Talking About Games: Scope & Relevance

Wee Aquinas regards any discussion that omits his work on examining godliness through analogy as beneath 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?

Very goofball. Good goofball.

Goofball piracy.

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—

Not as goofball as some other colonialisms, though.

Goofball colonialism.

Nothing.

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.

I didn't take very good pictures of this game.

Imperial Struggle.

II. Scope

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.

It's all Spain's fault, apparently.

The Slaving Contracts token.

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 first sequel, Lucky Little Luxembourg, always makes me chuckle.

Brave Little Belgium.

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.

It's the superior version.

This is not Settlers of Catan.

III. Relevance

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.

Reminder to self: try the expansion.

Endeavor: Age of Sail.

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.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on January 13, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I’m always hopeful that Archipelago will come up in one of these discussions, particularly since I haven’t managed to get my copy to the table since buying it recently (it was a charity auction, a fact that definitely helped me avoid questioning the game’s approach to colonialism). I feel a little bit conflicted about putting it in front of friends, especially since one of my classes this semester explicitly covered the colonization of the pacific.

    I suppose being a student of history might be an advantage in the sense that I might be better positioned to detect the critique embedded in the game, but in that case it might be even harder to put this in front of friends who haven’t read anything about this period, but who are still wary of roleplaying colonizers. Also, I suppose being Irish makes things more difficult given our complicated relationship with colonialism.

    I suppose what I want to ask is, do you think Archipelago takes a serious approach to its subject matter? Ill hopefully be able to judge for myself when my copy of the solo expansion arrives, but I read this blog for a reason and I’d like to know what you make of the game

    Also, if you’re aware of any other useful articles or discussions of the game, I’d love to hear about them because my googling came up short.

    P.S. Thanks for the great blog, I wish more board game writing was as good as yours.

    • Archipelago is an interesting case study because it does a fairly good job, but its omissions are almost more obvious because of how close it gets. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it back in 2012, and with a little bit of effort it could go all the way.

      (Also, I haven’t played it in something like six years, so the particulars may be escaping me.)

  2. Great article, although my answer to the initial question is much more straightforward: pirates have always been depicted as the commoners getting one over on the rich (truth not getting in the way of a good story) whereas colonialism has been thought of as the rich getting one over on the commoners. People can fantasise about leaving their life behind and heading out on the open seas and living the life of a pirate (again, as you said, it’s fantasy) whereas the common person would never be in the position to run and operate a large scale operation but merely be a cog in the wheel of such an operation (which in this case would be a slaver rather than a general. I suppose people fantasise about their own individual freedom, and pirates hold similar esteem to that of the biker gang, despite the fact that both involve causing a great deal of misery to others to afford such freedoms. Few people would fantasise about having more work to do (you might imagine yourself being a pilot, rather than an air traffic controller, to give a less hot-button example). And that’s where I think boardgames differ greatly from most other mediums, as most mediums are inherently personal, even watching a movie with someone, you’re just watching a movie, it’s still a solitary experience, just that there’s another person in the room also experiencing the same thing, but their experience of it might differ slightly from you’re own, even though you both watched the same movie in the same room at the same time.

    Video games tend to do a better job of providing escapism because you are playing the character in it’s entirety, you often make decisions on dialogue and which things to do when, etc.; if I wanted to simulate being Batman, then I can drive around in the batmobile fighting crime and ignore the main plot for a while, or whatever. Add competition to that and having mostly open information outside of perhaps event cards (which, if they are closed information, must also be drawn randomly…otherwise for someone to purposely gain a specific card they would need to have that information meaning it wouldn’t be open information) removes the notion of exploration for the sake of exploration, there’s no “I wonder what’s around this corner” because you can literally see around the corner, you can see everything that’s on the board, and if you’re competing then it probably isn’t worth the risk of doing something just for the sake of…fun? In a cooperative game people are even less adventurous because no one wants to be to blame when the world explodes or whatever, because they decided to rifle through a deck of cards each turn to see what might come up instead of fighting the game’s antagonist.

