The unexpected nuance of White Tribe and its racist rump-colonial regime

, | Game reviews

If you spend enough time playing wargames, you eventually start paying attention to the questions designers are trying to answer. Some seem to have no answer at all.  The “WW2 European Theater in an evening” problem has been out there for decades. Hitler’s Reich is the most recent one to strike out looking with a bewildered glance at the umpire. Sometimes answers come from unexpected directions, when talented designers change the question entirely so that the solution becomes obvious. Skies Above the Reich took what seemed to be an insoluble problem of solo daylight bombing over Germany, inverted the perspective, and wrapped it up in an impossibly neat package, like Fermat’s Last Theorem.

And sometimes the whole problem space shifts, and you don’t notice until the seismic disturbance knocks you over.

Despite what some professional policy makers will have you believe, games are terrible at answering difficult questions with nuance. The intricacies of human fragility, emotion, and conflict are poorly served by mechanics that demand that you move a piece here, and flip a counter there. Free a prisoner or shoot a hostage, it’s all just a procedural task that has none of the shading of a photographer’s composition or a correspondent’s phrasing. Roll the dice and move on. It’s a horrible medium for non-dispassionate analysis.

So it was a Twitter exchange between Hollandspiele’s Tom Russell and COIN maestro Volko Ruhnke from this past summer that was playing in my head when – about two hours into playing through The White Tribe – I realized that something had fundamentally changed. Tom was designing an ambitious game called This Guilty Land about slavery in America, and was running up against the problem I described in the previous paragraph. Volko, designer of a series of games where political ends run up against questionable means, offered a sage word of warning about the coldness of game mechanics. “Games cannot be the respectful medium for respectful examination that books or films can.” It stood out to me so strongly when I had gotten through a game of The White Tribe because it showed exactly what you had to leapfrog this impassable obstacle. Like it wasn’t even there.

The White Tribe: Rhodesia 1966-1980 is a game about an apartheid state in which you root for that same state to survive and prosper. If that seems incredible, consider that it is also an intelligent commentary on history that doesn’t lend itself to extended consideration at first glance: a racist, rump-colonialist regime trying to hold on to power in the very twilight of direct Western influence in Africa. If you even remember this, or have read anything about it, is there really anything to say?

Designer R. Ben Madison avoids reducing the question to a facile good vs. evil by anchoring the design in a particular historical reality: the position of a white political leader in a white-minority 1966 Rhodesia. Anyone steeped in contemporary Twitter could have separated out the appropriate identity politics into rightthink and wrongthink, put them on opposite sides of the ledger, and turned the game into a scale-tipping exercise where you made yourself feel better by doing the “right” (oops, sorry: “correct”) things until you won or were defeated by the dice and the sad inequity of life. Instead, the designer acknowledges historical reality while simultaneously taking a clear position: that an RF-led white-minority government may have been able to institute a peaceful transition to a functional black-majority government by implementing liberal reforms while doing just enough to preserve white privilege to keep the electorate in line. And as it turns out, that’s all that you need to do to make a game a serious intellectual proposition: know your history, and take a challenging but defensible position about it. So give R. Ben Madison a lot of credit for that. He deserves it.

The White Tribe is a careful examination of a history that does three clear things: it places you in an identifiable position as the player. It loads you with all the baggage that this historically odious position entails. And it gives you a morally defensible—but not indisputable–outcome as your victory condition. To do it, Madison demonstrates remarkable knowledge of the history of an obscure African country that has long since fallen into ruin and disrepute. Because what the game does is chart a course–Madison’s of course, along with some historians’–to a place that in itself isn’t what some people would consider just. And that’s what makes The White Tribe a real intellectual contribution to gaming, rather than a procedural recipe for moral self-congratulation.

To take Rhodesia–a breakaway colony steeped in injustice with most of the world against it–to a place where some form of racial rapprochement prevents a descent into violence requires a perspective. In Madison’s game, it’s that of a political leader clearly representing the white minority’s interests. What the game then does is project that leader’s political decision space onto a certain interpretation of the possible outcomes.

As the leader of the Rhodesian Front, you are placed in the position of needing to maintain popular support, while at the same time making decisions that bring the black majority populace into a stable polity. To do this, you get a series of parliamentary laws, arranged by year from 1967 to 1980. They aren’t arranged completely chronologically as there is an element of randomization, but each one treats a historical issue as an either/or/neither proposition, with different effects for implementing each law, and penalties for inaction.

