Boardgames vs RPGs
I think some folks who follow the IGRC do not follow my board games community, which is 100% fine but what they haven’t seen is that I’ve been goobering on about the epic rerelease of Age of Empires III as Empires: Age of Discovery.
The premise is quite straightforward: you’re playing a European nation intent in exploiting the New World. Most victory points wins the game at the end of eight rounds. Easy enough.
But I couldn’t help noticing that I was getting sort of…I don’t know. Squirmy. Uncomfortable. I’ve been digging deeeep in my research of my hinted-at game about the settlement of the American West so I’m eyeballs-deep into this history, so I’m sure that has a lot to do with where I’m at these days.
So I’m looking through the rules — I’ve never played AoEIII — and I noticed that there’s this mechanism. You basically are exploring the New World, and you’re doing it with soldiers (because that’s what Europeans did) and when you reach an undiscovered place, your soldiers need to defeat the local population. And the more soldiers you bring, the more $$$ you get when you plunder the place. These aren’t perverse incentives (in the economics sense), they’re just plain old incentives: show up, tear the shit out of the place, head home with loot and let the pacifying begin.
I mean the whole game is totally unapologetic about colonialism. This is it! This is what you’re doing so suck it up. Show up, kill the locals, take their shit, get to civilizing.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen much talk around boardgames as it relates to the subjects of conquest, colonialism, and reducing the role of natives in these games to a) obstacles or b) exploitable resources. No desire, either among players nor designers, to really interrogate what colonialism is about (Archipelago being a hugely notable exception). It’s just not problematic. Nobody cares.
Meanwhile, this stuff can loom large in RPG-land and especially in small press RPG-land. Dog Eat Dog is probably at the front end of taking on imperialism head-on. But there’s been plenty of talk about recognizing traditional fantasy as coded racism, about the structure of traditional play (kill and loot) supporting fundamentally imperialistic values. I don’t know that many folks are quitting gaming because of this, but consciousness is elevated in a way that it doesn’t seem to be in boardgames.
Should it be? I don’t know. I just thought it was funny and interesting when I looked at a Discovery chit, saw this generic round shield (https://img0.etsystatic.com/000/0/6379533/il_fullxfull.255864586.jpg), saw that the native peoples exist only as a speedbump toward the inevitable conquest, and I … kind of gritted my teeth.