Double victory points for every indigenous village you enslave
July 24, 2021 3:37 AM   Subscribe

The Board Games That Ask You to Reenact Colonialism. A newish wave of sophisticated, adult board games have made exploitation part of their game mechanics. A reckoning is coming. "Puerto Rico is the only game I ever turned down even a single trial play of, because of a literal curl of my lip in distaste as I was being taught the game."
posted by Major Clanger (121 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 


Previouslier

This is a problem that is really built into the modern board games hobby's DNA. It is great to see so many designers starting to think critically about this stuff, but it's going to take an enormous amount of work and a lot of time to actually have a non-colonialist board game industry. And even the designers who are working on this are not going to be perfect. Reuss's Spirit Island, one of the few games the article mentions as being specifically anti-colonialist, still frames native people as a mostly inert resource for the players to manipulate in a way that makes tons of sense from a game design standpoint (it makes sense to want to place agency in the players' hands, and adding a third actor between the players and invaders would probably tip an already complex game over into unplayability) but is really iffy from a perspective of trying to frame what an anti-colonialist board game ought to try to achieve.
posted by firechicago at 4:12 AM on July 24 [11 favorites]


See also: the many, many 18xx railroad builder games that studiously ignore Native Americans and the use of slave labor. Spend money, build track, no harm done!
posted by FallibleHuman at 4:17 AM on July 24 [11 favorites]


I’m glad they mentioned Spirit Island. You play as the spirits (think menehunae from Hawaii) and work cooperatively to scare the hell out of the island invaders (think captain cook) until they leave. I would not say they are inert resources. They definitely take a very active role. Thoroughly satisfying.
posted by HoopsMcCann at 4:29 AM on July 24 [11 favorites]


It’s about video games, but this Cyanide & Happiness strip comes to mind.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:52 AM on July 24 [31 favorites]


The resources in Settlers of Catan are famously wheat, wood, sheep, clay, and stone - no enslaved people. But there's this funny thing I discovered when fiddling with the pieces. If you take four of the city pieces and put them together at 90 degree angles, the little triangular protrusions fit together and the rest of the shape makes a perfect swastika. It seemed an odd design element in a German game.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:59 AM on July 24 [4 favorites]


This is a really necessary conversation for the board game industry to have. I know some designers that try to step around the politics by using fantasy or sci fi themes... but that only gives them plausible deniability. Space colonialism is still colonialism, endemic goblin hordes are still indigenous, etc.

Many board games use island themes, and this article is an interesting take on why: "Looking at three explicitly island-themed board games (Taluva, Vanuatu, and Spirit Island), I explore the extent to which these games reiterate or contest discourses of islands as sites of ahistorical insularity and alterity. I investigate the presence and absence of islanders in these fictional landscapes, the relationship between these ludic cartographies and imaginaries of ecological collapse and environmental intervention, and the articulations of nature, humanity, and empire that are literally at play."
posted by Paragon at 5:06 AM on July 24 [6 favorites]


Catan has removed the "settlers of" from the name of the game. It's still very much a game of using resources to "develop" land, but I think it's a good thing to try to de-link it from colonialism. But it shows how deep the concepts of colonization run in the DNA of modern board game design. (You can make a swastika from any 4 L-shaped figures, I don't think it's fair to suggest that the designer is some sort of crypto-Nazi based on the shape of the meeples.)
posted by rikschell at 5:06 AM on July 24 [42 favorites]


I am very glad this conversation is starting to happen. Puerto Rico is one of my favourite games, but the theme is off putting to say the least. Its absolutely right to consider theme a bit more and engage more with the history.

That said, game theme is necessarily an abstraction. While its true to say that games do convey something in their design, for me its typically enjoyment in the mechanics of the game.

For me this broadens into conversations about play and pretend in general. When I play a video game or a roleplaying game that calls on me to utterly annihilate hundreds of people, I am engaging with that not for the joy of death,but the joy of the game. Same with a board game with questionable theme: as the article mentions, I soon forget the theme in playing and engage with the excellent mechanics.

This isnt to say that we cant be more thoughtful in creation, we absolutely can, and should be
posted by Cannon Fodder at 5:08 AM on July 24 [6 favorites]


Judging by the number of 4X video games there are, I'd say the problem is far deeper than just board games. Remember what the Xs stand for: Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate. Depending on the game, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, the "exploit" could be considered simple resources, and the "exterminate" could mean an opposing army trying to do the same thing you are, but still, the end game in both cases is a resourceless map dotted with military bases.

It is a shame about Puerto Rico, because the design is near-universally admired, and it's one of my favorite games in that respect. And success in it is often not about expanding as far as you can, but in manipulating the game's systems in order to negate the advantages of the other players--although that might be considered ruthlessly capitalist in a different way.

To put on my designer's hat (it's dusty and threadbare but I still got it), I'd say the root of the problem is in the elemental nature of colonialist gaming. Games are ultimately about enjoying interacting and understanding an abstract system, but how accessible they are depends on how easily the player can relate that to something they can easily grasp, and colonialist structures are one thing that, sadly, a lot of people seem to understand intuitively, making them a powerful hook.

But it needn't be the only one! Other paradigms in games off the top of my head are farming (Bohnanza), subsistence farming (Agricola) and friendly competition between players (Elfenland). I imagine someone could put together an thematically interesting co-op game where the players assume the role of natives work together to thwart the onslaught of an invading colonizer, in an Arkham Horror kind of way.
posted by JHarris at 5:10 AM on July 24 [20 favorites]


When I play a video game or a roleplaying game that calls on me to utterly annihilate hundreds of people, I am engaging with that not for the joy of death,but the joy of the game.

posted by Cannon Fodder

eponysterical!
posted by automatronic at 5:21 AM on July 24 [14 favorites]


JHarris, you make a great point there. I'm much more likely to pick up a game that has some kind of narrative theme than something abstract, even though I love a lot of abstract games (Splendor, Azul, The Game, etc.). I just find myself wanting to play a game I can put myself into the story of, and a lot of designers really cater to that. But it means bringing in all the problematic cultural baggage of our shared narratives (especially the ones involving competition).
posted by rikschell at 5:31 AM on July 24


It would be laughably easy to remake Puerto Rico with a space-faring sci-fi aesthetic. This isn't to say that board games should avoid problematic historical themes, but how those themes are approached matters. For example, I would love to see a co-op underground railroad game where the goal is to help as many slaves as possible escape.
posted by Groundhog Week at 6:02 AM on July 24 [8 favorites]


(This is something that's always bugged me about the Civilization games. In the early game, the map is populated by "barbarians" – non-player units that spawn in the wilderness, which harass player civilizations. The only sensible gameplay move is to exterminate them, which rewards you with gold and other benefits. By the mid-game, they've usually been wiped out.)

I'm imagining board game night with a group of my peers, when someone breaks out "Puerto Rico".

And I'm imagining what the reaction would be if someone voiced the (very real and valid) concerns described in this article. I suspect that many of those (liberal and well meaning) people would be taken aback.

Everyone knows, in a vague and general sense, that colonialism was A Bad Thing. But I don't think it's widely appreciated that Europe basically exported pain and injustice to the rest of the globe for centuries. And that the world's current political and economic order is a direct product of that conquest.

We in "the West" are heirs to a legacy of atrocity. And it's been surgically excised from our collective memory (and from our textbooks). Because those who benefit from the current order would prefer us to simply accept it as "how things are" – without thinking too much about how they came to be that way.

And we've been too happy to oblige. Out of sight, out of mind.

(Not that's it's a calculated conspiracy, of course. It's just that societies have an uncanny ability to forget things which threaten their material well-being, or their image of themselves.)

To the extent that there is a general awareness of this history, it's very selective. Here in the United States, we've managed to remember chattel slavery (despite the best efforts of those who would prefer to forget it). And most people would immediately understand that a board game which casts you in the role of a 19th-century plantation owner would be disgusting. To a lesser extent, there seems to be a growing awareness of the atrocities that have been perpetrated against indigenous nations in the Americas. Other countries may (or may not) remember shameful episodes from their own history.

But I don't think the average person on the street has connected the dots between these isolated instances. Just as people have started to realize that many of the problems in their lives are part of a larger phenomenon called "capitalism", we need to get to a point where people realize that many of the upsetting things in the world are part of a larger phenomenon called "colonialism".

We need to get to a point where people automatically know why a game like "Puerto Rico" is in poor taste – because they've been exposed to the history, and because they're capable of empathizing with colonized peoples as living, breathing human beings with their own agenda (not as anthropological drawings in old books). Because they know that the current global order isn't just "how things are" – it's a world that was made by colonialism, in which "the West" continues to export pain even today.

