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Designer Diary: Pax Renaissance — Part I: Birthing Pains

Matthew Eklund
United States
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Board Game: Pax Renaissance

Pax Porfiriana was an experimental revamp of The Lords of the Sierra Madre. The goal was to take my father's game — in all its sprawling, turbulent, cutthroat, and ethically-dubious glory — and refine and distill it until it was palatable to modern gaming tastes. This distillation was a success beyond any expectation and allowed us to explore some of the more political and social goals of the major players in the time period rather than merely the economic ones. That success also paved the way for a proposed "Pax" series of games, each with similar basic mechanisms, but each attempting to capture a slice of history and culture with unique rules and cards.

We knew that the second Pax game would be the most important. It would define which parts of Pax Porfiriana would become pervasive and pass down to its heirs, and which would be ephemeral, utilized only in the context of turn-of-the-century Mexico.

The Next Pax

I wanted Pax Renaissance to be that second Pax game for many reasons. First, it would follow the proven evolution of Lords-game-into-Pax-game formula as Phil had published Lords of the Renaissance long ago (1996). Second, it seemed like a lush topic on which a Pax game could explore fundamentally new themes above and beyond the dark entrepreneurship and skullduggery captured in Porfiriana, themes like commerce versus monarchy, religion versus empiricism, and religion versus… well… religion. And last, while an astonishing number of games about the European Renaissance had been published, not a single one seemed to include the Eastern cultures/empires/influences, let alone explore the fascinating interactions both within the Eastern empires and between the Eastern and Western world. At the same time that the kings of the west were trying to preserve their nations from bellicose neighbors, rebellious constituents, and eccentric Popes, so too were the sultans, viziers, and shahs of the east trying to navigate dangerous waters fraught with tax revolts, religious schisms, western crusades, and the Golden Horde. As Cole Wehrle reminds me in a comment he appended to a draft of this piece, it is important not to get bogged down in the East versus West paradigm, and completely ignoring the contributions, as well as the trials and tribulations, of the East is really just falling into that trap.

The Ottoman Empire was particularly conspicuous in its absence. The single most important and powerful political entity during perhaps the single most important time in Western history is an almost complete no-show in the game-o-sphere. Pure madness… madness that had to be addressed. Making sure there was going to be an "East Deck" that concentrated on all of the interesting events and characters in Turkey, Egypt, and the dying Byzantine Empire was of critical importance to me from the get-go.

Other basic but historical ideas captured in Lords of the Renaissance would remain goals for Pax Renaissance, and often proved elusive. The actual geography of trade moving from East to West had to be simulated. Constantinople was the most important city on the continent for centuries due to its geographical location: the crossroads of Black Sea and Mediterranean trade. Simultaneously, trade needed to be linked to military power. Empires taxed trade in order to fuel their military development. This went hand in hand with the rise of paid and professional armies, as well as mercenary armies and fleets that could lend their services far and wide. Individual cities needed to be able to change religions so that reformations, conversions, and schisms could be tracked. Pirates needed to be a force of commercial annoyance and political instability, yet be resilient to destruction by traditional military attack. We would later compromise on a rule allowing local military or mercenaries to destroy pirates (via Siege) but prevent empires from doing so (via Campaign). Perhaps most importantly, in order to fit the Pax mold, new means of victory above and beyond economic, needed to be forged.

First Attempt

Pax Renaissance was conceived before Pax Porfiriana was sent to the presses. The phrase "Pax Renaissance" was first used in an email from me to Phil and Jim Gutt (co-designer of PaxP) in August 2012, bemoaning the continuing small tweaks to Porfiriana and wondering when we could turn our attentions elsewhere.

I had Phil email me an Excel card roster for Lords of the Renaissance in October and began development. The actual digital files for the card layouts were in a format long forgotten by modern computing, but the card list was an excellent starting point for high points in the history of the era. I had a preliminary prototype together pretty quickly, but it was an awkward expansive mess that wasn't a substantial departure from Lords of the Renaissance in terms of playability. It had a big map, it had cards for individual cities and buildings, it distinguished galleys and roundships and caravans, it had complex interwoven trade routes, it had an empire track which stored the relative military capabilities of each empire, it had cards for individual documents and marriages and loans. The status of the reformation, the shi'ia split, and the orthodox schism were all tracked statuses within the game. Every major city, including as many of the awesome little Italian city-states as I could fit, were represented. At 280 cards covering all bases of the era I could think of, it was simply too unwieldy to survive.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Broadening the Time Period, but Narrowing the Scope

Lords of the Renaissance covered Europe from 1460-1499; in my early versions of Pax Ren the date range expanded from 1452 (conquest of Constantinople) to 1499 (Vasco de Gama returns from India) or so. Phil wanted to push the top end of that back even further to include the high points of the reformation (95 Theses 1517, and the Diet of Worms 1521) and even out to the start of the Counter-Reformation (founding of the Jesuits, 1540). This created an ambitious swath of time, territory, and culture. Choosing only the most distinct and important characters and events (even if individually obscure) was an ongoing challenge throughout all iterations of the game. Important topics like art, architecture, invention, and warfare technology had to be set aside entirely to make room in the gamespace for four even more important developments: exploration, reformation, principled law, and meaningful class warfare.