    A boardgame,contrary to almost every other medium of entertainment, tends to make playing the individual either more difficult or less satisfying than a more operational approach; and so suddenly the idea of being a pilot is less interesting than that of the air traffic controller, because how would you transpose flying a plane in a series of mathematical mechanisms? It would either be too simple that it lacks any excitement, and doesn’t really feel like you’re gliding around the skies but merely moving a piece a few spaces on a table, or it would be wholly too complicated and be more like maths homework than anything resembling fun. Flying 20 different planes at the same time and coordinating them for maximum efficiency is more exciting on the table top. A movie might focus on a shop assistant who falls in love with a customer, who keeps finding an excuse to shop their regularly to see said shop assistant (“really, you needed another hammer? What was wrong with the first 7 hammers?), all in the name of a good romance tale; but a game has no time for such whimsy, why aren’t you working harder, these hammers won’t sell themselves, we’re hoping to branch out into also selling screwdrivers! In this sense it’s not hard to see why boardgames tended to focus less on pirates and more on colonialism, because from a purely gameplay angle it is more interesting, and by focusing on being a competitive game it feels more thematic than if it did focus on the atrocities, because they weren’t of great consequence to the people making the grand strategic decisions, that was way farther down the chain. But ultimately it comes down to inherited values, same as people all think pirates speak with a terrible attempt at a Cornish accent because of movies, boardgame designers grew up (or at least matured?) playing these games and so it doesn’t seem such a bizarre choice to make another one. Does every train game really need to be about trains? Not really, no, but why bother making it not about trains? People talk a lot about theme in games at the moment, but increasingly I find that once you begin actually playing the game most semblance of theme goes out the window and you simply start running the numbers. The Cost was among my most anticipated games of 2020, I was highly keen to play it, I loved your article, I even enjoyed reading the rules and escaping into the fantasy of playing the game, I guess, but the truth is that once I finally did sit down with 2 friends to play the game, killing your workers was just a logical decision to be utilised for maximum efficiency (I killed workers too early in the game, the winner progressively killed more workers as the game went on). It was only after the other players had left that I began thinking about the game on a deeper level again and thinking about this aspect cleverly relating to this aspect, but these are all intellectual ideas (by which I mean they aren’t emotive, I didn’t feel any of it).

    I’ve wandered off track a bit here, I’ll be honest, but I’ve reminded myself of a similar question that I was thinking about recently as a result of Tom Russell’s new game The Vote and why it would feel worse to be the player who is trying to prevent women getting the Vote than playing as the player in defence of slavery in This Guilty Land. In part you answered this in your review, from a gameplay perspective the two roles aren’t made equal, and if you removed all flavour and had the two games as Side A vs Side B or Red vs Blue, then it would definitely be more worthwhile playing the antagonist of TGL. But from a thematic stand point I think it is one of removal. I couldn’t imagine myself running a slave operation, but I could imagine myself being a sexist, and that makes me uncomfortable. I think the theme of colonialism is dying out in games because it is now discussed so readily at the drop of a new game notification that more people are aware that it wasn’t quite the smiley happy farming life that Catan made it seem and it too makes them uncomfortable, but in the 90s someone says “let’s play this game about settlers” and it seems lovely and the more historical ones feel so buried in the past that it’s easy to forget that there may be some people alive today whose grandparents were around at the time (granted they’d be ridiculously old, but all the same).

    Anyway, what was my point again? I’ve nearly run out of battery typing this 😅

  3. “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.”

    As the inhabitants of any African or South American country that produces diamonds, copper, bananas, rubber, or rare earth elements – to say nothing of anyone in an American prisons who is compelled to labor for pennies an hour – could tell you, the past tense is not apposite here.

  4. Love the term “pixelated.” Nice analogy.

  5. I think ‘viewpoint’ goes along with scope and relevance. If Im designing a game where I am a colonial power, and there is no slavery, then the game is guilty of whitewashing. Yet if there is slavery, from the viewpoint of a colonial power pursuing colonialist goals, there is no downside to using slaves to advance that agenda. Now the game is guilty of representing slavery in a positive light. You are ‘acknowledging the slavery, but its existence in the game is reduced to thematic ‘colour’

    You could introduce some cost/benefit tradeoff, like your example WWII army example, but would it ring thematically true? I cant think of any such counter balancing factor/cost that would work … *** from the viewpoint of a colonial power pursuing colonial objectives *** …

    To get around this damned if you do/dont situation, you need to change the viewpoint of the player to something other than a colonial power pursing colonial goals, such that slavery can transform from ‘thematic colour’ to something mechanically relevant. But then you are changing the essential nature of the game.

    • There will obviously be different tolerances for this sort of thing, so I can only speak for myself. I don’t need a game to only embrace the viewpoint of the oppressed in order for it to make a worthwhile point. Some of this discussion is meant not only as a moderating influence on designers, but also against critics making knee-jerk reactions against particular game settings. There will always be folks who take umbrage at difficult subject matter. What matters to me is that we do our best to approach these topics responsibly, even when somebody is bound to get upset.

      (I like the addition of viewpoint, by the way. That’s a useful consideration.)

  6. If I may answer your gotcha with a gotcha, why is a goofball portrayal of the Roman Empire fine and a goofball portrayal of the British Empire capital-p Problematic? As you say, we are still dealing with the knock on effects of European Imperialism, but then we’re still dealing with the aftereffects of Roman imperial policies such as the Jewish Diaspora.

    I suppose my question is, do you feel this any topics in board games besides European Colonialism/Imperialism have a similar level of moral issues?

    • That came out as more accusatory than I meant it to. Sorry about that.

      Actually, I’ve heard about one game that I thought did something along the lines of Endeavor above. It’s an obscure print-on-demand game about the early American Republic. Early on, the players (it’s semi-coop) have the chance to abolish slavery, but it’s expensive and politically difficult. But if you don’t every bad thing that happens because of slavery and drives the country towards destruction is *your fault*. I haven’t had the chance to actually play the game in question, granted, but that struck me as being very clever.

      • It’s all good! I didn’t read your tone as accusatory. This is a good question.

