The absurd intricate Pax Renaissance recalls how money saved the world
If you play enough boardgames, you’ll pick up the shorthand to communicate the basics of any particular game. This one is worker placement with territory control, that one is a deck-builder with drafting, and the stuff in the back of the closet is a bunch of dudes-on-a-board Ameritrash nonsense. Of course, you need to mention the theme. Set collection in a medieval village, push-your-luck with elfs and dragons, screw-your-neighbor with spaceships, or points salad in ancient Rome.
You can’t do this with a Phil Eklund game. You just say “it’s a Phil Eklund game”.
Like many things worth doing, Pax Renaissance, a Phil Eklund game, is demanding. The detailed rules, festooned with fascinating footnotes, don’t do themselves any favors. It’s hard to cull from all that text any idea of what you’re supposed to do, and it’s even harder to present to people who want to play without reading a Phil Eklund rules book. You have to love rules to learn this game, and you have to love learning rules to play this game. Whereas I wouldn’t normally write a boardgame review by describing gameplay, that’s what I’m going to do here. It’s the only way I can explain how so much historical detail informs a boardgame that isn’t a detailed historical simulation.
Your basic action is buying cards and then using them to take control of different areas, working your way towards one of the victory conditions. The trick is that the other players are doing the same thing, but they might be working toward a different victory condition. The difference between a new Pax Renaissance player and an experienced Pax Renaissance player is that the new player is busy figuring out how to get to a victory condition; the experienced player is also watching everyone else’s progress. It doesn’t matter if I’m two turns away from a monarchy victory when another player is one turn away from a religious victory.
Putting a card into play represents some sort of upheaval as new people or factions arrive on the scene, usually adding pieces to the board (this is the template for most of Eklund’s games). Most cards are specific to a particular place. For instance, Thomas Cromwell will only happen in England, the Conquistadors will only happen in Spain, and the Crusades will only happen in the Levant. Some powerful cards can be far ranging. The House of Borgia, Janissaries, and the Protestant Reformation go pretty much wherever they feel like going.
Once a card is put into play, you’re a puppet master pulling its strings. One of the options on your turn is to run through all the cards in your tableau, using each card for one of its special actions. Mechanically, these actions are simple. Take a piece off the board, get a coin, make another player discard a card, that sort of thing. Usually this is how you set up favorable conditions for whatever upheaval you want to introduce with the cards you’ll play later.
Each card is named after a specific slice of history. A dense clot of text elaborates. A third of a card’s real estate is reserved for period artwork. Most of them also have a postage stamp sized space in the lower left corner for a unique seal or coat of arms. Eklund’s cards tend to be crammed with detail, but they make room for art. If they’re busy, it’s because they also want to show you something.
The iconography is clear and simple. You never have to read text to figure out what a card does. Too many games with cards use the cards to spill out rules exceptions that you won’t notice unless you’re reading the text. Oh, you mean I can’t attack that card on every third turn unless I’m using orange mana? Yep, sure enough, it says so right there in small print! Cards often double as additional pages in the rules book. This is never the case in Pax Renaissance. Everything a card on the table does is presented in clear, simple, and consistent iconography.
This is where Pax Renaissance’s uniquely Eklund specificity comes into play. Let’s consider France. There are nine cards specific to France, meaning they add pieces to France and they can later do specific actions in France. Three are queens, three are military forces, two are economic guilds, and one is religious.
(It’s worth noting these cards might never come into play. Pax Renaissance is one of those games where as many as half of the cards stay in the box. You can never count on Thomas Cromwell, Conquistadors, the Crusades, the Borgias, the Janissaries, or even the Protestant Reformation. In some games, they’ll simply stay home.)
A common ability on cards is “siege”, which just means “take a piece off the board”. Five of the nine cards specific to France include the siege action. When these cards are in your tableau, you can simply take one of the pieces off France. Kill it, basically. Easy. The red icon — red for a military action — shows you which pieces you can kill, which is pretty much any of them. The word “siege” is printed under the icon in case you don’t want to remember icons. But look closer. Closer. A little closer. There’s something faintly written along the right side of the icon in teensy italicized text. This is where Eklund explains the historic rationale for anything a card does. This is where he explains why these five cards can kill a piece in France.
