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Designer Diary: Pax Renaissance — Part II: The Birth of the Modern World

Phil Eklund
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Board Game: Pax Renaissance
My son and co-designer Matt has described the tortuous process by which Pax Renaissance was forged as a game. Now I want to describe how philosophy has shaped this game, as well as my own life. Yes, the birth of a new kind of game is reflected in my own decades-long intellectual renaissance. This journey, lasting almost as long as the historical Renaissance, includes my schooling, arguments with friends and enemies, and my big move to Europe.

My overarching vision was to explore how the medieval world was replaced by Western society, notorious for subsequently conquering the entire globe. This globalization of Western ideas and power occurred in a brief exciting period called the Renaissance. Certain personal events influenced the game concepts of trade routes, republics, the Inquisition, the Reformation, class warfare, theocracies, and the great East/West dichotomy.

The Novels of Dorothy Dunnett

A college girlfriend shared with me a series of historical novels called "The House of Niccolò". Niccolò is a boy of humble origins, an unacknowledged son working as an apprentice in a Flanders dye shop, but he is good with figures, and with this strength goes on to found a banking empire, with its own troop of mercenaries, couriers, cryptographers, notaries, insurers, and one great galley. Everything pivots around trade with the Far East and secret deals with the Ottomans who controlled the routes to the East.

The novels described a surprisingly modern world of banks and capitalism. It shattered my vague impression that the Renaissance bankers were nobility making their fortunes with interests on royal loans. Instead vast fortunes were made with large amounts of small loans to merchants and commoners, while simultaneously avoiding the unwanted attentions of royals who could demand money backed by the force of arms. The novels describe the historical Medici oath forbidding both lending to royals (since kings had no incentive to pay back) and avoiding holding public offices to stay in the private sector. Since the bankers were commoners with no rights and vulnerable to forced "loans", they could survive only in places where the warlords held no power, i.e., the guild-run city-states of Italy and Flanders.

The series, written by a polymath named Dorothy Dunnett, are fiction, but they mesh closely with what is known about the lives of Giovanni di Bicci de' Medici, one of the unheralded heroes of civilization, and his son Cosimo. The stories of the banking houses of Fugger, Welser, and Cœur are similar. They would become starting player roles.


In high school, I became friends with a strange kid with a German father and Hungarian mother. We had heated discussions about politics, I defending democracies and he dictatorships. It was during these arguments that I found myself defending things that were really indefensible. For the first time, I began to distinguish democracies (rule by the majority) from republics (rule by natural law), and began to defend the latter. It became apparent that powers as diverse as Rome and the USA accomplished much while they were republics, then declined sharply thereafter. And then I had the revelation that the Renaissance originated in the only spot on the entire globe that could be called a republic. The Doges were figureheads, there was no supreme dictator, and the rule was a rule of law.

Nobody Expects This

An important relic of medievalism during the Renaissance was the Inquisition. During this period, it targeted largely Jews. I first struggled with the bizarre phenomenon of anti-Semitism when my aforementioned best buddy got married to a lovely Jewish girl and immediately became estranged from his German family. At first I was convinced this was a religious war, up to and including the Holocaust — but the problem was that Hitler did not seem like a Jesus freak. Why target Jews? And what hidden stream of resentment had he tapped into, in a Western society no less? "Jews are like crows, picking the bones of the fallen", one college friend told me. Another friend was a disciple of the Rothschild-Jewish conspiracy theory. Even some of my seemingly rational partners today still soberly tell me that bankers secretly run the world to the distress of everyone else. I came to realize that this bizarre hatred was aimed against the profession of banking. Thomas Sowell calls this irrationality the "middleman prejudice".

It was only for incidental historical and doctrinal reasons that Jews became bankers and moneylenders, both in the Ottoman Empire and Catholic Europe. These professions have always unpopular, further exacerbated by government propaganda by those who are always looking for ways to subjugate and exploit bankers. From the Renaissance kings, to the Nazi regime, to the modern politicians, bankers and other middlemen are portrayed as greedy and heartless — unless subjugated to the divine right of kings to confiscate their earnings, right down to the fillings of their teeth, as frequent Inquisitions and Holocausts demonstrate.

Banks Then And Now

During the Renaissance, there were attempts to set up public banks using tax money. The rulers hoped to become as rich as the private bankers, but all the central banks failed within months. Today's World Bank is not a bank but a political bureaucracy run by politicians and funded by tax dollars, one that has clearly outlived whatever usefulness it may have allegedly had. Someday I may do a Pax game in modern Mexico, so post-Porfiriana, showing an optimistic future under private banks rather than the World Bank.

