King by Grace of the Sun

The Versailles apparatus around king Louis XIV of France was conceived on such a titanic scale that even so enormous & bizarre a contraption as La Machine de Marly – here painted 1723 by Pierre-Denis Martin – was a mere detail. Still, this device pumped water 177 yards uphill from the Seine, needed 60 men to operate, & cost the price of three 90-gun warships to build. All & only to feed the Versailles fountains – which, after all, consumed nearly as much water as the entire city of Paris. (Public domain.)

There is a subset of strategy board games in which I’ve long had great interest. You might call them: historically-themed-light-or-medium-games-where-the-history-part-happens-to-work. This is not your demanding grognard simulation of the siege of Stalingrad, interesting as such a game is too. Rather, I stand just as impressed when some innocuous-looking production by, say, M Schacht (as with Hansa), Ragnar Brothers (with Canal Mania) or M Wallace (with Perikles or Brass), unfolds an interesting, varied & credible simulation of real historical events & processes. At times with only a half-dozen variables, & along a historical theme which superficially appears secondary to the real game mechanic, even “pasted on”.

In this spirit I’d like to offer a review essay on Louis XIV (R Dorn, 2005). As long as we’re clear on one thing: Louis XIV is not a historical simulation in any demanding or rigorous sense.

Yet as far as it does go, within the limited factors & possibilities it employs, it offers true perspective & insight.

Background: Portrait of an Autocrat

Most people have heard the expression: The Sun King. Many also know he was a real French monarch: le Roi Soleil, le Grand Roi. Unfortunately, a few mistakenly think that it was he who was beheaded during the French Revolution. Hardly. Had the real Sun King – known as Louis XIV or Louis the 14th – truly ruled during the French Revolution, he would sooner have been executioner than victim. We can safely postulate that he would never have suffered the rebellion to go as far as it did, that he might if possible have prevented it with foresight, & if necessary crushed it in gunpowder & blood. (The king beheaded during the Revolution was one of his milder but inept successors, known as Louis the 16th.)

But then what manner of man was the real Sun King, the 14th Louis whose court our game depicts? A gifted autocrat who, practically the day he came of age, captured absolute authority from the dying grip of his chief minister, barred his own influential mother from access to his Council, & undertook to unify the entire divided country & its feuding powers closely, very closely, around his person. Before they knew it, the strongest men of the realm petrified into admiring courtiers, whose checked political & economical future depended on the least, most indifferent waving of the sovereign’s hand.

This concept of a strong, personalized court, the magnetism of which even the highest noble could not ignore, was only fully perfected, however, with the rise of Versailles. Louis had long been uncomfortable residing in Paris itself – from where his ancestors had ruled France for centuries, yet also a strong, populous community, whose self-confidence remained a threat even to the king. But at a small, neglected castle in Versailles, a comforting 17 Km from Paris itself, Louis found himself at ease. He therefore decided to develop this into his principal seat, ever expanding buildings & garden, essentially until his death many decades later. The new, radiant authority of Versailles was meant to dwarf the constructions of any other European monarch.

Not that Louis was that personally concerned with comfort or ostentation. On the contrary. But he knew that those who threatened the integrity of the state obsessed over such symbols. At Versailles he thus transformed his daily life, from morning toilette to bedtime, into a minute, cyclic, hypnotic spectacle, which the country’s great & good were coerced to witness without fail. As to the king’s more substantial work activity – which was colossal – it went with far less drama, during long, thorough conversations with the people he had chosen actually to rule the country. Men with few inherited titles or estates, dependent only on the king’s continued goodwill. Here were fewer lazy waves of the hand, & more of a wholehearted interest & mutual confidence, which in several instances would last for decades.