        I use colonialism as an example because it’s a hot topic right now, but there are plenty of settings that draw heat. Europe Divided drew flak for portraying the EU/NATO alliance as the “good guys” fighting the Russian “bad guys.” I’ve heard the COIN Series criticized for depicting terrorism, Twilight Struggle for its (intentionally) simplistic view of the Domino Theory, WWII games for letting one side play as the Nazis — and so forth.

        Does distance add some wiggle room to a topic? Of course! That’s always been the case, whether we’re talking about jokes (“Too soon!”) or board games. But that distance won’t mean the same thing to everybody. For example, I once discussed the possibility of a game about the Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 CE in which somebody might be the group’s “Josephus” — a traitor to their people. The guy I was discussing the game with was Jewish, and he was excited about the idea. I later learned that another acquaintance, also Jewish, found it terribly offensive.

        That extreme subjectivity is one of the reasons I try to look past “offense” when playing a game. Rather, I try to evaluate whether the game is respectful of its topic. Did it try to accurately model its history, adopt a sensitive point of view, and maybe pursue a line of inquiry? Sometimes offense can even be useful, as when a game asks us to question our history. So, rather than focus on whether a game offends my sensibilities, scope and resolution are two of the terms I’ve adopted to help myself contextualize when an omission is useful, acceptable, or a problem with a particular design.

      • I wasn’t really asking about what other people found offensive though, I was asking about you. You spent a lot of the Imperial Struggle review for example talking about the moral hazards of the theme, but you didn’t mention any of that in the Europe divided review, for example.

      • Personally, certain US Civil War games are hard to play, especially those that lionize the Confederacy.

      • That makes sense to me. Personally, they don’t bother me as long as they seem to understand what the war was about.

  7. A sex-worker friend of mine lost interest (to put it mildly) in Mystery Rummy #1 once she realized that one of its key mechanics was the murder of prostitutes. (She was also not super happy with the “Sabine Rule” in Phil Eklund’s Origins, because she is also an anthropologist and she knows what theories are discredited and what theories aren’t.)

    I think anyone who asks a question like, “Why is a goofball portrayal of the Roman Empire fine?” – which is how it’s very frequently formulated – is barking up the wrong tree. A better way to put the question would be, “To whom is a goofball portrayal of the Roman Empire _not_ fine, and why do they think so?” If you look for those people and can’t find them, you have a functional answer.

    In the case of how colonialism is depicted in games, most of the reason it’s been done the way has is that it never occurred to anyone involved in developing those games that there’s anyone who would find it troubling. They had the privilege to come to adulthood with those themes being, if anything, colorful parts of their history. They didn’t have grandparents who survived only by the skin of their teeth, and more importantly, _they didn’t know anyone who did_.

    This is one of the things that makes Alexander Pfister’s Mombasa so eye-opening. How can someone, in 2018, not know (or not care, which is worse) that these issues matter to so many people? _You_ may not see children with their hands cut off when you see diamonds being extracted from Africa, but how do you not know that there are people who do?

    “Relevance” is personal. It’s not some in-dwelling abstract characteristic of a game’s design and presentation, it’s a function of the people who encounter it. My friend’s reaction to Mystery Rummy #1 has certainly informed how I look at some games, but even so, my reaction is still not, and never will be, the same as that of someone who has lived with the fear of being murdered.

  8. Fantastic post as usual.

    With reference to the Belgium game. What is the evidence of rushed troops being more brutish to civilians? I’m not saying they weren’t brutish but I’m interested in what sources were drawn on to reach the conclusion that informed the rule. I don’t own the game – was anything mentioned in the designers notes or bibliography?

    Cheers,

    Pete.

  9. I greatly appreciate these posts on political and moral issues in boardgames, Dan. Thanks for writing them and getting this conversation going at a deeper level. Very necessary work.

    That said I have to admit this bit surprised me a little:

    “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.”

    At the risk of being a joyless scold – well no, I don’t really want to argue with anybody who enjoys Catan. But I do have questions about the argument, since fantasy, too, is a real part of the real, historical world, and plays its role in it.

    On the one hand, all political violence is motivated in fantasies. Fantasy is all too real in that sense. Conversely, fantasy can function as a sublimation – and seemingly innocuous representation – of political violence. SF and Fantasy have real world effects in the norms, tropes and figures they may promote. The True Bloodline of Kings is not an innocent figure, or The Exotic Native, the Evil Race or the degenerate half-breed servant of Yog-Sothoth. Such figures may seem not to affect anything, but they mold the imagination and will help make certain stories easier to tell yourself. Or as Donna Haraway puts it, it matters what stories tell stories.

    Personally, I do enjoy playing games even if I have questions about their politics. So many worker placement and resource management games where in the back of my mind I cannot not think, ‘so how does all that clean enough seeming exploitation work, really?’. It seems to me that there exists a category of lies that function precisely by not talking about issues, and colonial tropes even in fantasy settings are typically susceptible to that.

    I wouldn’t argue against playing those games though, but what I’d rather argue for is to play them with an awareness of what’s maybe not there in the story, too. Find ways to make every game into a true learning experience.

    End of rant, keep up the good work!

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