Venice in History and Board Games

One of the most storied cities of the world celebrates its 1600th birthday this year: As legend has it, Venice was founded when three Roman officials established a trade post on the lagoon off Italy’s Adriatic shore on March 25, 421. Since then, Venice has been a refuge, a great power, and a tourist destination. Venice continues to be an inspiration due to its special topography of islands and canals, the enterprising spirits and artisanal skills of its population, and the heights of subtlety and sophistication which its diplomacy, politics, arts, and culture reached. Correspondingly, the city is a frequent subject of board games: 64 are listed in BoardGameGeek’s “family” of Venice games – many more than are set in, say, Milan (13), Florence (25), or even Rome (also 25). This post will take you on a journey through the history and board games of Venice.

Venice, the Refuge

The Venetian lagoon was first settled when mainlanders fled from Attila’s invasion of Italy. Venice’s location on the lagoon, hard to reach without a fleet and the knowledge of the shallows lest the ships run aground, sheltered it from the turmoil during the fall of Rome and the early Middle Ages.

Venice lies in the west, but was technically subject to the Roman (Byzantine) Empire in the east. Venetian architecture still shows a mix of both cultures to this day, and Venice tried to gain independence from both sides early on. The Venetians took to the sea in the early Middle Ages and began, to quote a board game trope, “trading in the Mediterranean”. Obviously, there are board games about this popular pastime of theirs, one of the most focused being Oltre Mare (Emanuele Ornella, Amigo).

The Oltre Mare board gives a nice overview of the eastern Mediterranean and the most important trading stations for the Venetians. Image ©Amigo.

By the 9th century, Venice eclipsed Grado and Chioggia as the most important settlement on the lagoon (helped by the relocation of the bones of St. Mark, the city’s patron saint, to Venice, after Venetian traders had stolen rescued them from Egypt). Venice supported Byzantium against the Sicilian Normans in the 11th century and gained naval superiority in the Adriatic as well as trade privileges in Constantinople which made the Venetians the leading traders in the eastern Mediterranean. The trading journey from Venice to Constantinople – with possible profitable stopovers in between – is the theme of Golden Horn (Leo Colovini, Piatnik), in which those two cities form the start and the end tile.

Venice, the Great Power

The Crusades, begun in the 11th century, found Venice ambivalent: The city’s deep Catholic faith and close connections with the Papacy favored Venetian crusading, but trade connections to the Muslims of North Africa and the Levant dampened the enthusiasm. Finally, the Fourth Crusade was to be launched from Venice – yet the assembly of the crusader army turned into a logistical nightmare which ended up with the crusaders being deeply in Venice’s debt for the vessels to ship them to the Middle East. The Venetians, ever practical, offered repayment via the crusader’s services as warriors and settled some scores of their own in the Adriatic before shipping the crusader army on to Constantinople. There, the Catholic army ran into trouble with the Orthodox rulers of the Byzantine Empire, and, as tensions escalated, sacked and looted the city, the center of eastern Christianity. The crusaders’ outstanding debts to the Venetians were repaid in booty and the rights to three eighths of the Byzantine Empire – yet only on paper. Venice could not hope to make good of all those claims by conquest. Venice did take several islands and trading posts in the eastern Mediterranean, most importantly, Crete, which would form the backbone of Venetian power and trade over the next centuries. The typically Venetian mix of trading and power politics forms the center of Serenissima (Dominique Ehrhard, Ystari Games) – while combat between the maritime powers of the Mediterranean can occur and clever positioning of well-crewed ships will block trade lanes for competitors, in the end, only money counts.

Two Venetian galleys (left and right, flying the flag with the lion of St. Mark) face off against a ship of their Genoese arch-enemies (middle, flying the flag with the cross of St. George). Box cover of Serenissima, ©Ystari Games.

Venice now was at the height of its power. Unlike other cities or countries, that did not lead to increased factionalism. On the contrary, Venice remained remarkably stable – due to a good part to the cohesion of its ruling elites (the old aristocratic families and the new money they coopted) and the strength of Venetian institutions which prevented any individual from becoming too powerful: The nominally highest office, that of the doge, was filled in a complex process of sequential elections and drawing lots. Once a man became doge, his power was limited by the other councils, most importantly the Council of Ten which became the central political body and the Small Council consisting of one representative from each of Venice’s six traditional districts (the sestieri). San Marco (Alan R. Moon/Aaron Weissblum, Ravensburger) captures much of the political spirit of the times: The players represent aristocratic families in Venice vying for control over the six districts. Scoring in a district happens when the doge figure visits – the doge is not the main agent of power himself, but rather the arbiter between the aristocrats. Finally, resources are distributed via a “I split, you choose” mechanic reminiscent of Venetian deal making and elite cohesion.

