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Revenge of the Feminerd: Board Game Colonialism

box for the board game Heart of Africa, which is written in yellow on a red background. A white man in a tuxedo and glasses is pictured in front of a group of black people in robes

One of my biggest geek hobbies is Euro boardgaming. For those of you not familiar with Eurogames, the general difference between Euros and more traditional American boardgames like Monopoly is that Eurogames often have less luck and more strategy and tactical thinking involved. They're usually played by small but dedicated groups of board game geeks like the folks I game with each Wednesday night. Probably the most well-known Eurogames in North America are Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne.

Maybe because the players tend to be a little geeky, many Eurogames are themed around historical events. There are games where you play pyramid builders in ancient Egypt, pirate captains, and Roman patricians.

But unfortunately there are also a significant number themed around European colonialism, and they really rub me the wrong way. The legacy of colonialism still underpins social inequalities in North America and around the world, so I want to take a closer look at the games I play that deal with this theme.

1. Puerto Rico (2nd ranked game on BoardGameGeek.com)

Puerto Rico is a multiple-award-winning game, in which players assume the role of plantation owners around the 1600s-1700s. The goal of the game is to accumulate victory points by developing useful buildings in San Juan, growing crops on your plantations, deploying colonists effectively, and sending goods back to Europe. Puerto Rico is sanitized of all references to the exploitation of African slaves on plantations, or the indigenous Taino inhabitants of the island, who were virtually wiped out by the Spanish colonists.

2. Age of Empires III (BGG Ranking: 36)

Age of Empires III with stereotyped drawings of

The board game Age of Empires III is based on the popular real-time PC game of the same name. Instead of totally omitting the conquering of indigenous peoples, AOE makes it one of the goals. Every time you send a ship of your colonists (including missionaries, soldiers, and settlers) over to the "New World" you have to have more colonists in your party than the number of "Natives" in the colony in order for your expedition to succeed. If you do, you get a "plunder" reward of money. If there's one thing worse than ignoring the history of Aboriginal genocide it's playing a game that gives you points for re-enacting it.

The artwork (image above) makes it particularly offensive, with stereotyped drawings of "Native" warriors symbolizing those you have to conquer.

Illustration of the priest in Vasco Da Gama, wearing white

3. Vasco Da Gama (ranked 132)

The description of Vasco Da Gama on Board Game Geek reads: "Recruit workers, buy projects, build ships. And use the ships to open new commercial routes to eastern Africa and India, to earn money and glory." You can influence characters to help your missions, including a priest who sends Christian missionaries with your ships (left).

I guess the game would be less enjoyable if it'd dealt with the part of Vasco Da Gama's career when he captured a ship carrying Muslim pilgrims and kept it on fire until all of the 400 people aboard had died, or the part where he dismembered 30 Indian fishermen outside what was then called Calicut and left them floating in the sea for their families to find.

Two more games that are much lower-ranked and which I've never played but are potentially even worse are the trading game Heart of Africa, which claims that "by the start of the 19th century the continent remained largely undiscovered" and Africa 1880: The Game of Exploration and Exploitation.

It's interesting to note that very few popular and highly-ranked Eurogames are designed by women, and the vast majority of well-known game designers are white. I can't really say why this is, but it likely plays a role in some of the problematic elements we see in these themes.

It might seem like these games are unimportant. After all, not too many people play Eurogames, and they are just games. What I'm saying is that they're part of a culture that romanticizes colonialism and erases the history of genocide and cultural annihilation of indigenous peoples by European powers. You can argue a board game isn't the best medium for a thorough and unbiased history lesson, but I don't think you can argue that colonialist themes are necessary to make an enjoyable, marketable board game.

There are a lot of Eurogames that combine great theme, artwork, and mechanics. If you're interested in Eurogaming and are looking for some more positive options, I'd suggest Carcassonne, which is a great game to play to get your feet wet and which is pretty uncontroversial. Some other good options are the award-winning farming gameAgricola, the sci-fi themed card game Race for the Galaxy, and the fabulously designed Stone Age.

