Talking About Games: Scope & Relevance
Let’s begin with a question. Imagine two different board game settings. The first is a goofball portrayal of piracy, complete with silly names, outrageous violence, and plenty of plunder. The second is a goofball portrayal of colonialism, complete with silly names, outrageous violence, and plenty of plunder.
Which bothers you more?
I. The Question
I suspect you can already tell where this is going. It’s a classic gotcha, at least if the number of times I’ve been guided down this particular line of questioning is any indication. But for all the question’s brashness, it never seems all that hard to answer. It’s true that piracy and colonialism were once widespread. It’s also true that they both inflicted trauma against bodies and property. But one of them has become a relic. You might respond that piracy isn’t inconceivable even today. After all, it was the topic of that Tom Hanks film about a real-life hijacking that occurred in 2009. That was barely more than a decade ago! You may have watched as America’s Dad struggled to command his traumatized nervous system. It was remarkable acting. But the fact remains that the events of the Maersk Alabama hijacking were notable because they were exceptional, not commonplace. It was a remote occurrence, something that happens only sporadically, in places most people will never visit or even think about. Beyond the odd viewing of Captain Phillips — or, let’s be real, one of those goofball pirate flicks — the chances of any individual’s life being touched by piracy are so small that they don’t begin to factor into our mental calculus of daily risks.
And then there’s colonialism. As with piracy, it’s possible to go for long stretches without thinking about it. Perhaps it doesn’t strike us as an existential risk. But there are still reminders scattered throughout our insulated lives. Firehoses turned on native protesters. Border tensions between India and Pakistan. Ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Something getting bombed in Africa. Refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. These are the far-off reminders. There are subtler clues closer to home. The way a relative or a politician speaks about “letting the good ones in,” or “merit,” or about statistical crime rates in predominantly-something neighborhoods. These are not new arguments. They’re just worded differently. More carefully. Less liable to sound quite so near to a taskmaster appraising the latest shipment of chattel to determine the hardiest stock.
In other words, where one atrocity has all but vanished, the other lingers, if not as a fact of daily life or policy, then as scar tissue that hasn’t quite healed properly, which grows stiff in inclement weather, which seizes up at uncomfortable moments, and which is widely regarded with the same distaste that often accompanies frank discussions of impediment or inequality.
Whenever we come within a stone’s throw of history, as board games often do, it behooves us to consider the presence of atrocity. Not every atrocity is equivalently horrific or lasting. For example, topics such as colonialism or the triangular trade’s brand of slavery have proven more persistent than piracy or the Roman version of slavery, and therefore recommend different degrees of sensitivity. Does that seem obvious? Well, that’s the easy part. Here’s where the question transforms from a minor gotcha into a genuine ambush. Imagine two different board game settings. The first is a goofball portrayal of colonialism, complete with silly names, outrageous violence, and plenty of plunder. The second is a portrayal of colonialism with—
No names. No violence. No plunder. Nobody to name, to harm, to plunder. Nothing offensive has been included, apart from the geographical shapes of places that were historically colonized, alongside acts of colonization that are only implicitly rather than explicitly abusive, such as mining, logging, and establishing settlements. All the merriment of claiming land, none of the sticky stuff. Naturally, these destinations will still be rendered via the Mercator projection.
Does this change our answer? It’s entirely possible that it doesn’t. When GMT Games decided to remove Joe Chacon’s Scramble for Africa from their P500 list, responses were polarized. Many remained livid that a game they perceived as depicting whitewashed colonialism had been proposed at all; others were upset that a potentially harmless game had been withdrawn from the P500. Since the game hasn’t been released, it isn’t possible to evaluate how it handled its sensitive topic. It’s no secret that I was a fence-sitter on the Scramble for Africa debate. I tend to believe that sweeping omission is usually worse than inclusions we might regard as “problematic,” especially when many games releases in aggregate paint a picture of colonialism that’s more bloodless than a stalk of celery. At the same time, I’m not in the business of critiquing games until I’ve played them, so GMT’s approach struck me as a public relations blunder more than a design issue. In either case, the question stands. Is it possible to design a board game that broaches or omits such topics without drawing ire?
Don’t expect easy answers. There are none to be found, and that goes double when we’re talking about individual levels of discomfort. But when framing the discussion of how to evaluate board game settings that deal with portrayals of historical atrocity, I’ve found that it’s helpful to consider two criteria: scope and relevance.
The first critical question is whether the game in question could reasonably portray the atrocities of its topic or period with some degree of realism and faithfulness given the limitations of its scope.