The winged lion of St. Mark, Venice’s patron saint, rests his paw on a book… which, on this cover, does not contain the words of God, and rather a little map of Venice with its six sestieri. Obviously, a game about Venice must also feature gondolas and palazzos in the background. Image ©Ravensburger.

Even during Venice’s glory time, not everything was fine and dandy: The frequent wars with Genoa, another Italian merchant republic, brought Venice almost to her knees before the city bounced back and finally proved the stronger. Even more devastating was the Black Death which hit Venice early and hard. About half of the Venetian population succumbed to the disease. While some responses to the plague seem odd to us (for example the burning of aromatic herbs to dispel the foul miasmae suspected of being the root of the disease), others look remarkably modern: Plague doctors wore masks to avoid infection, and Venice introduced a forty-day period of isolation for sailors arriving in the city – named quarantine after the Italian word for forty.

Venice’s time as a purely maritime republic came to an end. On the one hand, Venetian wealth and power now allowed the republic to claim large swaths of the Italian mainland – almost the entirety of northeast Italy. This “terraferma” (solid land) grew into the third pillar of Venice (in addition to the lagoon itself and the overseas empire in the Mediterranean). On the other hand, the strategic situation became more disadvantageous as the Ottoman Turks grew into the dominant power of the eastern Mediterranean. Venice was but one city, and its fleets could not hope to challenge that of a much larger empire. Thus, from the 15th century on, Venice had to rely on alliances in which it more and more became a junior partner. Still, the Venetians were a naval power to be reckoned with. When a combined Venetian-Spanish-Papal-Genoese fleet defeated the Ottomans in the battle of Lepanto in 1571 (thus putting an end to Ottoman naval ascendancy in the Mediterranean), Venice contributed more than half the ships. Obviously, the Venetians were very proud of their feat, and Lepanto features in several large paintings of the time – and in The Battle of Lepanto (Robert Cowling/Eric R. Harvey, Decision Games).

Galley battles can turn easily into a mess, once the two opposing fleets have become entangled. Cover of The Battle of Lepanto, ©Strategy&Tactics.

Venice, the Tourist Destination

The victory at Lepanto notwithstanding, Venice’s prospects declined. Mediterranean trade was eclipsed by both the Atlantic trade and the direct sea trade route from Europe to Asia (around Africa) which bypassed the Venetian route to the Middle East. And besides, Lepanto was an exception rather than the rule. Over the next 150 years, the republic lost all of its overseas possessions. Venetian foreign policy was no longer based on domination of the seas, or even a balance of power (bilancia), but simply aimed to keep up appearances (riputazione). Even that was taken from the city when Napoleon conquered it 1797 – for the first time in its history, the city had been taken by a foe. The Venetian republic was no more. Like a thousand years earlier, the city became Italian (instead of Mediterranean) in its outlook again. If you are deeply into Venetian history and want to play through the entirety of this millennium, you can try out Venetia (Marco Maggi/Francesco Nepitello, Stratelibri), which is full of trade, domestic politics, and Venice’s struggles with its external enemies.

Talk about a beautiful board! Note the six Venetian districts (sestieri) in the top left corner. Board of Venetia, ©Ares Games.

As the Venetians retreated from the seas, their economy changed. Crafts replaced trade, particularly artisanal products like the glass produced on the island of Murano or the lace made on the islands of Burano. Of course, crafts are almost as popular in euro gaming as trading, and so there are several games with such settings: Burano (Yu-Chen Tseng/Eros Lin, Emperor S4) has you produce several goods including the lace.

Don’t get distracted by the gondoliere in the foreground – you’ll find lads like him anywhere in Venice! The true ambassador of Burano is the lady making lace to the left. And the vibrantly colorful houses. Box cover of Burano, ©EmperorS4.

Murano (Inka Brand/Markus Brand, Lookout Games) focuses on the making and selling of the famous glassware. Here, the most characteristic feature of Venice during the last 300 years is also included: In the later part of the game, the buyers of your glassware are tourists.

