Joel Toppen is the guest this week for a conversation about his fascinating solitaire boardgame, Navajo Wars. He reveals that it almost didn’t get made, he justifies its only supernatural element, and he talks a bit about his next game.
Navajo Wars, a solitaire boardgame from superserious publisher GMT, is tightly straightjacketed into some very specific historical beats. They happen every time you play. For instance, the first of the three scenarios — string them all together for the full Navajo wars — covers the arrival of Spanish settlers in the American Southwest. It opens with a looming military crackdown, visited first upon the neighboring Pueblo and then turning its focus on the Navajo. Then the Franciscans will always drop two missions in Navajo territory, followed by Viceroy De Galvez arming the Comanche and Ute to keep pressure on the Navajo, and then the establishment of a Catholic colonial base in New Mexico. These very specific gameplay beats are always and only how Navajo Wars plays out. The length of time and the minor incidents between these events varies. The major events themselves do not.
This is, of course, exactly as designer Joel Toppen intended. But is it the best way to make a game about the Navajo? Doesn’t it imply a sort of fatalism, as if these people were always and only resigned to the same sad fate? These Navajo wars will always and only end in the creation of two American forts, the death of the beloved Navajo/US government go-between Henry Linn Dodge, the insurgency of Manuelito, and finally Kit Carson’s campaign to forcibly relocate the entire Navajo civilization to an ill-equipped reservation called Bosque Redondo.
Doing well in Navajo Wars, a game about a culture persevering in the face of inevitable decline, is often a matter of memorizing the pieces Toppen has assembled to re-render history. It’s not so much about reacting to unfolding events as it’s about anticipating what you know is coming and getting all your ducks in a row before it arrives. Is this really the best way to tell the story of the decline and fall of the Navajo?
After the jump, everyone expects the Spanish subjugation! Continue reading →