I think I should start ball-walking as a matter of course, at least at those times when I’m not wearing soles.
Netflix continues to pile on to feed the appetite for period drama with their latest in Renaissance intrigue, Medici: Masters of Florence.
I admittedly don’t have my finger on the pulse of the media-consuming public, but I am assuming this is largely Game of Thrones fan-out.
I, myself, jumped on the Song of Ice and Fire bandwagon a couple of years before the HBO series. At the time, I thought it was an older series (having heard about it “around” for some time), and was really shocked when I realized the books weren’t all written yet. It took took me a few chapters to acclimatize myself to the the slightly-altered language, but once I got past that, I took to the series with a vengeance. I recall thinking from about 3/4s into the first book, A Game of Thrones, that what the book got right was a detailed portrayal of everyday life, assuming that your life is that of the nobility.
The TV series, of course, boosted the popularity of the novel to an audience by at least an order of magnitude. Sales of the books themselves roughly quadrupled after the series was released, and the number of TV viewers is more than double that again. Add in rentals and DVD buyers, and you’ve got quite an audience. Certainly the words “the next Game of Thrones” within a pitch would ring nicely in the ears of studio executives.
My first impressions of the TV series were very good. Just based on a cold watching without revisiting the source material first, here seemed to be an extremely high-fidelity adaptation of the script relative to the book. I must say, though, going back and re-reading the book after watching the series was a bit surprising. It became very clear where the cuts were made for the video treatment. But even this left me with a positive impression. Quite a few of the cuts were focused on downsizing the scale to make the story doable on TV. For example,scenes that should have dozens of guards facing off would have a dozen or so total. Notably, Tyrion was knocked out early on in his first battle, avoiding the difficulty of portraying a massive battle scene on screen. I also thought the casting was dead-on, with one complaint. Everyone in the TV show is just too damn old.
The success of the series would seem to expose an appetite for fantasy, particularly in the adult markets. But the hunt for similar material also can exploit the historical themes to which A Song of Fire and Ice alludes. The story is clearly inspired by history, with the kingdoms of Westeros and beyond having historic counterparts, both obvious and not so. Any effort to map, one-to-one, the events of the stories to, say, the War of the Roses will surely fail as author Martin tends to mix and match and make up as needed. Nonetheless, similarities between Game of Thrones and the actual succession of Henry VIII are going to help sell a series dramatizing the latter.
Getting back to the subject of this particular article, the connection between Medici: Masters of Florence and A Game of Thrones is aided by the selection of Robb Stark to be Cosimo de’ Medici (although, watching, I didn’t pick up the connection – I had to look up the actor afterwards). In stark (heh heh) contrast to the casting in Game of Thrones, the actor playing the lead role is more than 10 years younger than the character he plays. Of course, part of the issue here is the story is told through a series of flashbacks, and Madden (that’s Robb’s real name – who knew?) must be, on the same viewing night, both a dozen years older as well as some 8-10 years younger than his real age.
The series’ story starts with the death of patriarch Giovanni de’ Medici, and we follow forward with his sons’ reactions and struggles after their father’s death.
Oddly enough, the actor playing Cosimo’s brother looks considerably older than Madden. So much so, I was confused through the first several episodes – wondering why father Giovanni seemed to be grooming his younger son to take over the family business. As I write this, actor Stuart Martin (a Red Shirt from Game of Thrones – he played a nameless Lanister soldier) does not have his birth date recorded on line, so I can’t really comment on the relative actors’ ages.
Anyway, as the son’s struggle with their father’s death which, in a bit of highly speculative fiction, is something of a murder mystery, the groundwork is laid showing formative events between a young Cosimo at the time when his father was actively building the family’s wealth. A bit of gray-colored hair and a dose of gravitas are there to remind us that the actors have aged 20 years from one scene to the next.
To make matters even more difficult, both the 59 year old Giovanni and the 79 year old Giovanni are played by the same 80 year old Dustin Hoffman, and no amount of makeup can really help him bridge the gap to the former. Hoffman doesn’t really even try. Basically, if he is alive and talking, he must be closer to 60 than he is to 80.
While I’m on a roll, I’ll also say that I failed to recognize actor Anthony Howell (playing condottieri Francesco Sforza) whom I watched in the supporting role throughout the series Foyle’s War. I also failed to make the connection that Cosimo’s father-in-law was portrayed by GoT‘s Walter Frey. These oversights are considerably more understandable than missing Robb Stark/Cosimo, who on screen are essentially the same character.
