“Dealing with these themes requires caution and care,”
April 15, 2019 5:18 AM   Subscribe

A Cancelled Board Game Revealed How Colonialism Inspires and Haunts Games [Waypoint] “On April 7th, prominent publisher of board wargames GMT Games released a statement announcing that they’d pulled a game from their pre-order list: Scramble for Africa. The game, portraying the eponymous invasion of the African continent by European powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seemed like one that portrayed the colonial period in Africa in a simplistic way, ultimately rewarding players for being the best at recreating a piece of history that included genocide in Namibia and mass enslavement in the Belgian Congo Free State. It had come under heavy critique from board gamers for, in the words of GMT’s own statement, “both topic and treatment” of its colonialist historical setting. ”

• How Board Games Handle Slavery [Waypoint]
“In discussing slavery as a gameplay mechanic, special care must be taken in determining the designer's intent. Is the game design meant to acknowledge the abhorrence of slavery? Are slaves central to any victory conditions? Do we as players have direct influence over the establishment? There are a number of examples from which to pull answers, and certainly I have not covered them all here, not by a long shot. It is morally wrong to avoid the topic of slavery as if it never happened, but game designers need to take care to utilize it in a way that feels thematic and does not glorify the establishment. In this way, many games can serve as a lesson in history and respect, while at the same time providing a satisfying and thought-provoking play experience.”
• Do board games have a colonial problem? [ITB Board Games]
“In hugely popular games like Puerto Rico, Age Of Empires or Imperial Settlers players are actively encouraged in taking actions that in reality equated to the displacement and murder of native groups and the exploitation of slave labour. The way in which games like these treat historic injustices is arguably problematic. However, many who love these games can defend their themes by claiming that fun is most important – and that critiquing complex sociohistorical problems in the world is not the job of a board game designer. Understanding our shared history is important; especially so when it comes to issues like colonialism that have had such a powerful impact on our world. Engaging with history in various ways, even through board games, can be an incredibly valuable way of understanding this impact. However, the way in which board games fail to be critical of certain aspects of history, definitely paints colonialism in an unjustly positive light. (In the previously mentioned games there are no alternatives – if you fail or refuse to engage then you simply lose the game).”
• Our Love Affair With Colonialism [Story Board Gamer]
“Indeed, one of the general compliments given to historical games is some kind of call to authenticity. Games get praised for ‘not shirking away from historical ugliness’ or a variation of this theme. These accolades are meant to celebrate our ability as a mature audience to contemplate, engage, and appreciate historical vulgarities. When we talk about history it is important it as the constant work of many subjects. Some seek to propagandise, proselytise, and otherwise myth-make a given sequence of events. There is always some level of authorial intent writing history. Nostalgia is a particular way of romanticising the past, of casting events once gleaned through a rather generous light or otherwise telling a very particular side of a narrative. Historical approaches reveal their intend when they pick stories that give agency to the people of the majority, of people who are nominally powerful.”
• A 1940s Board Game for French Kids Taught Tactics for Successful Colonialism [Slate]
“Published in 1941, this “Trading Game: France—Colonies” aimed to teach French children the basics of colonial management. Players drew cards corresponding to colony names, then had to deploy cards representing assets like boats, engineers, colonists, schools, and equipment, in order to win cards representing the exports of the various colonies. “Images on the game,” Getty Research Institute curator Isotta Poggi writes in her blog post on the document, “provide a vivid picture of the vast variety of resources, including animals, plants, and minerals, that the colonies provided to France.” Cartoons on the cards depict coal (mined by a figure clearly intended to be a “native”), rubber, wood, and even wild animals. Along the way, players needed to avoid pitfalls like sickness, “laziness,” and intemperance (illustrated by a cartoon of a red-cheeked white man in khakis and a white hat, served by a “native” in “traditional” dress). Once the cards representing a colony’s major exports had been won, the colony was considered “exploitée,” and was out of the game.”
• Spirit Island: Finally, an anti-colonialist board game [Ars Technica]
“A side effect of Euro-style board games’ preoccupation with European history as a theme is that many such games hinge on colonialism. Most board games are not “pro-colonialist,” of course, but simulating a long history of European imperialism necessarily means that a lot of us sit around on game nights trying to figure out the most efficient way to exploit the resources (and sometimes, uncomfortably, the people) of a newly “discovered” land. Spirit Island, a cooperative strategy game for one to four players, flips this well-worn script on its head. Instead of playing as settlers building out villages and roads in a new land, you and your friends take on the role of god-like elemental spirits charged with protecting the island's various landscapes from those pesky invaders, who are controlled by the game itself. It’s kind of like a complex, wildly asymmetric Pandemic—but here, people are the disease. The island's natives are there to help you fight back when they can, but it's mostly up to you and your teammates to destroy the settlers' fledgling cities, remove the blight they introduce as they ravage your pristine lands, and gain more and better powers to help you on your way. Gameplay is driven by cards, and as the game progresses, you'll get more and better powers and strike more and more fear into the invaders' hearts. Drive them off to win.”
posted by Fizz (61 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks for this. Still can’t believe that Civ 6 has a Triangular Trade civic that just gives you a cash + faith boost. And no downsides if I remember right?
posted by johngoren at 5:39 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