Board Game: Pax Renaissance
Two of the starting bankers: Medici and Marchionni

My Jesuit Training

I was trained by Jesuits. "Give me the child for seven years, and I will give you the man" is the Jesuit maxim. (In my case, the man produced was a fundamentalist atheist — not the desired result, however.) In any case, the salient point here is that the Jesuits were specifically established during the Renaissance as the ideological shock troops of the counter-Reformation. They were trained like Jedi knights to bring down Luther and his heresies, So I had to read a lot of material on Luther in high school, including his rampant anti-Semitism and his role against the peasants in the Great Peasant Revolt. All these features and events would appear in the game.

Will Durant

One of my colleagues at the rocket factory introduced me to Will Durant, whose life's work was the documenting the story of civilization. I enjoyed Durant's in-depth style, and quoted him copiously throughout the game's footnotes.

Lords of the Renaissance From Below

My readings inspired my game Lords of the Renaissance, published in 1996. As Matt has mentioned, this game used a big map with trade routes that generated the economy. The routing of the trade routes determined which nations grew rich and powerful, and which withered. Tableau cards determined which lands and which offices you held. Like the earlier game Lords of the Sierra Madre, the revolutionary part of the game was that it was "bottom up" rather than "top down". In other words, the players were neither nations or national leaders. They were instead commoners struggling to influence the royals to their advantage.

This "bottom up" perspective is one of the hardest things to describe to newcomers of the Pax games. Q: "Why don't I get the income from taxes?" A: Because you are just a banker, not a tax collector. Q: "How can he move and burn me with my own inquisitors?". A: You may have funded the creation of these zealots, but you aren't the Pope. Q: "Wait, my pirates should give the stuff they steal to me." A: You are not a pirate captain and those are not your pirates. Q: "I paid for those knights; I don't want them joining the crusade." A: Those aren't the droids you're looking for.

Class Warfare

The Renaissance is defined by the new merchant class overthrowing the old warlord classes of knights, kings, and pawns. Therefore, class warfare had be at the core of Pax Renaissance. I hit upon the idea of assigning cards to chess pieces. The knights, bishops, pawns, and kings of the medieval world would be represented by chess icons, and the game would feature the struggles among them. A way to show a class as being suppressed or enslaved was devised. These were envisioned as seething in discontent, ready to revolt at any sign of weakness by the ruling class.

The represented classes are medieval. Most are agents of force: the kings, queens, knights, bishops, and castles. Others, represented as chess pawns in the game, are those who earn their way in the world by their products and services, what we would call today the business class. This includes not only serfs but also the new emergent class of merchants and bankers. It is suggestive that these capitalist classes emerged in entrepôts furthest from the influence of kings and nobles, such as the Italian city-states.


In 2004, I met Nicole, a medical student (and boardgamer) from Karlsruhe, Germany. We were both on vacation in New Zealand at the time. We began a long distance relationship, while struggling to learn each other's language. Inevitably, we searched for a way to shorten the ocean between us. Initially I thought she could move to Arizona and become a doctor. The alternative, me moving to Germany, was lightyears out of my comfort zone. I would be in a village with no English speakers other than Nicole, but on the bright side I might become more cosmopolitan, more multicultural. My tiny business Sierra Madre Games would become one of those multinationals so maligned by anticapitalists. Germany was undoubtedly the global center of non-computer games, always good for business, and Europe was the epicenter for the start of the Western society, a topic of continued fascination for me. After many vacillations, in 2013 I took early retirement from the rocket factory and boarded a one-way 747 to Frankfurt, Germany.

I now live in a village overlooking the Rhine two hundred kilometers west of Augsburg, the Renaissance center of the Welser and Fugger bankers. This was at the birth of privately earned wealth, and Jakob Fugger was judged in a recent study to be the richest man in history. I have a documentary on his life called "Kauf dir einen Kaiser" (Buy yourself a Caesar). But ask yourself, who really holds the power, the man with the purse or the man with the sword? I learned that the vast Fugger fortune would come to be simply seized by the emperor.