In a later discussion Phil proclaimed, "Look, this is not a game about art!" It would become something of a recurring motto and/or battle cry when things got tough.

The Boulder

Phil and I have a... unique, design process. Our game designs usually sit around as vague ideas with trappings of labor as different projects float in and out of focus. At some point, one of these ideas reaches a threshold of cleverness and becomes compelling enough that we take a real shot at it. Usually one of us is the designer and the other is the primary playtester or developer. In other words, one of us is the creator and the other is the gantlet through which it must pass. My role is usually that of meat grinder. I break Phil's creations. I refocus them. I translate them. I try to cull the fiddly detailed bits so that the game might appeal to more than just Ph.D. candidates — pretty much basic playtester stuff, only meaner and more direct. Sometimes destructive criticism is the name of the game.

Sometimes our roles are reversed. Phil has a slightly different process of development. Instead of breaking my games down, he breaks them up. He'll often passively suggest some totally exotic mechanism that addresses the very core of what I had intended my game to be about (or what the game "should" have been about)… which totally rewrites the paradigm of the game, often fatally.

Once upon a time in the late 1990s, I spent two years in college making a role-playing game about primitive man. It was something of a dungeon crawler clone, but with historically accurate creatures and tools, and the primary goal of the game was family survival. I spent endless hours testing, retesting, and playing this game. My group loved it. I laid it all out, with cards and flavor text and character sheets and everything. I played with Phil one time... one friggin' time... and he comes up with this idea of a "Brain Map" wherein there would be hex tiles that would represent the development of individual words and concepts, and interact with each other.

It was at the same time the best idea I had ever heard and a hopeless destruction of my creation. I could never publish or even play "100,000 BC" again. There was no reason that a realistic role-playing game about cavemen shouldn't have a brain map in it, indeed no reason the brain map shouldn't be the primary focus. The project was scrapped (but Phil's contribution wasn't… it would sprout its wings a decade later in Origins and another decade after that in Neanderthal). The point of this anecdote is to demonstrate that co-designing games, or even having Phil in any way part of your process, is dangerous. I am confident that Neal Sofge, Dr. John Douglas, Jim Gutt, Cole Wehrle, and any of the many others who have developed games with Phil would agree; your ideas and perceptions going into the process might not be the same coming out the other side of the rabbit hole.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we have a project in which both of us want to be the creators, and we each have a vision for what the end product will be — and that's when it gets ugly. In order to keep things sane and civil we each individually work on the project one at a time. We pass the design back and forth between each other depending on who is tapped out or who has the time and gumption to actually put the work in. We call it "the boulder". Whoever has it has an imperative to be making active progress with the game; whoever doesn't have it gets to be as active as they want to be, either the devil's advocate criticizing and critiquing every step, or the passive playtester, or somewhere in the middle.

The boulder passed from me to Phil sometime in early 2013, and in August of 2013 Phil emailed me the first cards from the second draft of Pax Renaissance.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Second Attempt

"This design looks thrilling" are the exact words I sent to him. "I can't wait to play it."

Unfortunately game-wise it was a bit of a dullard. The game revolved around very simple collect and destroy mechanisms, with not a lot of player control or clever, tactical, or sneaky plays to be found. You won by collecting all of the chess pieces. We were both disappointed by the playtests, the boulder passed to me while I attempted revisions, then back to Phil a month later, and so forth and so on.

My wife and I had a second baby. Phil started serious development of Pax Pamir with Cole, as well as Greenland and other projects. Pax Renaissance floundered.

Back to the Drawing Board

By 2014 I was back at it, using my original design as the base and trying to incorporate the better parts of Phil's design with little success. I trimmed the game way down, implemented a class system for the cards the way Phil had with chess pieces, and pushed the game back towards economic competition. In February 2014, I took the resulting hybrid to the Tucson-based Gamesmiths meeting where you present and play your game with local game designers.

It "passed", but only just.

There were plentiful problems and political mechanisms that didn't work. However, the continuing competition for concessions on valuable trade routes while trying to influence neighboring empires and use them to strongarm your competitors worked. Also, the game introduced a procedural conspiracy system wherein conspiracies would appear in the market and develop and "fall" towards their execution, with players able to provide support to either or both sides, or to flip sides at the last second. The game's empire track, combined with a casus belli system in the market, tracked which empires were at war and allowed players to use influence to get other empires to join the battle on either side. It was simple. It worked. It allowed long term and interesting strategies and mischief. Hooray!

Unfortunately I couldn't shake that Phil was right and that the center of my design, indeed its very core, was rooted in wrong questions and ignored the most important echoes of the era.

Much later, the mechanisms above would be replaced with the expansion of the "one-shots" idea to include civil wars, conspiracies, and revolts. With the vital Pax Pamir solutions in place, the game became much more "Pax-like"; long-term tableau and resource development was replaced with a flurry of shorter-ranged events and opportunities. The game's footprint shrunk considerably, the pace accelerated, and it became more tactical. More on this in the next section.