The brooding young son has the weight of the world thrust upon his shoulders when his father dies, leaving him the keys to the kingdom. Despite all the brooding, he seems to make a success of himself in his new leadership role, although whatever greatness he displays is largely done off-screen. On screen he broods. Until he meets a woman who, while able to lift his spirits somewhat, can never fit into the grand scheme of things as King of the North(ern Italy’s Banking Empire). So, while he broods for a little less, he still must brood.
Then everyone dies.
OK. So it is not really that bad. In fact, my suspicion is that it is the popularity of The Borgias that was the immediate inspiration for this series. Take the same time period. Put a towering icon of the big screen in as the patriarch and fill in the family with younger, non-American actors. Success.
Medici doesn’t have quite the ambition of The Borgias, and therefore a few of the things I really enjoyed about the latter, I’m not going to find in the former. The lavish weddings, the (relatively) large scale battles; these things fit less into a tale of bankers than they do of popes and kings. I note that, even in The Borgias, the scenes where deals are negotiated with Florence aren’t particularly lavish. Of course, a big part of it is likely due the big difference in production costs between the two shows.
Beyond that, Medici, seems to go considerably further afield when it comes to creating fictional narrative to fill in the blanks of what is sometimes a rather sparse historical narrative. This is not, by any means, an analysis. It’s more of an impression. Neither show is meant to be a documentary, and both take opportunities to spice up the series for their viewing audiences. The Borgias just give me the impression that the spirit of the historical tale is adhered to more than Medici.
In the end, Medici is decently* entertaining as a television series. However, they seem to have left much potential on the table. Cosimo de’ Medici, assuming you do subscribe to this interpretation, reshaped the history of the world. While much of that influence was based upon his ability to spend money, whether on political influence or great works, there should be a more interesting side of the story when portraying the actual people. The ability to spend money depends on the ability to make even more money, and the scale to which Cosimo was able to profit from European trade suggests a man of great charisma, intelligence, and capabilities. In Medici‘s portrayals, we see virtually none of this, either from Madden’s Cosimo or Hoffman’s Giovanni. The occasional political intrigue aside, the wealth just seems to roll in on its own. The series can stand without it, but I think it missed an opportunity to put real personalities behind the historical figures.
*Like The Borgias, Medici seems to be spicing up the show with some gratuitous rock-n-roll per the HBO formula. Granted the sexual politics are part of the story – the arranged marriage of Cosimo and his illegitimate son from his relationship with a slave. But once again, the show goes beyond mere speculation into fantasy. Cosimo’s younger brother Lorenzo is portrayed as a perpetual bachelor, with titillating affairs spicing up the narrative and lending a little on-screen nooky. And yet, this is the Lorenzo who was married somewhere in the flashback portion of the show, inspiring the treatise on the importance of marriage to the health of the nation, De Re Uxoria.
That failure to become a banker was eating at you. Eating-eating-eating at you inside… It was your family that pushed you into banking , it was their dream for you.
Another university humanities class I took was a Literature Department offering called “Humor, Comedy, and Satire.” One of the things that impressed me about this particular course was that the professor organized it around a thesis. Briefly, his thesis for the course was that, through the ages, societies have something he referred to as “Grand Operating Myths” or GOMs (he liked to say that). These were concepts that were accepted as universal and absolute truths and were generally foundational for the culture and philosophy of the society. However, these concepts don’t necessarily persist from age to age.
A simple example is that our society sees time as linear, progressing from the past into the future. We see that as intuitively obvious – certainly not up for analysis or debate. Medieval society, on the other hand, saw time as cyclical. All things would come, pass, and then come again. This was also so obvious that it wouldn’t have been open to debate or even consideration. Yet despite the obviousness of our times’ respective positions, those positions changed.
For the purpose of the class, the GOM was about the relation between technology and society and how the advance of technology necessarily has a positive impact on mankind. The Literary exploration started roughly with the foundation of the Royal Society (1660) and the persistence of some of their ideas to our own time.
The details are not really as important is the organization. Each book in the course was selected for its contribution to that specific discussion. So while we were analyzing (and enjoying) a variety of great writing from different time periods, there was this very narrow focus to tie it all together.
The next game I’m looking at, somewhat concurrent with the Here I Stand scope, is Pax Renaissance. In addition to what it has going for it as a game (which is plenty), it also is built around a thesis. The designers assert that the positive societal changes of the Renaissance were a direct result of the rise of capitalism and banking. These institutions are credited with breaking the hold that feudal lords held over the people, and paved the way for the massive advances that have happened since. The case is made in the footnotes of their manual, where the designers have annotated the rules with historic color to support their thesis.
