Appropriation and History

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 (, saw that the native peoples exist only as a speedbump toward the inevitable conquest, and I … kind of gritted my teeth.

0 thoughts on “Appropriation and History”

  1. Yeah. I think there’s an interesting space between history as it was and history as it was perceived to be and history as it was passed down as.

    I think most boardgames that hit on colonial themes (and I have a bunch of them: Viceroy, Conquistador, Source of the Nile) tend to do so by modeling history as it was passed down as. I don’t have a problem with that per se. But it does mean there’s plenty of room for games like Archipelago that put a different spin on it.

    Interestingly there are a bunch of other games that often have mechanics in the same general space as these colonial games…like say Brittania, or Chariot Lords that don’t illicit the same reflection.

    Clearly there’s some statute of limitations on compassion, because most people don’t have the same reaction to Romans or Saxons or Normans or Assyrians moving in, killing the locals, taking their shit, and getting to the civilizing.

  2. Oh man I should show you terrible comments from the Facebook from white supremacists invoking extremely ancient history and that all whites were slaves once (which explains why the Civil War wasn’t about slavery at all, because reasons).

  3. Board games that evoke emotions and different perspectives is such a good place to design from. 

    I’m assuming though, that Age of Empires did not have this as a design goal…

  4. Nah.

    What you’re talking about is most definitely fertile ground for boardgame design. Kind of a merging with RPGs, sort of like how boardgame elements are finding their way into roleplaying. 

    So…some of that might be politically/ethically motivated, but just in terms of sheer gameplay, yeah, I would loooove to see more designers consciously tackle the inner experience of play. 

    Some are, for sure. Traitor games do a great job of provoking suspicion; some diplomacy games are better at provoking distrust than others while there’s a whole other school of thought that says there needs to be a little less distrust at the table. Real-time games (Space Alert!) certainly provoke panic and urgency. Fire in the Lake I think does an awesome job of setting up the player to feel different depending on which of the four factions they’re playing — I definitely fucking hate playing the Americans in that game because the mechanisms make me not want to be in Vietnam at all. Archipelago I’ve already mentioned, currently best in class on this front (as of August 2015) but by no means the end of the road.

    Lots of creative room left. The audience might not want it, though. But in this day and age there are definitely lots of “audiences.” Maybe there’s a subset of emo nerds who’d totally get off on, say, a factory running game where you have to stave off your own empathy with the communities you’re probably poisoning. Or where you have an internal struggle with the ethics of nations you’re going to conquer where you have family connections. I could spitball all day long.

  5. Ground Floor and Copper Country flirts with that. Neither calls it out specifically but its there.

    In Ground Floor, a pretty reasonable thematic Euro-style business sim, you are quite literally treating people, information, and money as currencies to be converted between…and people are reduced completely to “time” aka labor hours available. As in, I need more information about my competitors, do I spend money to buy that information or do I spend time to have my own people collect it. There are certain times in the game where reducing people to units of time is a thing that has caused players to look at each other.

    Copper Country is a thematic Euro about mining in the Michigan UP. You do various things like build shaft houses to increase the productivity of a mine, but when you mine you take a “poor rock” bit from the turn track and place it on an adjacent space, reducing the productivity of the mine (I.e. it’s being mined out) while advancing through the eras towards end game. The mechanism is quite literally one of filling up the landscape with giant slag piles. You also hire workers, put them to work in shifts and are often presented with the game option to get nothing, or successfully mine copper at the expense of losing the miner…who the game history text takes care to point out is probably one of the poor immigrants who were given the shitty dangerous jobs the white Americans didn’t want.

  6. This is an interesting conversation to me, as I’m really not at all a part of the board game community. I think the last board game I bought was Clue: Master Detective Edition a million years ago.

  7. Yeah, I have a hard time with a lot of boardgames, between colonialism and exotification. Sometimes it seems like you’re always either conquering foreign peoples or romanticizing them.

    Even in a great, complex game like A Few Acres of Snow, you can tell that they did a search-replace for “Indian” and made it “Native American,” which says something about how those issues were handled in the design.

  8. I remember the big spat about Archipelago using the black meeple and it being a big taboo. However, people failed to address the rest of the game. It’s a game that, if you pay attention, can make you terribly uncomfortable with the choices you make. I think that is one of the game’s greatest strengths: forcing you to think about what you’re really doing.

  9. The board game “Endeavor” (designed by a couple friends of mine) is another Europeans-colonise-and-exploit-the-world game, and they intended to put some of these issues on the table. I just googled up a discussion of how they addressed slavery in the game – the review is not 100% convinced they go it right but applauds the attempt. Worth a look…

  10. Love Endeavor. I have way too many games for any to get to the table often, but if I ever were to do a cull (perish the thought) that would be a keeper.

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