Civ 6 has a Triangular Trade civic that just gives you a cash + faith boost. And no downsides if I remember right?

+4 Gold and +1 Faith from all Trade Routes.

*sighs*.
posted by Fizz at 5:42 AM on April 15 [10 favorites]


All true but if it wasn't for Civ 2 I would be writing a different dissertation.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:51 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


Oh yes. There are *so* many examples through gaming history (SPI's Conquistador, for example, where the only way to deal with native populations is to kill them).

It's a lot harder to think of counter-examples. One might be the tabletop roleplaying game Dog Eat Dog (link goes to an example of play), that encounters colonialism head on by subverting a lot of conventional RPG design.
posted by Mogur at 5:51 AM on April 15 [8 favorites]


Spirit Island, a cooperative strategy game for one to four players, flips this well-worn script on its head. Instead of playing as settlers building out villages and roads in a new land, you and your friends take on the role of god-like elemental spirits charged with protecting the island's various landscapes from those pesky invaders, who are controlled by the game itself. It’s kind of like a complex, wildly asymmetric Pandemic—but here, people are the disease. The island's natives are there to help you fight back when they can, but it's mostly up to you and your teammates to destroy the settlers' fledgling cities, remove the blight they introduce as they ravage your pristine lands, and gain more and better powers to help you on your way. Gameplay is driven by cards, and as the game progresses, you'll get more and better powers and strike more and more fear into the invaders' hearts. Drive them off to win.

Many point out that while this is certainly an improvement, it still takes agency away from the indigenous people. They can't do anything, only the gods can, and in the current board game hobby, those gods are likely to be white and male (not as depicted in the game, but the actual people playing as gods). The indigenous peoples are still relatively helpless victims. Many of the god powers will destroy natives as well, and the well-being of the natives has very little effect on the abilities of the gods.

It's a good game, though, and definitely a nice alternative. One interesting design choice is that the pieces that correspond to natives and gods are cardboard and wood; all the intruder pieces are plastic.
posted by Legomancer at 5:53 AM on April 15 [25 favorites]


As a long-time boardgamer and sometimes designer/publisher, this is a topic that I have a lot of feelings about.

Put simply: yes, we (the boardgame community) have a colonialism problem, as well as a problem with theme in general. It's absurdly common for designers to choose themes because they like the aesthetics without even remotely considering the implications -- for example, there's a kinda creepy amount of Orientalist theming in games (usually with white european designers) that rides that line of: yes, this game is portraying this culture in a positive light, but also stereotyping it quite a bit and also this is clearly a white guy's idea of this culture, not the ideas of the culture from someone living in it.

I'm not shocked that BGG is full of threads of angry people about this. The average BGG user is a 40+ straight white dude who is convinced that anyone who brings up the slightest concern about these sorts of things isn't a real gamer and is just trying to destroy his hobby with "politics". This is a site that has only barely acknowledged that creepshots down the shirts of women playing games is maybe a bad look for their "trending images" feature, even though (afaik) that hasn't stopped it from happening repeatedly. BGG lucked into becoming the nexus for boardgames and has held that first-mover advantage for years, but has historically not well served those not white, straight, and male.

