view: Players will take on the roles of insurgent ringleaders in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, fighting militia and Soviet tanks while desperately trying to resolve their many challenges from giving food to protesting students to relieving the besieged radio station. The game can be played cooperatively or confrontatively. In the latter case, one player will play the Hungarian security forces and the Soviet army and try to squash the uprising. Days of Ire sheds light on a not-so-well-known part of history and gives an accessible and engaging gaming experience. Plus, the artwork is just gorgeous.
Iron Curtain was published too late to be incorporated into my thesis, so I actually only played it for pleasure (what a wild concept!). Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen are on a Cold War spree in their board game designs recently – after 13 Days they published 13 Minutes (both about the Cuban Missile Crisis) and now Iron Curtain. I hear there is a space race game in the making, too. Iron Curtain is rather superficial in its theme (after all, the entire game consists of only 18 cards that act as an event as well as a country), but the delicate agony over which card to play when, where and how is something I presume a Cold Warrior like Kennedy would have enjoyed as well.
And the winner is…
It couldn’t be any other game for this year. I’ve played it about 40 times this year, mostly online at Boardgamecore. It’s a tough tooth-and-nail fight between East and West Germany over economic output, international prestige, ideological attraction, and, most importantly, standard of living. All areas are interdependent, and while you cannot neglect any single one completely, you’ll have to prioritize. If you enjoy card-driven games with a very low luck factor (most of the cards are in an open pool instead of players’ hands), this one is for you. This year has seen the release of an expansion as well: Wir sind das Volk! – 2+2 introduces the superpowers USA and USSR as playable factions (quarreling over global dominance, the space race, and nuclear weapons) which are allied with one of the German states each. However, only one nation can win, and so you’ll find yourself carefully balancing your own needs versus those of the team. I haven’t gotten too deep into the expansion yet, but the experience seems to be quite different from the base game.
Breaking news: Games can be worth your while even when they’re not about history! At least some. Like those three here:
To be fair, The War of the Ring would probably make my list every single year, even though I have not played it all that often this year. The epic struggle between Sauron and the Free Peoples of Middle-Earth is rendered so strong in theme, narrative and dramaturgy in this game that it’s hard not to be enthralled by it. Most epic moment of this year’s games: Frodo is almost uncorrupted and close to Mount Doom, and Aragorn makes a last stand at Helm’s Deep to give him the little time he still needs. Plot twist: Frodo is revealed with every single hunt for the Ring in the last turn, which does not add to his corruption but costs him time. The forces of evil slaughter Aragorn and his faithful. Darkness abounds. I was on the losing side of this game, and still it was a lot of fun to see it play out like this.
Maybe it’s because I hail from a wine-growing region. Maybe it’s because Essential Edition sounds so sophisticated. Maybe it’s just because Viticulture is a mechanically elegant and visually pleasing game. No matter what, I get immense joy out of playing it, and while I hear it can be really cut-throat, I enjoy just playing it for the pleasure of building my winery, producing some fine wines, and imagining I’m in rural Tuscany. I also like drinking wine while playing it, so maybe it’s just that.
On a side note: This is probably the game that screams “EURO!” the most in my collection: It’s a worker placement game about farming in pre-modern times. Ticks all the boxes. Our winner, however, is a completely different game…
Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have gotten the idea already that I like this one. At least that could be a reasonable explanation for live-tweeting games of it.
That it lends itself to really engaging narrative with its detailed storybooks and strong characters doesn’t hurt live-tweeting either. If you’re looking for a cooperative RPG with strong theme, Mice & Mystics is a really solid choice, and so is this second expansion to the base game. Don’t be fooled by the word “expansion” – this has as many scenarios and miniatures as the base game and takes your mousey heroes into the completely new world of a forest that is decidedly less idyllic than it looks. We still have half of the story book to go in our campaign, so expect some live-tweets again.
Non-Fiction History Books
Not everything in life is board gaming. But if one must read, the book can at least be about history, right? Not only is the understanding of history valuable by itself, it might also increase the enjoyment you get from playing a historical game.
Roman history always works for me. I’ve read a lot of it already, so general works on the subject are by now prone to repeating things to me I already know. Greg Woolf, however, gives such a fluent narration of events that I did not mind at all, and the Woolf’s supreme scholarship shines even more in the thematic chapters about topics as diverse and engaging as the ecology of the Empire, slavery, or identities. So many new insights for me! A delight for newcomers and veterans of Roman history alike.