More gondolas! Yet this time, none of the wares produced (glass). We assume that the gondola passengers are well-off prospective buyers of the glass. Box cover of Murano, ©Lookout Games.

Tourism has dominated Venice since the 1700s. While not a great power anymore, Venice was still famous for its unique location on the lagoon and its cultural achievements (from architecture to opera and carnival), and thus much sought out by the first tourist travelers – young nobles on their Grand Tour through Europe. Tourists brought money, and thus Venice adapted to them. Traditional Venetian celebrations were made even more spectacular – like the annual Marriage to the Sea ceremony, in which the doge symbolically dropped a ring into the sea from his lavish state barge, the Bucentaur, the building of which is objective of the players in The Doge Ship (Marco Canetta/Stefania Niccolini, Giochix).

The famous bucentaur. Box cover of The Doge Ship, ©Giochix.

The most famous of Venice’s annual celebrations, however, is carnival. And carnival turned from a short popular holiday into a tourist spectacle lasting several weeks in the 18th century. The lavish celebrations subsided again after the republic lost its independence, yet were taken up again in the late 1970s – again as a (very successful) move to attract tourists in the off-season early in the year. The most iconic expression of the Venetian carnival are the elaborate costumes, especially the masks which have been used as an evocative symbol of thrill, intrigue, and illicit affairs ever since the 18th century. Board games are no exception – especially as masks and the deception evoked by them are a solid base for hidden-information mechanisms, like in Masques (Charles Chevallier/Catherine Dumas/Pascal Pelemans, CMON). Nice special touch of the game: The players are cast as actual Venetian aristocratic families (Contarini, Morosini, Dandolo, Gradenigo, Tiepolo)!

Neither the lady to the left nor the gentleman to the right wears their mask in a Covid-safe way. Box cover of Masques, ©CMON.

If you’ve been to Venice recently, chances are that you were a tourist there. The lagoon is (in non-pandemic times) positively overflowing with them (especially in the small strip from the Piazza San Marco to the Rialto bridge) – to a degree where local government is pondering to charge an “entrance fee” for tourists who don’t spend the night. If you are undeterred by the crowds, you might fall prey to the thousands of pigeons who are the protagonists in Venezia (Ronald Hofstätter, Queen Games) – feathered clans fighting over roosting rights on the city’s roofs (and robbing tourists of food to feed their fledglings).

Who needs command of the seas when you have air superiority? Box cover of Venezia, ©Queen Games.

But will you still be able to visit Venice in a few years? As sea levels rise, the lagoon is under threat. High water has become more common, and with the climate crisis accelerating, it might become permanent. A board game which has this pessimistic outlook on Venice’s future is Venezia 2099 (Leo Colovini, Piatnik) – as Venice sinks, you must save the most valuable pieces of art. Is the art all that will remain of Venice? – Only time will tell.

The Rialto bridge crumbles and the campanile of San Marco looks like it’d been built by Pisan engineers. Let’s save what art you can get hold of – by gondola, of course! Box cover of Venezia 2099, ©Piatnik.

Games Referenced

Oltre Mare (Emanuele Ornella, Amigo)

Golden Horn (Leo Colovini, Piatnik)

Serenissima (Dominique Ehrhard, Ystari Games)

San Marco (Alan R. Moon/Aaron Weissblum, Ravensburger)

The Battle of Lepanto (Robert Cowling/Eric R. Harvey, Decision Games)

Venetia (Marco Maggi/Francesco Nepitello, Stratelibri)

Burano (Yu-Chen Tseng/Eros Lin, Emperor S4)

Murano (Inka Brand/Markus Brand, Lookout Games)

The Doge Ship (Marco Canetta/Stefania Niccolini, Giochix)

Masques (Charles Chevallier/Catherine Dumas/Pascal Pelemans, CMON)

Venezia (Ronald Hofstätter, Queen Games)

Venezia 2099 (Leo Colovini, Piatnik)

Further Reading

A well-written (but very apologetic) recent account of the history of Venice is Madden, Thomas F.: Venice. A New History, Viking, New York, NY 2012.

If you are in for the very essentials of the political history of the Republic of Venice, go for Hellmann, Manfred: Grundzüge der Geschichte Venedigs, WBG, Darmstadt 1976 (in German).

3 thoughts on “Venice in History and Board Games

  1. Pingback: Venedig im Brettspiel – Boardgame Historian

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