The White Tribe: Review

During the march from Selma in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was asked the question: How long will it take to see social justice? He responded “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. How long? Not long.”

I am not sure that I believe that there is an arc of the moral universe, and I am sure that it does not bend towards justice of our own accord. If the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, it is not because of some natural universal inclination towards justice. Instead, it is because it is bent towards justice by the actions of people committed to making the world a more just place.

So, how do these sentiments apply to a solitaire game where the player is asked to lead the Rhodesian Front, Rhodesia’s racist and colonialist white minority government? In more ways than you’d think.

There are a thousand ways that Ben Madison’s The White Tribe, published by White Dog Games, could have gone wrong. Asking the player to represent a government that created an apartheid state will turn off many people from the outset. In the hands of a lesser designer, the game could have been a study in how best to subjugate an already subjugated population in order to prop up a racist government. That makes what Ben Madison has done in this truly excellent game all the more special.

The White Tribe is aware of history. The Government of Rhodesia fought against nationalist insurgents, including Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union and the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, backed by the Chinese and Soviet Union, respectively. ZANU and ZAPU’s military wings fought a long running Guerrilla campaign, seeking to establish a majority African government in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front failed to establish a majority government that was acceptable to the people, leading to the rise of Robert Mugabe and ZANU. Mugabe effectively became a dictator after a 1987 constitutional reform. While in power, he massacred his political opponents, including minority African ethnic groups in Zimbabwe. ZANU, under Mugabe leadership, engaged in a campaign to push dissenting people out of the country through violence and economic retribution. These efforts resulted in a reduction of the Zimbabwean population by at least 3 million, almost a quarter of the population.

The White Tribe asks the question: Could things have been different if the Rhodesian Front were serious about effecting a transition to an effective majority government? This framing of the issue allows the player to step in for Prime Minister Ian Smith, and attempt to pursue reforms while retaining enough support from the white population to prevent a pro-apartheid regime from seizing power. Simultaneously, the government must have enough support from the black population to combat ZANU and ZAPU, and avoid the rise of Mugabe.

The history of the conflict and the delicate balancing act facing the player are reflected in the mechanics. Each turn the player is called on to handle both political and military issues facing Rhodesia, in addition to dealing with random events and elections, both internally and abroad.

Every turn sees a policy proposal, which the player may attempt to pass. The policies are defined as broadly conservative (supporting white control) and liberal (supporting racial integration). If the Rhodesian Front has strong support in the government, conservative policies are easier to pass. If the Rhodesian Front is weak, liberal policies are easier to pass. Failing to pass an issue results in a collapse of the government and new elections, potentially changing the composition of the government and the difficulty of passing the law.

This is a necessarily simplified political system, which makes some sacrifices in plausibility for playability. Most notably, a Rhodesian Front that is losing support due to pursuing liberal policies can find that it becomes easier to enact more liberal policies. It seems more likely that, had whites fled the Rhodesian Front for other parties, they would move to more conservative parties, rather than embrace liberalism. This strikes a discordant note in a game that is generally a relatively harmonious marriage of theme and mechanics. Overall, I’m willing to forgive the simplifications made to the political system in exchange for a game that plays relatively quickly and gives insight to the historical situation more generally.

Once the player has finished shepherding a policy through the Rhodesian government—or ignoring the policy with consequences for the player—the player must address the military situation in Rhodesia. The player has a limited number of Troops, adorably called “Troopies” based on the historical Rhodesian slang, which may be deployed in the capital, the outlying provinces, or abroad. ZANU and ZAPU forces (called “Terrs,” again based on Rhodesian slang) build up in Rhodesia’s neighbors, and move across the border into the outlying provinces. When a Terr crosses into a province, the local community responds, if it is aligned with the government. This may result in the Terr being eliminated or forced to retreat back to its country of origin. On a bad roll, it may also flip the province to conflict with the government. Troopies can engage ZANU and ZAPU units, which keeps them from moving, This encourages the players to deploy their Troopies abroad to contain the Terr menace, although deploying Troopies outside of the country risks causing an international incident and alienating Rhodesia’s allies abroad.

Combat between Troopies and Terrs is resolved by a simple CRT, based on the total strength of the Troopies opposing the ZANU or ZAPU unit. All ZANU and ZAPU pieces are identical for the purposes of the CRT. Combat is quick and easy to resolve, but the decisions of where to place your Troopies and whether to engage all Terrs at weaker strength or smack down a smaller number of Terrs with overwhelming force is frequently a difficult decision. The player may also elect to modify the CRT by deploying the Rhodesian Air Force, although the Air Force can be damaged by the Terrs, further reducing the limited resources available to the government. If the Air Force is not used to support combat, it can be used to enable airmobile troops to strike a Terr unit anywhere on the map, which can be a powerful option to eliminate a Terr that is putting a province at risk.

If a Terr survives a turn in a province, that province turns against the Government, which reduces the player’s victory point total and makes it easier for Terrs to enter the region, as the local population will not longer help the government to identify and eliminate Terrs.

The final elements of a turn are dealing with random events and the international situation. Over the course of the game, Rhodesia is likely to become more isolated, as sanctions are imposed and foreign governments turn against Rhodesia’s policies. Foreign support provides much needed income for the state, so each loss of a foreign ally hurts deeply. Foreign governments can change because of Rhodesia’s actions, but also change due to random events, reflecting the fact that the foreign government’s position on Rhodesia is generally not the primary factor motivating their electorates. The decision to alienate an ally in order to pursue an internal policy goal is a difficult one, as losing your foreign lifelines makes it difficult to fund your government, maintain your hold on power, and deploy Troopies to maintain security.

The White Tribe is a playable in a longer evening, with games generally taking me around three hours. The challenge for me is that I usually want to write up what is happening in the game, so it can take me a couple of evenings to finish and get a little fictional history written up. This is a good problem to have, and it means that the game has gotten its hooks in me.

I would recommend The White Tribe without reservation to anyone who is willing to spend an evening on a solitaire game. The White Tribe masterfully integrates a nuanced take on a difficult theme with mechanics that are just complex enough to create a decision space that feels rooted in history. It is rare that a solitaire game, especially one with roots in wargaming, gives the player an opportunity to contemplate how a historical injustice could have been averted.

The arc of the moral universe is long. So long that our efforts to bend it towards justice may create only an imperceptible change in its trajectory. Games like The White Tribe give the player an opportunity to see how concerted action can bend that arc, and see the results in an evening. From my perspective, that alone is worth the price of admission.

I played through a full game with commentary on Quarter to Three, my Forum home. If you are interested in learning more, you can read through that starting here. I’d also encourage you to read grognard-extraordinaire Bruce Geryk’s review, which, quite frankly, is better than my own.

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