Thursday, April 10, 2014

A First Look at Mound Builders

My copy of Victory Point Games' Mound Builders arrived a short while ago, and having just dug my way out of a pile of editing I thought I would give my readers my initial impressions of the game before working on a more detailed review or session report.

Victory Point Games' motto is “The Play's the Thing,” which refers to their production of games with interesting rules or settings and inexpensive components. Mound Builders, however, represents a significant improvement in the physical quality of VPG's products. The event cards (or “history cards”) are sturdy, trading-card sized, and well-illustrated; the counters are nearly twice as thick as those in previous VPG titles; the rule book has a glossy cover and is formatted like an actual book; and the board is large – 11 by 17 inches – and adorned with images and icons that immediately set the tone for the game. I can't imagine what the deluxe boxed edition must be like, though I suspect the counters are of gold-pressed latinum.

As in other States of Siege games, the game board of Mound Builders features a central city, Cahokia, that the player must defend from adversaries who advance against it on numbered tracks, or warpaths. These adversaries are the Shawnees, Cherokees, Natchez, Caddos, Ho-Chunk, and, eventually, the Spanish. One might quibble with some of the names here: the Shawnees were actually the Fort Ancient culture in the pre-Columbian era (they didn't acquire their historic name till later), the Natchez didn't coalesce as a nation until the seventeenth century, and the Cherokees were a pretty minor nation until the eighteenth century (though the designers note that they use the word as a catch-all for the southeastern Indians). There's something to be said, though, for using historic tribal names, which remind players of the continuity between pre- and post-Columbian Indian cultures.

The game tokens include six markers representing hostile armies, each of which has a stand to keep it upright on the board, indicating that VPG is moving away from its strict devotion to flat cardboard counters. Most of the other game counters represent the chiefdoms that the player can exploit or conquer during the game, chiefdoms identified by an exotic trade good they produce – copper, mica, feathers, seashells – and a numeric battle value. Once the second phase of the game, the Mississippian era, begins, the player can flip the chiefdom counters to the side displaying a mound, indicating they've been incorporated into one's civilization. As a whole, the counters indicate that Mound Builders is an unusual offering for VPG, with both military and resource-management elements. We will see whether or not these make for a rewarding game; I suspect they do.

Gamers identify those elements of a game that establish it in a particular setting or historic era as “chrome,” and Mound Builders has lots of it, particularly on its event or History cards. In the States of Siege game series, these indicate how many actions the player may perform on a given turn and which enemies' armies move up (and, in MB, which chiefdoms might revolt). In Mound Builders, all of the cards are beautifully illustrated with color images or photographs, displaying the Aztalan palisade, Hopewell pottery, an artist's reconstruction of Cahokia, and the like. Each also contains a paragraph of text describing the archaeological site or culture or development featured on the card, and I think they contain a fair amount of information that would be news even to seasoned American historians. Were I to use MB as a teaching tool, these History cards would be one of the principal reasons.

The only thing discouraging me from using Mound Builders in the classroom is the rulebook, which is very complex – less so than for a game like Advanced Squad Leader, but more than other States of Siege titles or “gateway” games like Ticket to Ride. MB covers three historic periods, or eras, and is almost a different game in each. In the Hopewell period, the player focuses on exploring and trading; in the Mississippian era, the emphasis is on empire building and defense; in the Spanish era, the player will be struggling just to survive. Players also need to keep track of a large number of action options: building mounds, improving Cahokia's palisades, powwowing with the Great Sun, engaging in diplomacy to acquire chiefdoms, and attacking hostile armies, and that's not including the additional options in the advanced game. I suspect, though, that it is easier to keep track of these options once one has actually playtested the game, which I plan to do shortly.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Crimea River

(Yes, yes, I know Ben Stein came up with this title long before I did, but it was too good not to steal. Moving on...)