That is, I'm afraid, a tall order (at least here in the US, which is the only country that I have a direct perspective on). So long as the colonizers write the public school curriculum, it's hard to imagine how it'll happen. Most people just aren't gonna educate themselves.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:03 AM on July 24 [35 favorites]


Judging by the number of 4X video games there are

Literally, when Civilization VI DLC for Australia released, I went, wow this is super cool.

Until I started the game, I was John Curtin (a white dude) and spent the first 50 turns hunting down and eradicating the "barbarian camps" on the continent of Australia until none remained and I could settle the rest of it in peace.
posted by xdvesper at 6:04 AM on July 24 [8 favorites]


But I don't think it's widely appreciated that Europe basically exported pain and injustice to the rest of the globe for centuries.

Oh, it's widely appreciated. Just not among white people.
posted by rikschell at 6:10 AM on July 24 [39 favorites]


I have just begun gaming and started with Minecraft. My mind defaults to referring to it as “Colonialism.” The framework is pervasive, and it bothers me that we teach it to children so early.
posted by Silvery Fish at 6:13 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


There's some irony in this genre being known as Eurogames with an implication of greater sophistication via abstraction of player conflict as resource control.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:28 AM on July 24 [6 favorites]


The fact that no one made a game called "Endlösung" about moving as many pieces from various locations along various routes to your base before they can be collected from the board shows that there is some awareness of this sort of thing (Endlösung being German for "final solution", this would be a simulation of reminding the Jews in Poland which could be done with some very interesting and abstracted rules, which each player reviving an income based on number of pieces collected, symbolizing wealth stolen from the Jews, etc.)

No one has been crude enough to create a game where the players enact the holocaust, with good reason. But it seems that most other genocides are fair game, as long as the player isn't doing so directly. (The more I think about it in terms of euro style rule, the more interesting the mechanics of rounding up groups, preventing dispersal, etc. could be, which is really disturbing.)

I'm video games, I played quite a bit and really enjoyed Anno 1800. It's a fiendishly complicated city builder, where you're bringing in goods to keep the upper classes happy from both the surrounding area and the New World. Where you grow sugar, cotton, and corn using happy workers. No mention of exploitation in either the industrial revolution in the old world or the slavery or near slavery necessary in the new in order to cheaply farm sugar and cotton. In fact your goal is to keep these industrial and farm workers happy by supplying them with various goods and services.

It's a brilliant game. But eventually, I couldn't ignore the issues it was overlooking or excusing. There's an African DLC that came out after I stopped playing that I've never touched. It involves setting up colonies of happy African workers to help supply goods and promote research. On the one hand, I like that all the interactive with Africans are non coercive, etc. On the other, it's ignoring the truly brutal history of European colonialism in Africa.

At least board games are coming to a realization that they need to work on their theming. Video games either ignore it completely or on the occasion they admit it happened, treat it as just another means of progressing (looking at you, Paradox).
posted by Hactar at 6:28 AM on July 24 [8 favorites]


I have just begun gaming and started with Minecraft. My mind defaults to referring to it as “Colonialism.”

Folding Ideas: Minecraft, Sandboxes, and Colonialism
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:30 AM on July 24 [7 favorites]


It would be laughably easy to remake Puerto Rico with a space-faring sci-fi aesthetic.

There kind of is: Race For The Galaxy was explicitly designed to be a card game variation of Puerto Rico. It wasn't released as such because Puerto Rico's designer, Andreas Seyfarth, was working on his own card game variation, called San Juan.

But anyway, these two settings are not equivalent. One of my favorite things about board games is when they have historical settings. Other media is full of fantasy and science fiction, but board games at least you can make a game about some situation in history. This goes so far as I actually kind of start out against a board game that wants to be just another generic dungeon exploration or space combat game.
posted by JHarris at 6:32 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]


But anyway, these two settings are not equivalent.

Or, alternatively, you are just setting the colonial action on another world. If the objection is the colonialist framing of the game itself, reskinning it doesn't fix the problem.

Psrt of the problem is that really elegant mechanics are seductive. I have played Puerto Rico a couple of times, and it is a very well designed game, which obscures, rather than reveals the horrors of slavery and exploitation that make up the history on which the game is founded. Fortunately, there are other worker placement games that are equally well-made but not anchored in so much misery (although, I suspect worker placement mechanics will always be in danger of sliding toward exploitation as a theme).

Wehrlegig Games has been trying to make games about colonialism that don't celebrate colonialism. Here's some of their design thoughts.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:49 AM on July 24 [11 favorites]


No one has been crude enough to create a game where the players enact the holocaust, with good reason.

There have been some educational attempts, ie Brenda Romero's famous Train. See also a scholarly article here about the difficulties.
posted by Mogur at 6:51 AM on July 24 [8 favorites]


The fact that no one made a game called "Endlösung" about moving as many pieces from various locations along various routes to your base before they can be collected from the board shows that there is some awareness of this sort of thing

This game has been made (albeit not under that name). (CW: genocide)

The difference, of course, between Train and most board games that depict historical events that involved atrocities is that Train has a specific didactic intent to make the players feel implicated in the atrocities, while most board games attempt to sweep them under the rug.
posted by firechicago at 6:52 AM on July 24 [8 favorites]


I'm imagining what the reaction would be if someone voiced the (very real and valid) concerns described in this article. I suspect that many of those (liberal and well meaning) people would be taken aback.
From first-hand experience, you will not be invited back for game night in the future, no matter how gently you phrase the concerns.
posted by twelve cent archie at 6:55 AM on July 24 [10 favorites]


In the video game Disco Elysium, there's a fictional board game called "Suzerainty" that pokes fun at this entire genre. Here's an example of what it looks like to play through it (spoilers, naturally).
posted by teraflop at 7:09 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]


There was actually a Nazi-era game called Juden Raus! in which players competed to send Jews "off to Palestine". It wasn't well-received by the SS, who thought the business of deporting Jews was too serious to serve as the subject of a game. I'm actually surprised there weren't other, more explicitly Nazi-themed games: every other bit of culture seems to have been Nazified.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:17 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]




I don't think it's fair to suggest that the designer is some sort of crypto-Nazi based on the shape of the meeples.)

How many editions have this? Will future ones be the same? If so, yes, I can blame them for that. I see hundreds of photos of this in Google image search. If not changed...well.
posted by tiny frying pan at 7:30 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Tetris is, of course, a well-known Nazi game, as evidenced by L-shaped pieces clearly meant to be put together into a swastika shape.

Ah, Metafilter.
posted by sagc at 7:41 AM on July 24 [38 favorites]


For example, I would love to see a co-op underground railroad game where the goal is to help as many slaves as possible escape.

Like this one?
posted by fFish at 7:53 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]


Tetris is, of course, a well-known Nazi game, as evidenced by L-shaped pieces clearly meant to be put together into a swastika shape. Ah, Metafilter.

I don't see anyone here honestly claiming games with abstract shapes promote Nazis, please read again, I'm pretty sure Joe in Australia wasn't being serious about the L shapes.
posted by JHarris at 8:08 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


both Joe and tiny frying pan, especially, read as serious.
posted by sagc at 8:11 AM on July 24 [7 favorites]


Except Tetris is obviously communist, having been first released domestically for the PocketComrade as Khruschev.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:15 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


If the starting state of many games is undeveloped land with barbarians, couldn’t a game be made that starts with overdeveloped land full of neocolonial interests? Then the game is to get rid of cruise ships and tear down chain hotels and restaurants, while restoring habitats before endemic wildlife and plant species go extinct, and providing sustainable employment for local people instead of it just being expats from Europe and North America extracting money from the island. I would play that.
posted by snofoam at 8:16 AM on July 24 [27 favorites]


To the extent we want to talk about CRPGs or 4X games, there have been attempts to subvert the genre. Pretty sure I read about them here. At least one of them was about Spanish colonization.

An essay on PoE 2 from last year:
Dungeon Pirates of the Postcolonial Seas. Domination, Necropolitics, Subsumption and Critical Play in Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire [M. Felczak in Game Studies]

In board games:

RPG Coyote and Crow’s indigenous-led design team has created a tabletop world beyond the colonised mindset
[Dicebreaker, March 2021]
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:21 AM on July 24 [8 favorites]


It's funny, when I play these games I spend 95% of the time engaged with the abstract game mechanics and strategies. I mostly ignore the skin, the story and art and stuff. But that's hardly any excuse and I appreciate being made to pay attention to how awful the story, etc of some of these games is. Also if I'm being honest I do enjoy all the trappings as a way to give the game a little context. As a shorthand to understanding the game mechanics, but also as a story-telling mechanism in my head. So that's an uncomfortable realization.

