Colonizers vs. Pirates vs. Egyptians!

I was going to paste in a few images of some Egyptians, but I like this one as is. Also, the fellow on the bottom right keeps tricking me into thinking he's a zombie, which is kinda on-topic.

In the month since I published Greenwashing History, my examination of how Martin Wallace’s A Study in Emerald and AuZtralia portray certain historical figures as aliens in order to justify their extermination, one question has bobbed to the surface more than any other:

Do I care as much about the ancient Egyptians?

Oh, it could be anyone. Egyptians. Pirates. Ancient Roman slaves. Atlanteans. It isn’t exactly a new question. It’s come up under varying degrees of good faith over the years. One suspects its regularity betrays an agenda. That maybe someone would prefer I shut up about some topic. But since I don’t like to presume, today I’d like to offer, sans the usual degree of snark I’d normally reserve for such a question, the three informal criteria that I use to determine whether I’ll write about a particular historical topic in board games.

I know so much about this dang sarcophagus.

The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus.

I. Expertise

I know this is going to surprise some of you, but I’m not good at everything.

Formally speaking, I’m fully trained as a historian of Christian history, halfway trained as a bioethicist, and roughly one-sixteenth trained as a clinical worker. I’m also an Eagle Scout, but I consider that a ding on my reputation more than a bonus star.

Christian history covers roughly, oh, two thousand and twenty-one years. Plus some Jewish, Greek, and Roman history for background. That’s a lot of ground to cover. And I haven’t covered all of it. If you need to know something about changing attitudes toward materialism in Christianity, including burial practices, the accumulation of wealth, and the interactions between bishops and sovereigns, I’m your guy. Schisms, periods of transition, and ideological conflicts, absolutely. Bad popes? I’ll spill the tea.

That’s a tiny fraction of human history. A golden thread, frayed and discolored and sometimes broken, winding a course through the last two millennia. This isn’t to say I don’t have an interest in other periods or places; I absolutely do. But in many cases, my understanding is superficial. I may know the outline, but that’s not enough to write anything relevant.

So when I’m asked why I write about colonialism, I have two thoughts.

Shrug. There's always some guy.

Oh, some guy.

First, this type of question makes a huge leap of logic. Because I’ve written a few pieces on colonialism, maybe I should be consistent in my values by covering these other topics! Isn’t piracy bad? Wasn’t ancient Egyptian slavery bad? Why don’t I care about those board games?

Except… who’s saying I don’t care? Because there’s a good chance I do. Maybe not to the same degree — we’ll talk about that in a moment — but if somebody wants to write about how Friedemann Friese’s Faiyum doesn’t give Egyptian slaves their due, I’d be more than happy to read it.

The difference, of course, is that I’m an expert in one thing, not everything. If I had the expertise to write about the Mayans and Egyptians, maybe I would. Until then, I’ll leave that to somebody who knows what they’re talking about. That theoretical historian-slash-game-critic will likely be aware of the developing body of archaeological evidence that Egyptian slavery was more limited than previously understood, including the possibility that the Great Pyramids were built by free artisans rather than forced labor, and will inform our asker that their entire question is built on faulty premises, at which point I’m absolutely certain they won’t simply add, “But what about pirates, huh?”

Since I’m not that historian, I’ll stay in my lane. Topics dealing with Christianity it is!

The Iglesia El Rosario, built over the ruins of the church built by José Matías Delgado, father of Central American independence, and using local resources (such as the bare concrete exterior, wrought iron, and unpredictable fragments of stained glass) is an example of both Christian and revolutionary architecture. Its open design eschews pillars; one of its central design goals, according to its architect Ruben Martinez, was to create a church that faced the people rather than fleeing from God.

The Iglesia El Rosario of San Salvador, outside and in.

II. Impact

Here’s the second, more uncomfortable part: while colonialism wasn’t solely a Christian phenomenon, a significant proportion of its undertakings were uniquely Christian.

I know, I know, somebody is already opening a tab to write me an email about how that can’t possibly be true. But look at Latin America. It’s called Latin America, for crying out loud. The majority of its population identifies as Christian. How much of a majority?