This is the essential tension in The White Tribe (besides the tension between terrorists invading a country from without and armed forces defending it from within): the legislative tug-of-war between the “conservative” and “liberal” options, while the military fights a war for national survival to give the government time to see its plan through. Along the way, you are buffeted by the strong and fickle winds of international events in countries far stronger that you are. It’s hard to make random events work well in games—despite what Richard Berg says—but in The White Tribe it’s easy to see a tiny, despised former colony having little or no power to affect how the larger world sees it. You just roll with the punches. Which, in a solitaire game, can provide a lot of challenge while also making a thematic point.

The White Tribe plays out on a map of Rhodesia and its environs, and also on a political track that charts the legislative history you weave, as well as your popularity among the electorate, which is your ultimate barometer for year-to-year success in that if you become unpopular enough, you lose the game. But the overall goal of the game is to peacefully hand control to a black-majority government with the approval of your white voting public. Each year, you can consider one law you would like to implement. You also have to decide whether or not to pass that year’s law, which comes up on the turn-record track. You can ignore it (some laws were really self-defeating) but that will cost you support. Trying to pass a law that is unpopular can bring down your government. All of these options are clearly presented and can seem like handy solutions to immediate problems or long-term benefits that will cost you support to implement. You can spend money to enact laws “out of order,” which gives you the ability to craft a long-term vision for the country by taking advantage of situations as they arise. The White Tribe does a tremendous job of preserving exquisite solitaire gameplay while adhering to a coherent political thesis. The game never becomes less of a game in order to make a political point. It’s just a great game. How it managed to be so thoughtful is the real surprise.

Once your legislative session is complete, you need to spend money equipping a military force to defeat the (Soviet-backed) ZAPU guerillas invading you from Zambia, and the (Chinese-backed) ZANU guerillas invading you from Portuguese Mozambique. Because the game starts in 1966, the Portuguese colonial empire still exists, although its fall happens within the game’s timeline. If these guerillas (called “Terrs,” which was Rhodesian slang for “terrorists”) end up in Rhodesia proper at the end of a turn, they can turn the populace against you in a COIN-like Support/Oppose way. The level of guerilla growth is tied to a “Terror Level” that rises and falls with random events and with the change of foreign governments. A Labor government in Britain sends the terror level up. A Republican US administration brings the terror level down. Your need to go after guerillas in their sanctuaries (Zambia, Botswana, Mozambique) opens you up to international outrage if your cross-border military operations are found out. You can bribe historical leaders such as Mugabe, Chitepo, and Nkomo, squeeze Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia to suppress ZAPU organization due to your stranglehold on his economic lifeline (until the Chinese build him a railway to Tanzania). There are plenty of decisions to make, limited resources to draw upon, and sudden shifts of fortune to contend with.

You can challenge Madison’s historical assumptions. Gamers already do this with regularity, asserting that “The Japanese could never have invaded Hawaii” or “Denmark didn’t have as many resources as Norway” but these are more facile expressions of gamers’ imaginative preconceptions that they need to enjoy a game, rather than intellectual observations about the history itself. To challenge some things in The White Tribe you will need to propose alternate effects of certain events, or perhaps advance an alternate basis for the interaction between the sides. Which isn’t done very much in gaming, or at least as much as it should be.  More likely, the complaint is that “the Selous Scouts didn’t have four hit points.” Ok.

There are certainly challenges to make. The dichotomy between “conservative” and “liberal” agendas that is driven by the relative popularity of the Rhodesian Front seems like the biggest counterfactual conceit, because while there may have been interest from the white electorate in legislative compromise by its leaders, the game assumes that any losses in the Rhodesian legislature would make it easier to enact a “liberal” agenda, rather than simply marginalizing the Rhodesian Front as a political force and ceding its white supremacist agenda to other right-wing groups. After all, Madison’s own designer notes point out that one of the other two main political parties, the Rhodesian Action Party, had as its slogan the phrase, “Forward, not blackward.” It seems problematic to tie the popular failure of the Rhodesian Front, especially in passing what can only be called “progressive” legislation, to a rise in liberal coalition politics, especially in a system where you’ve disenfranchised everyone who might benefit from this progress. More likely, you’d lose your electorate to the party that outflanked you to the right.