So anyways: I'm glad that this is being talked about, and I hope it can change things, even slightly. I fear, though, that any progress is going to be of the "dragged kicking and screaming" variety, and I have already for years seen the same "anti-SJW" people in boardgaming as you find in videogames. It's not going to be a quick or easy fight.
posted by tocts at 6:01 AM on April 15 [44 favorites]


The average BGG user is a 40+ straight white dude who is convinced that anyone who brings up the slightest concern about these sorts of things isn't a real gamer and is just trying to destroy his hobby with "politics".

tocts, thanks for your comment.

I was actually going to comment that this issue with Colonial themed games could be resolved if there was a bit more diversity in the tabletop/gaming community. Like so much of everything else in society, having people of diversity, people of colour, queer & trans people, this gives them a space and a voice to be heard and then these types of decisions would be either scrapped from the get go or handled with more sensitivity.
posted by Fizz at 6:05 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


I'm just amazed that anyone with a working knowledge of history could have thought this would be acceptable. The Belgian Congo under King Leopold was in some ways the precursor to the Holocaust, as were other colonial atrocities.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:06 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


Your periodic reminder that the board game Red Dragon Inn is racist as fuck
posted by duffell at 6:09 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


I'm just amazed that anyone with a working knowledge of history could have thought this would be acceptable.

I mean, it's easy to enjoy a light fantasy about parts of history which included horrible atrocities when you're part of a group that historically has been insulated from (and often the perpetrators of) such atrocities.

Fizz's comment is spot-on: more than anything, this is a problem rooted in a lack of diversity in gamers, game designers, and publishers. Shit like this gets greenlit because there's literally nobody in the room who might think, "wait, this seems pretty problematic ...".
posted by tocts at 6:12 AM on April 15 [8 favorites]


IIRC Sid Meier wanted to explicitly include slave labor in the original DOS Colonization, but Microprose thought it was a bad idea.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:30 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


I couldn't play Puerto Rico, but I've always imagined that Settlers of Catan took place on an uninhabited island, like Iceland or the Falklands.
posted by jb at 6:31 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


One of the recent episodes of the Ludology podcast took this issue on, with interviews with two people from the MIT Game Lab who have been studying colonial themes in gaming and running game design workshops with colonized populations. My two takeaways were:

- This is one area where boardgames are actually much worse than video games. Sure, there are lots of video games that cast the player as a colonialist in one way or another, but they don't completely dominate the space the way they do in boardgames. And there are also lots of video games that either cast the player as one of the colonized, or otherwise give the colonized agency (though they often have their own separate issues with portrayal of colonized peoples), while even board games that explicitly try to be anti-colonialist (like Spirit Island) often cast native populations as resources to be husbanded more than actors in their own right. Ironically, the one branch of boardgaming that does somewhat consistently grant native peoples agency is wargaming.

- Some of the games that came out of those game workshops sound awesome, and I'd love to get a chance to play them.
posted by firechicago at 6:36 AM on April 15 [7 favorites]


People love base-building games because they allow you to compete with other players in how good of a resource manager they are. In addition, there's something attractive about pre-twentieth century resources: sheep, goats, and lumber instead of stocks, t-bills, and network know-how.

Although some games (like Settlers of Catan) can be played on uninhabited islands, most consider a growing population to be a resource and of itself.

While having a game where the players are trying to manage a rebellion to throw off colonial occupation would be a fun thing, it still would be a cooperative game instead of a competitive game. Can there be a competitive resource management game that doesn't play as either incredibly cynical or willfully naive about human exploitation?
posted by Lord Chancellor at 6:37 AM on April 15


Can there be a competitive resource management game that doesn't play as either incredibly cynical or willfully naive about human exploitation?

Not if it this resource management stems from a capitalist/consumer model.
posted by Fizz at 6:39 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]


Avalon Hill's Schwarzkommando probably sells for quite a lot on eBay
posted by thelonius at 6:41 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


jb, according to the rule book, in Puerto Rico, the brown pieces you bring to your plantations on a large ship are colonists. No worries!
Ugh.
posted by xedrik at 6:42 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


I've always imagined that Settlers of Catan took place on an uninhabited island, like Iceland or the Falklands.

It's a nice thought, but Catan does start with one nomadic force on the board that isn't part of the colonizing powers, who is specifically framed as antagonistic toward them. It's not hard to see the robber as a possible native population.