89.7% as of 2015.

Look, I’m not telling you that just shy of ninety percent is “bad.” Really, I’m not. I’m a Christian. When I visited El Salvador a few years back, it was remarkable being able to sit across from people I could barely communicate with, yet still having a shared vocabulary that transcended language. Our clinic was an interdenominational effort. We worked with priests, nuns, and volunteers from churches that under normal circumstances might be caught saying nasty things about each other.

At the same time, it was hard not to escape the signs of colonialism all around us. The wreckage of ancient structures. The mestizo culture’s blend of indigenous and European culture. The bullet holes left unpatched as a reminder of the revolution. The informal patron sainthood of Óscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop who spoke out against Christian violence, including the death squads trained and armed by the United States, and was himself martyred for it. The reminders were inescapable.

There's too much to say about Romero, so I'll just ask that anyone unfamiliar with the man take a look at his Wikipedia page.

Oscar Romero.

And yeah, that hits closer to home, both temporally and geographically, than Egyptian slavery. I touched upon this issue in my piece on Scope and Relevance. The main reason I write about some topics and not others is because some of them are more relevant. This isn’t to say that Egyptian slavery isn’t a loaded topic for some — I know very well that it is. But for me personally, as somebody who teaches English as a second language to refugees, who lived on a Native American reservation, who’s done volunteer work in Latin America, and who teaches the history of Christianity, the impact of colonialism isn’t only recent. It’s ongoing.

Frankly, that’s what always surprises me the most about this question. Yes, bad things have happened across the entire scope of the human experience. And yes, I’m interested in all sorts of suffering. Not because I’m creepy. The creepiness is a bonus. Rather, because it teaches me about both our species’ most desirable and despicable traits. It shows how far we’ve come. It shows how far we’ve yet to go. Liz Davidson’s series about the tricky details of Roman gladiatorial combat that go missing from board games is a current favorite of mine, precisely because it gives a voice to people whose lives are often reduced to a second round of entertainment.

But half-recalled suffering is not the same as the needle under your fingernail right now. That should be obvious to anybody who’s, like, been alive. Since I can’t write about every historical niggle in every board game, I prioritize the issues that strike me as having some ongoing impact on our lives today.

What a game.

Ben Madison’s The Mission.

III. Enjoyment

On one level, I understand the complaint, even if it’s shrouded behind a veil of deception. Nobody likes it when somebody walks up and starts throwing around the P-word.


It’s a scold’s word. Too vague. Too often deployed by people who don’t know what they’re talking about. Not long ago, somebody was venting their frustration on social media over yet another board game about colonialism. Someone pointed out that games are just math, so retheme the thing. The chorus in the background wailed about “how is this even allowed,” as though some Board Game Registrar would descend from the clouds to slap the wrist of the insensitive designer. Everybody felt very righteous. Because of their grousing, the world was made better.

Except the game in question was Cole Wehrle’s John Company, one of the most explicitly anti-colonial games I’ve ever played. I mean that quite literally. Not only as an academic exercise, but also as a game that’s helped ordinary people, some of whom were colonial apologists beforehand, to recognize the abuses of colonial mercantilism. It models the why that goes missing from so many board games. Not “why are you doing this,” although that’s in there too. But also “why didn’t this work,” and “why it couldn’t work,” and “why this didn’t leave its subjects better off than they were before.” It guts one of colonialism’s central defenses right down to the bone.

The second edition doesn't have the elephant, which is why it's inferior in every regard.

Cole Wehrle’s John Company.

If you’re interested in what board games can accomplish as historical arguments, John Company is an essential play. To paste something else over the top would lessen the impact. Maybe even ruin it entirely. It is not “just math.” Help me, it’s even fun to play.

But its existence hinges on criticism of colonial-set games. It owes its existence, in part, to the conversation surrounding how historical board games should depict difficult subjects. It is, itself, an act of critique.

That’s thrilling. Perhaps more relevant to someone else’s interests, it’s an example of criticism leading to better games. More interesting and more enjoyable.

