Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

The Quiet Bolognese.

An offside report of Jaap Boender’s Megagame “Guelphs and Ghibellines”, about politics in Medieval Italy.

This was a quiet megagame for me: if you discount surviving a coup, reforming the City of Bologna, going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, being captured and ransomed, having a religious revelation, seeing the siege and battle of Acre and writing a book of my adventures and being quoted by the Pope.

My game was about negotiating, talking, compromising, suggesting and keeping accurate minutes; all done whilst I sat around and drank tea. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Guelphs and Ghibellines is a megagame about the power politics between Italian City States, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor (HRE) in the mid 13th century. My role in the game was to be the head of one the leading families in Bologna supporting the Pope (the Guelph’s policy) against the evil domination of Emperor (the Ghibelline’s policy). Bologna was officially a Guelph city.

My objectives were

  1. See that the Guelph faction prospered in Italy and Bologna
  2. See the Bologna prospered
  3. To become the preeminent Bolognese citizen

I was in a city “team” of eight players, comprising two merchants, who had no political influence but had pots of money; the Bishop of Bologna, a natural Guelph, with lots of influence in the lower house of the Bologna council; three nobles, who were Ghibelline supporters, and myself and another noble who supported the Guelph faction.

From the start I realised all the nobles were short of money, but big on prestige and political power and we would have to cut a deal with the merchants. And I also realised fairly quickly that I was going to be on a team of one as my co-Guelph was fire eating, glory seeking, military sort of chap who, from the start, was off seeking promotion to Podesta (a sort of military / political leader for another City State).

So I sat there in the beautiful city of Bologna and talked, and suggested, and proposed and tried to be a good Bolognese citizen. We got a deal with the merchants, the Ghibellines giving up as much political power as the Guelphs. We negotiated a loan at a much better rate than the Venetians and Genoans offered. We appointed our Podestas through mutual assent and agreed on policy. We updated the laws of the city. And I was appointed the official secretary of the City – keeping notes and writing up the new laws.

soldiersOccasionally my armoured Guelph colleague would come back and tell all what a great man he was and how he was kicking Imperial Butt. He seemed annoyed at our lack of drive in our policy. But then he left each year to go and kick butt and generally giving the HRE hell which was good. I was happy negotiating with the Ghibellines and the Merchants, getting the changes we needed to Bologna’s laws. Each year our Podesta was given luke-warm instructions to do something that would annoy the Imperial armies, but to keep our Militia intact.

And so it went for a few turns. And then I noticed my esteemed Ghibelline colleagues in a huddle with the Merchants, exchanging money and making furtive gestures and saying damning things like: “not this turn, next turn?”. I knew they were going to have a coup. It was so damned obvious. They forgot one of the first rules of megagames, plots and conspiracies are best hatched in the canteen, you have an excuse for being in a huddle there.

So I sat there and considered my options. My fire-eating Guelph colleague was involved in yet another massive battle with the Imperial Armies. Yet again he was going to save us from the Imperial hegemonic heel. So he was rather busy. Our Podesta, a Guelph sympathiser, was off supporting him with the entire Bolognese Militia. And he only had a few troops and I had seen my Ghibellines giving him cash. So not much support from those guys.

There was a moment when all the Bolognese Ghibellines and merchants were off table conspiring in a huddle. I had some funds with which I could hire some armed muscle. I could have easily taken over the city, arrested the families of the Ghibellines, confiscated their property, and found evidence they were conspiring with the HRE and then… They would all come back and kick my butt. Instead I fortified my tower, hired some bodyguards and hunkered down. When the Ghibellines came back I smiled and asked them why they had so many bodyguards, wasn’t it a bit destabilising? They actually looked a bit sheepish, and one looked worried. Then they just went for it, after spending even more money on hiring some mercenaries, and they had their coup. I put up no opposition. I just talking to them and asking them if they wanted the City records so they could change them.