Also, Iceland was only uninhabited if you don't count the Irish monks, and the Norse settlers had a healthy business in importing their own slaves.
posted by firechicago at 6:43 AM on April 15 [8 favorites]


So, somehow in the early 80's a tactical boardgame called Jerusalem appeared in my house. The rules seemed dizzyingly complex to a pre-teen, but going through the pieces I came across a block of black counters, each marked with a skull and crossbones, and marked IRGN or STRN.

Now, I'm the son of an Israeli emigrant, and so I had a pretty clear idea of who I thought the "good" side was. But then I found myself staring at these units with the skull and crossbones, the ones fighting on the Zionist side. My ancestors had come to America in the 20th century after being kicked around Europe for hundreds of years; I had never felt like I really had to hold them accountable for slavery or the slaughter of indigenous peoples. It was my first "are we the baddies" moment, and it shook me.

So thank you to that game designer for not sugarcoating those counters. These are killers; they attacked and murdered noncombatants; they are on your side. How history is represented in games is important. You can have these things in your games and they can be a game mechanic that work to a player's advantage. But it also needs to be made clear what they are.
posted by phooky at 6:45 AM on April 15 [10 favorites]


Avalon Hill's Schwarzkommando probably sells for quite a lot on eBay.


@thelonius, could you elaborate a bit? I can't find a reference to this game anywhere, even on BGG. I thought I knew AH's full catalog.
posted by Mogur at 6:47 AM on April 15


It's a lot harder to think of counter-examples.
Guerrilla war games come to mind.
posted by doctornemo at 6:48 AM on April 15




I'm also thinking of the Tropico game series which tries to make being a dictator tongue in cheek and/or humorous. I can see how they're trying to parody simulation/civlization building games but it still has a bit of a stink to it that doesn't feel good when you consider the actions you're making to build your society/community.
posted by Fizz at 6:50 AM on April 15 [2 favorites]


One board game that puts an interesting twist on this is Archipelago. You do the usual resource gathering, building, taxation, expansion stuff, but nearly every action that any player does might increase the rebellion track. If you squeeze too hard, you get a rebellion and the entire table loses. (Except the one player who might be stealth playing as the Separatist.) It's an interesting mechanic, but the way the rest of the game handles the native population is still kind of cringey.
posted by xedrik at 6:53 AM on April 15


Not if it this resource management stems from a capitalist/consumer model.

There is no ethical board-gaming under capitalism.
posted by BrashTech at 6:57 AM on April 15 [19 favorites]


*I should note the Tropico game is a (video game). But still relevant to this conversation.
posted by Fizz at 6:58 AM on April 15


There are a few really intriguing pieces about Toronto-based artist and tabletop gamer Golboo Amani, and her quest to hack Catan to bring some of these questions about colonialism, capitalism, competition vs. cooperation, and vast resource extraction to the forefront. Unfortunately, I can't seem to find a purchasable or downloadable playset for the expansion she created.
posted by duffell at 7:05 AM on April 15 [4 favorites]


Again a videogame rather than a boardgame, but I've been very uncomfortable with the recent Murkmire dlc for Elder Scrolls Online, in which the "good guys" are the newly arrived Imperial expedition cataloguing and removing Argonian relics and antiquities from ruined temples in the region. The dialog contains several incidents where Argonians living in the area take pains to explain to the player that they're happy for the Imperials to take relics for museums and private collections because they see no value in dwelling on their own history and if the Imperials want useless old pottery then they're welcome to have it. The leader of Cyrodiilic Collections is so very enthusiastic about Argonian culture and clearly loves her subject, but you can't help wondering that if she loves it so much, why is she so bent on stealing it?
posted by talitha_kumi at 7:17 AM on April 15 [9 favorites]


As a long time boardgamer and a regular visitor/nuisance on BGG (same username) my perpetual gripe is that so few games present the world outside of North America and Europe as even existing in the 20th century. I made this geeklist to talk about games clearly set in the present day in other countries and got 20 entries, some of them iffy. It's out of date, but even if the number were doubled, that's out of hundreds of games released each year.

For board games, Africa exists solely as a colonial playground OR natives worshiping juju OR wild animals. The Middle East -- home of oil, insane wealth, rocketing urbanizations -- is forever loading spices on to camels. Even nerd-friendly Japan almost solely exists as a staging ground for samurai and ninjas.

