18 November 2019
Great Game, or greatest game?
Cole Wehrle continues to prove that looks can be deceiving. The designer’s 2018 masterpiece, Root, dressed up oppressive imperialism and cut-throat guerrilla warfare in rabbit ears and pastel colours. This, an overhaul of Wehrle’s 2015 title set during Britain and Russian’s 19th-century tussle over Afghanistan, has the divided map regions, unit blocks and historical grounding of a wargame. In reality, it’s a political stock market of investment and reward, timing and opportunity, loyalty and betrayal.
Pax Pamir takes an inside-out look at the Great Game. Players aren’t the British or Russians vying for control of the region, but local Afghan leaders looking to ally with the dominant side. The only problem? That side keeps changing.
The mercurial alliances both on the board and around the table flow freely before suddenly hardening into a cold, sharp blade in the back. Players throw their lot in with the British, Russian or Afghan forces, helping to build up their (current) partner’s armies and roads in regions whilst flattering them with gifts and the ever-appreciated assassination of rival figures. But there’s no use backing a losing side, so players can invite patriots from another regime into their row of cards – and even eliminate their own advisors – sacrificing all goodwill with their former ally in order to impress whichever of the three forces looks to be pulling ahead before each of the game’s four points-calculating dominance checks triggers.
With multiple players able to support the same side (which forbids you from destroying the tribes of a fellow ‘ally’ on the board, but doesn’t stop a sneaky assassination behind the scenes to effectively eradicate their presence in a region, one of Pax Pamir’s many delightfully slippery tactics), while still jockeying to be the favoured partner for the maximum points boost, victory comes down to timing and a ruthless ability to side with others only as long as it benefits you. It’s unflinchingly opportunistic, but never cruel.
Other games have built tension and excitement on top of similar ideas of shifting alliances. Pax Pamir feels different. Building up your tableau of court cards – expanding your actions from buying and playing cards to encompass taxing, battling, spying and more – with the knowledge that you may have to sacrifice them in a few turns’ time and start afresh means that the game never stands still or lulls into predictability. The challenge of knowing when to switch sides – early enough to benefit from building up the most influence, but without giving others the opportunity to spur another faction ahead – remains constant, especially once the board is reset after a successful dominance score. Event cards, a double-value final check to allow surprise from-behind reversals and an instant-win runaway leader condition means the tempo never drops up to the last minute.
The truth is that Pax Pamir’s brilliance comes with some caveats. While how to play the game can be explained in a matter of minutes (some easily-missed crucial details will need you to consult the rulebook the first few games), properly understanding the staggering nuances its basic concepts give way to and the balletic dance of loyalties required to elevate the experience to its fullest heights will likely take some players several playthroughs to even begin to grasp. For some, this will lead to frustration – and means that groups of mixed familiarity might find it hard to give everyone an ‘enjoyable’ time. It’s an experience that rewards effort and commitment; both the effort and the reward can be immense.
It also plays best with enough people to allow for those temporary alliances, sudden treacheries and combined efforts to push a particular faction into (or out of) the top spot. The two-player game is a different, meaner beast, and enjoyable in its own way, while the AI-controlled player Wakhan makes for an interesting human replacement, but its varied behaviour comes at the cost of slightly fiddly rules and a lack of spirited table diplomacy.
Even during what can be a slow climb trying to absorb its sheer complexity, Pax Pamir is endlessly fascinating. It’s a game that, for those who don’t bounce off its harder edges, demands to be played again and again to discover the intricacies of an experience that really does stand apart from what’s out there. The more you play it, the more you’ll want to play it – and, like those spinning loyalty dials, it’ll always offer you something new to side with.
PLAY IT? MUST- PLAY
Designer: Cole Wehrle
Artist: Cole Wehrle, Abol Bahadori
This review originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.