Board Game: Pax Renaissance
Market shown at set-up, with the East market in the upper row and the West in the lower row


Once in Germany, my experience of various cultures expanded greatly. My best friends here in Germany are a refugee couple from Iran. I was able to obtain firsthand information about theocracies, those governments where church and state are intertwined. Theocracies were to be at the heart of the game's holy victories, and the means by which to implement the Reformations, crusades, and jihads of their time. I needed to know, for instance, how militaristic and aggressive theocracies are compared to dictatorships.

The status and treatment of women is a telltale difference between The East and The West. Much of the hatred of Eastern regimes is directed toward the Western idea that women are independent agents not forced to submit to societal needs. Before her escape from Iran, a friend of mine was imprisoned for the crime of working at a secular kindergarten. Both she and her boyfriend have since renounced Islam and become atheists. If forced to return to Iran, a possibility given her visa status, she could be stoned. She tells me it is illegal to be happy in Iran, referring to an incident in which teenagers innocently dancing to the western music called "Happy" were whipped and imprisoned. By the way, she is an artist and painted a small element on the game box.

East and West

So why am I so fascinated with Western society? So much of today's world is taken for granted. Supermarkets, bank accounts, private auto and jet travel, cheap housing with electricity and flush toilets, the industrial revolution, the current food glut from the green revolution — all these are gifts bequeathed by industrialists trained in Western-style logic and reason. The Western basis of thinking originated with Aristotle in Athens and was preserved by thinkers in Rome and Alexandria. Lost in Europe's dark ages, the scholarly tradition continued in Constantinople and Baghdad. As the Islamic world entered its own dark ages just before the Renaissance, it migrated west once again. This westward migration of Aristotle's ideas heralded the Italian Renaissance, as exemplified in the largely secular University of Padua, which counts Copernicus and Galileo among its alumni.

Just Where Are the East and the West?

The decision to make separate East and West decks solved a serious game conundrum: how to reasonably restrict a card's influence. Restricting a range of operations to just one empire out of ten failed the playability test. Making a card range over the entire map failed the realism test. Letting a card influence just the East or just the West was in the goldilocks zone — but the next question that arises: What do we mean by "The East" or "The West"? Is the difference geographical, religious, or philosophical?

Although for the range of operations the game describes the East and West in geographical terms, it fundamentally defines the two as opposing philosophic and cultural dispositions. For this reason, Western cards can be located in the East and vice versa. More on this in my closing paragraphs.

Pax Pamir To The Rescue

Board Game: Pax Pamir
By 2014, Pax Renaissance was in deep trouble. Matthew and I had attempted eight major iterations of the game, some baselined on his ideas and some on mine. Each attempt foundered on the rocks of too much ambition. The ten-empire map scale was so huge that players had little hope of obtaining even two cards in the same empire. This made almost all the operations enabled by a tableau card useless. Now even the most diehard playtesters were losing interest. Without playtesters, the project was dying.

I made an executive decision and shelved the game, concentrating instead on Cole Wehrle's new project, Pax Pamir. Cole was tackling the same problems I was, with more success. In particular, Cole was able to integrate all three game arenas: the Market, the Tableaus, and the Map. However, late in the process and with little time left until the publication deadline, Pax Pamir failed in Matthew's playtest. His players were unable to figure out whether campaigns or other operations would succeed or fail unless they examined each card of their opponent's tableaus, which brought the game to a standstill. Previous playtesters, including me, had noted a problem, but were unable to identify its source. Matthew did.

Afraid the project would fail, I made an emergency Skype call to Cole in Texas. I was full of trepidation because I recall working with another game designer who refused to alter a design, and thus it never got published. To my utter relief, Cole was unflustered by a major late redesign. In fact, he quickly grasped the problem and took the redesign lead. His game proved immensely popular, in fact the fastest-selling Sierra Madre game.

The next step in my secret plan was to scrap the rules and cards of Pax Renaissance and start with Pax Pamir rules and cards as a new baseline — basically plagiarize Cole's ideas of Market/Tableau/Map integration wholesale and steal his mechanisms of a closed economy and operations icons, then backfill this with the core ideas of Pax Renaissance, ideas like trade routes, imperial military strength coupled with custom fees from those trade routes, theocracies and republics indicated by special cards, class warfare, etc. I pleaded with burned-out playtesters, finally getting together a fresh team in Italy.

On Location Pax Renaissance

I owe a lot to Stefano and his Italian team of playtesters. Living where it all began, they made sure I got the details right. The one from Genoa was fit to throttle me when I made Columbus and Doria into pirates. Decisions on what to name the empires were filled with landmines. My indecision regarding what to call the Iberian peninsula was brought directly under fusillades from both Castilians and Portuguese. Ditto between Hungarians and Polish-Lithuanians.