I know more about video games than board games so I can speak to that. I love the Civilization games. Again, mostly for their complexity and mechanics. But it's also fun playing a wacky re-enactment of history (Gandhi, he uses nukes!) and the moment you do that, of course you have to consider what these games are saying about history. I don't enjoy the abstracted clones nearly as much: Endless Legend is great but the fantasy story doesn't connect for me like the Civilization games do. Similarly half the fun of Crusader Kings (whew...) is the historical setting and the sci-fi variant Stellaris never grabbed me as much. Part of this is just embedding in real history is a shortcut to a richer story. Alpha Centauri did grab me despite being a sci-fi setting, but only because they put such effort into the rich backstory and it connected to space operas.

If you think Civilization is bad, Sid Meier's lesser known 1994 Colonization is terrible and the 2008 remake is really not any better. Some articles about that: Colonialism is fun?, Unpacking Ideology, Replaying Colonialism.

Some of these video games let you play as the victims of history. You can play the Aztecs and conquer the world in Civilization. You can spread the Caliphate across Europe in Crusader Kings, wiping out the Crusaders and their religion. The gameplay is often symmetric and equal, which is both nice in that it's possible and also weird in it avoids the reality of history. The Aztecs never had an equal chance. But what's most unsettling to me is when folks win this way they often brag about it, "look at this goofy thing I did!" It does not feel respectful.
posted by Nelson at 8:24 AM on July 24 [9 favorites]


I never could play Puerto Rico, but Settlers of Catan is clearly Iceland (that is, a never-inhabited island). It's even about the same shape.

You can make a swastika from any 4 L-shaped figures, I don't think it's fair to suggest that the designer is some sort of crypto-Nazi based on the shape of the meeples.

Every so often, I find myself making a black- sun like pattern in Takenoko (game about a gardener and a panda and their ever lasting battle over bamboo), because that's how the irrigation ditches look when laid against the edges of the hexagonal pieces.
posted by jb at 8:26 AM on July 24 [4 favorites]


Huh, thanks for this because I never really thought about board games in this context. Though there is one that I really did think about, a game called Raccoon Tycoon, which I wanted because of the funny name. It's essentially Industrial Revolution and Capitalism are Great, until you see the fancy dressed animals strolling along country lanes while other animals do all the work in the fields (not one specific animal, IIRC, but poor animals there to make money for the richer ones) in the artwork on the box.

We play it, we do so with the awareness that wow this game is really based on exploiting resources huh
posted by Kitteh at 8:30 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


I've always been a bit bothered by not just the transparently colonialist aspects of these games but the entire mechanics of closed garden economic models, which encourages all players to pursue similar goals (ok, or generally similar goals as defined by "victory points") which mislead their impressionable user base about how simplistic market systems work, and inform their politics and priorities. Oh, and the generally hideous graphic design for which there really is no excuse.
Still love family game night though. Lately it's been mostly Wingspan, Fungi and Indian Summer (problematic name, otherwise harmless game).
posted by St. Oops at 8:43 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


The whole genre of "Tycoon" games is like this, and the irony there is their customary stylistic callbacks to Monopoly, with its origins in The Landlord's Game.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:49 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


I always felt that Puerto Rico wore colonialism on it's sleeve a bit more than all the others. The workers are little dark brown discs who arrive on ships in proportion to your labor demand. It is obvious that they are slaves, and nearly every game of PR I've played has involved a discussion of colonialism. The game really just begs for that discussion to happen... In that regard, it's weirdly one of the better colonial games, as it's not brushing the worst parts of its historical basis under the rug.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:57 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]


If we're talking about board games and focusing on Eurogames, plus videogames, we're missing a generation here. There are literally decades of wargames from companies like SPI and Avalon Hill, some of which are specifically simulations of colonialism.

For example, from 1976.

Not to mention the wargames where one player represents other horrific actors, such as American Confederates, Victorians invading Africa, Stalin, or, of course, Nazis.
posted by doctornemo at 9:04 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


For me this broadens into conversations about play and pretend in general. When I play a video game or a roleplaying game that calls on me to utterly annihilate hundreds of people, I am engaging with that not for the joy of death,but the joy of the game.

The people who make quasi-realistic military games - call of modern battlefield, etc - regularly collaborate with the US military in their development, who see them as recruiting, PR and propaganda tools. It’s worth thinking critically about taking joy from violence, particularly when those experiences have been crafted by people with larger agendas.
posted by mhoye at 9:07 AM on July 24 [13 favorites]


The workers are little dark brown discs who arrive on ships in proportion to your labor demand.

Yes, we know that because the article mentions that several times. However the article does not believe "the game really just begs for that discussion to happen...". Instead it says
the original instruction manual for “Puerto Rico” offers no commentary on the terror of human displacement that it echoes
Maybe you can write more about why you disagree with what Luke Winkie wrote?
posted by Nelson at 9:14 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I really enjoy playing RISE AND DECLINE OF THE THIRD REICH, by the afore-mentioned Avalon Hill. "Playing the World" by Jon Peterson observes that the Second World War is/was a popular game setting in the 1950s because there are obvious baddies and a clear heroic narrative (for us in the West). By the 1960s and Vietnam, the younger generation wasn't so into war... so along comes Tolkien and fantasy warfare and Dungeons and Dragons.
posted by Exercise Bike at 9:19 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Wingspan is a joy! In our house, you HAVE to read the bird fact and its wingspan before you play it.
posted by Kitteh at 9:40 AM on July 24 [19 favorites]


The opposite of the this might be Potlach, which is based on Salish communities economics. It "is a collaborative game where there is not one winner. Success is determined by whether or not all houses have their resource needs met by the end of the game."

The game was developed with Indigenous elders and community input.
posted by brookeb at 9:51 AM on July 24 [17 favorites]




I never liked Puerto Rico at all or Catan very much, so I don't feel a need to think them through. What I have to reckon with are the empire builders I've enjoyed like Pax Britannica, which represents pretty upsetting elements of colonialism in simplistic terms, designed for edutainment. I guess the fact that I'm playing boardgames so rarely now again removes some concern: I don't need to rationalize playing it or trying to get others to play it, because it's not happening again soon.

What comes to mind first is that I learned some cynicism towards colonialism/imperialism from gaming it out. Like, very specifically Pax Britannica introduced me to the concept of casus belli and its practical application: a very dry joke built into the game is that players are giving each other "legitimate" causes for war all the time, but official causes for war are really just options to fight when a particular empire has the resources available and wants to gain something overall. It's not the worst lesson to reason about so concretely.

Probably the game's very limited representations of anti-colonialist sentiments are mishandled, poorly framed, and/or too ambiguous--it literally has a "Chinese Resentment Index," and as a rules clarification notes "it is possible for Chinese forces to have cleared mainland China of foreign devils ..."--so it probably helps to know that the same designer also wrote a satirical game about the hyperbolic awfulness of many 'dungeon crawl' scenarios, viewed from the victims' perspectives. But it's easy to imagine a vastly more post-colonial perspective worked out as a game.

Incidentally, I'm not sure I'd give Spirit Island full marks here either--exoticism and the romanticization of resilience feel like stereotyping to me, even when they're intended as positive representations. I'm not saying it's wrong to enjoy the game, but rather something to consider.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:15 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


I wonder how well a game like Radchaai-ish Annexation of Earth would go over, especially if the victory conditions required you to smash the culture of [homeland], work hard to inculcate belief in the new gods, maybe offer people as sacrifices to them, etc. Or the step further, Kzinti Invasion of Earth, where you also have to manage people with an eye towards meat production.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 10:59 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


If we're talking about board games and focusing on Eurogames, plus videogames, we're missing a generation here. There are literally decades of wargames from companies like SPI and Avalon Hill, some of which are specifically simulations of colonialism.

For example, from 1976.

Not to mention the wargames where one player represents other horrific actors, such as American Confederates, Victorians invading Africa, Stalin, or, of course, Nazis.


Never played Conquistador, but I'm from that era of game play.

We called them war games and yes to play a game to see if you could in a battle like Gettysburg or Stalingrad, hell D Day, you need accurate representation for all sides.

SPI also made A LOTR game just like regular war games, surprisingly similar
posted by Max Power at 11:09 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Maybe you can write more about why you disagree with what Luke Winkie wrote?

At the risk of wading into a completely pointless argument with a needlessly fighty comment: Sure, why not?

First up, this has been my experience of the game. No, the instruction manual does not provide an appropriate backgrounder on the history of colonialism. But the prominence of slavery in the game design really forces the players to interact with the idea that slavery is the game that they're playing. Like I said, nearly every time I remember, playing Puerto Rico has involved some acknowledgement that slavery is part of the game. This is different from (Settlers of) Catan or really most other colonialist games, where the horrors are completely invisible. As a table of players, you can choose to laugh nervously and ignore it, have a conversation about it and play anyway, or have a conversation and pick a different game. I would argue that two out of three of these are healthy responses, and again point out that you don't even get the nervous laugh response in Catan because the problem has been rendered invisible.