The game itself is another study in abstraction and simplification. It has relatively simple components – cards, coins and some “chess pieces.” For a board game, visual and tactile appeal is critical. There is no map board, no dice, and even a decidedly limited impact of the beginning card shuffle. But with those simple components, the game constructs what almost can be thought of as a three-dimensional board. Movement between “adjacent” locations can be either from country to country on a map of Europe, between adjacent cards on a players “tableau” (the cards that have been played, and are thus owned, by each player) and within countries, even if that means moving from player to player. Well, sort of. In some cases. It really depends.
And therein lies the biggest negative of this game. The rules are complicated. The basic rules are a series of special cases that, often, are similar-yet-different than the rest of the rules. Add to that that the cards may, themselves, contain exceptions to the rule book which are explained no where else but in the text of the cards. Even if you’re one who is eager to sit down with the rulebook and the card decks, the rulebook has a rather unique organization. It initially presents a the rules in play order (probably pretty typical), but then adds on whatever rules didn’t make it into this narrative in the glossary. Not only does the glossary contain rules that aren’t contained in the regular instructions, but there are key words not in the glossary, meaning one needs to go to the regular instructions for the explanation of that concept. It doesn’t help that the terminology used is a bit quirky.
It’s a tough haul, and one I’m still working on.
The consensus on-line is that, once you learn the rules, the logic of them seems to tumble into place and it all becomes second nature. At that point, says the consensus of players, the mechanics disappear and the strategy elements come to the front. Another constant comment I’ve read online is how much it leans towards a “historical simulation played with cards,” rather than a “card game with historical chrome.” This is particularly impressive given the simplicity of the components and the relatively short play time of the game. Of course, it takes some imagination and thus may be in the eye of the beholder. Is the “Trade Fair” mechanic a brilliant concept to simulate the synergy between business and government? Or is it just an abstract, Eurogame-style piece of the game to redistribute money?
Another aspect of the online debate on this game’s merits is its depth as a strategy game. Does it have strategic depth, or do you play more for the color? Those who love the game seem to get about 10 games in and decide that the strategy is fantastic. Others say the strategic aspect is weak. One recurring thread in the latter argument is the rule in the game where not all cards are used (and the number is dependent on the number of players). What that means is not every path to victory is open in every game, but the players don’t know that from the start. The box cover may imply that you, the player, charts the future course of Europe. But if, for example, I decide to do just that, by gaining a “Globalization Victory” and secretly set up such a win – I might find out that the cards to facilitate that just aren’t in play in the game. It means that you’ve got to react and re-plan in real time, as more cards are brought into play. The critics think it makes the game too random and short term. Proponents probably see this as one more challenge which creates the desired strategic depth.
I played a little bit, taking both sides of a two player game, to try to get a grip on the rules. For several games, I realized I’d made terrible mistakes in the accounting. The first game I think I came pretty close to following all the rules, I captured with a snapshot. I was amused by the matching of the opening moves to the history of the Ottoman Empire. So much so, that I decided to subjugate Byzantium, because that was the first empire to be conquered by the Ottoman Turks. It did make me wonder, does empire card Byzantium and the corresponding empire of Trebizond (see light blue card in picture) have game purpose except to be conquered by the Ottomans? Will it substitute as the Persians or even the Russians with certain additional card play? Part of this “historical fidelity” may well come from struggling with the possibilities in the game and the events of history to try to imagine how they might line up.
Continuing with the earlier design discussion, this is a game that most definitely has some novel game mechanics. It also, as I said above, simplifies a grand strategy scope to an extreme, to make it a quick-playing and manageable experience.
One feature hinted at above is the multiple paths to victory. Here it is a little different than the asymmetric victory conditions of Here I Stand. In the case of Pax Renaissance, there are four victory conditions that have to be triggered, individually, by a player. Once triggered, all four players can win using that path. Of course, one imagines that a player doesn’t trigger a victory condition unless they have a particular advantage. It is a twist on the asymmetric victory where nobody knows ahead of time what each player’s advantages are going to be.
Also like Here I Stand, the innovative use of cards and tokens as playing pieces, bookkeeping components, and a streamlined UI add much to this game’s appeal. Just one example: There are four cards, one for each of the victory conditions. To “activate” a victory condition, the card is flipped over. On the non-active side, the card describes the state of that technology which precedes the advance made during this period. It reminds me of the “Age” advancements in games like Age of Empires, all with just a card.