Board Game: Pax Renaissance
Pax Renaissance trade map: theocracy

What Are the Differences Between the East and the West?

By "Western thought", I mean an epistemology that upholds reason (i.e., observation and logic) as man's means of knowledge. By "Eastern thought", I mean a reliance on mystical sources of knowledge. As a consequence, Western cultures tend to uphold the value of the individual, particularly independence and free thought, while Eastern cultures suborn individuals to group and collectivist thinking. Three examples common in the East but vanquished by Western efforts are arranged marriages, the caste system, and slavery. Western philosophy since John Locke views leaders as just one of many, subject to the same rules as everyone else, while the leader assumes supreme status in the East. Western discourse is marked by candor, frankness, and honesty, while discussing something as basic and important as child birth or sex is still a taboo in the East. Western decisions are concerned with this world, while Eastern ones are concerned with the next. Economic freedoms, especially capitalism, are enjoyed in the West (even if largely unappreciated), while they are reviled in the East. Western medicine relies on analytical approaches, while that of the East relies on holistic approaches.

To repeat, these generalities are derived from the reason versus mysticism premises of individuals and are not associated with any location or place of origin. To say it another way, any style of thinking that suborns the individual to society, instead of the other way around, is what I am characterizing as "Eastern".

Eastern Versus Western Medicine

My wife is a doctor, and the fight to exclude pseudoscience from medicine is a daily one for us. I define "pseudoscience" as any attempt to substitute anything other than observation and logic as a source of knowledge. I am not saying that alternative medicine and Eastern holism is worthless, but that it must satisfy the same Aristotelian standards as anything else to qualify as knowledge. In particular, it must specify a causal chain to actually qualify as a scientific treatment.

Physical causality is conspicuously missing in claims for acupuncture, aural fields, bloodletting, voodoo doll treatments, etc. This debate is as active today as it was in the Renaissance.

Wars of Politics, Wars of Philosophy

Besides class warfare (conspiracies and peasant revolts), Pax Renaissance also represents political and philosophical wars. The former — wars chiefly fought to enhance the power and vainglory of the kings and rulers — are represented by "campaigns". This game mechanism was copy-pasted from Pax Pamir. The philosophical wars, on the other hand, are represented by crusades, reformations, and jihads.

During the Renaissance, most of the Ottoman Wars against the West were campaigns, concerned over territory, not ideology, but some of them employed jihad, against, for instance, shi'a muslims.

The Allied invasion of occupied Europe in WWII is an example of a modern philosophical war. My evidence comes from an informal poll made of my neighbors and relatives here in Germany. All of them, including even those who actually fought in the war, consider D-Day to be an honorable action. Where else in the world can you find such overwhelming support for invading foreigners? The reason is that the invasion is regarded as ideological, not a grab for power or territory.

D-Day was fought between Western powers, yet I would argue that the National Socialists in control of Germany followed Eastern ideals of individuals as pawns of society. Our family copy of Mein Kampf, issued to us during the war, is full of phrases stating that there is no higher good than to die for the Fatherland. "Du bist nichts, Dein Volk ist alles" (You are nothing, your race is everything).

Jihad Now

The Eastern idea of individuals sacrificing themselves for their society has persisted from the Janissary and Mamluk slave-soldiers to more modern Kamikaze pilots and suicide bombers. The latter are used in today's Muslim ideological war targeting Western values. I write this in the wake of terrorist attacks in Nice, France, about 840 km south of here, and in Munich, about 300 km to the east. The 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks — three days of terror in Paris — demonstrated that I personally can be killed for what I have stated and depicted on several Pax Renaissance cards.

This war is between anyone in the West and those who are trained to hate the West, everything from miniskirts to individual liberties. Trained by regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia to express their hatred with bombs. As a religion, Islam is not so different from Christianity. Indeed, they are treated identically in the game. However, most Christians have since been tempered in their fundamentalism by the Western Enlightenment. The Muslims who I am speaking of have not been so enlightened.

Frankly, I am scared. Frightened enough not to publish the names of friends of mine in my article. Those in the USA who snigger at my fear should remember that the death tolls are hundreds of times higher here than in the states, and that two of my closest friends are victims in this war. In order to fight, those who believe in Western values must acknowledge that we are at war. If you forget everything else I have written, remember that.

Phil Eklund
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