In simpler terms, I write about board games because I enjoy board games. For me, critically assessing a game is a sheer delight, whether we’re talking about whether a particular title is a standout among its peers or discussing the mixed success of Martin Wallace transforming historical figures into aliens. Digging into the aspects of a game that appealed to me, or made me think, or made me feel uncomfortable — that’s enjoyable for me. “Outrage” doesn’t even factor into it. When something outrages me, I write my congressperson or attend a county council meeting.

Meanwhile, when somebody insinuates that I’m ruining their fun because I got more out of a board game than they did, that’s also enjoyable. Consider me a Fun Vampire; the less you enjoy a board game because of something I wrote, the better the game becomes for me. I probably won’t write about the slave-holding systems of ancient Egypt anytime soon. But don’t hold me to that. Because the question has me thinking about what I’d like to tackle next.


My next piece, the first in a series on Root as an expression of Foucauldian power dynamics, is already up on Patreon! You can read it over here.

(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 October 7, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. God, I love this. Now we have something to link whenever this question gets asked.

    • Thanks, Matt! Hopefully those asking the question won’t mind reading a bit. Maybe, on reflection, I should have been more concise: “Because I’m lazy, darn it!”

  2. The attempt to expand the problem into every aspect of history is an attempt to gray-wash the issue to the point of absurdity, effectively disarming your argument. In the end the person can say “if everything is bad, then nothing is worse than anything else. What are you going to do?” That’s a chump question. That’s someone looking for a justification to do whatever they want.

    And frankly, just because someone raises thorny issues regarding a boardgame’s topic doesn’t mean that the game is invalidated, it simply means that its subject matter is more complicated than it appears on first pass. John Company shines because it presses that thorny issue into forefront. It’s as much a feature of the game as anything else. Wehrle is forcing you to look at the injustice, and frankly the absurdity of the situation depicted. He’s calling out our complacency, forcing us to shake our heads and grind out teeth, regardless of our ethnic heritage. This is us. This is humanity. Unless you’re a chimp you ain’t off the hook, and chimps can be pretty nasty too.

    So when all of this boils out, you have to decide for yourself what constitutes a “good” game. If thematic elements are on your criteria list, then a game like John Company is way more thematic, and better for it, than most of its predecessors. When someone says “what about pirates?” they’re hiding in generalities. “What about Pirate’s Cove” is a real question, and the response is that, thematically, it’s milquetoast. It’s not a good game, at least not from an intellectual depth perspective.

    On reading that back to myself I think I just came up with a more polite way to call someone stupid . . . I withdraw the comment.

    • For the most part, I wholeheartedly agree! In most cases, the question is a deflection, not a genuine concern. However, I believe that any question can be asked in good faith. For example, we’ve had some very insightful and mutually edifying conversations in these very comments sections! So I wanted to give the question the benefit of the doubt while also being totally clear why I’m more concerned with an ongoing topic like colonialism than with whatever form of labor built the Great Pyramids.

  3. Your excellent writeup is ignoring, the giant 3D printed elephant in the room, which is that the 2e Kickstarter of John Company includes an elephant. Please alter your alt text.

  4. Good piece, and I appreciate your putting the emphasis on your own perspective; it gives the piece an immediacy that I think would be hard for anyone to argue against!

    The version of the “why this but not that?” question I have at times raised isn’t so much about why one doesn’t write about X bad thing, because, write about what interests you, play games that interest you.

    Rather, a particular game like Puerto Rico will be criticized for being sanitized — it omits slavery and it shouldn’t — which leads me to wonder what principle we should use to decide whether a particular sanitization is acceptable. Not that there has to be a grand universal standard or anything like that, but just, person who says “that’s not ok!”, how do you think about what is and is not ok, how do you decide?

    As an example of this, take a game like Smartphone Inc. There are lots of ethical problems and issues of exploitation of vulnerable peoples surrounding the electronics industry, which I don’t think come up in that game, is that an “ok” sanitization or not?