There are three arguments defending this: First, you can only design about what you know, and if designers don't live in other countries then they can't design games set there. This is valid because it's impossible to discover information about other real countries on Earth, yet researching Cthulhu or Middle-Earth is easily facilitated.

Second, the idea that if you set something in, say, modern-day Mombasa, it will alienate anyone except people who live in Mombasa. This is why only ancient space wizards play Star Wars games.

Third, and this is the most nefarious, if an American designer sets a game in modern day India, they'll get accused of "appropriation" (their scare quotes, not mine) so the designer [i]can't win[/i], even though there are so many ways to avoid this accusation.

As others have said, the way through this is to raise up alternatives, for both games and designers. I'm really tired of the same old junk and my current gaming habits try to avoid it when I can.
posted by Legomancer at 7:20 AM on April 15 [16 favorites]


This is why I just play Munchkin.
posted by JamesBay at 7:22 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Wargames, if approached thoughtfully, offer insight into history. You're faced with hard problems and limited resources. And a lot of guys on your side of the table are going to have to die to achieve victory. Movies may glorify conflict, but wargames, good ones, pull away the veil from the choices you have to make. Thankfully, no cardboard widows or orphans, but how many times I have cheered for the survival of one single unit that stood up against the dice and lived to tell the tale?
posted by SPrintF at 7:26 AM on April 15 [7 favorites]


I've played boardgames since the '70s when (in my circle at least) "strategy game" was synonymous with "war game." Things have changed but definitely it's a hobby that's avoided a lot of discussions by being niche. Haven't read the other article but the lead article was good.

Puerto Rico is so abstract that while I don't like the theme I feel I can mentally be like, "my workers are well paid and unionized as I build my socialist utopia" because the mechanic for running that kind of setup would be exactly the same. I'd prefer the game just have different flavor completely.

One board game that puts an interesting twist on this is Archipelago. You do the usual resource gathering, building, taxation, expansion stuff, but nearly every action that any player does might increase the rebellion track. If you squeeze too hard, you get a rebellion and the entire table loses. (Except the one player who might be stealth playing as the Separatist.) It's an interesting mechanic

For me personally this approach makes things worse--the mechanics specify you are foreigners exploiting the population.
posted by mark k at 7:28 AM on April 15


Oddly, classic Risk might have one of the better colonial themings because it has almost no theming. Each faction is symetrical, and there's no real value judgement to the continents other than what they border and how many units they produce. Of course there's still the overarching theme of world domination, but at least in Risk you can turn the tables a bit.

A common piece of hardcore tabletop gamer identity is that themes don't matter. There's even derogatory words for games that prioritize theme over mechanics (like Ameritrash), versus the detached efficiency of a 'Euro'. However it's clear from the production of this sector and the backlash to critique that themes do matter. Hardcore gamers pretend to love efficiency and detached concepts of mechanics, but they still prefer games that place them into historic power fantasies of oppression.
posted by codacorolla at 7:31 AM on April 15 [8 favorites]


Wargames, if approached thoughtfully, offer insight into history. You're faced with hard problems and limited resources. And a lot of guys on your side of the table are going to have to die to achieve victory. Movies may glorify conflict, but wargames, good ones, pull away the veil from the choices you have to make. Thankfully, no cardboard widows or orphans, but how many times I have cheered for the survival of one single unit that stood up against the dice and lived to tell the tale?

Except for the idea that "history" solely equals "war". Wargames, in my opinion, by definition, glorify war.
posted by Legomancer at 7:44 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


A common piece of hardcore tabletop gamer identity is that themes don't matter.

Which holds fast until the theme is, say, "fashion design", at which point these same detached gamers "just can't get into it" for some reason.
posted by Legomancer at 7:45 AM on April 15 [31 favorites]


A recent example of "how the fuck did this get made": Blockade Runner, a 2010 game in which "players take on the roles of [traitorous pro-slavery war profiteers] attempting to make the most money by shipping cargo in and out of the South during the American Civil War" (i.e. by evading the Anaconda Plan blockade).
posted by jedicus at 7:56 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


It's a lot harder to think of counter-examples.