Game: Of Mistresses & Men

In the game Louis XIV such ”new men” are well represented by the great minister for trade, industry & finance, Colbert, or by the powerful minister for war, Louvois. The most competent among the court nobility – & they were still many of high calibre, now prudently confined to their most traditional arena, the military – are also represented here, by the successful generals Condé & Turenne. Add to this the 3 most influential, more or less successive, mistresses of the king, the original old prime minister Mazarin (something of an anachronism, as he died before Louis’s true career began), plus 4 members of the king’s very closest family – & you have the 12 board tiles – in fact 12 large cardboard plates – on which the game plays, all positioned for the decisive favour of a 13th figure, king Louis himself.

Again, I stress how very abstracted a version of the political circumstances the game presents – so abstract that some will question whether it even makes sense to review it from a historical viewpoint. But at least 2 aspects of the game reproduce important parts of the reality in an intriguing & memorable way.

First there are the 12 “tiles” themselves, which are exceptionally well-chosen in the 12 courtiers that they represent. These tiles or plates go on the table like a small, 5×5 chess board in predetermined order. They never move or change order, not even from game to game, but their effect does alter when they’re flipped over. The game’s 2-4 players all compete for the “use” of these same 12 courtiers, seeking by classical area control/majority, to influence them best or most. Such control yields opportunities to buy cards which not only give Victory Points (VP), but also improve the player’s possibilities in the continued game.

Yet the benefits received depend, in my opinion a great deal, on each courtier’s actual, historical role. The 2 generals thus give exclusive tokens of political/military power (coats of arms) with which you may win the game by the back door; the 4 royal relatives are not all excessively able, but their physical proximity to the king is, as we’ll see below, quite decisive; Colbert, minister of finance, triggers a cascade of gold coins; the mistresses yield different favours according to the amount & nature of the influence they had. Each of these tiles or tile categories has a fair chance of helping you toward victory, or as the rules put it: “Every plan is right – if it works.”

The second most successful aspect of the simulation is of course the single piece representing the king. His power is extremely subtle: essentially, he enhances the importance of the tiles which he favours with his presence or proximity, thus creating invisible currents in the game around those tiles.

Not that his seemingly humble cardboard piece, vertically fixed on a mundane plastic base, moves around much. It circulates, with royal reserve, on the innermost 4 tiles of the game, the king’s closest family: mother, wife, brother, & crown prince. But this is enough. From those 4 positions, the king may, potentially & indirectly, affect the action on all remaining tiles. He will also reward, with conspicuous symbols & gifts, those who most directly seek his goodwill on the tile he stands.

Finally, he may provoke a “shadow strategy”, where a player schemes in the shade of the king, dodging the resource consuming struggle for his favour. But even then the king cannot be ignored, for wherever Louis stands the player must now keep up a well calibrated distance.

Now clearly, having a king piece is not exclusive to this game. Good chess players remember not to be fooled by the plain mechanical weakness of the king compared to queen or rook. Weak or not, the king & his needs direct the game of chess, & in many ways the proud queen remains his instrument, his vizier, just as in earlier oriental versions.

In El Grande the king, the size of a tournament chess king, towers very physically over the grandees who, despite their own immense power, are smaller than corresponding chess pawns. Here as well, the king’s powers are to large extent indirect – eg freezing intrigues – yet without the king everyone agrees there would be no El Grande game. In King of Siam the king is degraded to a mere flat tile, but here too the players discover his special kind of influence (as indeed befits Siamese/Thai royalty): seldom directly decisive, but always effective in subtle, understated form.

Very similar things may all be said of the king piece in Louis XIV. But should a player be so careless as completely to ignore the king, ie ignoring even how he should productively ignore him, while others court him, he or she can in my experience forget about winning. Louis himself used to say of such a person: Je ne le connais pas (“I’ve no idea who this man is”) – & act in crushing accordance.

Departures: The Versailles Engine

As so often with a simulation it is of course all about flavour – fleetingly recreating an atmosphere, a feel. Not even the heaviest grognard game teleports your body physically to the Stalingrad winter, with all its biting cold, frozen limbs, distress, despair & disease. Even the hardest simulation still lets you watch the events distantly, abstractly, from the quite unrealistic viewpoint of an Olympian god. Win or lose, the sun is outside, & you’re sure of dinner tonight.

