World's first irregular conflict series board game features Vijayanagara Empire

12:34 PM Feb 19, 2024 | PTI |

It is that time of the year when Karnataka goes all out to celebrate Vijayanagara Empire (Hampi Utsav 2024 was held between February 2 and 5). But this year’s biggest tribute to the medieval Hindu empire, which at its peak, ruled most of the south, stretching its boundaries to Odisha and Maharashtra even, comes from the far-off America.


A mathematics professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Saverio E Spagnolie, has designed a board game based on the early strategic growth of the empire, along with three other designers – Mathieu Johnson, Cory Graham and Aman Matthews – and developer Joe Dewhurst. ‘Vijayanagara: The Deccan Empires of Medieval India, 1290-1398,’ published by GMT Games, is the first game in its new Irregular Conflicts Series, which explore complex interactions than counter insurgencies or COIN games.

Spagnolie said the team got together to participate in the first Consim Game Jam, a contest for designers to produce a game prototype in three days. ”I began to sift through periods with the potential for being modelled. When I hit upon the political developments in the 14th century, it jumped off the page with its epic, sweeping scope – the rise and fall of powerful kingdoms, their beneficial and detrimental interactions, large personalities,” said Spagnolie in an email interaction with the PTI.

When they won the contest, they were approached by GMT to publish a refined version of the game, he said.

”Little did we know at the time that the polishing would take about three years of hard work,” added Spagnolie. Previously, GMT has published two games inspired by the history of India. In 2008, it released ‘Chandragupta,’ designed by Stephen R Welch, as part of their Great Battles of History series of games on ancient warfare.


And in 2017, it released ‘Gandhi: The Decolonization of British India,’ designed by Bruce Mansfield, considered non-conventional among the gamers because COIN games rely on violent wars unleashed in the annals of the history while Gandhi employed a non-violent method to win his war. In fact, Spagnolie said his curiosity about India was sparked by Mansfield’s ‘Gandhi.’ ”Historical board games transport players to distant places and times.

In 2020, I wanted to spend more time outside of my apartment and a different time sounded pretty good too,” added Spagnolie. Vijayanagara, states the publisher note, lets players take on the roles of Delhi Sultanate, the Bahmani Kingdom and the Vijayanagara Empire – and rally local amirs and rajas to their cause, construct temples, forts and qasbahs – as they battle for supremacy over the Deccan Plateau. In little over two weeks, the game has already sold 1,020 copies and has piqued the curiosity of India’s popular historians.

On February 6, the very next day after Spagnolie announced the launch of the game on X (formerly Twitter), Anirudh Kanisetti, the author of ‘Lords of the Deccan: New History of Medieval South India,’ posted on X: ”How delightful to see boardgame about my beloved medieval India – love that cheeky reference to ‘Lords of the Deccan’ and to @UnamPillai’s (Manu S Pillai) ‘Rebel Sultans’ in the game cards. Many congrats to @SaverioIV and team, And I can’t wait to play this!” Spagnolie acknowledged that the research done by historians played an important role in the design of the game, considering he and his team had never been to India.

”Our research was through books, articles, and conversations with South Asia historians. We had a consultant, Prof Aparna Kapadia from Williams College (in Massachusetts). Among the books that complements Vijayanagara most directly is ‘India in the Persianate Age’ by Prof Richard Eaton of the University of Arizona,” said Spagnolie.

Interestingly, cheeky references in Vijayanagara do not stop with famous Indian historians. Included as part of the game is an ancient Indian board game – Aadu Huli Aata (as known in Karnataka). Vijayanagara, said Spagnolie, has much in common with not just ‘Aadu Huli’ or its variants played in India, but with other such asymmetric ‘hunting games’ of the distant past – such as ‘Rimau-Rimau’ (Malaysia), ‘Bagh-Chal’ (Nepal), ‘Halatafl’ (Scandinavia), ‘Komikan’ (Chile/Argentina), ‘Catch the Hare’ (Spain), and ‘Hare and Hounds’ (France).

”A common theme runs through these hunting games: A fearsome enemy can be defeated by weaker forces through unity. I love imagining the evolution of asymmetric games throughout human history. The inclusion of ‘Aadu Huli Aata’ in the box was a nod to that evolution, even if it only is used for the rare case of a tie in the main game,” said Spagnolie. Perhaps, it is the immersive experience offered by it that makes tabletop gaming continue to gain momentum, particularly in the US, pointed out Spagnolie.

”I imagine that part of the draw is that it is a way to spend less time in front of screens and more time with each other. Covid certainly reminded us that the time we have in person together is not guaranteed,” he added. Even so, Spagnolie is aware that Vijayanagara treads a territory that is not familiar to most, including many Indians.

”I interact with many people who are from India, and almost none of them know anything about the Vijayanagara Empire. Of course, we learn almost nothing in school about the history of India in the US. But then that’s part of what makes it so interesting. There are already some instructors at US institutions who have voiced an interest in using the game in their courses,” said Spagnolie.


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