The Earth is Weeping
In his 2016 book The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, author Peter Cozzens delivers a narrative history of the American Indian Wars that tries to reset the record. As he explains in his Prologue:
No epoch in American history, in fact, is more deeply steeped in myth than the era of the Indian Wars of the American West. For 125 years, much of both popular and academic history, film, and fiction has depicted the period as an absolute struggle between good and evil, reversing the roles of heroes and villains as necessary to accommodate the changing national conscious.The Earth is Weeping, p. 7
The Earth is Weeping is a book that tries to bring balance to the historical record of the American Indian Wars. Following the tragedy/massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, most Americas for the next 80 years viewed brave Indian fighters (cavalry) and courageous settlers as heroic. But in the 1970s that view changed as people began seeing whites as villainous conquerors, and the Indians as victims—thanks in no small part to Dee Brown’s influential book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Cozzen contends Brown’s book made no attempt at historical balance. Peter Cozzens book The Earth is Weeping does not ignore injustices done to the Indians, but he insists we not ignore the white perspective, either.
In a similar manner to The Earth is Weeping, John Poniske’s game Plains Indian Wars (GMT Games, 2022) attempts to deliver a balanced view of the American Indian Wars. This balance comes in two flavors; game balance and historical balance. For the former the game excels but for the later it maybe shies away from the hard parts of history a bit too much, but maybe for the right reasons.
Long ago (and I mean LONG ago) GMT Games put Plains Indian Wars up on the P500. At the time I thought ordering it didn’t pull the trigger. The topic is not really of interest to me so I didn’t even pay attention to the publicity around it. That is, until I heard that the game system is a loose relative of Academy Games’ Birth of America-series. The Birth of America-series games (1754: Conquest, 1775: Rebellion, 1812: Invasion of Canada) and the closely related 878 Vikings are the favorite lite, family wargames in the RockyMountainNavy house. Yes, even more popular than Commands & Colors, Hold the Line, or even Enemies of Rome. Once I discovered Plains Indian Wars shared some of that lineage, I HAD to have it.
[In a March 16 post on BGG, John Poniske states that, “[Plains Indian Wars] was originally designed for Academy – they turned it down.” That’s…sad for Academy Games.]
Part of what makes the Birth of America-series of games so appealing to me is game balance. In every game, you have asymmetric factions working together to deliver victory. Victory is usually based on area control. Admittedly, the combat part of the history in many Birth of America games is glossed over because casualties don’t really matter—the only judge of victory is who controls a particular area.
Factions On the Plains
In Plains Indian Wars there are seven “factions.” The Major Indian Factions are the Northern Plains Tribes (NPT) and the Southern Plains Tribes (SPT). The Major US Factions are the Cavalry and Settlers. The three “minor factions”—all controlled by the US player(s), are the Enemies of the NPT/SPT, Wagon Trains, and the Transcontinental Railroad. Every major faction has a deck of 15 cards (larger in size than those found in a Birth of America game), custom faction dice, and color-coded cubes. Minor factions have cubes but no cards, and only the Enemies faction has custom dice. The 34″x22″ mounted game board is a stylized map of the area (i.e. not totally geographically accurate) but well laid out and easy to use in the game.
Each turn of Plains Indian Wars consists of a series of random draws of a faction disk from a bag. This game mechanism, lifted directly from the Birth of America-series, is in great part what makes every game so engaging; you simply don’t know in what order the different factions will operate. Major Factions use their cards in a turn to take different actions. Some cards are Migration, Engagement, War Party, or an Event.
Another asymmetrical game mechanism carried over from the Birth of America-series in Plains Indian Wars is the custom faction dice. Dice come with one of three faces; Blank (retreat), Treaty (end of combat), and Weapon (hit). Each factions dice are not the same; the US Cavalry has 3x Weapon, 1x Treaty, and 2x Blank making it deadly in combat. The NPT/SPT/Enemies dice are 3x Blank, 1x Treaty, and 2x Weapon making them rather balanced. Settlers, on the other hand, have 4x Blank, 1x Treaty, and only a single Weapon making them disadvantaged in combat.
The end result of the asymmetric factions in Plains Indian Wars is actually a very mechanically balanced game. The key to victory for each player is to use their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Although Plains Indian Wars is categorized as a “wargame” on BoardGameGeek, the real “war” in the game is for territory. The US Player(s) gain points for completing the Railroad, exiting Wagon Trains across the board, and for controlling NPT/SPT areas. The Indian Player(s) gain points for stopping the joining of the Railroad, eliminating George Armstrong Custer on the turn he enters, eliminating Wagon Train cubes, eliminating Cavalry cubes, and controlling NPT/SPT and Enemies regions. They also lose points if the US Player controls more Enemies regions than they do. All of which in play means the US Player is constantly trying to expand the areas they control while the Indian Player is trying push back the Settlers and impede the flow of Wagon Trains.
Similar to how the different factions in Plains Indian Wars are mechanically balanced in play, the game strives to depict a similar historical balance. There is no “absolute struggle between good and evil” as neither side is necessarily “good” or obviously “evil.” Event cards in particular call-out some situations that are significant and not necessarily to be crowed about. Game play tends to emphasize the broad strategy of the day (the ends) but it also tends to gloss over how that was done (the means) which in many cases carried intense racial undertones. In several discussion threads about Plains Indian Wars on BoardGameGeek, designer John Poniske has mentioned some design decisions that are ahistorical but were made in the name of game balance. Which is to say that even the designer recognizes that Plains Indian Wars is an imperfect view of the American Indian Wars.
This brings me back to Academy Games’ decision to not publish Plains Indian Wars. I don’t know why that decision was made and hope it was for financial reasons vice any “commentary” on the historical aspects of this game. One criticism of the Birth of America-series is that the Native American factions don’t have much agency and tend to be used as pawns of major factions (not rue in 1812, but I can see the argument in 1775). In Plains Indian Wars the Northern Plains Tribes and Southern Plains Tribes are elevated to major factions and certainly have “agency” in the game. Plains Indian Wars could of brought “balance” to the Academy Games catalog, but I digress.
Does that really matter? A part of me says Plains Indian Wars is fine the way it is. The game presents those broad strokes of history in a very friendly, lite-wargame manner. On the other hand, the historian in me cringes a bit because there is so much to be said…
…and maybe that’s why the game is the way it is.
If one digs deep into the myths and misconceptions of the American Indian Wars they will quickly enter into a highly controversial discussion. Plains Indian Wars is a “top-level” view of that discussion, perhaps best used not to learn the details of the most controversial issues, but to trigger a desire to further explore those outside of the game. The game does not attempt to explain the many myths of history, but instead “exposes” them for the players. This is far from a condemnation of Plains Indian Wars for like the Birth of America-series before it there is only so much that can (should?) be communicated in a historical family-lite wargame. The historical balance in Plains Indian Wars is not simply a balance between factions, but a balance in the presentation of history.
Plains Indian Wars can be played by one, two, three, or even four players. Personally, I think the game shines best as a two-player game where your “thinking” opponent presents the greatest challenge. The solo variants are useful for exploring the various factions, and the three-or four player versions are in some ways even more family friendly. But to me, the best balance between game play and historical flavor is found in the two-player version.
Plains Indian Wars is a welcome addition to the shelf of “family” wargames. Not only is Plains Indian Wars a good game, it also “teaches without preaches” and challenges your mind to explore further.