These days, we almost always play a different game. Race for the Galaxy is a great alternative which most of the best parts of Puerto Rico's game mechanics, and none of the historical baggage. But, as was mentioned above, the race to expand out into the galaxy and subjugate worlds through a combination of military and economic power is still a colonialist endeavor. Removed from the historical context, the conversation just doesn't happen. Colonialism enacted in space is, itself, a nervous laugh on the part of the designers.

A conversation adjacent to this one has played out over a very long time in role-playing games. Dungeons & Dragons suffers from racial essentialism alongside with a complete lack of reflection on what it means to go out and systematically kill orcs. It's completely up to the table of players to notice this and decide what to do about it, with responses ranging from (again) ignoring it to creating game worlds that tackle the problem head on. Most (I believe) don't notice the problem at all.

Compare this with the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, which has (perhaps always? at least since the 80's) included in their books a direct discussion of historical badness, and encouraged players to have a discussion of how they want to handle their game's representation of patriarchy and racism in the 1920's. Placing the game in a historical moment really forces some conversation with the history: D&D manages to dodge the question of genocide specifically because orcs are 'imaginary.'

Call of Cthulhu gives you a choice: You can look at racism and patriarchy as problems to actively model and resist in your game, or you can decide as a group to put that discussion aside and have some fun hunting shoggoths while wearing period-appropriate hats. Again, both of these can be perfectly healthy choices: If your day job involves dealing with human awfulness (and really whose doesn't, in one form or another), choosing to turn it off for games night is OK. I think it's also totally appropriate for a TTRPG group to acknowledge that they might not have the tools to handle a particular topic and step back from it.

But I do tend to think it's better when the conversation actually happens. In my experience, (which Luke Winkie's article reinforces), Puerto Rico creates that conversation more reliably than just about any other board game of its generation / popularity. I'm not saying it handles it perfectly by any stretch: Some actual discussion in the instruction manual would certainly be nice.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:21 AM on July 24 [25 favorites]


Adding a few lines or a paragraph of flavor text to the rulebook doesn't mean much. When my group is learning a new game, generally only the owner of the game has actually read the rulebook, and then they explain it to the rest of us over the table. Hence, I've seen the rulebooks for only a small fraction of the board games I've played. The article makes an important point that the mechanics of these games encourage players to see certain behaviors as desirable and necessary to succeed.

I think board games of the last 10 years or so (the post-Agricola generation) have been more successful in finding compelling themes that don't center on colonialism. But there's probably a good companion article to be written about class/capital issues embedded into that generation of games.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 11:30 AM on July 24


Here's an even hotter take: Table Top Role-Playing Games are inherently and intrinsically problematic.

Dungeons and Dragons is really Goblins and Genociders. The dungeon crawl, the basic template of the game, is basically an exercise in a combination of (1) going into a community and killing them because of racial differences or (2) looting items of value from another culture. Various othering justifications are provided ("they're just orcs", "they're just undead").

The World of Darkness involves multiple deeply problematic factions (Ravnos are an anti-Tziganist, while Banu Haqim are deeply reductive of Middle Eastern peoples).

Shadowrun basically uses Metahuman race as a way of exaggerating actual racial conflict. In Shadowrun, the racial stereotypes (Elves are more socially adroit) are actually, mechanically true. And then there's Shadowrun's appropriation of First Nations culture - yeesh!

Warhammer and Warhammer 40K celebrate genocide and xenocide.

We may just have to come to a reckoning that geek culture as it presently exists is incompatible with social justice and progressive values. Fantasy has it's roots in the racism of Tolkien, Lewis, and the misogyny of Howard, the TERFism of Rowling. Science Fiction likewise is fundamentally contaminated by the likes of Lovecraft, Heinlein, and Joseph Campbell.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 11:30 AM on July 24 [14 favorites]


One thing that struck me while reading TFA is how quickly I would have hurled Puerto Rico across the room if it were the same game but called Antebellum and had art evoking the American South.

Puerto Rico is super abstract and I didn't love it mostly because what flavor there was didn't appeal to me. But it didn't offend me viscerally. Intellectually I know what went on in the Caribbean but I have not internalized it in the same way.

I wonder how well a game like Radchaai-ish Annexation of Earth would go over, especially if the victory conditions required you to smash the culture of [homeland], work hard to inculcate belief in the new gods, maybe offer people as sacrifices to them, etc. Or the step further, Kzinti Invasion of Earth, where you also have to manage people with an eye towards meat production.

For a lot of gamers (me included) this would be fine. In fact, it sounds like a lot of potential fun! I mean, it's a bit of a slur against the Kzinti, who would use their subjugated sapient populations primarily as an underclass an occasionally snack, rather than towards industrial meat production. But otherwise no problem with it.

I'm from that era of game play.

Me too, though there aren't any left in my rotation. I wouldn't necessarily refuse to play though.

I certainly get people who wouldn't want to touch those games with a 10' pole, but for some reason the more 'simulationist' approach to the eras actually works in its favor. The problems are clearer. (Not that I ever liked getting the side of the 3rd Reich, which I never wanted to play.)
posted by mark k at 11:36 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


LeRoienJaune, that seems to elide pretty much every RPG not specifically mentioned? FATE, Call of Cthulhu, superhero games, games about being bears stealing honey, games about creating an imaginary world from scratch...

Honestly, that's one of the most nonsensical comments I've seen, and it's basically impossible to tell if you're being serious or making a poor joke.

Though from an argumentation perspective, I can't take seriously anyone who situates fantasy as starting with Tolkien, Lewis, or Howard, or somehow exclusively their domain, just as I can't take seriously the idea that Joseph Campbell is somehow uniquely a sci-fi problem, rather than a problem of the American academy that George Lucas just happened to have read.

Like, have you read sci-fi or fantasy lately? Guess you're ready to explain why Nnedi Okorafor is incompatible with social justice, then.
posted by sagc at 11:43 AM on July 24 [21 favorites]


Like, I guess it's frustrating to see genuine criticisms of specific TTRPGs universalised and then used to dismiss the entire... literary, cultural, and conceptual fields of science fiction and fantasy? Pretty sure "support authors of good works" is better, in this case, than "we need to eliminate rpgs."
posted by sagc at 11:47 AM on July 24 [13 favorites]


Thank you for the thoughtful comment kaibutsu, that's a bunch of interesting observations. I particularly like the idea that Puerto Rico might be better in that it makes the slavery more explicit in the game mechanics. That seems like an important point. Although by this interpretation the change from brown markers to purple may be a step backwards, since it takes us further from a clear signifier of the slavery they represent.

I've never played Puerto Rico, so I can only go on what I read about it, but Winkie's description makes it sound like it's not even explicit they're slaves. Reading the game rules it sure sounds obfuscatory. The markers are called "colonists"; at first I thought maybe they were simulating free Spaniards coming to Puerto Rico to settle it. But then there's a lot of language about the "colonist ship" and the colonists look more like resources to be imported, so... ugh.

Also the rules make no reference to slave institutions in the mechanics. There's no "colonist" overseer, or threat of rebellion, or buying and selling of people. All that makes me think this isn't a particularly meaningful reflection on slavery. That the colonists are mostly there to fulfill an abstract element of gameplay economics and really let's not think about the unpleasantness of it.

Whatever the case one could easily imagine a game much more meaningfully depicting slavery as a game mechanic. Although then that raises the uncomfortable question of whether that game could be fun.
posted by Nelson at 11:54 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]


Surely any proper denazification of Germany would have involved a prohibition on the use of 90⁰ angles.
posted by acb at 12:20 PM on July 24 [8 favorites]


As a medium, roleplaying games have such an incredible transformational potential. Trying to be a possibly-very different person is amazing. It's really unfortunate that crypto-genocide is most people's primary reference point in role-playing games. Fiction has similar potential, but the experience of role-playing just creates so much personal connection. There's a whole set of knotty problems around appropriation, caricature and stereotypes, but these are dangers that I think need to be traded off against the potential for creating deeper connections and understanding between people and cultures.

As an(other!) antidote, Avery Alder's games are brilliant. There's a really lovely discussion of their game Brave Sparrow in an old MeFi thread, and here's a particularly poignant one-line comment from last December.

(i've got a kinda-long list of other games that I consider good and great examples of non-genocidal RPGs, and am happy to give personalized recommendations.)
posted by kaibutsu at 12:23 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


I'm late to this thoughtful conversation, but one thought I remember having some years ago is that what I mentally call "German-style board games" (Catan, Alhambra, Ticket to Ride, Carcassone, etc. etc.) are the products of a culture that has a taboo against conquest and battle-style games like Risk or Stratego or Axis and Allies. Germans feel bad about creating fantasies of battlefield carnage! But Catan and Ticket to Ride* just borrow another violent script, that of colonialism, whose most important historical actors are British, French, and American rather than German. (Not that Germany didn't seek its place in the sun, obviously).

