Each week, Jeremy Signor contemplates the heart and soul of tabletop gaming.
The board game community continues to have a big problem when it comes to theming certain games. Designers still fetishize and romanticize the so-called “Age of Discovery.” So many games portray settlers as the protagonists of games, lionizing them while casting native peoples as either savage enemies to be defeated or resources you need to use. What’s more, designers on the whole refuse to reckon with the violent history of colonialism even as they use it as a theme for their game. The result is a whitewashed genre of board game that paints over every uncomfortable part of what happened during this era, costuming a game with an uncritical, damaging theme.
Settling lands by developing them up via buildings and other improvements is a incredibly common theme among board games. Arguably the biggest name in the hobbyist side of the medium, The Settlers of Catan, has it right in the name. Though you never really see any natives in the game, you’re importing and trading resources with other settlers to build settlements, roads, and developments to try and win the game. It’s all very innocuous on first blush, but there are hints of a Eurocentric viewpoint when you stop to consider the Thief, who steals resources from whoever they’re next to when someone rolls a seven. It’s not explicit that the Thief is a native from the fictional Catan Island, but the solution of playing Knight cards to move the Thief somewhere else suggests a militaristic approach to setting land and pushing around hypothetical natives.
Catan skirts the colonialism issue somewhat by being set on a fictional island, but plenty more board games represent real historical locales and events with varying degrees of self-awareness. One of the more unfortunate examples of this is the classic game Puerto Rico, where you’re tasked with building up your piece of the city of San Juan through shipping goods and constructing buildings. But to make said buildings function, you had to place little brown discs on them to represent workers working in them.
You can probably already see the problem with this. The simple act of making the discs brown loads them with political meaning, as it’s clear they represent the different people of color that the conquistadors enslaved during the age of discovery. In Puerto Rico, these brown discs act as resources to be accumulated and spent, which takes a pretty nasty turn once you realize what this parallels – new ones even arrive by ship, further cementing the allusion. That alone could have made for a powerful statement about the true face of colonialism, but it paints over this fact by calling them “colonists”. By calling them colonists and not what they are – slaves – Puerto Rico reveals itself as a game that isn’t interested in grappling with the realities of colonialism, instead merely being content to build its mechanics on the back of a particularly ugly time in history.
To read a really well thought out breakdown on how board games specifically touch on slavery, check out Sam Desatoff’s piece on Waypoint.
This formula can be applied ad nauseum to countless other board games with similar settings. Though others don’t have the very obviously racially coded game pieces, the song is still the same: trade goods, develop the land by building buildings and advancing technology, and handle the natives whether through appeasement, violence, or domination. Very few board games will acknowledge the ugly side of colonialism, and when they do, they become so gamified that any point you might be able to glean from it is lost.
Archipelago is a good example of how wrong gamification can go. In Archipelago, you must build up an economic engine to trade between settlements and overseas by using a work force made up of natives. But a meter measures unrest within the community, and if it gets high enough, the natives will refuse to work or will even outright rebel, losing the game for everyone immediately. But one person could be a native sympathizer, which means they win if a rebellion is incited. What ends up happening is a wild streak of cognitive dissonance as the sympathizer does everything they can to make the natives’ lives miserable. They can even activate a Slavery card to increase unrest, among other things. These aren’t actions that someone truly sympathetic to the cause of native revolution would ever take. Archipelago is too in love with its own mechanics to realize that they make no sense in context, and trivialize a very heavy subject in favor of including a traitor mechanic in a game that has no business including one.
There are countless other examples of board games using colonialism as window dressing, but the recently released Spirit Island turns the concept on its head. Instead of playing as the settlers, you play as the spirits of the land that they’re invading, and your job is to turn them away through both violence and fear. Mechanically it plays like a crunchier Pandemic, where you have to keep the settlers from overwhelming the land with towns and cities. It plays around with the settler trope in board games by dividing their turn into phases: Explore, where more settlers get put on the board, Build, where settlers will build towns and cities, and Ravage, where they attack the land and its inhabitants. Spirit Island asks you to fight on the native side for once and rightfully labels settlers for what they really are: invaders.
Except you aren’t really playing as the natives, but rather some creatively named fictional spirits protecting a fictional island. These spirits have powers meant to depict how viciously these spirits will protect the land, and often suggest moments of great violence and terror used against the settlers. This is an extremely effective way to illustrate the stakes involved in colonialism, but Spirit Island misses one crucial thing: It never establishes the great violence and terror wielded by settlers. They’re depicted more like the viruses in Pandemic, spreading across the board and ruining the land. But there was a human cost to colonialism that Spirit Island never really addresses. Just as the Spirits’ powers can be cruel and vicious, settlers employed vicious methods as well. Enslavement was just the tip of the iceberg. Natives were treated as subhuman by explorers and conquistadors as the ones that weren’t enslaved were hunted down. Some were even fed to dogs. Spirit Island never completes the parallel by establishing that, yes, the settlers were brutal and loathsome, entirely deserving of the Spirits responding in kind.
Spirit Island doesn’t put the natives front and center, either. The lose condition is when a certain amount of blight tokens are put on the board, the result of settlers “ravaging” the land. It doesn’t matter how many native settlements are lost to settlers so long as you save the land they live on, as there’s no penalty for losing them. What’s more, the natives are crucial tools for fighting the settlers, when they shouldn’t be merely thought of as tools at all. It kind of misses the point of critiquing colonialism entirely because it’s indulging in colonialist tools for the mechanics of the actual people. Again, the human cost of colonialism should be first and foremost at any critique of colonialism, but Spirit Island diminishes the gravity of that cost by removing it.
Still, at least Spirit Island is trying to shine a light on an institution that so many other games mindlessly recreates in their games. The supposed romance of the age of discovery ignores how much pain, suffering, and harm it inflicted on people. Games are a powerful tool, capable of speaking truth to power and educating about the ills of the world. Board games are absolutely able to reckon with the problematic history of colonialism. Designers just need to acknowledge it and decentralize the colonial perspective in favor of one that views this world as it really is, one that treats natives as people, that doesn’t turn the invading settlers into heroes, that acknowledges the horror that the European invaders inflicted on entire civilizations. We can do better.