The five cards that can siege in France are Anne of Brittany, Margaret of Anjou, Charles the Bold, Friese Freedom, and the Flanders Guild. They vary in many ways, but they all allow a siege action in France. Regardless of which card does it, you simply remove a piece. Yet Anne’s siege action, according to the tiny text, is called the Brittany War of Independence (her marriage to the French king ended England’s claim on this patch of France), whereas Margaret’s siege action is called the War of the Roses (basically, Game of Thrones minus white walkers, dragons, and Peter Dinklage trying to do an accent). Charles the Bold’s siege action is the League of Public Weal, which was a group of nobles who harried French king Louis XI for years. The Friese Freedom, named for a patch of the Low Countries without ruling nobility, gets a siege action for the Vetkopers vs. Schieringers. These were the two factions that fought for control of the area. Their names are Dutch for “fat-buyers” and “speakers”, the former named for the rich who could afford luxuries, the latter named for the poor who tried negotiations before resorting to war. In other words, Republicans vs Democrats. Finally, the Flanders Guild’s siege action is called Salt Wars, which was an uprising against the Pope’s tax on salt. Yep, that was a thing. The Pope tried to tax salt, so some dudes in France rebelled. They were, all, “hey hey, ho ho, this tax on salt has got to go!”. The Pope’s troops crushed them. Popes used to have troops.
This is true of every action on every card. There is no card that does something just because. Every card does something because Eklund ties it to a specific historical incident or concept, indicated in tiny italicized text. And if you’re like me, these labels will send you scuttling down various rabbit holes on Wikipedia. Pax Renaissance is a warren. Simple actions discreetly illuminated with complex historical rationales.
But where Pax Renaissance arguably fails is explaining why you would want to kill a piece in France. There are also ways to add pieces to France, yet it’s not clear why you would want to add pieces to France. You have to wrap your head around the entirety of the rules to appreciate actions as simple as removing or adding pieces. Which isn’t necessarily a criticism. It’s a warning. Pax Renaissance is one of those potentially frustrating games where you have to play with no idea what you’re doing before you can play with some idea what you’re doing. Learning the rules is one thing. Learning the game is another.
You should also be warned that Eklund’s commitment to simple actions is inconsistent. For instance, the rules for putting cards into play to take control of different areas. This is a cornerstone of the gameplay, and the cards resolve in lots of different ways. They each have little rules exceptions and foibles, with slightly different results. Once a card is in play, it’s simple. But actually getting it into play invokes a lot of not being able to attack every third turn unless you’re using orange mana.
It’s all complicated, but for good reason. Pax Renaissance wants a peasant rebellion to work differently than a jihad, which works differently than a royal marriage, which is nothing like forming a representative republic. The specifics vary wildly, as you can tell by referencing the overly complicated chart on the back of the rules. There are better ways to express the rules differences. Teaching people how to play will require figuring out one of those better ways. Maybe even making your own charts.
It helps to keep in mind that all the actions resulting from putting a card into play have the same result: someone new is in charge. Regime change, as the rules call it. The overall conceit of Pax Renaissance is that these regime changes are effected by medieval banking families, each played by one of the players. The banking family that reaches a victory condition first wins. It’s a bit silly, frankly. All this elaborate historical detail to recreate how the Medicis engineered the Protestant Reformation, the rise of Shi’a Islam, and the discovery of a trade route around the Cape of Good Hope? I missed that part of history class, and I can’t find it on Wikipedia.
But it gets to the point Eklund is making in Pax Renaissance, which is a historical essay and not an orrery. For all its intricate specificity, this is not a clockwork approximation of the medieval world a la Paradox’s strategy games. Instead, it’s suggesting an idea, expressed through gameplay abstraction. The proposition is that bankers dragged civilization out of the Dark Ages toward the Enlightenment. As more capital flowed into a region, money and therefore power was put into the hands of people other than rulers backed by armies. This shift in balance upended feudalism and paved the way for the rule of law, patronage of the arts, and the exploration of the world. This is vividly realized as each game unfolds. As trade and money flow across the map, guided by players’ banks, history unfurls as surely as the row of cards drawn from the deck. Ruling classes swell and overfill. Peasants morph into a formidable middle class. Pax Renaissance, a paean to progress and wealth, suggests that money doesn’t just make the world go ’round. It also makes the world go forward.
(You can watch my recording of a full two-player game in this video.)
(Why am I reviewing a relatively obscure, complex, and hard-to-find boardgame instead of something like Gloomhaven or Pandemic Legacy? Because the people demanded it (i.e. it won the Patreon review request drawing)! If you support my Patreon campaign for $10 or more, once a month you’ll have to opportunity to assign me a review of anything you want. It will be like you’re the Medicis and I’m something that happened in history!)
The boardgame expression of David Mamet's line, "Everybody wants money. That's why they call it money."