Links to board games that flip these scripts are great; thanks to all who have posted them.

*I realize I'm derailing my own comment here, but if there were justice in the world and Bowie were as beloved as my precious Beatles this game would have been called "Station to Station"
posted by sy at 12:27 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


sagc: Call of Cthulhu also has a lot of deep cultural and racial prejudice, inherited from Lovecraft's writing: the cults are always rural or indigenous peoples (Innsmouth, Dunwich et al.).
Superheros, in general, are mostly about re-iterating and maintaining the status quo. I grant there are a few exceptions (Miracle Man, Hickman's recent work on X-men).

But I am arguing that the dungeon crawl mechanic is so deeply innate to so many TTRPGs that you're really arguing for the exceptions (outliers like Golden Girls and Bunnies and Burrows) rather than the rule (which are the constellation of WotC and White Wolf derived games).

And there's still plenty of science fiction (Liu Cixin's The Dark Forest, which premises that the solution to Fermi's paradox is that intelligent life is inherently genocidal/xenocidal) that deals with the reiteration of imperialist structures and systems (the Altered Carbon series).

The problems of racist and imperialist assumptions are fundaments which underlay a great majority of the tropes, themes and idioms of these genres.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 12:29 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


There's a board game called Endeavor that has slavery as a central game mechanic. The players sail to different corners of the board to collect resources and colonize those regions by controlling shipping routes, thereby gaining cards that ultimately translate to victory points. However, a player can get slavery cards more quickly and easily than the cards they get for controlling shipping routes. So the slavery cards give players an advantage in the early game. If another player manages to abolish slavery -- as I recall, by gaining control of Europe, which the players originate from -- the slavery cards turn into negative points for the players who hold them. But if nobody abolishes slavery (which isn't easy), then it never has a downside for the players.

I see that the new edition's rules have text like this article describes (see page 9).
posted by chimpsonfilm at 12:35 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


LeRoienJaune: You keep on leaping from the specific to the general, and I don't see how you can ignore that all the things you name have plenty of self-reflection going on. Like, yes, you can name books that have conservative perspectives.

But what does that have to do with the inherent worth of the genre? Do you deny that there are authors and game creators who are, in fact, reckoning with the nature of their fields? Are you arguing that all work that is described as sci Fi or fantasy is tainted in a way other literature is not?

What would the reckoning for ttrpgs look like?
posted by sagc at 12:54 PM on July 24 [6 favorites]


Not to mention, LeRoienJaune, you seem to be under the impression that this isn't an active and ongoing conversation in nerd circles.

I would also observe that at least at first glance, it would appear there is, in fact, no element whatsoever of human culture not tied in to some horrible aspect of human nature; nothing we've ever made isn't at least lightly splashed with the blood of innocents. The very machines we sit and type this at drip with the deaths of children in lithium mines and god knows what else.

So, respectfully, unless you're advocating that we all lie down and peacefully die, it would behoove you to be more specific in your criticisms and how you think those criticisms should be addressed. I have power over what my table does and does not play, and how we play it. I do not have the power to expunge evil from the human heart.
posted by a power-tie-wearing she-capitalist at 1:10 PM on July 24 [12 favorites]


Is Ticket To Ride colonialist? AFAIK, the players play railway companies building connections between already established cities, and, being unattached to any nation-state, are specifically not bolstering any sort of nationalist or expansionist agenda in doing so.
posted by acb at 1:11 PM on July 24 [4 favorites]


sagc: There are writers that are reckoning with the institutional racism that's in their genres, but at the same time, much like systemic racism is so pervasive in American culture as to be ubiquitous, so too is it difficult to really extricate much that isn't steeped in the assumptions of empire.

I mean, for example, that most TTRPG's have racial character classes- whether sci-fi or fantasy or urban fantasy. Racism is mechanically encoded into the first or second chapters of most TTRPG core books.

And a vast plurality of sci fi- even the good stuff, like Iain Banks- is really just writing about empires and imperial systems. Whether it's Westeros or the Culture. Benevolent or malevolent. But it still boils downs to thousands of pages on peoples imposing their way of life on different peoples for reasons that are generally starting from a default assumption of inherent cultural superiority due to technological/material ascendancy.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 1:14 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


If you were to write fiction that was anti-imperialist and anti-racist, what would it look like?
posted by acb at 1:18 PM on July 24


Ticket to Ride is definitely expansionist! You're literally re-enacting the expansion of railroads across the land. And it's also explicitly capitalist, monopoly capitalist at that. Does that make it offensive? I don't know. It's not a very thoughtful take on expansionism or capitalism. It is fun to play act at it though. (Note the game leaves aside complexities like the use of Chinese labor to do dangerous parts of American railroad building; that's pretty far outside what Ticket to Ride simulates in its game design.)

While I'm here, I do think there's responsible fun in letting someone play the bad guy in some games. Again switching to computer games, since I know them better... I'm having great fun playing Dyson Sphere Program, like Factorio before it, where the goal of the game is to cover the planet with industry. Factorio at least has the pollution mechanic to encourage you to think a little bit about environmental destruction. (The solution to that is nuclear weapons and thick walls against the insect monsters that the pollution attracts until you can eradicate their homes. The factory must grow.) DSP has you literally paving whole planets with concrete as a precursor to swallowing the sun with a Dyson Sphere.

I find the evil of that amusing, twirling my mustache as I watch forests get crushed under the concrete. It can be hilarious to be so awful and I'm OK with the ethics of that in a computer game. It helps it's so far removed from reality, both games have a strong sci-fi vibe. I think it's OK as long as it's clear what you're doing is awful and only permissible in the context of a game. (See also: explicit gore and violence while brutally murdering people in an FPS.)

A game that really rides the line of acceptability is the Tropico series, a SimCity game that has you roleplay as the tinpot dictator of a small Caribbean island. I mean reading it on the surface it's terrible, using all the worst stereotypes. But it's all tongue and cheek and with some subtle and smart writing that redeems it somewhat. It's also got an "all people are bastards" vibe to it, the American-analogs aren't any better. I suppose that puts it in the same problematic nihilistic category as South Park is but somehow the game seems too silly to get upset about. I should read more about Tropico in this critical context; this article is a start.
posted by Nelson at 1:26 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


Racism is mechanically encoded into the first or second chapters of most TTRPG core books.

D&D's recent efforts to deal with its Player Race problem have met with mixed reviews:
Fast forward to now, November 2020. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything releases to predictably thunderous and largely uncritical applause. Most of the book is consumed with optional and updated material for classes...the part that was supposed to address the deep problems around race in D&D? One page. One.

So what was on that page? To be honest, sweet fuck all that’s substantive. It’s a very basic, uncreative, and status quo supporting rough guide to homebrewing your player race a little bit. The “stereotypes” it chose to address were the simple physical ones, like “not all dwarves are tough”, so that +2 CON modifier could be used elsewhere! Or “not all high elves are proficient with long swords”, so talk to your DM and pick a different weapon! And of course, that perennial issue of “maybe I don’t know X language because of my background”, so talk to the DM about a different appropriate language! There was literally nothing in it addressing anything close to what had been hinted at or what marginalized people had been pointing out.

The 2nd Edition of Pathfinder threw out player "races" in favor of player "ancestries." I haven't done much more than idly flip through the Pathfinder 2e core rules and have not read any reviews of it, so I can't say whether its a meaningful shift or not.
posted by HeroZero at 1:30 PM on July 24


Ticket to Ride is definitely expansionist! You're literally re-enacting the expansion of railroads across the land.

Given that the cities, and the entire railroad network, pre-exist the first turn of play I would argue this is incorrect -- the railroad expansion has already occurred, the lines are all laid, and you are involved in the later 19th/early 20th century period when various rail lines tried to establish commercial dominance via local trade monopolies.
posted by aramaic at 2:18 PM on July 24 [8 favorites]


Ticket to Ride has an actual backstory (first page of the rules booklet): "a winner-takes-all competition.. to see [who] could travel by rail to the most cities in North America — in just 7 days." I've never been able to figure out how the actual gameplay squares with that supposed competition, though.
posted by one for the books at 2:51 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


just as I can't take seriously the idea that Joseph Campbell is somehow uniquely a sci-fi problem, rather than a problem of the American academy that George Lucas just happened to have read.

the long-time editor of astounding/analog science fiction was named john campbell - maybe that's the person referred to?
posted by pyramid termite at 3:00 PM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Moat TTRPG's have racial character classes

With respect, LeRoienJune, it seems like you don’t have a lot of exposure to the full breadth of what tabletop RPGS can be. There’s a whole vast world of indie RPGs out there that don’t have race as an integral part of character creation, that draw from storytelling traditions other than sci-fi/superhero/medeival-Europe rooted fantasy, that have non-traditional game structures. You want a game about the historical legacy of slavery written by a Black woman? There’s an indie RPG for that. A game about the Vietnam War that focuses on the futility and trauma of it all instead of glorifying the military? Got that covered too. And these examples are both old because I haven’t been close to the indie design community in a while now—these days there are more women and POC designing games than before.