As a result of the coup our new city masters changed a few laws, reallocating a few things and their major triumph was to take Bologna out of the pro-Guelph Treaty with the other city states. They did this just as the HRE had been defeated and had sued for peace. So I sat there and thought that was one big waste of money. But I didn’t say that. I just smiled and made a few suggestions about which of the laws they should update to make their changes.

(I did one naughty thing. I vandalised the honour role of Bologna’s Podestas, writing the new Podesta’s name as “Traitorous Ghibelline Bastard”. But that was the limit of my “resistance”.)

riotBack came my glory seeking Guelph colleague, spouting on about death; death and glory; death, death, spam and glory; and his part in all of our victory over the evil HRE. He had done very well. Later it turned out he had taken out the main HRE army and was the final war-hammer blow that broke the Emperor’s resolve. But he was not happy in Bologna. Immediately he kicked off riots and arson attacks on the merchants and Ghibellines. This was not good. It was not going to change the ruling faction and it was impoverishing our fair city. I did not support him and condemned the rioters as un-Bolognese. He demanded we give him money and troops so he could go off on Crusade – yep, he found another war. Money and promises of troops were soon found and off he went, leaving piles of burnt spice sacks, slashed rolls of silk, stove in wine butts and mobs with hangovers.

After I noticed the new leaders seemed to be running out of ideas and were wondering why the city was not doing as well as it had I made a few suggestions. How about the State subsidising some of the merchants’ ventures? Now that the HRE and the Pope are at peace, why not have a big party, a paleo, and call it the end of the Guelph and Ghibellines, we are only and all Bolognese now? And they accepted my ideas. So after a couple of turns spent funding this and building that Bologna looked like it was going to rise again and be a big noise in the North. Though it was slow work, as my colleague had nearly destroyed all of our merchants’ stocks and they had spent a lot funding the spectacular “coup”.

So that was the first of my two objectives settled. Next was to become the big man in Bologna. I knew my voice was being listened to in Council but I was not getting the same attention as the stealthy, vote stealing, tax evaders’ facilitator of a Bishop; or the current Podesta, who was reversing all the unpopular policies of his previous coup-leading colleague, and getting the kudos for this (yes, we even rejoined the old Treaty of Italian States!!).

And then I heard the news of the Crusades. And that sounded very exciting and very likely to fail, heroically. So I looked at the weather, thought that the drought of March had been pierced to the root by the sweet showers of April and decided to wend my way on Pilgrimage.

And for the next three years I had adventures in and around Jerusalem. I was captured as I left the besieged city of Acre, pure bad timing. I was imprisoned in the dungeons of Jerusalem, where I found renewed faith in my Redeemer and spoke to my “hosts” about the people of the book. And then I arranged for my ransom to be paid so I could leave and watch the Crusading army get defeated at the battle of Acre, and subsequent massacre of the Martyrs of Venice.

And then I went home, wearing only a hair shirt, carrying my staff and a small pouch and many memories.

Upon my return I found that the good citizens of Bologna had not forgotten me. I was fetted and fawned over. I was celebrated as the Bolognese who had been to Jerusalem, survived and returned. I took it all very quietly. It was merely God’s will; I am his instrument. My pious hope was that more could make the pilgrimage; and to assist this I wrote a travel book about my adventures. You should read it. It is selling off the copyists’ desks literally by the dozen! The Pope even quoted a passage from it about how I witnessed the Papal Legate being saved by an unseen force (did I hear the flutter of angelic wings) when he was being chased by the evil Mameluke hordes. It’s all in

And so I ended the game, the most prominent Bolognese citizen, tying only with the duplicitous Bishop, popular for giving clerical tax status to shopkeepers, who will come unstuck when I find his name in the Panama Parchments. We still have to dedicate the new college extension of the university, perhaps after a pious pilgrim of the city? I notice that the merchants are now living in much bigger houses than the nobles, perhaps we should have a sumptuary tax, I’ve still got my hair shirt handy.

And so the politics go on, and on…


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