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Hello!

I'm Erik. This is a blog about modern board, card, role-playing games and the culture around it.

The title On Golden Age refers to the time we are living in: a renaissance of social and face-to-face gaming.

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On PUERTO RICO and Themes of Colonialism

On PUERTO RICO and Themes of Colonialism

A few weeks ago, I received this email from GMT, a small-ish independent publisher of wargames and strategy games...

Dear P500 customers,

I'm writing today to let you know that after much consideration and after consultation with the designer, we have decided to pull Scramble for Africa off of our P500 list.

It's clear to me that the game is out of step with what most eurogame players want from us, in terms of both topic and treatment. Over the past few weeks, we've heard from a growing number of gamers who had concerns about both in regards to Scramble for Africa. To those of you who took the time to share your concerns with us privately and also to those who shared concerns in public forums in a polite and constructive manner, I want to thank you for the kindness and class with which you shared negative feedback. As we always strive to do, we have endeavored in this instance to listen to you, learn from you, and act on your feedback.

I'm very sorry that we didn't catch this sooner. We work hard to evaluate and scrub games before they get to the P500 list, and we turn down games each year that we think are inappropriate for us in various ways. I'm sorry that we missed this one and caused some of you a lot of consternation and angst because of our oversight. We'll do better.

For those of you who had P500 orders for the game, don't worry. Your order was automatically deleted when we deleted Scramble for Africa from the P500 list a few minutes ago.

Enjoy the games!

Gene

To give you more context, "P500" (short for "Project 500") is GMT's system for determining what games they will publish and print. GMT will announce a game that they would like to produce and take unpaid pre-orders (at a discount from MSRP) to gauge interest. Once 500 people have committed to purchase the game, customers are charged and the game goes to production. It's a pretty solid system; they only publish when they have guaranteed sales out of the gate. They can effectively produce and manage a LOT of titles using this method, which is tough for a small company. However, from a gamer standpoint, it still has the delayed gratification aspect of Kickstarter: paying ahead of time for a game you won't get for months, or maybe even a year.

GMT's catalog tends to be "gamer games" niche, ranging from heady eurogames to intense wargames that feature tiny chits over large hexmaps. Art and graphic design can be described as "minimal"; function is favored over fashion. This isn't stuff you find at Target, and you probably wouldn't break many of these games out at a family game night. In fact, many hobby game stores generally only carry a few of their popular titles like Twilight Struggle or Dominant Species. A lot of GMT games attempt to simulate real-world conflicts and notable battles of WW2, the Vietnam war, and the US Civil War, to name a few. I have not played any of these, but fans of their games say that the theme and subject matter is generally treated from different perspectives.

Earlier this year, GMT added the game Scramble for Africa. Part of the redacted description follows:

Scramble for Africa is a 2–6 player game of the period of exploration, colonization, and exploitation of Africa from around 1850 to 1900. In this game, you will take the role of one of the great European powers with an eye toward exploring the unknown interior of Africa, discovering land, peoples, and riches to expand your colonial power.

...

Finally, you will face the unknown by drawing an event card that adds to the adventures and misfortunes common in the era. Meanwhile, you may need to raise colonial garrisons as other players may incite local uprisings and independence movements to hinder your country's efforts. At the end of the game, you gain victory points for your exploration, discoveries, and how much money you earned for your country.

As per the email, the game has been removed from GMT's site, but here's a cached copy of a blog post describing theme and play:

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 2.20.44 PM.jpg

I would hope readers would see how this game is problematic, and it is understandable that people would want to weigh in.

However, GMT's decision to pull Scramble for Africa created a dumpster fire of comments on BoardGameGeek (I didn't check out Reddit). There were accusations of political correctness against GMT, personal attacks directed towards those who had issues with the theme, and tu quoque arguments targeting the publisher. A lot of commenters encouraged the designer to take it to Kickstarter or self-publish instead, which, of course, is a viable option. The three takeaways from reading the comments (I know) were unfortunately typical in my observation of these kinds of “debates”:

  1. There are some people who seem to not understand the meaning and context of the terms "censorship" and "free speech" in regards to the First Amendment of the US Constitution. This does not apply to a small American game publishing company choosing whether or not to produce a game. It's a business decision.

  2. There are some people who seem to believe that their ability/right to purchase and enjoy a certain game negates critical feedback and discussion on the thematic elements of that game. This is often wrapped in a fallacious "vote with your dollar" free-market argument, i.e. "If you don't like it, don't buy it.”

  3. There are some people who seem to believe that there are organized forces dedicated to erode personal freedoms, claiming GMT's decision was capitulation to a tribal out-group. I won't comment more on this, as to diagnose the causes of conspiratorial and paranoid thinking is out of scope.

This kerfuffle got me thinking about the topic du jour: the quintessential eurogame Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico player board

I like Puerto Rico. It's a fun game. It is one of the very first eurogames I played, and introduced to me a mechanism that I really enjoy: the use of drafting cards which dictate the specific actions all players will perform in a round, a.k.a "variable action phase."

There are several cards or tiles on the table. Each may be numbered or have a name of an action or a "role." Using some pre-determined order, each player chooses a card. When all players have chosen, then each action indicated on the card will happen in that particular round. Often there is a bonus action or perk for the player who picked the card which the other players don't receive. When all players have taken a turn or all actions are done, then the action cards are returned to be drafted again at the beginning of the next round. It's a simple system that provides interesting decisions. Over the years, this mechanism has been integrated into other games. As pictured below, Twilight Imperium and the Race For The Galaxy franchise all use variable action cards like Puerto Rico.