Going back to board games, I have noticed that, as Euro-style games become more mainstream, the overlap of “my friends who play the board games I do” and “my friends who are leftists and/or activists” has gradually widened. I learned to play Puerto Rico in a time before my politics took a sharp left, and when the board game nights I frequented tend to be heavily white, male, and libertarian-leaning. As I got further radicalized, I still loved playing games but started casting a more critical eye on Puerto Rico, and also came to dread walking into new gaming groups and having men explain strategy to me. Now, when the subject of board games comes up in my activist groups or when I’m doing volunteer work at the free clinic, I’m much more likely to find that the people in those spaces with me also enjoy Settlers or Ticket to Ride now and again. I still own a Puerto Rico set, but at this point I’m uncomfortable with it and most of my gaming friends would be as well, because we spend our non-gaming time wrestling with the legacies of slavery and colonialism more directly.
posted by ActionPopulated at 3:05 PM on July 24 [9 favorites]


It don't see a mention of it, so I just wanted to throw up a signal about Freedom: The Underground Railroad. One of the things that it makes impossible to ignore is that, within the confines of an unjust system, reformers are frequently presented with horrible dilemmas about how to distribute their efforts. The manner in which this is impossible to ignore is certainly a feature of Freedom will be part of its charm for some, but will produce psychological friction for others.

This issue of "friction" in game theming is a microcosm of how history and national identity is commercialized in general. Playing a game like Papers, Please is, in some sense, meant to be unpleasant, and to make the player feel complicit in a corrupt system, but that limits its commercial reach to a fairly niche audience of 'games as art' consumers. As a rule, most people don't play games to feel like villains, particularly social games like board games; at the same time, board games as social activities invite a kind of direct competition (and all the emotions that entails) that playing against a computer doesn't easily evoke. This results in a kind of "enthusiastic amorality" when it comes to how many players engage with the theming of a game. This helps to account for the success of games like Secret Hitler - those who enjoy the game usually dissociate the moral implications of the theming from the moral implications of their choices within that theming: One can simultaneously be Hitler and also understand and appreciate the game's anti-fascist message. This is an example of a game in which the theming is very deliberate and there's an underlying political idea being communicated. But to access that experience, one has to avoid experiencing friction.

Herein lies the two-fold problem, not just in many board games, but in many tabletop RPGs, video games, and narratives in film & television: (a) enthusiastic amorality ("My team's gonna win!") encourages a kind of superficial thoughtlessness that translates poorly into other domains, and (b) it's not at all well-defined where one draws the line between harmless performative monstrosity and actual moral bankruptcy. Is playing an "evil" PC in Dungeons and Dragons a problem? Does it become a problem if that character decided to take an NPC as a slave, or to exterminate an unarmed village? For most players, having someone sufficiently monstrous at the table produces friction *at some point.*

What I think this discussion can do is to ask, "Why don't some folks feel friction earlier?" If some goblins steal a treasure, was it ever OK to kill them all to retrieve it? Should a strictly abstract war game like chess produce less of a feeling of friction than a heavily themed historical game like a WWII simulation? If victory on the board would look like an atrocity in real life, what does it take to draw someone's attention to that parallel, and what can be learned from it? I don't think these questions have simple answers, any more than watching problematic films is simple. Disentangling these knots is always going to involve a broader conversation about the context in which a game was developed, and the blind spots and prejudices that led to both the choice of theme and the selection of game mechanics. And, inevitably, this conversation will produce friction among some folks, who will predictably respond with fragile outrage.
posted by belarius at 3:06 PM on July 24 [20 favorites]


John Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fucking fascist. Through his editorial control of Amazing Stories, he is responsible for setting a tone for science fiction that haunts this genre to this very day. Stale, sterile, male, white, exalting in the ambitions of imperialists, colonialists, settlers, and industrialists. Yes, yes, I am aware there are exceptions.

But these are the bones of the genre we were given. But from that, we have grown a wonderful, ramshackle genre, wilder and stranger than his mind could ever dream or even would allow.

-- Jeanette Ng in her acceptance speech for the now-renamed Astounding Award for Best New Writer
Seems relevant to the discussion of the origins of SFF and what marginalized creators have done and are doing with these genres today.
posted by brook horse at 3:13 PM on July 24 [7 favorites]


A note on Civ VI: When you create a new game, if you check the box that says "Barbarian Clan Mode", then the barbarian settlements become entities that may or my not be hostile (depending, in part, on you) and can develop into City States. So, if wiping out barbarian villages bothers you, there is an alternative.

Is there a game that deals with settlement of Iceland? There's a place that lacked indigenous folks to be exploited. There was slavery, though.
posted by CCBC at 3:24 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


If you had a game modelling the settlement of Iceland as an egalitarian social democracy from the year 896 onwards, that could be considered whitewashing its history.
posted by acb at 3:37 PM on July 24


acb: Why assume that's the way the game would go?
posted by CCBC at 3:45 PM on July 24


If I make a game. And people use the pieces to make a Nazi symbol.

I then change those pieces, YEAH.

Damn right I'm serious.
posted by tiny frying pan at 4:03 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


But I am arguing that the dungeon crawl mechanic is so deeply innate to so many TTRPGs that you're really arguing for the exceptions (outliers like Golden Girls and Bunnies and Burrows) rather than the rule (which are the constellation of WotC and White Wolf derived games).

LeRoienJaune, I will add my voice the the people say that your comments are so off the mark that they are not so much wrong as... not actually rooted in reality. There are a ton of TTRPGs that are explicitly rooted in queering the trope, examining race, digging into history and society in new and inventive ways that you need to either educate yourself (come in, the water is fine) or just stop.

I was on a zoom meeting with a group of people when someone said "I need a training tool to explore PoCs in WWI," and I leaned over and and grabbed a book off the shelf and said "have you tried Daniel Kwan's Ross Rifles, a TTRPG that explores the experiences of Canadian soldiers during WWI with an especial focus on the people of Indigenous and Asian descent who enlisted to try and earn the respect of their country?" And the asker's eyes got wide, and they asked for deets, and I was like "Daniel Kwan, learn and respect that name."

If Bunnies and Burrows is your touchstone, you are almost 50 years shy of the mark.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:11 PM on July 24 [10 favorites]


You can make a swastika out of squares. You can make a swastika out of rectangles. You can make a swastika out of practically anything. What shape pieces would you use in a game such that it's impossible to make a swastika out of them? What would you use for dice, scoring etc, such that it's impossible to form a 14 or 88?

We can't prevent Nazis making symbols out of things. Even if we succeeded they would just invent new ones. They would be delighted to watch us trip over ourselves, undermining every means of communication in the hopes of preventing them. They would be delighted at the attention.

Treat them with the disregard they deserve, or punch them in the face. Everything else just feeds them.
posted by automatronic at 4:21 PM on July 24 [14 favorites]


Also most White Wolf games - at least in the various Worlds of Darkness - focus a lot more on social maneuvering, personal storylines, and incredibly tedious factional politics than outright combat. Werewolf: the Apocalypse is an exception, and even then any WtA player will tell you the in-fighting is the funnest part.

Additionally, in most White Wolf games you're suppose to be kind of an unpleasant asshole doing unpleasant things to some degree, so while you are spot-in about how none of them ever read a single wikipedia page about the cultures and ideas they try to use - another thing that the player base is well aware of, talks about a lot, and pushes the company to do better on - the idea that a game about being an unpleasant or villanous person involves your character doing unpleasant or villanouse things shouldn't be shocking unless you think the only virtuous fiction is didactic.
posted by a power-tie-wearing she-capitalist at 4:23 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


If I make a game. And people use the pieces to make a Nazi symbol.

I then change those pieces, YEAH.

Damn right I'm serious.


