In the midst of the Modern Golden Age of Boardgaming, as we now find ourselves, an interesting but quite disparate pair of board games have come out fairly recently, offering up the opportunity to learn about and perhaps simulate the Reformation and its era. The epic 6-player game Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation, designed by Ed Beach, came out from GMT Games in 2006. In time for the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses in Wittenberg, Ed Beach and GMT released a 500th Anniversary re-print edition in 2017, with some minor additions and upgrades (which have also been made available separately for those who already had the first edition).
Also in time for the 500th anniversary, designers Jason Matthews and Christian Leonhard released Sola Fide, a smaller, 2-player game focusing on the conflict between the Roman Catholic Church and the burgeoning entity known as “Protestants.”
Here I Stand
As I already mentioned, these two games are quite different, despite being roughly about the same thing. As the sub-title of Here I Stand implies, HIS is more of a grand strategy and war game. Though it can be played by 2 players with some slight rules variations, the best number to play with is 6 (or 3, if all players want to take on 2 roles). It is a bit misleading, though, to call this just a “war game” (like Risk, sure), since not all players are trying to win battles – at least, not physical battles. The 6 players each take a different role in the historical backdrop of the Reformation Era: the Protestants, the Papacy, the English, the French, the Habsburgs, and the Ottomans. Just as each nation/entity was trying to accomplish different things in the early 16th century, so each player is, in effect, playing a different game, trying to achieve a different victory.
6 Nations at War
The Protestants are trying to convert different cities to Protestantism; the Papacy is, naturally, trying to stop them and re-gain territory for Catholicism (and perhaps burning Protestants at the stake to do so). The English player, mainly as Henry VIII, divides his attention between warding off the French player’s army and trying to engender a male heir to continue the Tudor Dynasty (abstracted in the game by dice rolling, so nothing too saucy). Meanwhile, the French player is trying to destroy England (as usual), the Ottomans are piratically sailing around the Barbary Coast, and Charles V of the Habsburgs is trying to keep Europe in tact while everything around him seems to be exploding. Some players can also send voyages to the New World, make treaties with other players and even neutral countries, the Protestants and Papacy engage in religious debates, and much more.
Needless to say, Here I Stand is a big game. However, the scope of the game is more manageable when you realize you only have to focus on your particular goals – you don’t have to do everything in the game (and not all sides can even do everything). What helps make this grand game so manageable is the game play itself. HIS is a “card-driven game.” Each player gets a handful of cards each turn and bases that turn’s decisions on his overall goals for victory and what her hand of cards will effectively let her do that turn. Cards have an event on them, which is what happens when you play that card for your turn.
The game comes with over a hundred cards, giving you a great deal of historical content and learning about the era, as this is, primarily, a simulation of what was going on in the European world during the Reformation. If you have a card or two in your hand with an event that won’t do you any good (say, a military event card for the Protestants, who don’t even have an army), you can use the number in the top left corner of the card as “action points” to do any of the particular actions your side has, such as surveying the New World for Spain or converting a city back to Catholicism for the Papacy. Each player also has a helpful player board to remind you which actions you can take and what your goals are, so even though it’s a big game, you only have to learn 1/6 of it to play.
Here I Stand is a big game, yes, so you really should carve out an afternoon to play it – make it an event. But don’t let that discourage you: you will get to learn a lot about history, see how various nations/powers acted in the dynamic 16th century with different goals and objectives, and you will get a chance to be a part of creating that history as you simulate it and experience it almost first hand. It’s quite the experience.
If an all-day experience seems a bit much for you (or you can’t get 5 buddies over for an afternoon), try the two-person Sola Fide. Whereas HIS is more about the nations and powers reacting to the Reformation, Sola Fide is about creating the Reformation. To be honest with you, I haven’t played Sola Fide itself, but I have played the game it was based on Twilight Struggle (I have played HIS a few times). When I say “based on,” I mean the same designers, Matthews and Leonhard, took the basic game design of Twilight Struggle (a game about the US and USSR in the Cold War) and re-themed it to the Reformation, and since I love Twilight Struggle, I can recommend Sola Fide to you without hesitation. (SF is also based on their game Campaign Manager, about electing the president, but it’s simpler and easier than both of them.)
As a simpler game, Sola Fide is shorter, smaller, and cheaper (in cost not quality) than Here I Stand. It is also a card-driven game like HIS, but whereas the cards in HIS give you multiple options, the cards in SF just give you one thing to do. Most of the time, the thing you do is put your pieces down over regions of Germany to control those areas for your side, either Protestant or Papacy. While the game play may seem simple, the constant tug-of-war between your side and your opponent will make even the simple decisions seem important and the tension palpable throughout the game. It won’t dive as deeply into the history of the era as HIS does, but for a 45-minute game, you’ll get enough historical flavor to make it worthwhile.
The Reformation Lives Again
Both of these games are still available at several on-line retailers, such as Amazon, Miniature Market, and Cool Stuff Inc. (to name three). So pick whatever flavor you prefer, either a grand sweeping experience or light, tactical challenge, and bring the Reformation back to life!