An Indie Board Game Teaches Afghan History

Sneaky sneaky board games, stop breaking into my mind!

Welcome! Please enjoy this cartoon rendering of a bluejay and a raccoon being friends. That is all.

Earlier, I wrote about how I’ve been obsessed with board games recently, and I think I’ve figured out why.

They’re just so darn sneaky. They smuggle ideas into your brain when you’re too busy focusing on winning. Take Monopoly, for example, which derives from a game that socialists designed 100 years ago to teach the harms of capitalism. Few people know its origins, but they don’t have to. After playing a few times and getting absolutely shrekked by your ruthless uncle, you learn its lesson pretty quickly: landlords are evil.

So now that we can agree on that, let me tell you about this wonderful game Pax Pamir that a friend showed me. It’s an incredibly tense strategy game guaranteed to jumpstart your heart rate and make you fidget uncontrollably. I’ve played it for months now without getting bored. Let me give you the gist. (I promise I won’t go toooo deep into the rules)

The setting is 19th century Afghanistan. The longstanding Durrani empire has collapsed, and British and Russian invaders are competing for the power vacuum. You’re a power-hungry Afghan warlord. You’ve been passed over as ruler because of corruption, or maybe you’re jealous that your brother got to be king just because he’s older, or maybe you compensate for being short through political subterfuge (classic). Who cares. Either way, you decide to manipulate these foolish European colonizers into building a new kingdom in your name. You vie for dominance by building armies, ruling regions, dispatching spies, and recruiting patriots. You choose an alliance with the Afghans, British, or Russians, ready to switch sides whenever it’s convenient.

As far as the game’s origins, head designer Cole Wehrle (delightfully pronounced “whirly”) took a unique approach. The game, at its core, is really a thesis about the Afghan war delivered through a board game, and since board games, unlike podcasts, essays, or docuseries, are interactive, we pick up the argument much more quickly. It’s easier to learn when it’ll help you win than when you’re relaxing to academics chat over elevator music.

One important part of the game that I like is how it emphasizes the shrewdness and agency of Afghan leaders rather than painting them as classic hapless victims of Western colonialism. Wehrle explained his intention simply (full essay):

“While Pax Pamir concerns empire—one of board gaming’s most common and most troubling subjects—the game views European imperial projects strictly from the outside. The role of the British and Russian Empires is auxiliary to the central subject of the game. This is a game about Afghanistan.

The beautiful layout of Pax Pamir with cloth fabric board, detailed card illustrations, and pastel-colored pieces. (Source, aptly titled “This board game has you play as Afghan leaders subverting imperialist ambitions.”)

And like most things related to Afghanistan, things get very serious very quickly. A few rounds into the game, the friendly shit-talking fizzles out as everyone coldly evaluates their best moves. Turns take minutes to complete as players second-guess themselves, undo an action, and then reevaluate all their options. It feels like a tense political drama, like The Crown or Game of Thrones. Your allies can stab you in the back, and the player in the best position is always changing.

Most impressive to me is how the game ties into real-world history (in which, unsurprisingly, Wehrle has a PhD). Aside from the board, the cards, which are all based on real people, institutions, and events, anchor the game in reality. Their gameplay abilities and description texts neatly match their actual roles. Take Mohan Lal Kashmiri, a renowned spy and diplomat during the First Anglo-Afghan war, whose character quote gives me goosebumps:


Of course, it’s still just a game, a rough simulation of a real-world phenomenon. So I looked into its development process to see if I was missing anything. Wehrle described his approach to making games as such (full article):

“If ever people start talking about ‘fun’ or ‘feel bad,’ I'm like, ‘No, you can't use those words.’ Because we're not trying to make the game fun. We're trying to make the game good. So ‘fun’ to me is this word that doesn't really mean anything. Games have this massive emotional range - why would you want to make the game just about the giggles? You could do that too but, when you're optimizing for it, you're going to remove a lot of the character of the project.”

That may sound a little pretentious and auteur-y at first (especially out of context), and it reminds me of film perfectionists like David Fincher or James Cameron. But I think Wehrle has a point. By accepting the less positive emotions involved in game-playing, Wehrle and Co. made their game that much more memorable. It lingers in the mind to the point where we debrief each game to discuss hypothetical scenarios. “What if you only had two coins instead of three that one turn? What if I assassinated this card instead of that one?” we ask each other, slowly kneading the game out of our heads. It’s not supposed to be fun, yet it ends up being an educational thrill anyways, Trojan-horsing history lessons into our minds when we just wanna play some cards.

As you can see, I love this game. I play it on Tabletop Simulator through Steam. If you wanna play, or if this reminds you of any other cool games, let ya boi know. Plus, the group I normally play with regularly kicks my ass, so I’m always down to expand to new peeps! 😅

Other Things of Note

  • This very important, culturally relevant, and incredibly fun Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story by the newsletter LowLiftAsk.

  • Are you the worst parent? Take this quiz by Kristen Mulrooney on whether or not you are. (Don’t worry, it’s not Buzzfeed—it’s published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, which I’m slowly getting into, but I’m not deep enough in yet to know about its cultural connotations, and maybe things are better that way, but yeah anyways if you subscribe to their magazine or like their online pieces, again, let ya boi know.)

  • The Cartoon Network gem Regular Show, which gave me this post’s header image. It’s an absolute gem of a show for anyone with an ounce of silliness in their blood.

Only Child is a weekly newsletter about finding excitement in the mundane. Wanna show me some love? Click the heart icon to “like” this post or leave a comment. And if you like what you’re reading, do me a solid and toss a link to this in your favorite group chat!

—Chuckry Vengadam (@churrthing)