There’s a board game slash art piece called Train, where players shuffle meeples around in a train, until they come to the realization that the game is about shipping Jews to concentration camps. At this point, the players stop, usually shocked and disgusted with their own complicity.
But Train is a very unusual board game. Suppose we were playing another board game that involved putting brown disks, called “colonists”, onto plantations. Eventually, you put two and two together and realize that the “colonists” actually represent slaves, and you’ve been participating in trans-atlantic slave trade. Would you stop playing, feeling disgusted with your own complicity? Would you never play again? No, because you’re not playing an art piece, you’re playing Puerto Rico, one of the great classics of the Eurogame genre. So you just accept it as problematic, and play on.
It isn’t just Puerto Rico. Many Eurogames feature themes of colonialism, erasing or sanitizing its most evil aspects, like slavery, subjugation, or genocide. Instead, these games focus exclusively on the interests and perspectives of competing colonizing powers.
So, why do you think that is? Here I offer a bit of speculation.
First, I would say that the Eurogame genre is rather conservative in terms of theme. The genre is mostly about abstract mechanics and strategy, and any thematic content is secondary. Designers are not incentivized to be innovative with theme. If a designer pitched a game with anti-colonialist themes, I personally would find the pitch to be unconvincing, because new themes are cool and all, but they’re not your selling point.
So Eurogames tend to retread the same ground over and over again, thematically speaking. And two of the most influential Eurogames–Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico–are about colonialism. Not that all of the classics were about colonialism. Some were about capitalism (is that better or worse?). Or take Carcassonne which is about… adversarial land development? But colonialism is the big one.
Although the funny thing is that one of the common Eurogame themes is not just colonialism, but colonialism… in space! A good example of this is Race for the Galaxy, which many people describe as Puerto Rico in space. In Race for the Galaxy, players colonize (or conquer) planets, and have them produce resources to be used by their competing empires. Most of the planets are clearly already occupied before you get there, but there’s no thought ever given to the interests of the inhabitants. This shows that Eurogames can come up with innovative themes, but they tend to still leave the colonialism untouched.
So here’s another idea. In the world of video games, there isn’t much colonialism, but there is a lot of violence as compared to other media. Some critics (video) think that this may be because video game mechanics gravitate towards navigation of 2-D and 3-D spaces. So video game mechanics tend to be things that can be well-represented in space (motion of objects, rather than incrementing numbers). And there are two major themes that resonate a lot with this medium: violence, and jumping.
My proposal is that perhaps there is something similar going on with colonialism and board games–specifically, competitive board games(as opposed to cooperative). Most games will have a narrative arc in which players acquire power over time, rather than having a game that stays uniform over time. This power usually comes in the form of assets. Players could fight directly to acquire each other’s assets, but then it’s basically a war game (a category that the Eurogame genre tries to avoid). Instead, the assets start in neutral territory, and players fight to see who can acquire them fastest, and use them best. And isn’t it already starting to sound a bit like the conflict between competing colonial powers? Or alternatively, competing capitalist powers?
Although it’s not like you can’t think of other themes for the same set of mechanics. For instance, what if the assets are not territories, but technologies? Indeed, this is a common Eurogame theme too, often in civilization-building games (e.g. Seven Wonders, Through the Ages).
But if the most common Eurogame mechanics lend themselves so well to colonialist themes, maybe that means if we forced ourselves to use non-colonialist themes, it would also lead to new innovations in mechanics. So even if you don’t particularly care about the sanitized colonialism of Settlers of Catan and others, you might see the value in trying something different.
So what do you think? Why is colonialism so common in Eurogames? Can you think of alternative themes, and the mechanics they would lead to?