A fascinating account of the end of World War I and its revolutionary aftermath in Germany. The book is very engagingly written (like all of Haffner’s books). The author takes a strong stance in favor of the revolutionary workers and soldiers (and, consequentially, against both the imperial and the post-imperial governments) which was likely influenced by his sympathies for the protest movement of the late 60s (the time he wrote the book). He makes a rather convincing case, however. Sadly, it appears there is no English translation of the book.
Both of these books were strong contenders, but by a narrow margin, our 2017 winner in this category is…
I read this book for my Reformation 500 posts. For a long time, I had not really engaged with the Reformation, and my knowledge was spotty and with large gaps of oblivion. This book did not only fill those gaps and give me a much better understanding of the Reformation in Germany and Europe as well as its importance for the world ever since, it also excited me about these events, connected them to my cultural upbringing (in a Lutheran family), and made me want to read more about them and experience them in board game form. What more can a history book achieve? To top it off, the book is not only learned, but also pleasantly written, and a mere 190 pages long. If you read only one history book this year, this would be a great choice.
Non-fiction is fine, but if you want to exercise your imagination a bit more, historical novels can be a great way to engage you in thoughts about past and present. Like these three:
This is the first novel of the Aubrey-Maturin series of Napoleonic-era naval novels about Royal Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his ship’s doctor, naturalist and philosopher Stephen Maturin. You might have watched the movie of the same name with Russell Crowe starring as Aubrey. While there is the sailing and fighting you’d expect, the novel also offers deep insights into the society of early-1800s Europe, so Aubrey-Maturin is kind of Jane Austen at sea. O’Brian’s intimate knowledge of his subject matter leads to a historically accurate diverse set of characters, which is all the more impressive given that this book is almost fifty years old already (you know, back in the day when people pretended non-whites had been invented by Martin Luther King or so). The strongest part, however, is the friendship and personalities of the two very different protagonists. I’m definitely hooked and by now reading the third book in the series.
Not a historical novel in the strict sense, but rather an alternative history novel. The plot follows soldier Sebastian Stichnote who, at the outbreak of World War I, is assigned to the Niedermayer-Hentig expedition aimed to bring Afghanistan into the war on the side of the Central Powers. What follows is an adventure story reminiscent of the classics from the 19th and 20th century, and a wild take on what could have been in and after World War I. Bonus points for many scenes involving characters playing a (non-historical) new board game that appears to be suspiciously similar to the classic Risk (Parker Brothers, Albert Lamorisse) – or, with the German title, Risiko. Sadly, there is no translation of the German original.
Our winner is…
Sometimes, a historical novel is just based on such a dramatic and colorful era in time that it’s almost impossible not to be hooked by it – like this one that can draw on all the gritty spectacle of the fall of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. However, Augustus’s appeal goes far beyond the events and the history. The story is pieced together from countless short chapters in the form of letters, orders, recollections etc. of many people, but never the title character’s. Augustus is thoroughly explored, but never fully transparent – and thereby a magnificent protagonist in this story about the price of success and the solitude of power.
On the Blog
Lastly, some things from my blog. I only started this year, but there are already some features I am especially fond of (and maybe you were too).
Is Board Gaming Affordable?
This is probably the driest post I’ve ever written for this blog. It contains no less than six tables of (very basic) calculations. Also, it deals with the not all that cheerful topic of making the most (financially) of your board gaming experience. In some way, it’s probably the truest expression of myself for the same reasons. If that does not deter you, read the post here.
Reformation 500 Double Feature
Of all the posts I wrote about anniversaries of historical events this year, none dealt with a more significant one. Also, the story of this small monk defying Pope and Emperor is dramatic in its own right. And, finally, there are quite some rather interesting board games about the subject. With all three aspects combined, my post on it became so long that I split it into two parts, which you can find here and here.
My favorite posts of 2017, however, are in the…
One of my most recent projects – in cooperation with the lovely folks from InsideGMT, GMT Games’ in-house online magazine – is an article series about 1989: Dawn of Freedom and how portrays the history, politics and culture of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. So far, I’ve written two posts about different explanations for this sudden collapse and how they feature in the game, which are here and here.
In this spirit, I wish you a happy new year 2018! Let me know what your highlights of 2017 were in the comments.
1. More to come on this matter soon here on this blog. Stay tuned.
2. After all, he was a big fan of Diplomacy (Avalon Hill, Allan B. Calhamer).
3. You should totally check it out, the implementation is magnificent – it enforces the rules, has a clean design, is very user-friendly and completely free. Even designer Richard Sivél plays the occasional game there, and the site does not only offer quick one-off matches, but also organizes regular competitive league play.