I am still yet to try Agricola, Master of Britain. This solitary game intrigues me now that I have read the brief clarification that its designer, Tom Russell, posted in reaction to episode 114 of the 1 Player Podcast.
Toward the end of a thorough discussion, the game gets almost criticized for presenting only the Roman conqueror’s point of view (which, in this case, is the only one we have, Tacitus’ biography of his father-in-law being the only available source).
I am struggling to imagine how one could see as a glitch, or even a flaw, for a historical game, to have a point of view. I can’t help but ask myself what would be left of any historical game from which every point of view had been removed, or cancelled by the addition of its opposite?
The scope. The sources, the facts and the mechanics modeling them. Their presumed effects. Objectives and victory conditions. The thousands of decisions punctuating a historical design do form a narrative. Far from being a glitch, an emerging point of view is unavoidable.
Tom Russell states that any one of his designs may even end up having a point of view different from his own. Historical games, being based on their own set of facts, are likely to develop their own internal logic.
A game cannot avoid having a point of view, but can it have too many? Card driven games might offer various perspectives, but still rely on predefined framework and event selection.
Instead of expecting a game to present different points of view, I try to play different games.
Some gamers feel that historical games covering the same period or events are redundant.
Nothing is more alien to my conception of both historical games and redundancy. In fact, the motivation to explore the same periods or topics using different simulations largely explains how I select my games and schedule my plays, and why I enjoy historical gaming.
Some historical games have nothing to do with history, but have become historical themselves.
Their simplicity made them extremely popular, and extremely adaptable. Which explains why they have produced such a wide array of variants, across different eras and cultures.
Of course there is our infamous Monopoly, with its thousand editions. I think that more resources have been allocated to making this game seem still alive and relevant than Lenin’s body — for almost as long and, unfortunately, with comparable results. But what Monopoly has been for, say, the last five decades, the Game of the Goose has been for the last five centuries.
Professor Adrian Seville is a British researcher who studies the history of printed board games, their international diffusion and their rich cultural background. He is a specialist of the Game of the Goose and its many variants throughout Europe from the sixteenth century to the present day.
In its standard form the Game of the Goose is a race game in which players roll the dice to move their token along a single spiral track of 63 spaces. Some spaces give them bonuses, some others, penalties. It can hardly be simpler. No strategy, no decision. Given the popularity and longevity of the game, its main lasting interest lies in the amazing variety of its themes and layouts; the history of its skins.
Claire Voon sums it up perfectly: “what really persists is the game’s format, which yields a rich and captivating array of elaborately embellished boards that at first glance all seem like different games.”
Scientific discoveries, historical events, industrial processes, moral prescriptions, naughty stories, advertising, fashion, magic, sport, religion, politics, health, fairy tales, romantic epics. Every possible aspect of European culture seems to have been goosified at one point or another over the last five hundred years.
That’s a lot of points of view.
The exhibition The Royal Game of the Goose: Four Hundred Years of Printed Board Games, presented at the Grolier Club in New York last year, included only a small portion of Adrian Seville’s private collection. But it is enough to make us appreciate what a formidable vector such games have been and what can be read into them. You can watch Prof. Seville presenting two interesting boards here, at 46:00, right after a gorgeous game table from the nineteenth century.
Together with his colleague Luigi Ciompi, they maintain an online illustrated database of the 2,396 board adaptations of the Game of the Goose that they have recorded so far. Well worth a look.
Just as several games can tell a lot about the same era, the same base game can tell a lot about many different eras.
Of course, games can tell a lot — in many ways.
So what about what they don’t tell?
This agile text by Muira McCammon dances among ghosts, jumps lightly from disparitions to absences, alludes to various kinds of silence — and yet achieves profound resonances.
What if the crucial parts of a historical narrative were the ones it doesn’t include?
She hints in rather clever ways that omissions and suppressions, intentional or not, are the active ingredient in the construction of any narrative. And that perhaps it is desperately easy — and dangerously tempting — to create points of view from a few fragments. Just as easy as to create characters from a few quotations.
I have always been interested in fragments. Photographs. Aphorisms. Quotations. And a few years ago, event cards, which drew me to historical games. I like the rich flavor of these particles of history. Their ability to produce a different narrative for every game played. To deliver a multitude of points of view.
Perhaps because of what lies in their interstices. Those other stories, those other decks, those ghost cards.
The Ghost of Churchill leaves me with the event card deck as a vivid — and somewhat cruel — analogy for everything I think I know.
Which includes my “inner Churchill” — who, across the war memoirs, the quips and quotes, the letters to Clementine or the impressionist paintings, is nothing but a deck. Of several Churchills. Always different, always plausible, always elusive.
I, too, often ask myself “What would Churchill do?” — only to follow with “But which Churchill”?