Colonialism in board games has been a frequently touched-upon topic. Many mainstream hobby games like Puerto Rico and Catan have colonialist themes in varying levels of subtlety, and part of the progress towards a more open and inclusive tabletop community is excising these themes from future designs.
While most discussions of colonialism in board games are thematic dissections of already existing games, noticing problematic elements in unpublished game designs and removing them before the game is complete is more productive and something I feel more qualified to discuss; this article will go into “decolonizing” your designs.
Defining Colonialism Mechanically
Colonialism is a multifaceted topic that’s far beyond my knowledge level to discuss in full. However, in tabletop game design it’s easier to narrow down a definition – colonialism, as a game concept, justifies the concept that players can take control of areas that weren’t there originally and plunder its resources; there either aren’t preexisting inhabitants of these areas or these inhabitants don’t “deserve” to have them.
Avoiding colonialism in your board games in terms of picking a theme can be easily summarized as “don’t make a board game about the Scramble for Africa.” What’s more difficult to notice is mechanics that can easily, almost accidentally, express colonialism as a philosophy, even in more sanitized settings like fantasy or science fiction. This article will primarily focus on common mechanical expressions of colonialism and ideas of how they might be altered.
(This article is not an exhaustive list list of potentially fraught possible mechanics, just the ones that immediately sprang to mind while I was planning this.)
Exploration and Development
The idea of exploring a new world and building a civilization on it is a well-trod concept in tabletop games, with Catan being the best known. Many of these games aren’t colonialist explicitly, which is sort of the problem. These games show players a pristine map, uninhabited until right now, with no ethical reason preventing you from doing as you like to it.
Unfortunately, we cannot truly separate the content of a game from the ethos of those playing it. Games like this sanitize the fraught idea of settling and developing upon land that wasn’t originally yours; they create an environment that’s uncomfortable for people whose lives are more strongly affected by the world legacy of colonialism.
The good news is that board games are inherently an abstract medium, which makes it possible to find lots of ways to retheme a game about exploration and development that aren’t colonialist. Blackout: Hong Kong is a great example – it’s a territory control game, but it’s about providing electricity and emergency services to a region instead of carving it up for the players’ control. Far from displacing the inhabitants of Hong Kong, you’re aiding them. Terraforming Mars is another, as unlike a fictional world where it’s suspicious that these lands have remained pristine and unclaimed until the players showed up, we know for sure that Mars is uninhabited.
The primary ethos of colonialism is that the colonizing people is superior to the colonized, whether it’s because of divine benediction, superior technology, or some other means. In the real world, we can easily tell that these distinctions are false and harmful. However, in the world of tabletop games, there really is a “divine benediction” that separates some groups from others: Whether that group is controlled by a player.
Think about the average role-playing game. There are many, many stories about the party of PCs massacring whole towns of NPCs; however, once the PCs start attacking each other, that’s a clear sign that the party is out of control. The NPCs’ lives are worth less than the PCs’ because they aren’t controlled by a player.
This isn’t to say that all NPCs are colonialist, because that would be wildly overreaching. However, when used in conjunction with themes of conquest and control, they can add to the problem. The game Small World is a good example, especially because it casts the players in the role of literal gods. The original inhabitants of the board, who don’t have the blessing of being controlled by players, are “Lost Tribes” whose job is to serve as a minor speed bump to the players and their “blessed” races. It’s similar to the Civilization game franchise and its “barbarians,” whom you can kill with no political repercussions.
Whether NPC-controlled factions are representations of colonialism in your game, and how to solve these problems, are dependent on the design. In the case of Small World, for example, you could reskin the Lost Tribes to be controlled by different players. That way, removing a Lost Tribe from the board carries at least a small amount of weight with one of the players, instead of being completely forgettable. It’s not a huge improvement, but it’s a start.
Making Your Players Do Bad Things To Win In The Hopes They’ll Feel Bad About It
Some games, both video and tabletop, are based on the well-intentioned but misguided concept of rewarding players for doing explicitly awful things, with the intent of making them realize that their seemingly innocuous actions in other games have a cost attached. Spec Ops: The Line is an archetypal video game example, and the most explicit version of this in board games is the literally named Colonialism.
The issue with this is that you can’t assume your players’ emotional or intellectual reactions to your game are what you intend. If you leave any ambiguity towards whether you condone or condemn an action, you’re allowing the possibility that people will treat committing atrocities as a necessary cost, or worse, as acceptable by your standards. (Games like Brenda Romero’s Train are an exception because as far as I know they are played under direct supervision of the designer.)
The aforementioned Colonialism is a good example of how these things can go wrong. Despite its very obvious condemnation of colonialism (the cover has a ball and chain on it, for heaven’s sakes) and its attempt to make explicit the extermination of colonized peoples in its gameplay, the gameplay itself is a fairly standard resource management game. The player doesn’t feel bad about committing these actions because they’re both incentivized and obligated to do so.
Exploring difficult themes in games is possible, but it has to treat bad things as unambiguously bad to ensure that portions of the audience don’t draw the wrong message from it. Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Spirit Island are good examples with varying tones. It’s unfortunate, but board games are not a great tool for nuanced exploration of social injustice, so you have to be careful with your expectations.
This article isn’t a unilateral condemnation of any of the mechanics above (except perhaps guilt-based gameplay); it’s merely a request for designers using these mechanics to consider if they’re subtly promoting philosophies that you don’t want to promote, and if so, that you change them. Board games aren’t necessarily the most efficient political medium, but addressing the politics of board games in a more inclusive way is the best way to open up tabletop gaming and ensure its longevity.