This is a TTRPG - not really a board game, but there's a variation of the quiet year called The Deep Forest, which is explicitly about themes of decolonization and reclaiming identity. I've played it, I highly recommend it, and it's also available for free.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:56 AM on April 15 [7 favorites]


Which holds fast until the theme is, say, "fashion design", at which point these same detached gamers "just can't get into it" for some reason.

Prêt-à-Porter is a fairly successful game based on fashion design, or at least the business of fashion design, now in its third edition.
posted by jedicus at 8:02 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


There was a small kerfuffle locally when someone released a game called Manitoba. It doesn't do the colonization thing, because players are playing as "Cree Indians" according to the rules. But then they used a bit of a mish-mash of native stereotypes, rather than something really informed by the Cree.

But it was a chance for Manitobans to really appreciate how this is kind of standard practice, like they probably never consulted with Puerto Ricans when making Puerto Rico. Or with Filipinos when making Manilla.
posted by RobotHero at 8:12 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]


Somehow, growing up playing World War 2-themed games like Axis and Allies, I was able to mentally separate the ‘gameplay’ challenge of, say, leading the Nazis to victory from the moral horror that such a victory would certainly have entailed in real life. When I graduated to more detailed/realistic wargames like Squad Leader, I never really gave much thought to the moral aspect of simulating, for my enjoyment, a battle between (say) Nazis and Soviets that in real life would have entailed war crimes by both sides.

Then, about 15 years ago at the Origins game convention, I was playing in an Advanced Squad Leader (a WW2 squad-level wargame) tournament and found myself assigned to play the “Mila 18” historical scenario. In that scenario, one player controls Nazi SS forces trying to root out armed Jewish resistors in the Warsaw Ghetto (who are controlled by the other player). As the German player, I was directing the execution of a war crime. Playing at such a specific level of detail made it impossible to avoid the moral question; since that one game, I’ve been unable to avoid a certain queasiness about all of these WW2 games I love.

I’m still not sure if “Mila 18” is the worst possible idea for a scenario, or if it’s the only truly great scenario specifically because it didn’t let me separate the game from the events it modeled.
posted by Byzantine at 8:25 AM on April 15 [11 favorites]


Which holds fast until the theme is, say, "fashion design", at which point these same detached gamers "just can't get into it" for some reason.

Prêt-à-Porter is a fairly successful game based on fashion design, or at least the business of fashion design, now in its third edition.


In the time it took to type a recommendation for a game from 2011 that is not actually in print anymore, six games that let you manage the exploitation of resources in thinly veiled "fantasy" settings went live on Kickstarter.
posted by Etrigan at 8:37 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


In the time it took to type a recommendation for a game from 2011 that is not actually in print anymore, six games that let you manage the exploitation of resources in thinly veiled "fantasy" settings went live on Kickstarter.

Your point is well taken, although the publishers of Prêt-à-Porter are preparing a Kickstarter for a reprinting of the third edition this year. But yes, it's a drop in the ocean.
posted by jedicus at 9:14 AM on April 15 [1 favorite]


jb, according to the rule book, in Puerto Rico, the brown pieces you bring to your plantations on a large ship are colonists. No worries!

I know that's the fig-leaf, but I was introduced to the game just about the time when I had been doing a lot of reading on colonial history, and could never see the Triangle Trade for anything but slavery. I don't remember exactly when it was, all I remember is that a friend pulled out the game (knowing that I love resource-building games) - and I said, "I just can't, it's too ... slavery-ful." It really affected me emotionally.

I've been happy with other resource-building games, like Settlers, Carcassone, Stone Age, Seven Wonders - and I can recognize how Euro-centric the designs of many of these games are, but at least they are not colonial.

Weird note: the iOS app version of Stone Age is weirdly sexist in its character design, which makes it also (unintentionally) gay-inclusive: all of your tribespeople are explicitly male (with beards) - which means that when you send two into the "mating hut" to make more tribespeople, you are sending two men to go have children. They could have solved this by using more abstract, agender figures (which are also part of the game design in the splash screen) but ... /shrugs
posted by jb at 9:34 AM on April 15 [3 favorites]


Even nerd-friendly Japan almost solely exists as a staging ground for samurai and ninjas.

Or pandas! (A gift from the Emperor of China.)

Maybe this game is orientalist. But it's also so very adorable.
posted by jb at 9:41 AM on April 15


Can there be a competitive resource management game that doesn't play as either incredibly cynical or willfully naive about human exploitation?