Apropos of Russia's armed conquest of the Crimean Peninsula last month, American journalists have mainly been asking rather pointless questions, such as A) is this President Obama's fault? and B) what does John McCain think? Students of Russian history, to their credit, have been using their expertise to make much more interesting inquiries, viz.:

1) Why, if the Crimea was historically part of Russia, did Nikita Khruschchev give it to Ukraine in 1954? Mainstream publications (such as TIME Magazine) insist this was a meaningless gesture of inter-provincial solidarity in the old Soviet Union, but Mark Kramer of the Wilson Center finds a more pragmatic motive behind the decision. Ukraine had an unpleasant relationship with the larger Soviet Union, dating back to the Russian Civil War and the famine of the 1930s, and many Ukrainians had rebelled against the Soviet government during the Second World War. Khrushchev had been one of Ukraine's governors in the 1940s and wanted to strengthen Soviet Russia's hold on the wayward republic, and figured the best way to do so was to increase its ethnic Russian population, just as Stalin had done with the Baltic states in the 1940s. Crimea's population was almost entirely Russian, so adding it to Ukraine increased the republic's Russian population, and its putative loyalty to Moscow, without necessitating a big population transfer.

2) Did religion play any role in Putin's decision to invade? The answer here appears to be "Yes, a large one," because the Crimea enjoys outsized importance in the Russian Orthodox Church, an institution Putin has been trying to strengthen. The Orthodox Church has historically been joined at the hip with the Russian state, and Mara Kozelsky observes that this process began in the Crimea in the tenth century CE, when Vladimir the Rus was baptized as an Orthodox Christian and married the Byzantine emperor's sister. Crimea had also been the refuge of the early Christian pope Clement, and in commemoration of both events the Church established monasteries in and pilgrimages to Crimea, the "Russian Athos," during the Romanov era. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church began restoring monuments and churches located at the Crimean holy sites, and doubtless the current Patriarch - and devout Russians - are pleased that this Black-Sea Holy Land has been restored to the Rodina.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Mississippian Board Game?

Update: My copy of Mound Builders has arrived, and my first-impressions overview can be found here.
Victory Point Games is a small, California-based company that manufactures inexpensive designer board games, usually strategy games or historical war games. One of their more popular product lines is “States of Siege,” a series of solitaire war games in which the player must defend a central point – usually a capital city – against enemy armies that advance on numbered tracks. Each turn the player draws an event card indicating which armies advance, any special events that occur, and how many actions the player may take, including attacks on enemy forces (which, if successful, drive the targeted army back a space or two on their track). Most include additional resources or political elements that the player must manage while defending the capital. Levee en Masse, for instance – a simulation of the wars of the French Revolution – requires players to maintain (through die rolls) a correct balance between Republic, Monarchy, and Despotism ratings, which shift during the game in response to historical events. Some have special “chrome” that distinguishes them from other titles in the series. Ottoman Sunset, for example, has a game-within-a-game that begins when Britain's fleet tries to run the Bosporus-Dardanelles gauntlet, for which players can prepare in advance if they spend their scarce actions to build fortifications. Other games in the series cover the English Civil War, the defense of Canada during the Seven Years' War, and the Battle of Roarke's Drift, inter alia.

I mention this here because VPG has just released a States of Siege game on what I had thought was an impossible subject for a game, and one highly relevant to this blog and my readers: The Mound Builders. Yes, it's a war game about the Mississippian civilization! Here's an excerpt from the catalog:

“Until the arrival of the Spanish late in the game, you will expand your control across the map of North America, extending it over the various chiefdoms encountered, incorporating them into your economic and religious sphere. Your domain will grow and shrink, but be aware that rather than a military advance and retreat, this process represents the rise and decline of culture, religious ideology, and an economic way of life, [all] threatened from outside by competing ideologies and lifestyles as much as by hostile armies.”

In other words, it's a bit of a departure from previous States of Siege war games, in that it covers several centuries of time and simulates socio-economic as well as military conflict. And it's nothing like Risk, and thank goodness.

Needless to say, your humble narrator plans to order a copy of Mound Builders in the very near future, and in a forthcoming blog entry will let you know how it plays, and whether it is suitable for team play in a classroom setting.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Better Know a President! Series II (Part Five): It's Time to Hate John Tyler

While the American Whig Party technically won the presidential election of 1840, the death of William Harrison actually delivered the White House to their electoral opponents. Vice President John Tyler, a former governor of Virginia, was also an apostate Democrat expelled from that party for opposing the policies of Andrew Jackson. The Whigs had added him to the 1840 ticket for sectional balance, and they were properly horrified when President Tyler reverted to his former political alignment, vetoing tariff and national-bank bills that the Whig Party considered cornerstones of its economic policy. Within a few years Tyler's entire Cabinet had resigned in disgust, the House of Representatives had considered (but rejected) impeachment proceedings, and editors were deriding the tenth president as “His Accidency.”

