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 received baptism 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.