Banish the Snakes

Banish the Snakes is a new title from GMT Games. I used to play Avalon Hill wargames when I was younger. They were mostly historical simulations—like playing Wellington against Napoleon at Waterloo. These days I’m still interested in history but I’m drawn more toward those periods where we know a lot less about what went on.

Which brings me to Banish the Snakes. It’s a cooperative game for one to six players. So far I’ve only done the solitaire version but it works the same way because all players have the same goal. They aren’t competing for different ends. All players will either sink or swim together.

So, what’s the goal? The game simulates Ireland in the 5th century. Legend has it that St. Patrick sent the serpents away. The truth is that Ireland had no snakes after the glaciers retreated but it makes for a better story to give St. Pat credit!

Anyway a host of Christian missionaries descended on Ireland in the 5th century and before the calendar flipped to the 6th century the island’s residents were almost all converted to the new faith. The interesting thing about the change from pagan Ireland to Christian Ireland is that the transition was (apparently) smooth and (relatively) non-violent. It seems the Irish took readily to the new religion.

How did that happen? No one really knows. One idea is that the druids, who were not only priests but judges, physicians, bards, and advisers to the kings, in short the intelligentsia of Celtic societies, saw straight away the benefits of a written culture. They quickly adapted the Irish language to Latin characters and began a tradition of writing that outshone most of Europe for centuries.

Another idea is that the missionaries were Celts themselves, even if Romanized, and could speak the local dialects and not only understood the existing belief systems but were sympathetic to them. They didn’t preach for change so much as suggest improvements. The local theology was respected even if it was incomplete and thus Christian beliefs enlarged the native spirituality rather than replaced it.

Like I said, no one really knows. That’s what I find most appealing about Banish the Snakes. It’s a model of what could have happened. Players take on the role of saints and move about the provinces of 5th century Ireland converting the pagans. They have to encounter powerful druids and local chiefs and even a high king. So far I have found it difficult to meet the game’s victory conditions.

One side of the game board has a track for “paganism” in Britain. When the Romans told the British to fend for themselves in AD 411 the empire was already officially Christian. But the apparatus to maintain a Roman faith in a hostile colony would soon begin to crumble and the old ways re-emerged. In the game you turn over cards that advance paganism and once the entire region lapses back to the pre-Christian religion the game ends. Players have to hope they’ve converted enough of the Irish and established some churches and Christian leaders in all the provinces before that happens. If all the people “join the flock” before Britain goes pagan the game ends in victory for the players.

It’s hard. The model is tricky and seems to depend on a lot of things going right all at once. But I’ve only played a few solitaire games. It will be better with real players. The outcome—the conversion of the Irish—was not a sure thing. It could have failed. It could have taken longer. It happened a certain way but it was far from certain. Banish the Snakes, at least for this newbie, shows how tenuous the whole enterprise must have been.

I reckon a few of my friends would only play this game if they could take the side of the pagans. Pagans got a bad rap when I was a kid in Catholic school. It turns out that the Latin word paganus means “villager” which is just a cute way to say “hick.” Romans of the literate class looked down upon their rural brethren and called anyone who wasn’t a Roman barbarus which means “foreigner” but implies “uncivilized.”

Turns out the pagans were OK. They had a society, language, religion, culture, art, technology, roads, shipping, trade, in short all the stuff we call “civilization.” Conquerors, like the Romans, tend not to notice those things. Ireland was never a Roman province, and the Roman hold on Britain was not so clear-cut. It was more like a military occupation reliant on shifting alliances with local tribes and a healthy dose of mercenaries. Hey, that sounds familiar!

Banish the Snakes is a great way to learn about a time in history without reading a book or watching a TV show. It comes with very nice background materials on the major characters and events, both historic and legendary, and is beautifully illustrated. My only complaint is that you have to put stickers on the pieces which is a pain in the ass. Once that’s done it’s a not too hard to learn the basics of the game and get to playing.

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