Madison, though, knows that as a designer, sometimes you just have to take an idea and run with it. Once he has his conservative/liberal mechanic for legislation, he uses it to drive all the dependent mechanics that add up to defending a tiny, retrograde former colony against the inexorable push of history. Laws that are labeled “conservative” tend to help you militarily. They also usually hurt you from a social support perspective. “Liberal” laws are more difficult to pass (especially when the Rhodesian Front is very popular) and will drive down your standing in the polls as well as likely your majority in the assembly, but they are the key to achieving the social understanding that will let you get to your desired outcome.

So you try to keep up your popularity, and pass the laws you think make sense at the time, and maintain your military (especially your air force!) and hopefully get some South African help (certainly a controversial position) and bribe opposition leaders and weather international events until the UK eventually forces a settlement. Where will you be then? The game takes you for a very bumpy and intriguing ride.

Unlike Madison’s previous games, especially “N” and Mrs. Thatcher’s War, The White Tribe is not as susceptible to initial conditions: if the rebel movements never get going through some combination of events that keeps the terror level down, the lack of military pressure on Rhodesia will allow the government enough breathing room to focus on passing effective laws.  But the number of random events will usually not keep things quiet for long, and the built-in difficulties in passing good legislation lead to political struggles that can end the game even if you have the military situation in hand. Even when the dice do you a favor, I accept this because (as with his previous games, although much more so here) you are playing as a minor player in a global drama where you have little influence, and can only manage your affairs within the context of events far beyond your control. There still may be games where the ZANU and ZAPU insurgents simply don’t ever get rolling, thanks to some bad rolls. In this case, thank the global political situation. You don’t control the world, and neither did Ian Smith.

Rather, the game turns on some specific events that are hard to get around. The first is the implementation of a liberal constitution early in the game. This gives you +3 victory points and a bonus in enacting liberal laws for the rest of the game. It’s pretty clear that Madison thinks this would have been a major boost to an eventually peaceful Rhodesia down the road. It’s also clear that he thinks it would have been very difficult to achieve. In one game, I spent all of my money and popularity trying to get it implemented, and simply lost the whole game on Turn 3 (of 16). Another time, I got a lucky roll and implemented it with little negative effect. Those two games went very differently. In a game where I enacted a “conservative” constitution instead, I lost. You can be better off trying to pass unpopular laws when your party is itself unpopular, then spend money to increase your popularity and hold snap elections to increase your majority again. This is an artifact of the dichotomy Madison builds at the very beginning with his central mechanic. But I accept it, because it ties the whole game together into a coherent, playable, enjoyable whole. No matter how contentious the politics, a game can’t succeed without integrated, self-reinforcing mechanics that give players real choices. Which The White Tribe absolutely does.

As a designer, Madison has some opinions. One is that Rhodesia could have made a peaceful transition to Zimbabwe by co-opting black leaders, enacting just enough progressive legislation to keep social peace, and aggressively fighting guerilla incursions to the point of maintaining illegal presences in foreign countries. A look at the victory conditions shows what laws he thinks would have been beneficial to a proper transition of power. He is also very clear that the benefit of wiping out concentrations of ZANU/ZAPU guerillas in cross-border raids is usually worth the risk of international outrage. That’s a philosophical position. As is the whole basis for the game. How great is it that a designer has an opinion about something, rather than just making sure you can get enough coal to Watford?

The whole discussion about The White Tribe’s politico-sociological thesis shouldn’t obscure the point that it’s a great game. All the careful decision-making and sudden shifts of fate that exist in his previous games appear here has well. It’s just that this time, they’re used in the service of a definite interpretation of history. Either the bar is so low that any coherent argument in a game seems like a major design advance, or Madison’s thesis is intelligent enough to be taken seriously. I’ll go for choice #2.

Note: I reviewed this game after buying it for myself. Afterward, the publisher sent me a complimentary MDF (medium-density fiberboard) “jigsaw-style” rigid map to replace the included paper one so I could see the difference. The MDF map is available for an extra charge when ordering the game.

Additional note: Most game reviews don’t have ready-made playthroughs of the game on the same website, but we are fortunate to have CF_Kane playing a game of The White Tribe and chronicling it in Qt3’s Grognard Wargamer Thread. Take a peek and you’ll see a great step-by-step example of how the game plays.

  • White Tribe

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  • Boardgame
  • As the leader of the Rhodesian Front, you are placed in the position of needing to maintain popular support, while at the same time making decisions that bring the black majority populace into a stable polity.