Archipelago comes pretty close to what you're describing: you can employ the native population as workers so you can extract resources and make money, but at the same time all of the players collectively have to be careful not to piss them off too much or they will rise up and kill everybody and the game becomes a collective loss for everyone. (Unless, of course, the secret goal you were assigned at the beginning of the game was "native rights activist," in which case you win.)

It's an interesting design with a lot of neat tweaks and manages, I think, to put the tensions of colonialism into gameplay without being exploitative or naive.
posted by mightygodking at 9:44 AM on April 15


Third, and this is the most nefarious, if an American designer sets a game in modern day India, they'll get accused of "appropriation" (their scare quotes, not mine) so the designer [i]can't win[/i], even though there are so many ways to avoid this accusation.

Not intending anything but a minor point here, but: we shouldn't assume this is just an American thing. For example, Five Tribes, which was rightfully called out for having slaves as a resource you gather and then literally sacrifice to a Djinn, was designed by a prolific French designer and published by Days of Wonder, a subsidiary of the French games publishing powerhouse Asmodee.

This is not to discount the overreaction about how the PC police will come get designers if they use certain themes, but simply to say that it's an industry-wide problem that has contributions from the US, UK, France, Germany, and basically anywhere games are designed and published.
posted by tocts at 9:51 AM on April 15 [5 favorites]


I personally spent a lot of time with Iraq War Veterans playing GMT games' COIN series title 'A Distant Plain'. These are highly complex and highly politically incorrect games which guide the player into a deeper understanding of how modern proxy warfare works.

This is all rather amusing in that context - these are games for educated adults who understand what the pieces represent.
posted by mit5urugi at 10:26 AM on April 15


Not intending anything but a minor point here, but: we shouldn't assume this is just an American thing. For example, Five Tribes, which was rightfully called out for having slaves as a resource you gather and then literally sacrifice to a Djinn, was designed by a prolific French designer and published by Days of Wonder, a subsidiary of the French games publishing powerhouse Asmodee.

This is not to discount the overreaction about how the PC police will come get designers if they use certain themes, but simply to say that it's an industry-wide problem that has contributions from the US, UK, France, Germany, and basically anywhere games are designed and published.


I used "American" when I should have said "Non-Indian". You are correct, though. It seems that the European designers are even more resistant to recognize that these themes are a problem.
posted by Legomancer at 11:33 AM on April 15


This is hardly just a euro problem. Fantasy Flight has made a whole industry out of H.P. Lovecraft games that take his racist ideologies wholesale into the theming and design. I played a session of Arkham Horror recently where there were three different events referencing bargaining with 'gypsies'. It's not like they're directly mapping to the stories any more (only very broadly, anyway) - their writers and designers could easily either not use the blatantly racist pieces of The Mythos or even critique it if they wanted to. It doesn't seem that they want to.
posted by codacorolla at 12:05 PM on April 15 [6 favorites]


And so, the conditioning is reinforced, to be later put into practice in the field, so to speak, in Africa or hte middle east.
posted by hugbucket at 12:13 PM on April 15


When this came up, my comment on Twitter was that the insistence on themes of colonization and exploitation is so strong, and these themes come up so often, that someone with a more suspicious mind, certainly not me, might wonder if it's intentional.

(Sorry to spam the discussion, but this is one of my peeves, as stated before.)
posted by Legomancer at 12:24 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


That's a shitty game, and the people who are defending it are shitty people.

How do people keep trotting out the "you're erasing history!" argument with a straight face? No, dumbass – we're asking you to acknowledge history. If you can only understand the history of colonialism by role-playing as the colonizers, maybe the problem is with you.

One of my favorite video games as a kid was Seven Cities of Gold for the Commodore 64. You played as a Columbus-esque European explorer, sailing west with a fleet of ships to discover the New World. There were villages full of indigenous peoples, and you could choose to acquire their gold by either trading with them or slaughtering them. (Your King back in Europe would scold you if you slaughtered them, so...that's progressive, I guess?)

The natives were all black-skinned – not "black" as in "brown", but as in "jet black", which is an odd design choice. (The C64 only had 16 colors, but it definitely had less puzzling and eyebrow-raising options for Native American skin tones.)