Yet how come chess – though impressively silent about weather, artillery fire or air support – recreates so well the psychology of human conflict, indeed organizes it with metaphors like “gambit”, “pin”, “checkmate”, “stalemate” “pawn”, “Berlin Defence”, or “endgame”? Many experienced & committed gamers justifiably feel that good simulations, even a few very abstracted ones, can impart something impossibly hard to capture in other ways. In a Stalingrad wargame it might, among other things, be the siege itself, with the mental mechanisms & patterns required to fight it. In an economic game it could be the logic of accumulation: how riches create multiple opportunities, but also in-built dysfunctions which later entrants may exploit. In Louis XIV it is the permanent awareness that even in a game with actors & fields so strong as Mazarin or Mme de Maintenon, much in the end comes down to one single person, one never altogether predictable factor, the king. This applies even should you, Heaven forbid, choose to ignore it.

To give a final notion of this specific “flavour” hovering around Louis, bear with a few concluding paragraphs about what happened, not while he was in power, but in the void, that replaced him after he had departed. Louis the 14th died in 1715, old in his bed, worn by excesses of war & greed. His system then survived for ¾ of Century, until 1789 when the French Revolution tore it down, then with savage rapidity. Well beyond his grave, the 14th Louis carried heavy personal responsibility for this event. He had designed a power machine not on a human, but on his own monstrously gigantic scale. If he abused it – & abuse it he did – at least it was with energy & vision. In his day, France was Europe’s most populous nation, its heart & brain, its scorching luminary.

But to the Sun King’s successors this pharaonic power became almost a yoke. A rigid engine like Versailles requires a supple ruler. The solar king in his ritualized court certainly didn’t appear flexible, but that was exactly what he could be, during his long, intimate exchanges with the hand-picked, industrious men who had his confidence. His successor, the 15th Louis, was no terrible man as such. Yet the Versailles engine, which still ran like a dream, constrained his all-too-human whims into facile options. Such as the disastrous Seven Years War against Prussia & England (1756-1763, beautifully simulated in R Sivél’s “eurowargame” Friedrich), in which France, all while getting in crushing debt, lost up to half its trade income. Or that same king’s last mistress, the ghoulish Madame du Barry, almost a street prostitute, who made every Frenchman lose faith in a king being something superhuman, & precisely not so ordinary & fallible as the 15th Louis.

We all know of the king after that, the 16th Louis, destined for the scaffold. Even by his time much could still be demanded of the robust Versailles engine, but since each of its parts – like the games mentioned in this review – was designed around the king & his choices, there was one thing it could not ignore: the king’s entire absence. While even the 15th Louis had maintained a healthy sense of prerogative, the 16th Louis’s greatest passion was…to take apart & repair key locks. He would pass hours & days with such hobbies, leaving the realm’s administration to inadequate advisers. Monarchy soon lost its little remaining credibility & mystique, & when the events of 1789 accelerated, this to a great extent endorsed what had long since happened:

The king had vanished from the board.


Note: This somewhat “fiddly” game plays considerably easier & better using, for instance, this player’s aid.

Louis XIV. Board game designed by Rüdiger Dorn. Alea, 2005. Page on BoardGameGeek.

Bluche, Francois. Louis XIV. Translated by Mark Greengrass. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1990. ISBN 978-0631160038. English edition of a reference biography by France’s perhaps foremost authority on the 17th Century.

Thompson, Ian. The Sun King’s Garden: Louis XIV, André Le Nôtre & the Creation of the Gardens of Versailles. London: Bloomsbury, 2006. ISBN 978-0747576488. Much on Versailles as a “total” conception.

This text originally posted on BoardGameGeek.

(Webfront illustration & credit here.)

Categories: Ideal Europe, Simulated Worlds

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