John Tyler, however, considered himself more than a seat-warmer – he wanted to win the presidency in his own right, as the head of an independent political party devoted to Southern rights, territorial expansion, and the sovereign excellence of John Tyler Himself. The one issue Tyler knew would most excite Southern expansionists was the annexation of Texas, and in 1843 he opened negotiations with the Texas Republic to discuss its joining the Union, while Secretary of State Abel Upshur stirred the pot by claiming that Britain wanted to make Texas a free-soil protectorate. Texas was nearly bankrupt by then and in a state of undeclared war with its Comanche and Mexican neighbors, so its government consented to an annexation treaty, which was laid before the U.S. Senate in 1844. The presenter was John Calhoun, whom Tyler made secretary of state after Upshur died in a naval accident, and who decided to make the annexation treaty the pretext for a sectional fight. In his presentment to the Senate Calhoun argued that slavery was a moral and political blessing, and that by annexing Texas as a new slave state, the Senate would endorse this view and attest to the superiority of Southern white civilization. This ensured Northerners would oppose annexation and that white Southerners would generally support it, and reignited a political debate over the expansion of slavery that American politicians had kept quiet for a quarter century. The end of that debate was the Election of 1860 and secession.

Tyler did not win his own term as president. In 1844 he endorsed Democrat James Polk for the presidency and persuaded Congress to approve a constitutionally-dubious joint resolution annexing Texas to the Union, which he signed in March 1845. He then retired from public life, having done what William Harrison almost certainly would not have done: deepened a sectional rift between North and South and created the pretext for a war with Mexico, which still considered Texas a rogue province. IN 1861, Tyler emerged from retirement to accept a seat in the Congress of the Confederate States of America, which his home state had just joined. He died before he could begin his term of service, though, and the War Department turned his confiscated Virginia estate into a refugee center and school for freedmen. In death, at least, Tyler could do something useful for the republic.


And so endeth this series for another year. There will be more presidential history next January, on Anti-Presidents' Day.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Better Know a President! (Series II): Part Four: The Log-Cabin President

Some of the presidents I've mentioned in this series, like John Quincy Adams, had more significant pre-presidential careers than presidencies.  In William Harrison's case, this was necessarily true because he dropped dead only thirty days into his term.  Apart from saddling the republic with his running-mate, the ill-favored and self-satisfied John Tyler, Harrison's only presidential legacy was his 1840 “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign, in which his handlers cast him as a rustic, homespun frontier hero.  Actually, as anyone who has visited Harrison's mansion in Vincennes knows, the former territorial governor was no stranger to elegant living, and he hailed from a prominent Virginia family, albeit one that left him little property.  As governor of Indiana, Harrison pursued a plan of economic development similar to that of colonial Virginia: buy up all of the Indian land in sight and import African slave laborers to work on it.  The second of these plans came to naught, as slavery was illegal in the Northwest Territory, Congress refused to lift the ban, and Harrison, loyal federal official that he was, refused to proceed without Congress’s backing.  The first plan enjoyed the support of the War Department and the Senate, but it brought Harrison into conflict with local Indian communities and with Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa.  The Shawnee brothers and their associates wanted to create an autonomous Indian state in the region and particularly objected to the 1809 Fort Wayne treaty cession, a 2.5-million acre tract which W.H.H. procured through economic coercion and alcohol.  Threatening speeches by Tecumseh nearly led to violence between him and Harrison in 1810, and eventually caused Harrison to organize a pre-emptive strike against the confederates' capital of Prophetstown.  This resulted (November 1811) in the inglorious battle of Tippecanoe, which Harrison later turned into a political legend and a catchy nickname. Harrison subsequently led the expedition that defeated Tecumseh's confederation and killed the war captain, but the War of 1812 did not otherwise lift the governor’s political fortunes, and after it ended he moved to Ohio.  From thence he served as a U.S. Congressman and Senator, and there he retired, after a brief diplomatic mission to Colombia, to the life of a gentleman farmer and whiskey distiller.  In the 1830s the Whig Party’s search for a backwoods war-hero candidate like Andy Jackson gave Harrison a shot at the highest office, and he finally won it at the advanced age of 68.  What would have happened if he had lived out his first term is hard to imagine, but one might hazard a guess after looking at the presidential career of his accidental successor.