The same publisher (Electronic Arts) released a similar game called Heart of Africa the next year – which I never played, but I assume that it's...not great.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:48 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


(I meant to say that, once I got older, I remember that once-beloved game and thought "whoa, that was actually kind of fucked up". But I suppose that's obvious from context.)
posted by escape from the potato planet at 3:53 PM on April 15


I made this geeklist to talk about games clearly set in the present day in other countries and got 20 entries, some of them iffy.

Can I just say that the most depressing thing about this list is that I thought to myself, "I wonder if they accounted for [insert the only 2 or 3 games I could come up with]" and of course you did, because it's a barren wasteland as far as representation of non-US/non-EU modern day themed games. There's so many places that, if you went by boardgame representation, are apparently only as real as Middle Earth, despite the fact that they still exist and are modern, vibrant cities.
posted by tocts at 3:59 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


Someone said fashion design and if you haven't played it yet, Rococo is fantastic.
posted by xedrik at 5:05 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


This is something I deal with regularly as my DH and I own a board game store. There's reasons why we don't have Puerto Rico, or stock things with obvious colonial or appropriative themes. In particular, European designers seem to have missed the memo that colonialist themes are not cool to the kids these days and keep producing things like Raiatea.(Is it just racist or also appropriative?)
When a game does come out that bucks the colonialist/racist themes of the past it's usually immensely popular, to the point of stock outs and eBay copies going for twice MSRP (Root and Wingspan come to mind). Who would have guessed that one of the hardest games to get ahold of last Christmas would about building your own railroad (Railroad Ink)?
Like in the rest of the games industry, it just takes applying some thought to whether the theme is necessary or not. If it's necessary, why? Most of these games don't need to be placed in pre-colonial French Polynesia or Persia or Japan, it's just lazy thinking.
posted by fiercekitten at 5:44 PM on April 15 [7 favorites]


Most of these games don't need to be placed in pre-colonial French Polynesia or Persia or Japan, it's just lazy thinking.

The laziest part of how this often goes is that even if they try to stand out, publishers can't seem to stray very far from their initial instincts.

Five Tribes (mentioned earlier) shows this off very well. When it was designed, the game had no theme or a totally different theme (it was a little unclear at the time), but prior to publication they decided that 1,001 Arabian Nights would help it stand out. So, they pasted the theme on, and started assigning in-theme nouns to various assets you can gain in-game ... which is how they ended up with a game where players could sacrifice slaves for benefits.

Even when they realized that if only for marketing maybe doing something different would be good, the farthest distance they could put between themselves and the mass of generic Medieval Stuff was generic and unthinking Old Middle East Stuff.
posted by tocts at 5:59 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


Not even abstracts or single deck card games are safe from bizarre thematic decisions: Tichu has bizarrely racist instructions and face cards with yellow toned caricatures, with 4 suits corresponding to various stereotypes... A Chinese theming is understandable given that it's clearly derived from classic Chinese climbing games but it could have been handled tastefully. (And it is handled much better in countries where the original publisher licensed the design to different printers.)

Tatsu or Kamisado are two more abstracts with "oriental" themes for some unknown reason.
posted by Anonymous Function at 6:28 PM on April 15 [3 favorites]


I played Sid Meier's Colonisation a bunch of times as a kid, and even then I could see how much the interaction with Native Americans sucked. No matter how you play (short of committing suicide) the best outcome you get is that they eventually give up and give you their land.

It would have been a far more interesting game if they could have developed alongside you and eventually, I don't know, joined forces (with you or against you) to create a Soviet of All Americans and fight off the hated Europeans together.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:56 PM on April 15 [1 favorite]


> Even nerd-friendly Japan almost solely exists as a staging ground for samurai and ninjas.

You may be interested in Jordan Draper's Tokyo Series of board games. Three have been manufactured, three are in production, and six more are planned over the next few years. They're based on modern-day Japan with themes like the metro, fish markets, vending machines...
posted by reductiondesign at 9:12 PM on April 15 [2 favorites]


Still feels kind of weirdly orientalist, though, right? Although I guess there's a nonzero possibility that he's actually lived in Japan for some length of time, though usually what that does is make people want to avoid using Japan as a theme/setting, heh.
posted by DoctorFedora at 11:20 PM on April 15


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