Probably the most significant departure from typical historical strategy games is the fact that most of the pieces you play aren’t actually “your” pieces. While I may concentrate my efforts building up the “black” (Islamic) power across the East, that doesn’t mean they’ll be my friends. I may very easily find myself using Catholic armies to wipe out the very Islamic power that I had just created. One of the victory conditions actually depends on a particular faith becoming “dominant”, but even then the distinction remains. You might be thinking of the Reformist (red pieces, in the game) as “yours” as you try to make them the dominant religion, but anyone can use them against you, and you can use any religion for your own purposes.
Instead of playing as an empire or a religion (and back to that thesis again), the player takes on the identity of one of four Renaissance banking families. You make investments that will earn you income or allow you some level of influence over the actions of the government (the remnants of the feudal system). This resulting “indirect” nature of the gameplay is not something I’ve encountered before and is especially different when compared to computer gaming.
The modeling of the economy is also very different. In most economic games, a player buys things, which then return money during some sort of counting phase. Typically, the investment is large but returns over the length of the game make up for it. In Pax Renaissance, the “return on investment” is often up-front. Any card which costs 1 florin (the basic unit of accounting in the game) can be sold for 2 florins on the same turn. In some cases, purchasing a card might be a net positive back to the player. Card purchasing aside, it is typically aggressive actions that cost money – military campaigns and some targeting of enemy units. It’s both simplification and abstraction – real investments will never instantly double your money, but then again, no one has said* how long a “turn” represents in the game.
Similarly, the building of “infrastructure,” usually the key to any economic game, is mostly off-board and outside of the game. If an empire (let’s assume one under our control) begins gobbling up their neighbors, one might assume that it amasses infrastructure that leads to higher tax bases and, thus, more government treasury to advance its cause. But that assumption is neither here nor there. For the player, you interact with empires by tapping into the trade routes (concessions in the game’s language) or by controlling particular interests with the territory (abstractly represented by cards, which in some cases allow money to be recovered). And none of this is permanent. While defensive play is possible and part of the game, there is no power or scope of control you can amass that can’t be wiped out with a single play from an opponent.
Again, it’s a deeply woven interaction between the simplicity of the game model and the simulation of the period. The “merchant princes” generated vast wealth which they parleyed into political power, both direct and indirect. However, it did not make them the equivalent of the nobility. While they may used finances to bend the policies of empires, they still did business at the pleasure of their own governments. Anything that capitalism could build could be wiped out by decree.
So I wonder how this game would translate to a computer version.
Board games, more often than not, don’t port well to the computer. There are many reasons for this. The most frequently cited is that a computer player’s intelligence, artificial as it must be, can’t compete with human players. A bigger hurdle is when it is the free-form interaction and communication between players that makes a game. Computer games like Diplomacy or Here I Stand would always be a pale shadow of the face-to-face experience. But another factor is that sometimes, when automating all the actions of the players, what remains is so much simpler than the board game version that it seems to take the challenge out of it.
Pax Renaissance potentially could suffer from all three. In particular, I do note that part of the challenge is keeping on top of the interactions between the parts. For example, when deploying a bishop in the game, you can simply bring in the bishop on the card as you play it. Or you might be able to place it on one of your other cards. It also might be playable on any of your opponents cards. Part of playing the game is assessing that with each move. The computer, presumably, would remove that need and automatically show you all the options (whether you’d thought of them on your own or not).
Another example is the “Trade Fair” action within the game. This is one of the grand, game changing moves. The player marches through Europe, empire by empire, distributing the profits from previous investments as well as generating tax income to allow those empires to build up their military power. It tends to be a very deliberate affair, managing one empire card at a time and shifting money around the table. On a computer, with a single click everything would be updated (a few choices aside, such as when an empire has more than one city to reinforce). Does that leave all the strategy, but just make the game play faster? Or does some of the “depth” of the game go away when you are not actively managing the pieces during the action?
The counterpoint is that there is a level of strategy that takes place beyond making sure the rules are all followed. Each time you take a card, it makes it easier for the next player to acquire some other card. So you need to be constantly assessing the short term versus longer term effects of every move.
In one last example, I found myself in my practice game forgoing earning large amounts of money to settle for smaller amounts. The reason is that the larger amount would also earn money for my opponent. In this case, it seemed prudent to not “waste” one of my own actions to get my opponent money when he, himself, might do it for me. Running up against the libertarian theme, the commerce that benefits everyone does not seem preferable to poverty than encompasses everyone.
I’d like to explore, a little, the logic that one would use to play this game, including solving conundrums like the above. But I will save that until another article.
*OK. So the manual does say that that the game “takes place” between 1460 to 1530, and that turns represent approximately 2 years. I think, though, the operative word is approximately.