A Jewish War Game
‘The Campaigns of King David’ is the board game of Biblical warfare
Tonight marks the first night of Hannukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. Besides being a time to the light menorahs and gorge on delicious potato pancakes, Hannukah commemorates the successful revolt of the Jews, led by Judah “The Hammer” Maccabee, against the occupying forces of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire in 167 BCE (Before the Common Era).
Yet nearly a thousand years before Judah the Hammer, there lived another famous warrior by the name of David, who—according to the Bible—slew a big foe named Goliath, united the tribes of Israel and then went on to found an empire that stretched from the Sinai to Jordan to Lebanon. Judah Maccabee may have given us the latke, but it was King David that left the greater mark on history.
Thirty years old was David when he became king, and 40 years did he reign. —2 Samuel 5:4
The Campaigns of King David is a board game that simulates the creation of the Kingdom of Israel. Despite the title, it's not really a game about the conquests of King David. Call it a military strategy game of the Biblical era, circa 1,000 BCE, where Judah is just one of several contending powers—and far from the strongest—striving for mastery of Palestine.
The war game can be played by up to five players controlling five Biblical-era powers: Judah, Philistia, Aramea, Moab and Tyre. The battlefield is a roughly two-foot-by-three-foot map that stretches from the Mediterranean coast and the Negev to the Jordan River and Damascus.
Sort of like Risk, the map is divided into hundreds of provinces that are either plains or hills. Plains tend to produce more food while hills tend to offer greater mineral resources. The more fertile breadbaskets tend to be concentrated along the Mediterranean coast, the Damascus plains and the area south of Jerusalem, while the Moabite territories east of the Jordan River are especially blessed with mineral resources.
In addition to the major powers, there are smaller kingdoms such as Edom that exist mainly to be gobbled up by their bigger neighbors.
A glance at the map instantly reveals that Judah is situated in the middle, near Jerusalem. Thus the strategic essence of David’s nascent empire is that occupies the classic central position (ironically, just like Germany 3,000 years later), which allows it to strike in any direction, and correspondingly be attacked from any direction.
And David captured from him, one thousand and 700 horsemen, and 20,000 footmen; and David hoofed all the chariots [horses] and left over of them for a hundred chariots. —2 Samuel 8:4
The Campaigns of King David comes with 528 square cardboard pieces, each a little over a half-inch in size. The panoply of troops includes chariots, phalanxes, infantry and militia, plus leaders for each kingdom, including King David himself. The various armies are somewhat different. Philistia and Aramea start with large contingents of chariots, for example, which fight best in flat terrain. Judah and Tyre rely on phalanxes that fight well in the hills.
The game is played over seven game turns, each simulating five years of real time, Each turn is broken down into 12 rounds, and each players gets to perform an action each round. The turn begins with a diplomacy phase where players can agree to temporary (very temporary, because like Biblical Highlander, there can only be one winner). Players then roll dice to see who moves first.
Here is where the energetic Israelites receive their first special ability: they roll an eight-sided dice (with numbers one to eight), while everyone else rolls a six-sided die (numbers one to six), so they have a better chance of rolling higher and moving first. But the dice god(s) are fickle, and the Israelites can’t count on getting the jump on their opponents.
There are several types of actions that a player can perform during a round, such as moving and fighting, raising new armies and bringing depleted units up to full strength, harvesting food and collecting mineral resources, fortifying cities and supplying the troops in the field.
Each type of action has a chit, and those chits are placed in a cup. At the beginning of each round, a single chit is randomly chosen—and that is the only type of action that can be performed that round. Thus players can never plan exactly what their next move will be.
To imagine what that means, picture a foolish king (who looks remarkably like the author) who draws a Build chit the first round, and spends his stockpiled food to raise new troops, in the expectation that he will next draw a Harvest chit to replenish his storehouse. Instead, he draws a chit that requires him to supply his army—except that he already spent all his food, causing a quarter of his troops to desert.
Thus an addition to the Book of Proverbs: the wise king keepeth one eye on the enemy and the other on the imperial granary.
And it came to pass after this, that David smote the Philistines and he subdued them; and David took Metheg-ammah out of the land of the Philistines. —2 Samuel 8:1
Foot soldiers move one area per turn and chariots two, except that chariots only move one in the hills. Leaders double the movement rate of an army they are stacked with, and only four units can occupy a single area at the same time. But the presence of a leader increases the maximum size of an army.
David is the best leader in the game in this regard, so while the Israelites may be the runt of the Levantine pack, they can potentially form the biggest army on a given battlefield.
Combat is simple. Players roll dice—a 10-sided die for each chariot and phalanx, an eight-sider for infantry and a regular six-sided die for militia. The dice totals are the number of damage points inflicted on the enemy. Each type of military unit can absorb a certain number of points before it is destroyed or depleted, so that inflicting 30 points of damage would destroy, say, three chariots or five militia.
The practical effect is that chariots and phalanxes are expensive to build, yet can inflict and sustain the most damage. Militia is cheap but perishes like the flowers in the field.
And David inquired of the Lord saying, “Shall I go up to the Philistines? will you deliver them into my hand?” And the Lord said unto David, “Go up; for I will surely deliver the Philistines into your hand.” —2 Samuel 5:19
The Campaigns of King David resembles Clausewitz more than the Book of Samuel in its use of random events. The friction of war is simulated through event chits, also drawn from a cup, that mandate good and bad happenings that a player can use to help himself or harm an opponent.
These include increased or decreased food harvests, bribing an enemy unit to defect, or ambushing enemy troops. There are also chits for Egyptian and Bedouin raids where the player gets temporary use of a hostile force to attack his enemies.
And what Biblical war game would be complete without the “Ark of the Lord” event, which give the Judean player (only) a better dice roll in a single battle? I have played many historical games, but never one with an event called “God’s Intervention,” which remarkably states that “this nullifies any other Event Marker played, including another God’s Intervention Marker.”
How many games out there have dueling divine interventions, especially when the game in question focuses on the rise of a monotheistic empire?
And David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and charity for all his people. —2 Samuel 8:15
There is much judging in the Bible, and The Campaigns of King David can be judged on several levels. As a game, it’s stimulating and tense. The dice rolling for initiative and the random action markers mean that players must be extremely flexible in their planning, while also rolling with the punches should fortune not go their way.
As an historical simulation, The Campaigns of King David is problematic. Historians can tell us what the 20th Maine did hour-by-hour at Gettysburg, how many troops and tank fought at the Battle of the Bulge or what clothes and weapons equipped Julius Caesar’s 10th Legion.
But can anyone really tell us the order of battle of King David’s army, or exactly where and when his army fought? There are scholars who claim he didn’t even exist. The only real source of information is the Hebrew Bible, not the easiest of books for historical research.
But that sort of historical microscope misses the point. The Campaigns of King David is not—and could not be—a literal simulation of a conflict that is theology to the religious, mythology to the atheist and sketchy history to the historical-minded.
What it represents is an attempt to turn Biblical history into a game, which is a form of living history. In the popular mind, the military history of the Jews tends to be bounded on one end by Pharaoh's army drowning in the Red Sea and on the other by the modern Israel Defense Forces. There could be little in between, for the Jews had no state and therefore no army.
In The Campaigns of King David, the Israelites have a few special abilities that the other powers don’t, but otherwise they are just another hungry empire on the rise, like Moab and Edom, dealing with the same problems such as feeding their army.
Does a competitive historical war game diminish Biblical history? No, what it does is bring it to life by framing it in terms we can understand, such as economics and military strategy. That is why holidays such as Hannukah exist. So that we may remember the past.