Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Board Game-Mecca to Medina by Baba Ali

Mecca to Medina (board game) by Baba Ali

I received this product with great excitement, as I and my closest friends are board game enthusiasts. This review is in two parts, one, the “Muslim” content, and, two, the traditional board game criteria of packaging, setup time, ease of play, relative balance of luck and skill, etc.

A Muslim Game

What I mean by this is not the legal ruling of playing this game or any other activity. Reality says that Muslim children (and adults) are spending time playing games, and would it not be good if those games could strengthen their knowledge and practice of Islam? Or would it not be good if, by playing a board game, Muslims and non-Muslims could learn something about geography and history?

Mecca to Medina accomplishes some of this, but with significant flaws. The very first sentence in the user manual is:

During the Golden Age of Islam travelers could journey from city to city without border restrictions or passport requirements.

A simple Google search of the phrase “Golden Age of Islam” will show that it has now become another front in the U.S. culture wars. The implication of the phrase “Golden Age of Islam” is that we’re now living in the “Rust Age of Islam.” In my opinion, civilization can occur anytime certain secular factors come together, such as rule of law, favorable ecological conditions, absence of war, use of appropriate technologies, etc. The people involved can be Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, animists, and, historically, a civilization’s population usually is a combination of these. Ibn Khaldun had this view. Islam is a religion, and its truth is independent of the secular condition of its adherents. I recommend reading Marcia Hermansen’s essay on “Identity Islam” in Progressive Muslims by Omid Safi. In this essay, Professor Hermansen explores how Muslims growing up in the U.S. are taking an “image” of Islam and then constricting their thought and behavior to meet that image. This stunts their study of Islam and, in the long run, causes them to lose focus from gratefulness and obedience of God to obedience to their own personal image of what a Muslim should be. Facts, be they historical, sociological, biological, geological or even textual (references from the Qur’an and hadith), no longer matter.

The other complaint I have in a lot of Muslim media is the tendency to “beat” Islam into everything. In the game, caravans are complete when certain combinations of resources are gathered. The five resources are water, gold, dates, cloth and kalima, the Arabic word for the testimonial of belief by which a person announces that he is a Muslim. These resources are associated on the resource cards with the five pillars of Islam, Salat (prayer), Zakat (poor due, mandatory charity), fasting, Hajj (pilgrimage) and Shahada (the testimonial that there is no god except God and that Muhammad is His messenger), respectively. Tying “trade goods” to the five pillars, especially the testimonial, is too much of a stretch. It’s just trying too hard to be “Muslim.”

The most ideological feature of the game is the event cards, which are drawn anytime a player rolls a 7 with two six-sided die.

1. Shaitan (the Arabic word for deceiver, Satan)-You lose one half of your resource cards. Turn in one Kalima resource card to get rid of Shaitan and keep all of your cards. There’s a picture of a burst of flames.

2. Crusades-All players lose 1 Camel and all of their cards. If you have a Mujahid (fighter in the path of God, derived from the word jihad), your city is protected and you do not lose any cards or your camel. However, you lose your Mujahid because he dies as a Shaheed (a martyr).

3. Unity-You have completed a trading route. Please turn in all of your Resource cards. There is a picture of black hand and a white hand in a handshake.

4. Nationalism-All players lose half of their cards and each player loses one Mujahid. If all players turn in one Kalima card each, you can eliminate Nationalism and no player will lose any of their cards. There is a picture of some 15 different flags raised on flagpoles in a circle.

My comments:

Muslims believe that the first one to disobey God was Iblis, who is also known as Al-Shaitan, the Satan. We believe he has the power to suggest, but he does not have the power to act. So this kind of card only makes sense if we assume that he suggests to humans to attack the caravan, sell defective goods, etc. In other words, it’s just too complicated of a concept to have in a board game, and, otherwise, it could be promoting an incorrect understanding of our struggle against Satan. Dare I say it’s just cheesey?

Crusades-While the European Crusades did negatively impact trade in some areas in some times, there were long periods of time during the Crusades where truces and treaties allowed trade. Trade, in general, was far more likely to be disrupted by your standard communicable diseases like cholera and dysentery, rapacious local rulers short on cash flow, brigands and other wars of Muslims and non-Muslims than the European Crusaders. So why just plunge people into another culture war issue? On another note, I believe in jihad as much as the next person, as long as you understand it similar to how Christian theologians have discussed just war doctrine. Or if you remember that the best jihad is speaking truth in front of a tyrant. A good source on this topic is Louay Safi’s Peace and the Limits of War-Transcending Classical Conceptions of Jihad.

Unity-You know, I’m for unity as much as the next guy, but, most of the time, when I here requests based on Muslim solidarity, it’s because somebody wants to get something for nothing or just plain slack off. “Brother, fix my car, but only charge me $50, because that’s what I have.” “No, I have not been working, and I’m not sick, but help me pay the rent this month.” “Oh, I have not been keeping the books properly, but we’re all Muslims, right?” The problems between immigrant Muslims and their children and African-American Muslims result from having divergent perceived interests, and until we get together and discuss what we need and want, we’ll never act in unity. And likewise internationally.

Nationalism-The problem in most Muslim countries is we don’t have enough nationalism. So before we can have Pan-African unity or non-aligned countries together or a large Muslim state, let’s see if we can end ethnic and confessional conflicts within the existing political entities we have, such as Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, etc.

Are these ideological concepts simple enough to put in a board game? It’s just trying too hard, and it takes away from the appeal and effectiveness of the game.

You might say, you know, Ayman, you’re real picky about these things. Most people won’t even notice.

If you really believe that, than we’re in real trouble, because it means that we accept loose concepts nearly four years after September 11, 2001. I’d have thought that people would be wise enough to monitor what they’re saying and doing so that we can have a future in the United States.

On the plus side, the trade route cards have a variety of cities and generally accurate maps.

A Board Game

The packaging and cards are in general well done.

The manual is not well organized, but the rules are simple enough to get started quickly.

Setup is extremely fast.

As far as game play is concerned, my friend summed it up by saying, “It’s better than UNO.” It’s less strategy than Settlers of Catan, another popular board game in the genre. For children who like board games, I believe they’d enjoy it.

For serious board gamers, you’ll want to skip it or modify its rules for greater complexity. I think the first rule modification to try is to increase the number of completed trade routes for victory. This would make use of the specialty cards (the merchants and mujahids and camels) more attractive. Another innovation might be that the price of specialty cards increases as the game progresses, so each card costs one more increment of resources. I did not test these in actual game play, so I can’t be certain if they would help.

Last updated August 10, 2006.

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