Action cards. Top row: Puerto Rico. Middle rows: Twilight Imperium. Bottom row: Roll For The Galaxy.

Despite my enjoyment of Puerto Rico, there are two things that bother me…

1. The graphic design

Every time I look at Puerto Rico’s box cover I want to fix it. I get that they wanted to put the merchant fellow on the side panel, as people will probably store the game with him facing out, but there is nothing graphically compelling on the right side of the cover art to catch your eye, other than maybe the port in the background and the dude's hat in the lower left corner. This needs a redesign. However, this is a minor criticism compared to…

2. The implementation of colonialism

The objective of Puerto Rico is to be the richest player through the use of growing, refining, and shipping resources off the eponymous island. Each player has a board that represents their plantations and production buildings which require workers to activate, producing resources like tobacco, sugar, and coffee for profit. Workers or "colonists" are recruited by using the Mayor action card. Colonists are represented by brown disc-shaped tokens. Anybody with a history education probably knows the ickyness of New World colonialism: the dash by European powers to claim new lands and the rich resources of the Americas. These lands were seized by force, and labor was conscripted from indigenous populations (if they didn't die from disease first) and slaves from West Africa. I think we can cut the pretenses here: the mayor is a slave trader, and the colonists are slaves. Some have argued that because the colonists are put to work in buildings and production offices, as well as the plantations, they are non-indentured workers. However comfortable that may seem, slaves were the primary workforce in Puerto Rico for over 300 years. If representing the colonists as non-indentured workers is the intent, then the "indentured workers" are misrepresented in that they have no representation at all.

Arguably more popular than Puerto Rico, Catan completely sidesteps the issue by making the titular fictional island seemingly uninhabited. Players may exploit and trade away on a conveniently resource-rich island without apparent violence. But who or what is the robber? Who are players trading with at the ports? Any game that centers around European colonialism (or American manifest destiny, for that matter) is going to face this historical baggage.

What are some possible factors and influences that made Puerto Rico abstract an oppressive and violent system, and Catan hide it entirely? It's partly the avoidance of direct combat, and the reaction to American-style games. In his article "Orientalism and Abstraction in Eurogames," author Will Robinson explains that the 1970s were a boon in German game design and there was motivations to keep games non-violent (as far as direct portrayals).

This game design “arms race” led to a general aversion toward military violence in German board games, and was part of a larger cultural shift described by the German historian Geoff Eley: “Guilty remembrance of terrible hardships conjoins with an unevenly-grounded recognition of social responsibility to produce the present breadth of German aversion against war.” It is therefore unsurprising that most German-made games of repute avoid standard battle-scenes such as those found in Risk or Axis and Allies. In contrast, American hobbyist games of the same era became increasingly focused on the detailed simulation of war. Such American games often presented entire books of rules on everything from supply lines to firing rates, whereas even the more advanced Eurogame rule-sets are often explained in less than 10 image-laden pages. Eurogames foster different forms of conflict, avoiding the militaristic battles of American wargames by reducing play times, avoiding the elimination of players, and even constraining leading players, so as to keep all participants competitive throughout the game. Despite the turn away from military violence in game design, however, board games of this genre maintain an interest in depicting histories of European conquest. This contradiction prompts the question: how can colonialist narratives exist within Eurogames without reference to violence? Eurogames often contain the problematic presentation of European expansionism without including the indigenous other.

Is there a way to use colonialism in games without discarding or misrepresenting the indigenous other? How is colonialism used or recontextualized in newer games?

Cry Havoc is basically the plot of the film Avatar: three warring alien factions are trying to claim an unobtanium-style resource on a planet. However, they have to compete not only with each other but the indigenous Trogs, who want the invaders gone. In the four-player version, one player actively plays the Trogs., who have the upper hand of sorts, as they can move quickly across the map via tunnel structures. It makes perfect thematic sense. The indigenous population knows the area better than the foreign invaders and can move much quicker. Cry Havoc makes the Trogs a key part of the conflict.

Another interesting take on colonialism is Terraforming Mars. Players compete by creating and implementing technologies to make Mars habitable for human life. Ultimately, what players are doing benefits humanity as a whole. In Terraforming Mars, no populations are being exploited nor violence committed. It is legitimate "peaceful" expansionism, albeit fueled by capitalism in order to foster competition.

Spirit Island takes the theme of colonialism and spins it 180 degrees. In this heady cooperative eurogame, players are spirits working together to repel human colonists who seek to ravage the home island's resources and exploit local populations. The game even labels itself as a "settler-destruction" game - as a not-so-subtle hat-tip to Catan.

Colonialism as a theme is not inherently problematic, but the way it is treated contextually makes all the difference. In the case of Puerto Rico and Scramble for Africa, erasure of a whole population (or misrepresenting that population) affected by historical events creates a pseudohistory that constrains thoughts and perspectives on issues of race and culture and promotes an ignorant singular narrative.

I do not think designers are bad people or players are wrong for enjoying Puerto Rico or Catan or any game that thematically incorporates European/American conquest. However, going forward, game designers need to cultivate inclusiveness and portray historical events and peoples with accuracy and discernment, and gamers should demand it. As in the case with Scramble for Africa, I see that demand already happening, and that is a good thing.

GODSFORGE: The Mages Gonna Work It Out (Maybe)

GODSFORGE: The Mages Gonna Work It Out (Maybe)

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