(The above image is of Grouseland, Harrison's log cabin in Vincennes.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Better Know a President! Series II (Part Three): Squirt-Wirt-Wirt

Like the Adamses, Martin Van Buren had a more distinguished, or rather a more significant, pre-presidential career than his presidential one. In the 1820s he served as a U.S. Senator from New York and helped organize the highly-disciplined political machine, the Albany Regency, that became one of the nuclei of the Democratic Party. To a great extent Van Buren was the inventor of the national Democratic Party, which he believed could unify sections of the country that had recently clashed with one another over the issue of slavery expansion, in the Missouri Crisis of 1819-21. Party discipline, and the rewards of patronage, could prevent Northern and Southern whites from fighting with one another and instead turn them against the real enemies: the National Republicans and Whigs. Ostensibly, this meant that the two sections' Democratic politicians would settle disputes over slavery with compromises. In reality, Southern Democrats inevitably demanded that their Northern counterparts protect the interests of slaveholders, and they found ample support from Northern Democrats (“Doughfaces”) who favored party unity more than human rights. Hence the anti-abolitionist Congressional “gag rule” of 1836-44, the de facto placement of the U.S. Post Office under state censorship authority in the South, the re-enslavement and sale of slaves taken by the U.S. Navy from illegal slave traders, and other pro-slavery federal policies. Van Buren supported these policies even if he did not sponsor all of them.

None of these issues greatly affected Van Buren's presidency, in part because his Whig rivals were not an anti-slavery party and did not use slavery as a political cudgel against the Democrats, and in part because he spent his time in office dealing with the consequences of Jackson's presidency. While Indian Removal was Andrew Jackson's legacy Van Buren was just as determined to carry the program through; it was he who sent federal troops into the Cherokee nation to remove the Cherokees at gunpoint, resulting in the death of 4,500 people. It was Van Buren, not Jackson, who had to deal with the Panic of 1837 and the economic depression that followed it, even though Jackson's deflationary Specie Circular had probably contributed to the downturn. The depression was still underway at the end of Van Buren's first term and was the principal factor leading to his defeat in the 1840 election, though William Harrison's partisans did put together a very creative and Barnum-esque presidential campaign, including such ditties as these:

Old Tip he wears a homespun coat
He has no ruffled shirt-wirt-wirt,
But Mat he wears the golden plate
And he's a little squirt-wirt-wirt.

Or so reports Joe Queenan (Imperial Caddy [Hyperion, 1992], 115.) “Tip,” by the way, is short for “Tippecanoe,” Harrison's nickname, and “Mat” for “Matty Van,” the Whig's nickname for their opponent.

President Van Buren also had to deal with the toxic issue of slavery expansion, when representatives of the newly-independent Republic of Texas applied for annexation to the United States. Matty Van's predecessor, Jackson, favored the annexation of Texas, but Van Buren feared that adding a large new slave state to the Union could split the Democratic Party, and so he instead recognized Texas as an independent nation. This was one instance when Van Buren actually stood up to the pro-slavery faction in his party, and at the time it worked: Southern whites chose not to fight and instead merely loaned Texas a lot of money. To his credit, and eventual downfall, Matty stuck to his guns on the Texas annexation issue. When Van B. sought the Democratic presidential nomination again in 1844, Southern slave-owners denied him the prize because of his stance on Texas, which President John Tyler had persuaded Southern whites they could now obtain as a new slave state (or possibly as many as five if Texans chose to divide the territory). Van Buren's defeat won him a consolation prize four years later, when the Free Soil Party made him their presidential nominee. It would be going too far, as They Might Be Giants did (in their song “James K. Polk”), to call Mssr. Van Buren an “abolitionist,” but he did lead opponents of slavery expansion out of the Democratic Party, helping ensure the Democrats' electoral loss in 1848 and ultimately the breakup of that party along sectional lines in the 1850s. Clio, the Muse of History, rarely shows a sense of humor, but she does appreciate irony.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Better Know a President! Series II (Part 2): Better Living through Ethnic Cleansing

American presidents, as I've said before, have generally been a dull lot, but some still inspire genuine passion, and Andrew Jackson was one of these. Historians like Arthur Schlesinger and Sean Wilentz have characterized Prez Seven as a populist hero who slew the aristocratic Bank of the U.S. and stood up to South Carolina nabobs during the Nullification Crisis. Others have noted that Jackson was an aristocrat himself, and that his most significant accomplishment as president, Indian Removal, killed perhaps 20,000 people and drove about 100,000 more from their homes. I tend to side with the latter group, but when I talk about Removal with my students I argue that that what drove this shameful episode was actually a desire for economic development, not merely hatred of Indians (although there was plenty of that).