    To be clear, I don’t think you’re on the hook for answering these questions! I just find I myself am more interested in the conversation about the principles than about whether this or that specific game is “bad” (not that others can’t discuss such things, of course). And anyway, as a designer, I’m all for including difficult stuff or sensitive stuff or whatever gets people thinking, throw it all in there! But I also understand that from a product design standpoint, lots of topics need to be sanitized to make them commercially viable, and so the question (for me) is, is our objection with sanitization as a general practice, or with specific forms that sanitization can take?

    • I appreciate this perspective, Jeff, and I should mention that I hold your previous statements along these lines as useful conversation starters and acting in completely good faith. So please don’t take any of this piece as a response to the discussions we’ve had!

      Personally, that process of delineation is also a question I’m considering, although I’m less interested in drawing firm lines or telling anybody what they can or can’t design than in trying to build a critical framework for how to evaluate board games. In speaking with folks such as Liz Davidson and Jason Perez, I tend to mentally sort games into three categories of thematic usage. Superficial games, which don’t say anything about their topic (nor would anybody confuse them as such), medium-weight games, and simulation/wargames. That final category faces some trouble when evaluated by “amateurs”; there’s greater latitude in what a simulation-style game attempts to present, and as critics we ought to be sensitive to that distinction.

      For me, where I struggle the most is with those medium-weight games. This is usually where I see historical topics portrayed the flimsiest; there’s very little devotion to historical fidelity, but quite a lot of energy expended on the appearance of that fidelity. Jason has suggested that these are “theme park”-style games, meant to act as a sort of historical tourism. Nobody plays Splendor and thinks they’ve learned something about Renaissance trade. As the complexity and apparent fidelity increase, however, many games give an impression of history. That’s where I start to squirm a bit. Is it fair game to critique these games as poor representations? Are there any firm lines to be drawn? How about guidelines? I suspect there aren’t any easy answers to be had, but then I tend to avoid presriptivism in all its forms.

      • Oh no worries, I didn’t take it that way (but wouldn’t have been offended even if I had).

        Agreed about prescriptivism. On the design side, on the one hand I’m all for hearing any ideas anyone has about what good design looks like and how to achieve it; new ideas are always welcome as sources of inspiration! But on the other one worries that that there are standards one’s game will be judged by, but that it may be hard to know what those are (or will be).

        The “theme park” analogy is a good one. Semi-related is an observation I made in my blog a while back, that Disney is changing a few scenes in its famous Pirates of the Caribbean ride: the “bride auction” scene, in particular, is being cut. Now, compared to the historical reality of what pillaging and plundering entailed, the bride auction is already quite sanitized, but Disney judged (correctly, I suspect) that its audience wants a /more/ sanitized depiction of the history, not less.

        And so I wonder about those mid-weight Euros-as-theme-park-attractions through this lens. Game enthusiasts look at Puerto Rico and see a sanitized depiction of the historical reality, but would they like it better if there was, say, a slave market mechanic as part of the game? And for that matter, would a family audience like the game /at all/ with such a mechanic?

        And maybe this is why seeking prescriptivist absolutism is chasing a phantom, because the answers probably depend entirely on how it’s handled in a particular case. A skilled designer might be able to find ways to handle even the thorniest of topics, and certainly it’s worth making the attempt, as it might lead to interesting gameplay dynamics as well.

      • Jeff, I wonder if the reason Disney didn’t want the ‘bride auction’ is not that they craved something more ‘sanitized’ than ‘rape and pillage’, but that ‘sanitizing via trivializing human traffic played for yuks and fetishy titillation’ is no longer recognized as sanitized at all.

        Oddly as designers dealing with historical topics today, a complete removal of slavery in a colony can be an ‘erasure’, while any other representation might be ‘trivializing’ and also ‘insufficiently sanitized’ for a family market. Not only can you not please everybody, I doubt you can ever please even a simple majority.

        Despite my desire for some principles and moral compass, it seems like these situations show that not only is an absolute prescriptivism impossible, some specific topics may be impossible to handle in a way that’s not inherently niche.