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Comments

14 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I find the very existence of

I find the very existence of games like 'Heart of Africa' and 'Africa 1880: The Game of Exploration and Exploitation' inexcusable. The fact that some of these other games 'are not as bad,' but persistently romanticize colonialism, is equally inexcusable. If someone came to me and showed me a game that had 'conquering lands and building a huge harem of female slaves,' I would be most likely to throw the game in their face. Literally. Creating games that capitalize on the mistreatment of marginalized groups, even if that has a historically accurate basis, is dehumanizing. There is a reason there is a book called 'Unthinking Eurocenstrism,' and it seems that everything that Ella Shohat was talking about in that book is still alive and well and making somebody money. The fact that very few people play these games does not do anything at all to excuse their appalling subject matter.

Thanks

That's probably a really good reaction to have. I definitely wasn't trying to say that some of these games are acceptable and some aren't - there's absolutely no point in arguing which ones are potentially more dangerous as they're all pretty terrible. And you're right that the small number of people playing them is no excuse - I wasn't trying to suggest that but just give some folks an idea of Eurogaming as a hobby. There is no arena too small to challenge colonialist and racist ideas.

My tactic is generally to try to get my friends to think more critically about the imagery and theme and use them bringing out the game as an excuse to talk about colonialism and racism and question in what world playing this kind of game becomes entertaining.

By the way, there is at least one harem-themed game I'm aware of, although its name is slipping my mind right now. You could definitely do another post on sexist imagery/themes, but overall they're less prevalent than the colonialist ones. Another really bad one I've thought of since writing this are Endeavor, which is another "exploration" game that actually lets you choose to save money by moving to a system of slavery. Even though you end up getting penalized later in the game for it, it's disgusting that you'd be able to benefit off it at all in a game.

I find the very existence of ...

Hello Rachel!

I find your position interesting since I play many of the very games you condemn and do not want in existence. Maybe we should apply that thought to everything that we do not perceive as good in the world. How Syria treats it's own population, how the western world neglects problems in regions where there is no monetary gain and also turns a blind eye to issues with human rights when we can make ourselves a profit. China is harassing both neighboring countries and it's own population.
If we would not view all these things and also be aware that these things have happened in the past and will continue to exist if we do not learn from history. Some of the terrible things that have happened in the past we have abandoned in the present day. Not because we have not discussed these issues and made sure more and more people are aware of it, rather the opposite. By the means of boardgames these issues can reach people that might not have been aware of all the terrible things going on in the world if they had not been introduced to it by way of boardgames.

These boardgames do at times promote the use of slavery, usage of resources that are scarce in a poor world and also are dehumanizing towards certain groups in society. I agree that the behavior in the real world is horrible but if we cannot have games or university courses about it we can never understand why these things happen. If some cardboard is driven into slavery so that I can understand why slavery still exists in the world then the hardships of that cardboard is worth every ounce of it's weight, IMHO.

This is the way I use boardgames in my profession as a teacher. The students find it very interesting and is often upset when they recognize the pattern over the ages.

When I see posts like yours I always start wondering what we should do instead, close our eyes and not look at the world around us and also not look back and see if we can find a pattern on how to come to terms with the atrocities that humankind bring upon themselves more often than not.

I find the very existence of such a thought deeply disturbing.

With my best regards and a hope for a better world where we treat each other with respect and never tries to hinder free flow of information, no matter if the information is good or bad.

Peter

Thanks

Thanks for this.

Despite enjoying the game play, Puerto Rico is just too gross. Playing games like that can't help but have some small bit of an unhealthy normalizing effect, at least for some participants.

On the lighter side, when I play Pandemic I typically refer to the blue disease affecting N. America and Europe as "the disease of capitalism," the yellow disease affecting S. America and Africa as colonialism, the red disease in Asia as authoritarian communism, and the black disease in central asia as Big Oil. It's certainly a happier quest eradicating those diseases then growing a giant indigo and tobacco plantation.