So...you want to eliminate all straight and L-shaped pieces everywhere? I think the Catan thing is ridiculous. There are billions of identical things that could be used in the exact same way, not least of which are several letters in the Hebrew alphabet, which I'm pretty sure no one is going to go after for being antisemitic.
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man at 4:34 PM on July 24 [8 favorites]


Hey, I bet some people who play Catan were born in 1988. Seems awfully suspicious to me.
posted by a power-tie-wearing she-capitalist at 4:36 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


FWIW, Catan is pretty popular amongst Jews, especially those that observe the sabbath. It's considered one of the all-time classics to pass the time, and Israelis (Jewish and gentile) regularly compete in professional Catan tournaments.
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man at 4:47 PM on July 24 [4 favorites]


Changing the language to make evil thoughts inexpressible sounds pretty Orwellian.
posted by acb at 4:55 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


In architecture school, I remember how often any project involving 4-way symmetry and right angles would end up with swastikas. It's just an emerging property of certain geometries.
posted by signal at 4:56 PM on July 24 [6 favorites]


A note on Civ VI: When you create a new game, if you check the box that says "Barbarian Clan Mode", then the barbarian settlements become entities that may or my not be hostile (depending, in part, on you) and can develop into City States. So, if wiping out barbarian villages bothers you, there is an alternative.

When they added this, all it made me think was "right, so these are people with their own cultures that I'm just arbitrarily wiping out. I don't know that it made it necessarily made it seem any better.
posted by Zargon X at 5:16 PM on July 24


Ticket to Ride has an actual backstory (first page of the rules booklet): "a winner-takes-all competition.. to see [who] could travel by rail to the most cities in North America — in just 7 days." I've never been able to figure out how the actual gameplay squares with that supposed competition, though.

I can’t recall that note from the rules, but then again I don’t think I have read them in many years. At a guess, there is the bonus of ten points at game end for having the longest uninterrupted route (in my experience, on the North American board this often seems to wind up with some sprawl that runs from L.A. to Miami to Boston or Montreal or the like). Could this be a dim reflection of that competition?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:24 PM on July 24


You can make a swastika from any 4 L-shaped figures,
(and)
So...you want to eliminate all straight and L-shaped pieces everywhere?
(and)
Tetris is, of course, a well-known Nazi game, as evidenced by L-shaped pieces
(and)
You can make a swastika out of practically anything.

I'm guessing most people saying this haven't actually looked at the pieces. They're not L-shaped! They are in fact the shape you get if you carve a swastika into four symmetrical arms meeting at the center. The people who have noticed the way the bits go together aren't idiots.

For what it's worth, my view is that it was probably accidental; but the choice of brown ovals to represent labourers in Puerto Rico was probably accidental too. I'm not particularly perturbed by the design, but changing the shape of the cities would be trivial and it would be a nice thing to do.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:27 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


People, please. These are all just abstract entertainments in which empowered players compete to obtain the most resources by placing workers who then channel all the extracted wealth out of the region and into the hands of the players.

No connection with reality at all.
posted by fallingbadgers at 10:53 PM on July 24 [5 favorites]


I just spent a bunch of time trying to track down a copy of The Cost, a game where you're in charge of mining and milling asbestos. A central mechanic is that when producing it you have to choose to either pay for worker safety or kill a worker. It's very much about the mechanics and incentives of your these toxic systems perpetuate. They're are a lot of opportunities to peel back they layers and show things through games. I haven't played it yet but that's part of the theory of the second edition of John's Company or Pax Pamir as well.

One thing I find crazy is how differently skinning the same mechanic can feel. I know some don't find this as true, but San Juan and Race for the Galaxy feel differently to me even though the mechanics are so similar.
posted by Carillon at 11:18 PM on July 24 [3 favorites]


They are in fact the shape you get if you carve a swastika into four symmetrical arms meeting at the center.

Or, if you prefer, the traditional abstract shape of a church - long narrow building, tall tower with steepled roof.
posted by Dysk at 3:04 AM on July 25 [14 favorites]


What about the hundreds of Civil War and WW2 games where one person has to play the Confederates or Germans?

I've been mulling this over for the length of the thread, and I think they are sort of a different beast. I played a lot of war games when I was a young'un, because my older brothers were very into the SPI products, and, while they aren't my thing these days, I get the appeal. And, if you are playing a war game, someone needs to play each side, and that often means that at least one player is "playing the baddies." But most players are playing for the puzzle of working through the tactical, operational, and/or strategic issues of a particular battle or war to see if different outcomes were possible. What happens if Napoleon did A instead of B at this battle? What if the Russian Army Command was united behind Brusilov in 1916? At least when I was playing, I didn't see many players fetishising one side or another. This is a little different from the example of Puerto Rico, where everyone is playing a slave master.

Now there are just vile games. Way back in the day, there was a war game version of the conflict in the novel within the novel of Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream. For those unfamiliar with it, The Iron Dream is about an alternate history where Hitler moved to the US after getting out of prison and painted and wrote for the pulps, writing the kind of 30s-50s SF that one might imagine Hitler would write. The bulk of the book is the text of a novel this Hitler wrote late in his career. It's... an idea... but, for me, not an entertaining nor particularly illuminating read. It was nominated for a Nebula as satire and praised by the American Nazi Party as propaganda.

Anyway, about a decade after the book came out, someone did a war game that took the fictional war in "Hitler's novel" in The Iron Dream, scrubbed the copyright details off, and produced 4th Reich: Puremen vs. the Mutants for Control of the World. It might be misguided satire, very early Edgelordism, or a Neo-Nazi recruiting effort. No one seems to know what the creators thought they were doing. As far as I can tell, it sold poorly, wasn't fun to play, and even the BGG forums struggle to say more than "well, it exists; I don't know why." It's maybe the nadir of the themes that the OP was talking about.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:17 AM on July 25


I think it's reasonable to hope for a little self-consciousness from military simulations focused on conflicts with contemporary implications. The only American Civil War game I really like is Battle Cry, so I'll pick on it as an example, although the rulebook I'm familiar with is not from a recent edition. It does have introductory material that talks about slavery, but when you get to the scenarios, that's out of the picture: the people involved could be fighting for any reason or none at all. There's plenty of 'flavor text' about each battle though, so there's probably room for a word or two about particular biographical engagements with the stakes of the war--at least a few people would read it.

I mean, it'd be fine to ask for a lot more self-consciousness / Verfremdungseffekt--Peter Watkins's documentary Culloden is a good example of historical military edutainment like that--but pragmatically speaking wargaming as a hobby isn't going to adopt that kind of demystification as a routine.
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:25 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]


Where does Secret Hitler fit into this discussion?

I see someone has already mentioned Freedom: The Underground Railroad.

You know, I spend most of my waking days lately feeling unutterably depressed about the state of the world and those of us in it, and board games with friends have been a major bright spot for about the last decade. So now I am sitting here with the "abstracting bad stuff is okay if we're having fun and no one is actually getting hurt" daemon on one shoulder and the "jfc it's exploitation and harm all the way down" avatar on my other shoulder, and ...wow. just thoroughly befuddled right now.

(Hm. I just flashed on a trip to Origins a couple of years ago where I got into a demo of Cosmic Encounter, and "won the toss" and had to pick a color/race to go to war against as the first part of the first round and in the process convinced two other players to go with me by joking "come on red's annoying, amirite". and the red player took it in stride because, hey, board game. Not sure what this means right now but my brain just coughed it up, so.)
posted by hearthpig at 5:10 AM on July 25


At least when I was playing, I didn't see many players fetishising one side or another.

Oh, I assure you there do exist tabletop gamers with let-us-say strong preferences.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:13 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]


What about the hundreds of Civil War and WW2 games where one person has to play the Confederates or Germans?
This is why I prefer my WW2 games to center on the Eastern Front, where you can play genocidal fascists vs dehumanizing totalitarians that treat their peasant infantry as cannon fodder, or the Pacific, where it’s foreign colonizers fighting to keep their subjugated colonies vs fascists who want to free Asia from the foreigners just so that they can have the exclusive privilege of oppressing their neighbors. Everyone gets to be a little terrible!

Maybe this is a consequence of having grown up in a country that’s still struggling with its own colonial baggage, but that stuff has never been too far from my mind in playing some of these 4X games. Our history is rife with war, conquest, exploitation and pillage, and it unavoidable if you like playing these kinds of games. I like that players are asking for more context and wanting to bring those issues more to the forefront, because I think it makes for a richer and more immersive experience. As folks have mentioned Paradox, I appreciate how their sci-fi 4X, Stellaris, lets you build a space empire using nerve stapled slave labor if that’s what you choose or droids that eventually gain sentience and want their own recognition. The production benefits are great but the social harmony penalties can make them challenging. How do you choose to approach that?

I think it’s worth having historical games where people can better understand why past societies chose to enslave people and why other places didn’t, and what that meant for them. Were you able to achieve great things because of that exploitation? Was it worth it at the time? Would you have been able to do other great things if you didn’t? What did those choices cost you? Don’t erase the choice, put it in front of the player so that they can better understand the history that they share with everyone else around them.
posted by bl1nk at 6:20 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]


Now, apparently, it's THAT'S JUST A STYLISED CHURCH LOL.

