Golden Journal No. 40:
Sometimes, as one does when crafting an alternative history, you wonder if the premise is simply too stupid. That the audience will simply laugh at you, not with you. And so for years I’ve had ideas that I tossed aside as too implausible, just not believable.
Now I see that Honest Abe was right; some of the people really can be fooled all of the time.
And that brings us to our Byzantine alternative-history variant for Soldier Emperor, titled Golden Journal No. 40: Byzantium Eternal. In it, the Byzantine Empire does not fall to Turkish assault in 1453 but soldiers on for another 350 years, lasting long enough to participate in the Napoleonic Wars. That wasn’t very likely, but it could have happened, somehow, and most likely without the intervention of a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibal pedophiles. I can’t believe I just typed that.
Byzantine history isn’t my specialty; I don’t read or speak Greek, any form, and you can’t be “deeply read” if you can’t read the language. But I’ve long been fascinated by the fallen empire, and when John Julius Norwich published his three-volume history of the empire while I was in grad school, it showed me a model of how history should be written (very much at odds with what they were teaching us at Emory, but I suppose that’s why I’m here now and not in some miserable academic slot hoping for an early death). I read a great deal more, even Ostrogorsky’s monumental, and monumentally boring, magnum opus.
I even wrote a game book about the empire’s fall, called Last Days of Constantinople. I think I won an award for it, but I don’t care because it sold an enormous number of copies. Like, more than any traditional wargame has in this century. More than our top five wargames, combined. It should have made me, well, not rich but well-off, but at least its revenues helped erase some really stupid mistakes.
So anyway, I do know a lot about Byzantine history, for a non-specialist, and am quite fond of the topic. Somehow, I managed to avoid designing and publishing wargames featuring Byzantines, and that’s probably a good thing. But I really wanted to create something Byzantine in a wargame, and I didn’t want to lose a lot of money doing it.
That’s why we have the Golden Journal, to keep me from publishing stupid, money-losing but gloriously weird projects. It’s the perfect venue for Byzantium Eternal. The hook is pretty simple: Over and over, the Byzantine Empire escaped extinction against all possible odds. Why not once more?
In our story, Constantinople endures and the Empire slowly recovers some of its strength. The Turks are repelled again in 1525 and in 1683, after which the Byzantines join the grand coalition seeking to expel them from Europe. That crusade fails to eject them from all their European holdings, but by 1803 (when Soldier Emperor begins) the Byzantine Empire holds Constantinople and its environs, the Morea in Greece, Crete and the Crimea. It’s not a very large or prosperous empire, nor is it a great power; it’s a middling state that happens to occupy a very strategic location. Note: To fit in the Golden Journal, this surviving Byzantine rump state could only be a minor power, since we could only squeeze eight army/fleet-sized tiles and three leader-sized pieces into the space allowed.
As a thalassocracy (an empire bound together by the sea), our Byzantine Empire has a strong fleet for a minor power: three fleets, if the Empire can get them all into play at once. That alone should make Byzantium an enticing ally. Constantinople is strongly fortified (as in the standard game) and there are five armies potentially available to the Soldier Basileus. Plus, the Byzantines are very well-led for a force of their size, mostly because I could squeeze three leader-sized pieces onto the tiny sheet and wasn’t about to waste any cardboard.
That array is much, much more than any other minor power wields, but also far, far less than even the weakest great power. There’s probably not enough for a separate Byzantine player to do unless playing the combined game with Soldier Emperor and Indian Empires, when the Byzantine player can also play an Indian kingdom over on the other map and create some havoc there. But we included some rules for it, just in case, because I know we have a couple of Byzantine fanatics in the audience.
Mostly, though, the Byzantine Empire will be played as a minor power, and a very attractive one. Possession of Constantinople splits the Ottoman Empire in two and controls the waterway between the Mediterranean and Black Sea. With the Crimea also in Byzantine hands, Russia still has a port on the Black Sea (at Odessa) and plenty of reasons to want access to the Mediterranean. Instead of fighting the Turks for near-impregnable Constantinople, now the Tsar can woo the Byzantines with bribes and Minor Country Alliance cards.
Our continued Byzantine Empire remains a theocracy, tightly wedded to the Eastern Orthodox Church and therefore friendly toward their fellow Orthodox Russians and deeply opposed to the very existence of the Turks. They’re well-disposed to the Roman Catholic powers, less so to the Protestants, and they revile the French (godless apostates who dally with the Turks).
On their own, the Byzantines aren’t going to achieve much, but that fleet is a very valuable asset - almost enough to take on the Turkish navy. The Sultan has to deal with a hostile power in the center of his domains, which may make him somewhat less adventuresome.
Games are supposed to be fun, and Byzantium Eternal increases the fun quotient in Soldier Emperor. I got to write a whole new fractured history, which is always fun. The new pieces are really nice, and the booklet’s cover is extraordinary.
No wargame is truly necessary, but every human needs fun. Byzantium Eternal is fun, and even though it’s just a tiny variant it makes Soldier Emperor play very differently and kind of turns it into a new game. And when we first offer it, it’s free to the Gold Club. The Basileus would approve.
The Golden Journal is only available to the Gold Club (that’s why we call it the Golden Journal). It’s free when we first offer it, but then it’s $9.99 afterwards. We print enough of them to handle initial demand and a few extras, but once they’re gone we won’t reprint them – there’s just no profit in a company as small as Avalanche Press keeping a $9.99 item perpetually in stock. If you want your Byzantines, the time to grab it is now.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published zillions of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and his dog Leopold, who is a good dog.
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