[Note from Phil Eklund: It was really only obvious in retrospect: If you want to have all these game elements in one game, from Reformation to shifting trade routes, the game would have to move at breakneck speed, without time for niceties such as meticulously planned conspiracies and noting who is at war with whom.]

By this time some minor art had been commissioned and paid for, but ultimately I sensed that my efforts weren't going to be fruitful, and back went the boulder in May 2014.

The Third Through Eighth Attempts, and Pax Pamir Saves the Day

The game ping-ponged for the next year or so. Phil's many talented playtesters and comrades sounded off on various iterations. The game continued to evolve with my voice just one of many in the background while Phil labored away. Philosophical discussions about the preconditions for a renaissance and the nature of force and war lit up the Pax Renaissance listserv.

Meanwhile Pax Pamir was released and turned the Pax line of games idea on its head. Cole and Phil had independently solved some of the very issues that plagued Pax Ren. Can a Pax game have a map and bits? How can you handle military and political and religious forces that are not player controlled? How can you incorporate geography, which was so important in Renaissance Europe, into a card game?

But Pamir's successes breathed new hope into the dying Pax Ren project. The creative well on this topic was thoroughly poisoned, with both me and Phil coming to loggerheads on numerous issues, but Pamir stretched the gamespace by introducing an interactive market and ops-based tableau, as well as a simple but evocative bits-and-spaces map. Hope!

At some point in late 2015, Stefano Tiné came aboard as a local resource and a set of eyes not biased by our past failures. We had a productive conversation in January 2016, and it was decided between the three of us that we would give Pax Ren a final push.

Lucky Number Nine

Phil flew across the Atlantic to visit in late February 2016. He was here for two weeks. He brought design number eight, which was quickly dispatched. I asked him whether he was ready to start over. He was ready. I was ready. More importantly we had Chris Peters on the case. Chris is a playtester extraordinaire and has been an important part of every Sierra Madre publication since like American Megafauna or so.

We started scrawling ideas on the blank back pages of the rulebook. It quickly became apparent that many of the physical mechanisms in design number eight were good (like color denoting religion, shape denoting type, and location denoting empire), but they interacted poorly. This meant we could do a full rewrite of the rules but leave the cards mostly intact.

Every night at 9 p.m. or so, after my kids went to sleep, Chris would come over and the three of us would "play" a game of Pax Ren. Night after night we'd make changes, sometimes dramatic ones. At every turn we had to try to remember the focus of the game, that the political and religious systems that dominated the continent for so long were finally vulnerable to attack from below, and that a small slice of independence from those powers could spark enlightenments, reformations, and revolutions.

Sometimes we had to let the gameplay guide the rules. We gave control back to the players. Instead of being liliputians in a land of Imperial giants, the players could gain temporary influence over empires through marriage or regime change and use that power to affect the gamestate. This power is not entirely historical as the bankers were important agents of the Renaissance but less so of the wars therein, but we wanted players to guide history rather than be mere victims of it.

By the time Phil left in March, we had a game. The newest version was sent out to burnt-out playtesters and new groups alike. Stefano helped guide the final touches. Certain issues continued to haunt us (how the hell do we handle pirates!?), but Pax Ren was finally ready for the home stretch of publication.

Now What?

I have no idea how Pax Ren will be received by the gaming public. It is… unfamiliar. It's a tableau-building game with a market and many interlocking parts and mechanisms, but like both Porfiriana and Pamir, the numerous options that you have to embetter your position are not immediately obvious by just looking at the available cards. Choices have to be made. Opportunities seized. Ambushes sprung.

Do average gamers have the moxy to dive into this fascinating mayhem and try to shape the game to their advantage? It seems unlikely. If the game remains a niche experience like other SMG products, great. But if Pax Ren fails outright, it will not be due to lack of development or effort… or ambition.

Matt Eklund

P.S. Apologies

I would like to apologize to the following for being left out of either the game, or the above discussion:

• Phil's individual playtesting heroes (you know who you are), and anyone whose contribution to this project I have undersold.
• The following legit empires left out of the game (as empires): Iran, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, Castile, and several Khanates. (Castile and Poland-Lithuania are included on the "other side" of the Empire cards as republics).
• Every amazing church/mosque/monastery/library or other architectural achievement that I charted individually… and every other of the 150 cards cut from my first draft.
• And all the cities and city-states that didn't make the cut. Sorry yo. Once we tied the cities to levies (military pieces), it became important to strictly limit them.
• The Eastern Orthodox Church. Man, we really tried to get you in as an independent religion and not just an offshoot of reformist catholic apostasy. Sorry about that.
• Shi'ah Islam. Basically ditto.
• Empiricism as an alternative to religion. This idea was fundamental to my early designs, that humanity was not necessary fated into a future of religion as the base system of ethics. My perhaps overly-optimistic belief that the age of enlightenment of the 17th century could have come early and overtaken religion sooner was eventually eclipsed by the fact that the class confrontations of Phil's design were more realistic, more compelling, and more meaningful to the average person of that time — certainly more meaningful than the esoteric science versus religion confrontations that wouldn't kick off for another two hundred years.
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