The Leipzig Debate

What is the most exciting part about gaming history? – Doing what the historical agents might have done („Let’s see how an alliance with Imperial Germany would have worked out for Victorian Britain“) or see how what they did would translate into the game („John Shore was made a baron after his time with the East India Company, which is like scoring a prize after leaving the office of chairman.“
In short: Nothing is better than taking the perspective and agency of a historical agent. Card-Driven Games (CDGs) are reputed to have trouble with that. They can include all kinds of historical events on the cards, but the downsides to that are

  1. that the exact agency of the player in bringing about those events is a bit fuzzy (how exactly am I responsible for that storm which wrecked the opponent fleet?) and the player might feel „like an overworked Time Lord, delaying discoveries, accelerating accidents“
  2. and that the „standard“ moves to be conducted with the action points can be rather abstracted and generic („spread influence“).

One way out of this dilemma is employing standard events for each player which return to their hand – like the Home Cards for each power in Here I Stand (Ed Beach/GMT Games), which can be played once per turn and perfectly mesh with the respective power’s play style.
Today, we’ll look how that plays out in regard to the Leipzig Debate, one of the defining events of the early Reformation. After a quick look at the budding Reformation, we’ll go straight to the contestants of the debate and then the theological contest itself – and how it shaped events to come. All the while, Here I Stand will be our companion.

The Budding Reformation

The late Middle Ages were an era of intense theological dispute. Heterodox theologians like John Wycliffe in England or Jan Hus in Bohemia were named heretics, and, in Hus’s case, burned at the stake for it. At the same time, papal authority was far from certain. Competing models of the church (be that one in which bishops play a larger role, one in which the church is aligned with a monarch, or one in which the laymen are empowered) existed and were debated.
It was this theological hotbed in which Martin Luther put forward his 95 Theses in October 1517. The theses challenged the church’s practice of selling indulgences which were promised to reduce sinners‘ time to serve in purgatory. These new ideas gained followers among the theologians (like Andreas Carlstadt), but also stout adversaries – one of them a certain Johannes Eck.

The Contestants: Luther, Eck, and Carlstadt

In retrospect, Luther’s illustrious life towers over that of the other participants in the Leipzig Debate. His search for salvation as a monk, his struggle with Pope and Emperor, and his immense influence as the leader of a new strand of Christianity are a dramatic story in their own right. However, even after the publishing of the 95 Theses, he did not stand out among the others too much.
Johannes Eck was a few years younger than Luther, but must have possessed an extraordinarily sharp mind. He entered university when he was a mere eleven years old, received his M.A. at 14 and a doctorate at 23. By then, he was already a much-sought-after man for theological analysis on matters as delicate as the church’s ban to charge interest on loans. Both he and Luther were friends with the theologian Christoph Scheurl, who in April 1517 sent Luther a copy of the ideas Eck had put forward in a disputation shortly before. Luther took up Eck’s sharp, almost polemic style for the 95 Theses.
Andreas Carlstadt was one of Luther’s earliest supporters. As he was both older and academically more renowned than Luther, he strove to make his own independent contributions to the early Reformation. Thus he transgressed the mere criticism of the practice of selling indulgences and instead went for the jugular: In 1518, he published theses of his own on grace and the human will. In these he questioned Papal authority – and he also spent a considerable amount of time and ink to attack Eck directly.


Carlstadt has committed himself publishing a treatise and is now exposed to Papal debate attacks.

Eck sensed his chance. He challenged Carlstadt to a disputation – a formalized academic debate with very rigid rules. The disputation was to be held in Leipzig (by choice of the supporters of the Reformation) in summer 1519. This corresponds to initiating a debate in Here I Stand – a key instrument for the Protestants and the Papacy to flip some cities to their respective religious beliefs. It goes beyond that, however: If you score a big victory, you might be able to disgrace the opponent debater (if you are the Protestant player) or to burn him at the stake (if you are the Papal player), which removes said debater from the game and wins you crucial victory points.

Clash of Titans: The Leipzig Debate

In Here I Stand, the Leipzig Debate is one of the Home Cards of the Papacy. It allows the Papal player to initiate a debate and, instead of choosing debaters at random, either pick their own debater or exclude one Protestant debater. That, of course, is best used to create lopsided match-ups. A skilled and aggressive debater like Eck can be used to pounce on weaker opponents, if they are left committed (that is, have conducted an action before) by themselves.

HIS-006_Leipzig Debate

Papal Home Card “Leipzig Debate” from Here I Stand. The etching in the top half is not contemporary for the Reformation, but from a mid-19th series on Luther’s life by German artist Gustav König. Image ©GMT Games.

That’s precisely what happened to Carlstadt after he’d „committed“ himself with his theses. Eck and he debated the issue of grace and good works, and while Carlstadt was reasonably compelling in his writings, oral debate was not his strength. (Eck had to call on the judges to prohibit Carlstadt from looking up quotes from books all the time during the debate.) Initially, everything at the Leipzig Debate was happening according to Eck’s design. However, Luther had managed to get admitted to the debate as well, joining a second round after the initial Eck/Carlstadt debate.
„Here I Stand“ is not only the name of the game, it’s also the Protestant player’s home card. While its more common application is to dive into the discard pile and grab the choicest event (Printing Press, anyone?), the card can also be used to insert Luther into a debate in the German language zone if he was not selected before. It is, therefore, the perfect counter to the lopsided matchups the Papacy wants to create with the Leipzig Debate. (Of course, once the reformation spreads, debaters outside of the German language zone like William Tyndale in England or Pierre-Michel Olivétan become prime targets for Eck’s attacks.)