I did not say lol, and that is a very uncharitable representation of my comment. That exact stylised church building design has a long history in northern Europe that well predates Catan. It's widely used in ornaments, tea-candle holders, pictograms, etc, etc. If Catan has made a mistake here, it's including exactly four of the game pieces, not the choice of design.
posted by Dysk at 8:32 AM on July 25 [8 favorites]


(And city status has in many northern European countries been in some way tied to the presence of a church or cathedral for long periods of their history, so it's not like it's a completely arbitrary choice to represent a city rather than an undeveloped settlement.)
posted by Dysk at 8:34 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]


I wonder if Puerto Rico's rules referring to "colonists" was a last-minute change. See also the "mayor" role.
As his last duty, the mayor puts new colonists on the colonist ship to be used in the next mayor phase
posted by RobotHero at 8:38 AM on July 25


When they added this, all it made me think was "right, so these are people with their own cultures that I'm just arbitrarily wiping out. I don't know that it made it necessarily made it seem any better.

Except that you aren't arbitrarily wiping them out any more. The path to converting a barbarian tribe into a city state is A) being close to them B) hiring them with gold to do things (which includes "bribing them to not attack you). It's honestly fairly simple to do. The cost is that instead of killing the barbarians and taking their land, you're instead spending gold (which could be used on other things) and letting them become a city-state (which means one less city territory area for you to grab). But now you've got a city-state you're already semi-allied with, which means potential bonuses for you. I mostly find myself allying with barbarians because I prefer to play religious/cultural/diplomatic domination civilizations, so an extra city-state ally is usually worth the effort.

It's smart game design because it puts the choice on you. Prior to the barbarians patch, the barbarians were simply a mindless bother - you had to annihilate them because otherwise they'd just wreck your stuff because they were mindless AI killing machines. Now they're a proto-civilization and possible ally.
posted by mightygodking at 11:20 AM on July 25 [3 favorites]


Mod note: I'm deleting a bunch of debate over swastikas because a) the points were made upthread and b) it's becoming a distracting derail from a thread about colonialism in games by retreating to comfortably rehashing Why Hitler Is Bad rather than grappling with settler-colonialism in games and in the world. Please recognize that (especially white) Westerners arguing about Who Rejects Naziism The Most in a thread about colonialism is a way of avoiding discussing colonialism by retreating to a comfortable moral high ground.
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 11:50 AM on July 25 [43 favorites]


That's a very fair point, mightygodking. Perhaps the problem is still with me and my natural inclination (formed from 30 years of playing Civ) that the barbs have to be wiped out immediately.
posted by Zargon X at 12:36 PM on July 25


Oh, I assure you there do exist tabletop gamers with let-us-say strong preferences.

I absolutely believe you; I just didn't run in to many, probably because I was playing with a limited set of friends and friends of my brothers who were more fixated on the Napoleonic Wars than WWII or the American Civil War.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:07 PM on July 25


The Endless Legend approach to 'barbarians' is pretty good, imo. There's at least one minor faction village per region; you can either burn them down, or go on a quest to pacify them, and later assimilate them into your empire. Once assimilated, you can build their special unit, which can be really useful for rounding out weaknesses in your faction, and you also get a game bonus based on the number of pacified minor faction villages in your empire. eg, the weird snake creatures give you +0.5 movement points per village, which is pretty great.

The end result is that you get pretty solid bonuses for cultivating diversity, and have some incentives to run around the map defending and preserving your minor factions from other players. (the flip side is that you mostly care about minor factions to the extent that they're useful for advancing game objectives, rather than for any inherent respect for fellow sentient beings, but we may be running into some fundamental constraints of the 4x genre at this point.)
posted by kaibutsu at 2:29 PM on July 25 [4 favorites]


It would be laughably easy to remake Puerto Rico with a space-faring sci-fi aesthetic.

There kind of is: Race For The Galaxy was explicitly designed to be a card game variation of Puerto Rico. It wasn't released as such because Puerto Rico's designer, Andreas Seyfarth, was working on his own card game variation, called San Juan.


Yep. So, the way I understand it, San Juan is the card game version of Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy is based on San Juan and also there is now a board game version of Race for the Galaxy called New Frontiers that is apparently a bit like the board game version of Puerto Rico. So...maybe that?
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:01 PM on July 25 [1 favorite]


I imagine someone could put together an thematically interesting co-op game where the players assume the role of natives work together to thwart the onslaught of an invading colonizer

Pandemic?
posted by jeoc at 10:35 PM on July 25 [5 favorites]


So, the way I understand it, San Juan is the card game version of Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy is based on San Juan and also there is now a board game version of Race for the Galaxy called New Frontiers that is apparently a bit like the board game version of Puerto Rico. So...maybe that?

New Frontiers is almost entirely an improved version of Puerto Rico, mechanically speaking. (Puerto Rico is a clever design, but it has some notable flaws that experienced players can exploit against newer players, and when the entire table is experienced, the game can become "who has to take the bad action this round.") The lack of problematic real-world colonial analogues is just sort of a bonus.
posted by mightygodking at 11:14 PM on July 25 [1 favorite]


Yep. So, the way I understand it, San Juan is the card game version of Puerto Rico and Race for the Galaxy is based on San Juan

The way I understand it, RftG was created independently as a card game version of Puerto Rico before San Juan came out, and shown to the publisher, who liked it, but it had to be reskinned to distance it from San Juan thematically. I've played both and I think RftG is a better game, but it's also more complex and harder to learn.

I'm not familiar with New Frontiers. Maybe I should look into that....
posted by JHarris at 5:48 AM on July 26


And Jump Start is an introductory version of Race For the Galaxy, And Race is better than Puerto Rico, San Juan, Jump Start, and most games...

And then there are the "Dice Versions" of Race and I think San Juan, all of which are worse than RftG.
posted by Windopaene at 11:31 AM on July 26


I don't know if I like RftG better than Puerto Rico in gameplay terms, it's still awfully confusing to play with all those symbols, we still get it wrong whenever we play it sometimes, and its theme feels very generic to me. We have played it a lot though, that should count for something.
posted by JHarris at 12:25 PM on July 26


Hactar has put a good question on the green related to this thread, asking for examples of anti-colonialist games; i.e. where the theme is still colonialism, but you play from the indigenous side against the would-be colonisers. It seems like an under-explored genre.

However, I'd be very interested to see more discussion of game mechanics that differ entirely from the colonialist 4X model -- whilst still being rooted in the real world rather than being entirely abstract games. There are a lot more co-op games than there used to be, which is nice, but it would be interesting to see more innovation in the competitive space too.

Something I'd really like to see, is a 4X-ish game where you start with all the development already built-out and the resources exhausted, and where the goal is to bring it back to sustainability. Exploring that mechanic as a competitive game, rather than just a solitaire or co-op, could be really interesting for the times we live in.

Does anyone know of games that have gone in that direction?
posted by automatronic at 1:50 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


Something I'd really like to see, is a 4X-ish game where you start with all the development already built-out and the resources exhausted, and where the goal is to bring it back to sustainability. Exploring that mechanic as a competitive game, rather than just a solitaire or co-op, could be really interesting for the times we live in.

Does anyone know of games that have gone in that direction?


Vital Lacerda's CO2 is sort of what you're talking about. I played the original version years ago (and was stoked to try it, because I like Lacerda's designs) and I thought it was kind of mechanically flabby as a game, but they came out with a revised edition a couple years back which supposedly fixes the issues.
posted by mightygodking at 2:46 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


Windowpaene, the dice versions of RftG are just awful. Such a mess! But Jump Drive is a good introduction to the symbology and general gameplay gist, for those unwilling to dive directly into Race. The key thing is, "Galactic Trendsetters" are consistent across all games and will never not be used wherever possible.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:30 PM on July 26 [1 favorite]


I know. I hate Roll for the Galaxy, and love Race...
posted by Windopaene at 10:14 PM on July 26


A game that really rides the line of acceptability

Prison Architect
posted by snuffleupagus at 5:10 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]


There was going to be a board game of that, but the designers finally heard the people saying, "That's not okay."
posted by ob1quixote at 6:51 AM on July 28 [3 favorites]


There was a very nice old guy who lived on my block who told me his family were colonists -- in Poland. He said they were Dutch/German and were brought into the country because they knew how to build dikes and reclaim flooded land. He also said when the Nazis took over they mistrusted his people for somehow being not German enough (but German enough that they asked for volunteers to join the army) and put them into some kind of internment. Later, when the Soviets took, over his people were mistrusted for being too German and, again, put in some kind of camp. I suppose his experience would make for a different sort of colonialist boardgame.

As for the "tabletop gamers with let-us-say strong preferences", I once watched a friend grab up the little cardboard Hitler unit for the side he was playing and, after saying something about how much he hated Hitler, pop it into his mouth and grind it between his teeth. Not enough to ruin it, mind you, but still...
posted by house-goblin at 11:25 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]


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