Since our discussion began with the issue of colonialism, it makes sense to remain there. As students of history will recognize, the model for Atlantic colonization tended to rely on triangular trade routes. When speaking about international commerce, the term “triangular trade” can refer to any exchange that requires at least three ports. But it’s most infamously known as the basis for the Atlantic Slave Trade. First, slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas to act as cheap labor for the production of raw resources such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton. These resources were then transported to Europe for refinement into textiles, rum, weapons, and other tools. Finally, some of these manufactured products were shipped back to Africa to be bartered for kidnapped slaves. Some ships made the full circuit, a voyage expected to consume an entire calendar year, and aided by the natural gyre current of the North Atlantic. It’s estimated that over twelve million slaves were transported along these routes. Although the Portuguese were by far the largest mover of captive peoples, transporting as many slaves as the next three traffickers combined, Great Britain, France, and Spain were non-negligible in their own efforts to shift large pools of unwilling labor from Africa to the Americas.
Which brings us to Imperial Struggle, Jason Matthews and Ananda Gupta’s spiritual successor to Twilight Struggle. Like its predecessor, Imperial Struggle tackles the topic of international relations, this time through the lens of the colonial race between Great Britain and France. In-game, one’s standing in this race is represented by a number of factors, including ownership of spaces on the board, counters for armies and fleets, and cards that portray everything from historical events to imperial policies. The most visible element is the status of the board’s many spaces, especially once they become the flashpoints in the players’ ongoing struggle for supremacy over Europe, North America, the Caribbean, and India. It isn’t uncommon for some of these spaces to change hands multiple times over the course of a game. There are markets that award trade goods, political spaces for control over local allies such as American Indians or lesser European nations, and military spaces that function as harbors for fleets and forts for hindering a foe’s efforts at expansion.
Objections to Imperial Struggle on the grounds of “whitewashing” or “erasure” are not without merit. Given the game’s wide-ranging emphasis on the mechanisms of imperial power, including commercial monopolies, one can easily imagine a version of the game that highlights the Atlantic Slave Trade’s triangular nature. Africa is geographically absent from the game, and the slave trade, while present, is limited to one of many tokens that can be earned via control of a space on the map. Specifically, the Slaving Contracts token cuts the cost of a naval squadron in half. In context, this is a considerable but not extreme advantage, as the construction of a squadron is one of the most costly actions an empire can take. It effectually represents all three sides of the triangle being fulfilled, with one’s military costs directly (if circuitously) reduced through a willingness to capture and protect slaving contracts.
A single token, no matter how useful, may seem like scant acknowledgement of the four and a half million bodies stolen across the Atlantic by the game’s protagonists. But even such a mind-boggling atrocity isn’t out of bounds once we consider the scale of the other tokens on offer, and thus the atrocities one is called to commit. The entire impact of American Indians on colonial affairs in North America is compressed to two tokens. Patriot Agitation, which may aid the success of the American War of Independence, is also reduced to a token. The long string of resistance movements in India becomes the singular Separatist Wars token. Wherever one looks, players are called upon to enact staggering atrocities, yet most of these acts are compiled on cardboard wedges only slightly larger than a coin.
Of course, there’s room to discuss the impact of each token, or their quantities, or the appropriateness of their bonuses. But these are, in the end, quibbles. More important is the game’s scope, which encompasses so many endeavors, so many military conflicts, and so many obscenities, that the game’s emphasis becomes about covering as many individual events as possible rather than drinking too fully from any individual well of suffering. The result is both thrilling and transgressive, inserting one into the mindset of an imperial decision-maker. No major event escapes your notice, but the depth of the suffering caused by that event certainly will.
Some commentators have pointed to the success of Cole Wehrle’s work in Pax Pamir, John Company, and An Infamous Traffic. These are telling comparisons, and in fact reinforce the importance of a game’s intended scope when evaluating its treatment of sensitive subject matter. While Wehrle is an exemplar when it comes to expressing the ground-level horrors of colonialism and the irony of an opium peddler returning home to purchase an especially fine hat, these games are designed with a tighter scope and therefore a sharper resolution. In Wehrle’s broader titles such as Root and the forthcoming Oath, dire occurrences are masked not only by fantastical settings, but also by necessary compression. An uprising of the Woodland Alliance presumably includes beheadings and all manner of bloodletting, yet these are depicted as the removal of a few pieces and the accumulation of points. Similarly, the Marquise de Cat’s sawmills are likely staffed by the mice, rabbits, and foxes of the game’s clearings, but their only visible output is the lumber tokens they produce. To borrow from the language of our hobby’s sister medium and employ a woeful pun in the same breath, these personal tragedies are “pixelated”: rendered, but only fuzzily. Thematically, they’re present, but only at a distance.
