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Untold Play

Pax Pamir and a different way of teaching history

Pax Pamir and a different way of teaching history

by Terry Pearce

A month ago


How a historical game about Afghan history has something to teach everyone

At first glance, Pax Pamir might seem like a pretty niche idea. It’s a board game about a period of history: Afghanistan in the early nineteenth century, after the fall of the Durrani empire. I think the fact that I had no knowledge of, or real interest in, this time period stopped me from trying the game for a long time, despite it being very highly rated by board game enthusiasts.

But in the six months or so since I played it first, it’s risen to become one of my favourite games and definitely my favourite game that has a strong learning element. The elegance of its game mechanics is something anyone creating games or learning experiences would do well to examine. And it has something to teach people about history that goes well beyond its historical setting. 

The game asks players to look beneath the surface of historical narratives

In Western histories, events in Afghanistan after the fall of the Durrani empire are often called ‘The Great Game’. These histories focus on how European powers used the power vacuum to play out their own rivalries. But instead of the players playing the Russians and British, they play Afghan leaders, negotiating a terrain of shifting alliances with those powers.

This shift takes us beyond these traditional, colonial narratives. In the histories, complex and real people and factions are reduced to pawns. In the game, the players have agency and are trying to use the colonial presence to their own advantage. Instead of simplifying the country and its struggles to a theatre of war, the game asks players to ditch the colonial lens and consider Afghans in all their complexity.

I’m no history expert and if you want a more detailed treatise on how the game explores the historical issues, I strongly recommend that you listen to the excellent Subject Matter podcast’s episode featuring a specialist historian’s take on it. But in a world where many games, analogue and digital, don’t question partisan takes on history, Pax Pamir is refreshing. 

The game trusts players to reach their own conclusions

Whether you’re interested in this period or not, what the game showcases for me is the power of serving players up with a fresh, complex and honest take on something and letting them explore. The game avoids moralising, or even a specific message. It does challenge easy narratives but asks the players what should replace them, rather than inserting its own history.

Whatever you’re teaching, I think that’s an inspiration: it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking in terms of messages, especially with games that teach. But players will construct their own messages anyway. Setting out the complexities of a situation and allowing players and learners to come to their own conclusions avoids patronising them with your viewpoint.  

This plays into the power of games, too. The key feature of games is that players have agency. By leaning into that agency, rather than trying to lead players on a pre-specified journey, designers can unlock the full power of games to cast players and learners as protagonists, not spectators. I’ve played this game with several different groups and everyone I’ve played it with has come away pondering complex new trains of thought. Not only about Afghan history but about wider issues like the role of historical narratives and colonialism and the idea of questioning assumptions.

The game is a case study of elegance in game design 

Elegance has a specific meaning in game design terms: elegant games don’t have more parts than they need to. They achieve more with less. Elegant games may have complex depths but they don’t have complicated rulebooks. The rules of chess take five minutes to explain but a lifetime to master.

In Pax Pamir, the same pieces are used for roads (when tipped on their sides) and armies (when stood up). This also allows them to double as a kind of scoreboard, because they all line up in a tray until placed on the board, so by looking at how many pieces – road or army – are missing from the tray, you can see how many are on the board. 

Similarly, the same disc-like pieces are used for each player’s ‘tribes’ and ‘spies’, as well as any ‘gifts’ they’ve given to allies. Again, because these are removed from a track on that player’s board, the ‘score’ of their influence across tribes, spies and gifts can be seen at any time by looking at how many discs are missing. Cards are also dual-purpose in a similar way.

This elegance in design allows players to get to grips with the rules quickly, and spend their focus instead on the game and the experience. Designers can emulate this by resisting the urge to add, and instead asking how to streamline and combine.

The game is geared towards interesting interaction

Besides giving agency, another powerful feature of games is their ability to encourage interaction. But designing interesting interaction into games is challenging. The easy routes are things like trading, competition, or the ability to attack other players.

Pax Pamir sets up some original, thoughtful and tense interactions. Players join or support a coalition: British, Afghan or Russian. Once they’ve thrown their weight behind one, pieces they place are in that coalition;’s colour and their route to victory is tied up with them. However, multiple players can support the same coalition and the player with most influence in a successful coalition gets more points.

Meanwhile, there are opportunities to switch allegiances that can be very profitable depending on how the game is progressing. So players are loosely allied but also competing and may work together one moment and betray each other the next. It’s very clear that the design carefully considers how the game wants players to interact and what kinds of choices they should have to make. 

The game transforms care into immersion

As a physical game – an object – Pax Pamir is impressive. The cards are illustrated with carefully-chosen art from the time and shortly afterwards and each card has just a little flavour text helping players evoke the history a little more. The board is made of material that evokes the textiles of the time. The game pieces seem very ‘in-place’. Even the currency is authentic. 

A great deal of care has obviously been taken to make every single part of the experience gel, with each other and with the theme and history. The result is a great deal of immersion for the players. You feel encouraged to play out stories with the flavour of the time. You’re lifted above the mere mechanics of winning to thinking about the whole and what it represents.  

This is a commercially produced game that’s not super-cheap per unit but you don’t need crafted clay-like pieces to immerse. What ties all these elements together is the care that’s gone into researching, choosing and co-ordinating them. If your game or experience is about anywhere, anywhen, it’s worth thinking about what would evoke that. What brings it to life for your players, what might really put them there? 

There’s no substitute for playing the game

It’s been pretty tough for me to fit all the reasons Pax Pamir is worth learning from into one article of a readable length. There’s so much more to it and the best way to discover that is to play it.

You can play it online at Board Game Arena, and I’d be very happy to set up a game with anyone from the games-based learning community. Drop me an email if you’re interested.