  5. R. Ben Madison

    An excellent article on what is becoming the future of historical gaming — whole swaths of history will be ruled out depending on whose ox was historically gored in the events being reduced to “fun”. When I designed a game many years ago on the Liberian Civil War, I remember a friend telling me that despite the execrable bad taste involved in reducing such a horrendous conflict to a semi-satirical (yet painfully accurate) wargame, “At least there are no Nazis in it.” Rather than expand on your fine if understated observation, Dan, I have been remiss in not thanking you for our pleasant lunch in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago. Always good to discover there are human beings behind the pixels!

    • Oh, I hold out some hope for historical gaming. One of my principal frustrations is that we need critical voices who understand the difference between the approach of medium-weight games that use history as a pleasant destination and simulationist games that use them to state a thesis. Every medium passes through this at some point. Hopefully we’ll weather it!

      Thank you, as well, Ben, for the lovely lunch! It was a delight getting to know you better.

  6. That’s a really long way to say ‘oikophobia’.

    • The problem with Scruton was always that he could never seem to account for why a person would want their home to be clean or their family to live up to their values.

  7. Having immigrated from the US to another of the “jewels of the Anglo empire’s crown” (Australia), it has been eye opening to see the how the progression of that empire unfolded, and applied the lessons it learned in how to exterminate the cultures and peoples that stood in the way of “manifest destiny”. The crimes of that empire have long been concealed, and education has done everything in its power to hide the tracks of that history, and forward a narrative that justifies and glorifies genocide and conquest while simultaneously ignoring and downplaying genocide and conquest. This is a formidable challenge for any maker of games, stories, music, art to confront, and yet here we are seeing just that.

    One of the phenomenon I have witnessed as I have grown older, and moved inexorably left in my philosophy and politics, is the willingness of people to defend the patently indefensible histories of our ancestors, as if they felt [subconsciously] culpable, as if our ancestors needed defending. As an educator myself, I go to great pains to explain to my students that history is a collection of perspectives, sometimes with evidence, and that it is in their best interest to obtain as many perspectives as possible before making any kind of concrete judgements. When we exclude perspectives, it feels like we have already made up our minds, and are pursuing wishful thinking, rather than the truth, whatever the hell that is.

    You have elected to enter those dangerous waters, and have chosen to do so by staying in your lane. I think you have done a terrific job in these very early days of trying to be honest and open about what our ancestors got up to when they coveted thy neighbours, and then straight up broke many of their own commandments, in the name of god, ha ha ha ha ha!

    I tell my students that they must be “better versions of ourselves”, and try to arm them with more accurate depictions of those that came before them. The real shame lies in fooling ourselves about the humanity of our predecessors. The lies we tell to give cover to a system of exploitation (of the natural and human world) are unsustainable, and boring. The path to a richer and more meaningful humanity lies as always in truth, honesty, good faith, and belief that our wretched selves can aspire to something better.

    Games can open those doors, but people have to make the effort.

    Thanks for your work!

  8. Great piece as usual! (Sadly it is now eclipsed by the magnum opus on sleepy sheepy).

    Yet I feel compelled to come back here with a reflection on the attention you put on ‘medium weight’ games. Context matters a lot, so yes let us generally pass over the superficial theme’s lack of deep inquiry, but … perhaps so does the degree of sensitivity. A light weight superficial retheme of go-fish as ‘cops and robbers’ might nonetheless be a vehicle for really unacceptable stereotypes. I shudder to think about cowboys and Indians!

    On the flip side, looking at everything through Focault-colored glasses quickly makes joyful participation in Ticket to Ride an exercise in exploitive complicity. I’m fairly certain Eco warned us specifically about playing with trains!

    So, sure there’s a spectrum here, a gradient. Yet… why is it so hard to agree on how we might apply judgement and discernment in these mixed waters? Why do we struggle in being able to appreciate something complicated, or enjoy something compromised?

    For certain this is nuanced domain with no hard and fast rules, but I have to wonder, are there no compasses we can use, no principles to take our bearings with?

    • Good thoughts, adorablerocket. I’m trying to assemble some thoughts on those compasses and principles, so please don’t think I’m ignoring your comment! But at the moment, those thoughts are still in their earliest stages, so I’d rather not express them too publicly.

  9. Michael Norrish

    Thanks for a great, thought-provoking article.

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