The handling of war crimes in Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw’s Brave Little Belgium is similarly illustrative of what a game’s scope can and cannot accomplish. The German invasion of Belgium in WWI is accompanied by an “atrocities” track. These might occur when the German player, desperate to break into France as quickly as possible, spurs their troops to take additional activations — covering extra ground, fighting longer hours, that sort of thing. The implication is that as the German soldiers are rushed, their dealings with the locals becomes more brutish, until at last the locals are so fed up with being mistreated that their resistance causes further delays. In this depiction of war, the interplay between invading armies and local populations refuses to dissolve into the background, as in so many other conflict simulations. But the specifics of those atrocities are beneath our inspection. It’s enough to know that the German player’s actions may have undesirable consequences, and that the tempo of their advance must take the possibility of those consequences into account.
In these examples, it’s useful to note how Imperial Struggle and Brave Little Belgium make use of their scope in service of their design. The broad approach to imperial atrocity and the possibility of atrocity when spurring one’s troops are not tacked on. They’re integral to these games’ thematic statements and their mechanical implications. Rather than functioning as preachy flavor text, they’re fluid inclusions in their games’ decision space. Much of your time in Imperial Struggle is spent persuading American Indians, pirates, slavers, raiders, and separatists to take your side in order to deploy them against your opponent. Any stalled effort in Brave Little Belgium will likely see generals wondering if they can risk the blowback of exhausted soldiers interacting brutishly with the occupied. In both cases, understanding what can be depicted within a game’s intended scope is useful to design, evaluation, and play.
Fun detail: the idea for this piece began when somebody asked me if I felt as guilty as they did when playing Settlers of Catan.
Now, it’s been years since I played Settlers of Catan. Probably since before it was rebranded as “Just Catan — it’s cleaner.” And really, the question isn’t wholly about Catan. It’s about colonialism in games, and the perception that Catan’s seat in the pantheon of classic Eurogames seems based on the exploitation and erasure of indigenous peoples.
Except Catan is plainly fantastical. The robber could be considered a “native,” but nothing textual argues for that. For all intents and purposes, it provides the thrill of exploration and the satisfaction of constructing a working settlement without the pesky moral grays. Which, honestly, is no more concerning to me than fantasy war or fantasy sports or fantasy dating or fantasy anything. There’s a tendency to regard critique as the realm of joyless scolds. If only it weren’t so easy to see why. When we begin every examination with the assumption that the methods in question must be exploitative, we’re putting the cart before the horse and subsequently wondering how all these carts came to roll around town. Fiction can teach a message, but it also functions as escapism, and escapism is more than a way to numb oneself to the stresses of daily life. It’s a palate cleanser. A reset. Perspective, even. Escapism can even be morally useful, letting us take well-deserved breaks from the serious issues that otherwise occupy our thoughts. In so doing, we can return to reality ready to face those challenges. After all, an important part of fantasy is the understanding that it’s not real.
Spelled out, Catan bears no relevance to the real. Instead, we should be concerned when our sense of what’s real breaks down, especially as games begin to overlap with real issues — in particular, history. The problem isn’t so much that one game omits historical events, or paints over the chalk outlines, or presents colonialism as jolly good fun without any downsides. Because we don’t only learn things once. We learn through repetition. Every educator knows this, from Sunday school teachers who repeat the same truisms to university professors who know that part of their job is to reteach some of the material their students learned previously. So the problem isn’t that one game teaches celery-blooded colonialism. It’s that nearly all of them do.
No need to give examples; there are plenty that dwell in the overlap between historical wallpaper and whitewash. I wrote elsewhere that colonialism is the topic de jure of the European school of game design, and I meant it seriously. More than a tendency, it’s a birthright. What’s more natural than for a continent to relive the exploits of its past few centuries through play?
More remarkable, then, is the odd design that takes its subject matter seriously. One of my favorite examples is Endeavor: Age of Sail, an eminently playable game that still manages to depict slavery as both a temptation and a double-edged sword for those empires that partake in it. Its model of history is still streamlined down to its barest outline, but at least it resembles the shape of events as they occurred rather than embracing a reductive three-cheers perspective. To play Endeavor, one is driven to expand far and wide, and asked to consider the ramifications of engaging in slavery. This might sound more like a lecture than a game, but nothing could be further from the truth. Endeavor never climbs atop a tall horse. Rather, emancipation is a viable option that will deduct points from those who used the game’s slavery cards. But this is by no means a foregone conclusion. It requires preparation, positioning, and even a certain level of slavery before it’s enough of an issue for people to consider abolishing. As with our previous examples, this tension is folded into the play rather than bolted on as a phantom vestigial limb.
In any case, these two criteria have proven useful tools in my own belt when looking at games with sensitive subject matter. By asking whether a game’s scope could encompass a particular topic or perhaps portray it more fluidly, and questioning whether it bears any real-world relevance through proximity to a historical period or sensitive issue, it’s possible to speak more clearly about the title in question.
And next time, I’ll be subjecting two of my favorite games to exactly these questions.
In the next installment of Talking About Games, we’ll be examining the contrasting and complimentary messages of An Infamous Traffic and John Company. But no need to wait — supporters can already find it on Patreon.