Back to the book & game pairings to educate and entertain about a certain historical topic! After our kickoff with the Eastern Front of World War II, we’ll go a little bit further back in time, landing in the early 16th century: The Reformation is shaking up Europe, and powerful rulers try to make the most of these turbulent times… both in Four Princes (John Julius Norwich) and Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games).
The Book & Game
Four Princes: Henry VIII, Francis I, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Obsessions that Forged Modern Europe was written by John Julius Norwich and published by John Murray in 2016. It follows the lives of these four monarchs who dominated European power politics in the early 16th century: For 27 years (1520—1547), they were concomitantly on their respective thrones.
Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation, 1517—1555 was published in 2006. For the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 2017, GMT Games published an anniversary edition. Designer Ed Beach published a sequel to Here I Stand with GMT Games in 2012 (Virgin Queen: Wars of Religion, 1559—1598). Both games cover the political, religious, and military struggle in Europe of their respective era.
Connections & Conclusions
It’s tempting to look at history one topic at a time. The Reformation. The European exploration and conquest of the Americas. Henry VIII and his parade of wives. The golden age of the Ottoman empire. The French-Hapsburg antagonism. The Renaissance. You store all of these in different compartments of your historical mind. And then, at some point, you realize that they all happened at the same time and that they were intimately related.
Both Four Princes and Here I Stand are excellent at bringing these disparate topics together. The book shines at interweaving the strands of the four rulers as well as linking individual events with the larger narrative. Not an academically trained historian, the author is free of the dryness that often comes with their accounts and presents a superbly entertaining book instead. His four protagonists form a close-knit relationship web where pulling on one end will inevitably also affect the others.
Here I Stand puts its players into that same mindset. It’s easy to get distracted by what is in front of your own door – say, if you’re playing England, the quest for a male heir, the reformation in your own land, and rich conquests in France. But then you realize that emperor Charles V has been riding roughshod over Italy and the Balkans and you’re needed to rein him in by occupying his Flemish possessions (or even landing in Spain) lest he claim European dominance. (Or you realize that the emperor is so busy with fending off the Ottoman host at the gates of Vienna that these possessions are easy pickings for you now.) Either way, your new course of action will relieve Francis I of France and the German protestants who’d been squabbling with the emperor before, and thus might put the pope in a pickle both militarily and theologically. If the pope remembers who brought him into said pickle, he might not grant you the divorce for which you’ve been petitioning him…
In that regard, Here I Stand is even more encompassing than Four Princes – after all, it contains not only the four princes but also the pope and the Protestants as playable factions. Of course, Norwich’s account touches on religious matters, but it is mainly concerned with the pomp of the courts and the grit of the campaigns rather than theological disputes. (If you are interested in the latter, do read the admirably crisp The Reformation (Kenneth G. Appold)).
It should be said that book and game have different accessibility levels: The roughly 400-page book can be picked up by anyone with an interest in early modern history. The game looks more intimidating than it is with its many pieces and lengthy rulebook (and it definitely helps to have at least one person who knows the rules well) – but it takes a long time to play (games of twelve hours are not unheard of) and, if you want the full experience, six committed players (though the three-player variant works very well).
The usual media differences apply: Aspects that are emerging in the game (depending on how you play and who you are) are codified in the book. You need, for example, not share the author’s bias against Catholicism or women in power. In these circumstances, playing Here I Stand can often lead to different perspectives: If England is played by a woman (going through Henry’s series of wives) or the Papacy by a Protestant (debating reformers and burning them at the stake), that is sure to spark some interesting conversation around the table which can put one’s preconceived notions of power, gender, and religion to the test. Here I Stand can be used to play out almost every wild historical event you’ll read about in Four Princes (say, a joint Ottoman-French invasion of the Riviera) – but of course the game has to simplify (so you’re not likely to see why anyone would squabble over Nice (which is a space that does not grant victory points). Most events, however, are very intuitive to Here I Stand players:
Despite their challenges, game and book can serve as an entry point into the early 16th century in Europe for those who are not quite intimate with that time and place. And, as they roll out a rich tapestry of characters and events in which every strand is interwoven with another, they also have much to offer to the connoisseur of the dawn of the modern age.