Brian Frank, Bitch Media's Finance and Technology Director

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Great idea

Great idea for Pandemic, Brian. I'll have to try that next time :)

And I agree with you about Puerto Rico - it's not as in-your-face as some of the other games as far as colonialist imagery, but maybe that just makes it even more insidious and dangerous because of its ability to normalize racial oppression.

Don't forget...

Junta! Talk about a game that trivializes political repression. I suppose the bright side is the possibility of a coup, but we all know that's hardly a "game."

Like Brian, I really like Pandemic, if only because it's a collaborative game and I have the max amount of game lovin' friends who like to play it with my partner and I. It's kind of weird too though. Nothing funny about global disease epidemics...

I've never played Junta -

I've never played Junta - will have to check it out. Definitely sounds bad.

It's interesting to me that,

It's interesting to me that, with the unlimited imaginative worlds and storylines you can create in games, so many of them rely on the worst historical moments and tropes imaginable. I often don't know who to blame for that - is it the audience, that clamors for those types of games or are the creators just making assumptions that don't reflect true consumer desires? Is it that people aren't well-versed in the history of other countries so they just default to what they know about? I know a lot of gamers of color, including myself, I really doubt that they'd be up for playing the people that conquered and enslaved their ancestors. Seeing some games that reflect a more nuanced worldview would be a true blessing.

Why

Hi Jordan,

I wish I had some answers to your very excellent questions. I would think it would be more the creators than the consumers, since it's a pretty niche market (some games only produce a few thousand copies) and most of the gamers I meet are more interested in mechanics and strategy than theme (or rather are more flexible as to theme).

Some other good options, because you're right that there's a huge range of themes to choose from are:

-Pandemic, a cooperative game, which some other commenters pointed out
-Ingenious, an abstract game with domino-like pieces and a unique scoring mechanism
-Primordial Soup, which was co-designed by a woman and lets you take on the role of a group of single-celled organisms
-Dungeon Lords, which is a really funny game where you play a dark dungeon master lining up minions and monsters to defeat groups of heroes
-Galaxy Trucker, in which you build spaceships under a time-limit using tiles, and then fly them through a space obstacle course, racing your opponents
-Hive - a chess-like game featuring different types of insects

Thank you!!!

I really enjoy the gameplay of board games such as Settlers and Puerto Rico, but I've been irked by the colonial lens they ask you to adopt. I'm glad to see people critically discussing such issues.

Thoughts

With regard to games created in Europe: "the vast majority of well-known game designers are white. I can’t really say why this is..." I might have a guess : )

Aside from that, it was an interesting point. Perhaps a game (or games) should be created that would take the native/indigenous side. The tricky part there is staying historically rooted, yet making it fun (perhaps being creative with what constitutes winning the game rather than making it about a successful colony/rejection of colony).

That being said, there were a couple of things I think that need to be taken into account with the games that already exist. 1) If it's a game based in history, from a European perspective, and it's supposed to be realistic, the indigenous people should be taken advantage of (doesn't make it right, just historically accurate). Games could (should) probably provide some context to why that stinks from the native perspective, but from game-play/history, it makes sense. 2) From the perspective of that moment in history if the game is based on native vs. colonist game-play, it should not be a given that the Europeans would win. That's relying on our perspective from the (relative) future.

Nice article! It is very

Nice article! It is very unfortunate that a lot of these games have baggage such as this. Puerto Rico is particularly unfortunate, as its game play is a work of art.

Fortunately, there are some very good games that are much less problematic. Pandemic has already been mentioned, and it is excellent. Other games to check out are Dominion, a game based on a medieval town, and I have to give another shout out to Race for the Galaxy, which is by far my favorite game.

Perhaps you allow me to chime

Perhaps you allow me to chime in on your very interesting discussion from the perspective of a white male German, aged 54, politically affiliated with the Red-Green Camp (the cooperation of the Social-Democrats and the Greens in German politics) - and a "hard-core" gamer.

I find Pandemic not unproblematic: To make the possible extinction of mankind by a desease the theme of a game makes me quite uneasy because it toys with a threat that is quite realistically looming on modern civilization.

