Final Thoughts on Pax Pamir
Why am I doing this? Why am I scrutinizing rulebooks and scouring rules forums? Why am I pushing these cubes, shuffling these cards, and flinging these coins? Am I having fun yet? Am I even supposed to be having fun? Have I been thinking about board games incorrectly all this time?!
This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.
Flummoxed. Confused. Bewildered. Exasperated. Intrigued. Each word would be an apt description of my feelings toward Pax Pamir as I began my descent into the world of colonial intrigue. If you've ever experienced a Sierra Madre Game before, you might understand my predicament. I use the word experience as opposed to play because it often feels that you are subject the creator's whims more than being in control of your own destiny. The copious amounts of footnotes found in many of the games' rule books exemplify the feeling of simulation over the familiarity of the games you might be more familiar with. This leads to products that play differently than just about anything I've played before and I still questions whether or not I enjoy them. So why do I keep trying them? Subject matter.
No other company is tackling such a diverse breadth of themes and topics as Sierra Madre Games. They are often rooted in history or science and highlight subjects that really appeal to me. Pax Pamir in particular hits close to home as one of the regions in the game is the birthplace of my father. Many of the characters look and have names like people in my very own family. I also heard that it was one of the easier entries into the series and my past experiences with Sierra Madre Games taught me that their version of "entry level" is fine by me.
The Board Gamer's Struggle
Buy a book and you can start reading. Hit the Netflix button on the remote, select a movie, sit down, and start watching. Download a video game and jump straight into the fray. Entertainment options have been moving further towards accessibility and easy on-boarding. Get a new board game and you have your work cut out for you. Not only do you have to have to punch cardboard tokens and organize cards, you have to work out how the actual game works. For a more complicated game, this can be a multi-hour affair. I'll lay out the game and work out what pieces do what as I slowly work through the rulebook. Then I'll actually simulate a multi-player game by myself and reference the book and online resources to answer any questions that may arise. And then I get the pleasure of teaching others how to play. It's an investment, playing a board game.
I had a bear of time learning how to play Pax Pamir. I watched videos online, scoured rules forums, and downloaded teaching aids. After I'd internalized the rules, I came to realize that it's not as hard as it might seem and I was able to teach the game fairly successfully, but it wasn't an easy road. Perhaps the largest stumbling block I had was answering the question, "Why?" Reading the rulebook gave me the mechanical knowledge to manipulate the pieces, but any overarching strategy was beyond my grasp. In most games, I can get a good idea of why certain actions are important after reading the rule book and working through a few moves on my own. I upgrade this barn to house more pigs. I hire a driver to deliver goods and earn more money. Not so with Pax Pamir.
The biggest obstacle to my understanding was the win condition. There are two distinct parts to winning. The game comes to an end when one of the three empires becomes dominant in the current mode. Only then is the winner evaluated. Whoever has the most favor with the dominant empire is the winner. The complication comes from the fact that no one person controls the empires directly. Your actions can only nudge the super powers into the directions you hope will lead to victory. Your actions feel slightly detached from the game world. It's tough to come to grips with, but it's also what makes Pax Pamir beautiful.
Perhaps you've hitched yourself to the Russian empire and dedicate yourself to being a loyal vassal. You build up armies for their war. You construct roads for their caravans. You amass spies for their intelligence network. But then you look around the table and notice that the other 4 people at the table have sided with the British and there's no way you can push your chosen empire to supremacy. Yes, you played poorly, but a greater realization comes over you. Your individual might and muster is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. No matter how well you play, if you bet on the wrong horse, you're not going to win. It's a reminder that you're a mere pawn in a larger game that is being played above you. The specter of these great superpowers is always felt even if it can't be easily understood. You're merely a small group of people trying to carve out an existence in a harsh land. It's sobering. It's thematic. It's brilliant. But is it fun?
My wife often complains that the movies I watch are too morose, too sullen, and just all around depressing. She'd rather watch something upbeat and heartwarming. I watch movies to expose myself to the parts of life that I rarely get to experience myself. My wife watches movies to escape and be entertained. Different strokes. I wouldn't describe watching a movie like A Ghost Story as fun, per se, but it was the most satisfying movie experience I had all year. As it can be said for Pax Pamir.
There aren't the traditional signs of fun when a game of Pax Pamir is happening. There's rarely cheering or excited yelps, but there are certainly furrowed brows and unmentionable utterings.
In the sense that Pax Pamir exposes me to emotions so rarely seen in board games, it is successful. It challenges me. It puts me in a place and in a time. I feel small in this world and every small victory is scrap for a starving dog. Am I smiling and laughing? No, but that's ok.
The game makes the most of a deck of cards and a handful of wooden bits
For all the profoundness I found in this small box I have to mention the Living Rules and my ultimate frustration with them. I already mentioned my difficulties in learning the rules, but I plugged my way through them. It was only after a few games under my belt did I learn the the designer had instituted some official rules rules changes and collected them in a "living" document. This rule set had been growing and tweaking the rules that came in the box for some time and instituted some fairly significant changes. So I read them over. They seemed like good changes. But then the thought of teaching these new rules to my group dawned on me. Just as we were establishing a groove and committing the actions to muscle memory was I really going to foist these changes on them?
I could certainly ignore that the Living Rules even exist. For all I know, my group has no idea they were ever created. We could go on our merry way exploring the game. But I know. I will always know and I can never not know. I want the game in my box to be the best game it can be, but I've already invested so much time and effort into learning it one way and I don't have the wherewithal to introduce these changes and change whatever muscle memory my group has already established. So be warned. If you pick up a copy of this (harder and harder to find) game, look up the Living Rules beforehand and know that if your group is playing it one way, another group might be playing another.
Pax Pamir may very well be the most important game I've ever played. Not for its impact on the gaming landscape, but on a personal level. It made me reevaluate what it is I look for in a game and enlightened me on a period of history that I was woefully ignorant of. And I don't want to make it seem that it's just an "experience" game. There are interesting systems of shared incentives and negotiation going one. Deception and out-and-out violence are familiar faces at the table. But these aren't what stand out to me. It's the Pax Pamir's daring to make the players feel small within the game world, to wrestle destiny away from your own actions. But who doesn't like an underdog story?