HIS-007_Here I Stand

Protestant Home Card “Here I Stand” from Here I Stand. Note how both ways to use the card for an event are tied to Luther – testament to his immense personal importance for the case of the Reformation. Image ©GMT Games.

Luther’s strategy in the debate was to undermine Papal centrality by referring to the Orthodox churches of the East which did not accept the Pope as their head. Yet, they had undoubtedly produced Christian saints – therefore, the Papal claim to authority would have turned saints into heretics and have been anti-Christian. Eck, on the other hand, wanted to force a direct confrontation over the matter of Papal authority and thus expose Luther as a heretic. A clash was inevitable. Eck confronted Luther with the Bohemian apostate theologian Jan Hus who was burned for heresy at the behest of the Council of Constance – and Luther replied that a Council may err and some of Hus’s teachings were indeed most Christian!
Not only the content of the debate was controversial. The conventional rules of a debate were also used and abused as the contestants saw fit. As the debate wore on, Luther felt constrained by his assigned role as a passive „respondent“ who was allowed only to refute Eck’s arguments, not to expand on his own. He broke out of this role when he insisted on the superiority of his argument by merit of it being from the higher authority – he had quoted from the Bible, Eck only from the writings of St. Jerome. The rules of the debate went fully out of the window when both contestants accused each other of heresy – strictly forbidden, so that theological debates would not have grave consequences for the contestants‘ lives afterward. When the debate came to a close, Eck employed the common, but petty technique of talking well beyond his allotted time to deny Luther a closing statement. However, on the intervention of the Duke of Saxony (on whose territory the debate was held), the debate was prolonged by another two days. After Luther had given his final statement, he left the format of the academic dialogue entirely to address the audience directly and in German (unlike the academic Latin mandatorily used in disputations): He did not deny the Pope’s authority, Luther said. He did, however, deny that said authority was derived from divine law. With this final bang, Luther had turned an academic debate into a public discourse, in which the laypeople were judges over the merit of an argument. This move challenged ecclesiastical authority more than anything Luther had said before.

After the Clash: Consequences of the Debate

On purely academic terms, Eck had won the debate. Luther had not been able to refute all his arguments, and had frequently broken the academic rules. Luther himself privately admitted his defeat, as Eck’s confrontational arguments had forced him to draw conclusions for which he had not been ready yet – most importantly, his defense of the Hus. This had grave consequences for Luther’s personal security: He’d allowed Eck to paint an even bigger target on his back for the upcoming heresy trial against him.
However, Luther’s bold stand energized the public and turned the Reformation from a matter discussed in small theological circles into a mass movement. And what does the outcome of the Debate mean for the bigger picture in Here I Stand? I’d say the debate was a draw. No spaces are being flipped. There are still up to 8.5 turns to go. Gather five of your best friends and give it a try.

Further Reading

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.
For a classic biography of Martin Luther, see Bainton, Roland: Here I Stand. A Life of Martin Luther, Abingdon, Nashville, TN 1950, which you can also find online here.
Volker Leppin examines the two main contestants and their differing (and aligning views) in Luther und Eck – Streit ohne Ende?, in: Bärsch, Jürgen/Maier, Konstantin (eds.): Johannes Eck (1486—1543). Scholastiker – Humanist – Kontroverstheologe, Verlag Friedrich Pustet, Regensburg 2014, pp. 131—160 (in German).
For a thorough blow-by-blow account of the academic and theological dimensions of the debate and its wider implications, see Schubert, Anselm: Libertas Disputandi. Luther und die Leipziger Disputation als akademisches Streitgespräch, in: Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 105, 4, 2008, pp. 411—442, online here (free registration required).


7 thoughts on “The Leipzig Debate

  1. Pingback: Luther’s Baptism of Fire: The Leipzig Debate As Seen Through Here I Stand | Inside GMT blog

  2. whovian223

    Ok, this is a perfect post to ask about this. (Great post, by the way!)

    I’m kind of interested in playing this. There is an organized play of it at Dragonflight convention that I’m going to in August.

    They’ve scheduled this for 12 hours. I’m assuming because it’s very possible to have all newbie players.

    What are the odds that it will take that long?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. cliosboardgames Post author

      First of all, awesome you get an opportunity to play Here I Stand!
      I’ll answer you indirectly: The length of a HIS game depends on several factors which I shall call the Four Fs:
      – Familiarity. New players will take more time to read their cards and think about their actions. Ideally, you assign who plays which power beforehand so everyone can prepare for their specific situation.
      – Fast diplomacy. You can limit the diplomacy sections (say, to 10 or 15min each turn) and save time. We never did, and had exciting (but long) 30-45 diplomacy phases every turn. There is less diplomacy in games with fewer than six players.
      – Focus. If everyone thinks ahead during other people’s turns, the game speeds up a lot. The Ottomans, for example, will often have not much to take into account for their plans after the Hapsburgs are done, so they can easily plan their entire next move while the other four players take their turns.
      – Finalizing Victory: HIS can take up to 9 turns, but it can end much earlier. This is more likely if playing with inexperienced players who might not see who is close to victory or how to stop a runaway leader.

      So: For us (unexperienced players, enthusiastic diplomats, casual play-style, close watch on leaders) games take long – we have exceeded 12h. Time does fly while playing, though!
      If you have a fixed time slot, I recommend the diplomacy time limit and focused play!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Farewell 2021 – Historical Board Games! | Clio's Board Games

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