Likewise Dominion is not unproblematic at all: There's a card called "Witch". As you're certainly aware the stigmatization of women as "Witches" lead to the torture and burning of probably hundreds of thousands of women in the course of European medieval history. But this card doesn't cause me any uneasiness because the concept of stigmatizing women as "Witches" vanished from the European conscious and there's no threat it could rise again and cause the grieve it did in previous centuries.

I think that's also the reason why slavery as part of a game is not causing uneasiness in Europe: Slavery is no more an economic practice and it won't return. Perhaps the fact that the descendants of slaves are living in the USA and remembering their ancestors fate vividly makes it a much more sensitive matter over there?

Could it be that the greater uneasiness colonialism causes in America than in Europe (or at least in Germany; the so called Euro-games are often called German-games because many of them are beeing designed by German authors) has a similar background: Colonialism as a political practice has ceased to exist. The European colonial powers have withdrawn their troops and bureaucracies from the former colonies decades ago. True: The impact of colonialism is still there and much is left to be done to transform the dependency of the former colonies from the former colonial powers into relationships on equal footing. But essentially Europe has disentagled itself from this legacy.

The situation in the Americas seems far more complex to me: All the states that do exist today in the Americas have themselves thrown out the colonial powers that brought the population of these states over there. They themselves are a product of anti-colonialism. But now they live on the very soil of the peoples their colonial ancestors have robbed of their land and almost annihilated. There's no chance they could ever rectify this by leaving and returning - because there's nowehre to "return" to.

Just musings how to explain different mindsets with regard to slavery & colonialism in Europe and America.

To illustrate this difference in perception with another example taken from a game: The # 1 on BGG "Twilight Struggle", a game on the Cold War, features a card under the title "Willy Brandt" - one of the most important German politicians after WWII, a Nobel Peace Laureate - and a hero of my youth. In "Twilight Struggle" this card is a Soviet card - which in game terms means: "Willy Brandt" helps the Soviet cause! A perception that was propagated by his conservative opponents back then - but has long since sunken into historical oblivion.

I'm certainly puzzled by this decision of the game designer. But should I be offended? I'm not! After all it's just a game. History has spoken it's word on the role and the achievements of Willy Brandt. And that's what counts in my opinion. Nevertheless "Twilight Struggle" as a game fully deserves it's # 1 rank on BGG!

Oversimplification

While I appreciate your bringing the issue of contentious board game themes to light, you're vastly oversimplifying the ideas involved. You're making quite a large leap from "the game includes themes of colonialism and slavery" to "the game glorifies and promotes an agenda of colonialism and slavery".

One of the things about playing board games that I appreciate is the ability to experience something, rather than just seeing it (movie) or reading it (book). Board games that explore historical settings allow you to more fully engage with the practices of the time, and promote conversation (a la this post) around them.

Endeavor, for example, does a brilliant job of addressing the role of slavery in European colonialism. Rather than glossing over the issue, Endeavor presents players with the choices that faced early explorers/settlers. A player can choose the moral high ground, steering clear of slavery (and early building efficiency), or take the immoral path of slavery. Now, if this were where the issue stopped being addressed, I'd be unimpressed. However, a player who has enough influence in Europe and the Mediterranean can work to abolishing slavery. Not only does this reward a player for making the moral choice, but it also punished players who have pinned their hopes on the slavery cards - all slavery cards are discarded and their owners lose points. So, early slavery is rewarded, but as public opinion toward slavery changes (represented by the game movement towards abolition), slavery is punished. This brings up more interesting discussion topics than the trivial "Is slavery good or bad?" that seems to be addressed in this post. For example, "Did early explorers find slavery to be a moral issue of their time, or was it merely an economic consideration?" "How did explorers who employed only non-slaves far compared to their slave-using counterparts?" "How would the western world look differently if slavery had never existed during the time of European colonialism? Or if slavery had never been abolished?" "What does it mean that a player can use slavery in Endeavor, have it abolished, and still win the game?"

By engaging with the games, rather than reflexively condemning them, you might find more interesting threads of thought than a first glance may provide.