Thursday, December 17, 2020


 We just completed Turn 4 in the ongoing game of Here I Stand I'm playing online with some old friends of mine. For those unfamiliar with the game's mechanics, a "turn" consists of an indeterminate number of "impulses" during which the various factions – Ottomans, Habsburgs, France, Papacy, England, and Protestants – can act. Since Here I Stand a card-driven conflict simulation, each faction can continue to act until it runs out of cards, with some factions, such as the Habsburgs tending to have more cards and thus more impulses per turn than other factions. My point in mentioning this is that a turn can, in fact, take a very long time to play out (and represents about three years of real time). Likewise, owing to scheduling issues, we only play every other week, which contributes to the slow pace at which we're working our way through the political and military maneuverings of the Reformation.

During this turn, I, as the Papacy, was dealt the card above, depicting Alessandro Farnese, elected in 1534 as Pope Paul III. You'll also note that the card bears the word "mandatory" across the top, along with the notation "Turn 3." The notation means that the card is added into the deck during Turn 3, while "mandatory" means that, if you receive this card into your hand, you are obligated to play at during one of your faction's impulses. Also, it turns out, this is a card that takes effect by the end of Turn 4 regardless of whether or not any faction is dealt it into their hand before this point. In this way, the game ensures that real world history must assert itself according to a schedule. Old Giulio de' Medici, Pope Clement VII, must die within a certain time frame, which while somewhat elastic, is not infinitely so. Moreover, there is zero possibility that, if Clement VII dies earlier or later than he did in the real world, his successor will be someone other than Paul III. For many events, historical inevitability rules Here I Stand.

I'm not sure how I feel about that. One of the things that's always intrigued me about wargames is their ability to explore historical counterfactuals – what if a battle went a different way, for example? The more bounded the game's scope, the easier this is to do. A wargame focusing on a single battle, say Gettysburg, need only taken into account a limited number of variables to detail an event that took place over three days in a single year. That means the rules don't have to account for things that a game focusing on the entire American Civil War might have to take into account, never mind a game that covered an even broader swath of history.

So, while I'm very sympathetic to the bind that designed Ed Beach was in when he designed Here I Stand, part of me nevertheless bristles at the fact that the rules are somewhat rigged in favor of history, with numerous real world historical events hard coded into its timeline. Monarchs and other rulers can only ever ascend to power in proper historical sequence, even if the precise timing has some wiggle room. There is thus no possibility, for example, that Henry VIII might produce multiple male heirs and non-sickly ones at that. I understand fully why this is the case: the game's rules cannot cover every possible contingency and any attempt to do so would have resulted in a game that was hugely complicated at best and utterly unplayable at worst. 

As it is, Here I Stand is an enjoyable and immersive game and I'm enjoying it immensely. Yet, I still find myself kicking against the goads of historical inevitability. In my ideal world, historical simulation games would provide for a wider range of possibilities, since I hold to the perhaps naïve belief that events frequently turn on very small things. I'd love to find a game that takes this into account, even as I realize its nigh-impossibility. But, as I've remarked before, I like to be surprised and a game that facilitated that more often is something I crave. Again, it's likely not practical, for a great many reasons, but I seek it all the same.


  1. I think I relate to this. I have a hypothesis that people who like to play a more sandboxy style of RPG (I put myself in that group, even if I don't label myself "OSR") tend to like to play games where they feel like their actions can have an impact on the game world. I don't know if the types of actions you take in Here I Stand are of a type that might have an impact on the life or death of a pope, but the impossibility of changing things using in-game mechanics may not matter; for me, at least, the aversion to fixed events in my games may not be entirely rational.

  2. One of the more interesting historical war games to come out in the last couple years is _Cataclysm_ by GMT. Subtitled "A World War II", it begins in the run up to that conflict, but has much broader latitude regarding the nature of the coming conflagration than most WWII games, or even precisely when it will occur. It tries to have something to say regarding the economic and political forces in play at the time, but leaves much room for them to play out in considerably counterfactual ways. Might be worth checking out if you are seeking an experience more latitude that is still tied to actual history.