Jackson believed that most eastern Indians were still hunters and occupied lands that should be given to white farmers and made productive by them. “What good man would prefer a country covered with forest and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic...embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute?” he asked in his 1830 State of the Union message. The president's characterization of the eastern Indians was untrue: nearly all of the eastern Indians practiced agriculture and many raised livestock and cotton. But Jackson and his partisans, like Lewis Cass (his secretary of war), identified agriculture with capitalism, and classified land itself as a marketable resource that one could and should sell to the most productive commercial farmers. Most eastern Indians practiced subsistence rather than commercial agriculture, and carefully restricted the ownership and sale of land by individuals, so Jackson and many of his contemporaries did not consider them “proper” farmers – and in many Native American communities women rather than men did the farming, and to the Jacksonians women's activities mattered less. Moreover, as Mary Young and Ginette Aley have noted, eastern Indians remained politically autonomous in the 1830s, and thus they were a giant null to local politicians counting their states' resources: they didn't pay taxes, they weren't counted in the Census, and their lands lay athwart rights-of-way for internal improvements. Removing them would promote political and economic growth: railroads and canals could stretch across former Indian lands, states' measured populations and tax bases would grow, and commercial farms would replace Indian “hunting grounds.” Meanwhile, the federal government could pay for the cost of Removal by selling Native American lands. Indian Removal was, in short, a giant development program, which explains why Jackson and his successors were willing to spend upwards of $90 million and fight three wars on its behalf.

This is not to say that the proponents of Indian Removal weren't racists. That they clearly were, as demonstrated by their belief that Indians were incapable of adapting to change and would surely succumb to hunger and alcoholism – or attack their new white neighbors – if they weren't removed. “Existing for two centuries in contact with a civilized people,” Lewis Cass charged in 1830, “they have resisted, and successfully too, every effort to...introduce among them the most common arts of life.” Mary Young and Thomas Ingersoll have noted another important racist motive for Removal: like supporters of African-American colonization, proponents of Indian Removal wanted to prevent racial intermarriage, which they believed would degrade the white race. At least as early as the 1810s, southern newspaper editors were arguing that “the disgusting habits and vices of the Indians” should make intermarriage unthinkable, and characterizing “half-breed” children as innately crafty, shifty, and morally dissipated. Biracial Indians also endangered their own Native American kinsmen, in that they tended to oppose Removal – a policy Jacksonians believed would benefit “full-blooded” Indian hunters – in order to protect the property they had inherited or finagled from whites. (This also provided Removal supporters with a ready reply to anyone arguing that many eastern Indians were becoming more “civilized:” only the “mixed-bloods” were doing so. Or, in other words, “These fellers is miscegenated!”) Separate the races, and ultimately both would benefit.

I've moved some distance away from the putative subject of this essay, which was Andrew Jackson, but I hope my readers will understand why. Increasingly, modern Americans associate Jackson with Indian Removal – the “Trail of Tears,” as it is synecdotally known – and I think it important to stress that this was a huge undertaking, requiring as much money and organization, and generating as many fatalities, as a war. No one person can rightly shoulder all of the blame for so massive an enterprise. Jackson championed the Indian Removal Act, but Indian Removal itself was a national, not a personal crime.

Sources: Mary Young, “Racism in Red and Black,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 73 (1989): 492-518, “disgusting habits” at 493; idem, “The Exercise of Sovereignty in Cherokee Georgia,” Journal of the Early Republic 10 (1990): 43-63; Nichols, “Land, Republicanism, and Indians,” Georgia Hist. Quarterly 85 (2001): 199-226; Thomas Ingersoll, To Intermix with Our White Brothers (University of New Mexico Press, 2005); Theda Perdue and Michael Green, eds., The Cherokee Removal (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2005), “Existing for two” at 118, “What good man” at 127; Ginette Aley, “Bringing about the Dawn,” in Daniel Barr, ed., The Boundaries Between Us (Kent State University Press, 2006), 196-218. “These fellers is miscegenated” is adapted from O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen (2001).