These days I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about Sinan Reis. If you have no idea who that is, that is not surprising. Neither did I until a few days ago. He was a Sephardic Jew whose family fled Spain during the Inquisition who then made it his mission to exact revenge by becoming a well known pirate of Spanish trade routes in the Mediterranean. I have spent a lot of time thinking about him because he was a card in the game PAX Renaissance, and was key to my strategy for shutting down my opponents trade routes. And so through some flavor text on a card in a board game and a dive in a deep wikipedia rabbit hole, I have learned more about Renaissance piracy than I ever did before. This is a telltale sign of the PAX series. Named after the latin word for peace, these are deeply historical board games that capture chaotic times and let players pull the strings towards different possible outcomes to achieve victory.
I have written about Phil Eklund games in the past and at the time mostly focused on his science based games. However, Eklund has a passion for history as well and this comes through in the PAX series. The series started with PAX Porfiriana, a game about the Mexican revolution, some of which happened near Phil’s old backyard of Arizona. As usual he brought a near obsessive level of details to the hundreds of cards in the game which represent real historic figures, enterprises and technology of the period. In the game players play different Hacendados, Mexican landowners who manipulate the power structure to push the country towards a future that benefits them. The game itself is a tableau builder, where players draft cards from a central market to build up their revenue but also collect different prestige points for the four victory conditions. The Loyalty condition sees players trying to be loyal to the titular Porfirio Diaz, and become his successor. The Outrage condition causes chaos and tries to create enough U.S. indignation to justify an intervention and annexation of the region. The Revolution condition aims to turn the country towards a communist revolution, and the Command condition looks to create a military dictatorship.
If this all sounds a bit complicated and chaotic, it is! But Like many Eklund games that’s what the PAX series thrives. These are not games for players who want a calculated efficiency exercise where players largely don’t interact with each other. Instead it is much more of a bar fight with cards. In PAX Porfiriana, if you’re not messing with other people’s plans you’re likely not playing to win. You can induce riots on their properties, send the economy into a depression to ruin their income, or assassinate their business partners. None of this is spite purely for spite’s sake either, but a vital part of maneuvering for victory. And sometimes, to achieve the right victory condition, it might even make sense to play these cards against yourself in order to reap the points they add towards Outrage or Revolution victories. PAX games are very interactive, and each game plays with a random subset of a large deck of cards, so there is no predicting just what cards and strategies will be available. Along with this somewhat chaotic system comes a whole lot of variety.
While PAX Porfiriana is the game that made the system popular Phil and other designers have explored all sorts of similarly chaotic periods in history. PAX Pamir explores The Great Game in Afghanistan as empires vied for control over a country that was a pivotal gateway into central Asia. It has since been re implemented in a second edition by Cole Wherle with a cloth map and pieces that are like a work of art. PAX Renaissance covers a bit more well known time period but with a depth that goes beyond what most folks learned in class. As a nice touch all the pieces in the game are represented by their chess equivalents so Knights, Rooks, and Bishops rove about a Renaissance landscape. PAX Emancipation attempts to tackle the question of the end of slavery, and PAX Transhumanity by Phil’s son Matt Eklund goes into a theoretical future based on possible technologies that could change society. Each game has some of the same DNA of a market and tableau and multiple ways to claim victory, but are otherwise their own creatures that reflect the core idea they are trying to grapple with.
Most recently, a kickstarter was announced for a new beginner friendly game called PAX Viking that hopes to be an entry point into this great series that’s not quite so chaotic and multilayered. Alongside this new game they are reprinting PAX Renaissance in a deluxe second edition, giving a whole new audience a chance to stumble down wikipedia research holes that they didn’t even realize existed! All joking aside, I am grateful for these games. So often games are about the mechanics first and the theme second. In PAX games, like in other Eklund titles the mechanics and the themes are married in a way that the game is almost a class on the subject as well as a game. And so it was that I learned about Sinan Reiss, the famous pirate and played him to shut down my opponents Mediterranean trade route. It was a key play during my game, but it also actually historically happened and affected the way the Renaissance played out.
As a note, there are ways to play these games online, even if you’re stuck at home. Until PAX Viking comes along the best place to start might be the PAX Porfiriana online version on yucata.de. And if you’d like to try a game you can find me on that service under the username Jerm. If you are feeling a bit more brave there are mods available for Tabletop Simulator for all the PAX games, but these are just virtual pieces so the rules have to come from you and your opponents.
These games are admittedly very niche. You have to be prepared to grapple with some complex rules, and most folks would rather play a game about dinosaurs or birds rather than a deeply historical simulation. But if any of this intrigues you, I can’t recommend this series enough.