Colonialism in Eurogames

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?


  1. sonofrojblake says

    Interesting analysis. I have an alternative theory for why people stop playing Train but persist with Puerto Rico. Western culture is saturated, everywhere, with the idea that the Nazis’ attempted extermination of the Jews was a singular, uniquely terrible event (rather than one among many, many genocides before and since). Furthermore, anyone daring to suggest otherwise is branded with the irredeemably toxic label “anti-Semitic”, from which there is no way back. “Racist” simply doesn’t carry the same level of appalled opprobrium, the same risk to career and continued peace.
    Players know that. We’re simply not socialised to care about the evils of colonialism the same way we’re beaten over the head with how terrible the Holocaust was.

  2. cartomancer says

    I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that the majority of these games are of German origin? We don’t tend to call such games “Euro” games here in England – we call them German-style games (to contrast with the more familiar American-style games such as Monopoly and Cluedo). Pretty much all the big names of the genre were designed by Germans and first released in a German context.

    Germany, of course, doesn’t have much by way of a colonial past to engage with. Certainly not to the same degree as Britain or France or Spain or the Netherlands. One imagines that from a German perspective the settlement of new lands is largely an abstract problem – one that can be much more fondly imagined without all the awkward historical baggage that the post-colonial nations of Europe and the actual colonies have to deal with.

  3. says

    cartomancer @2,
    Yeah, that’s an interesting observation. I think that Eurogames are slowly moving away from Germany, as designers elsewhere in the world make their own Eurogames, or games influenced by the Eurogame genre. I wonder if this means that we should expect the colonialist themes to fade over time.

    Incidentally, Race for the Galaxy is American. And Cluedo is British.

  4. Bakunin says

    If you ever get the chance, play Spirit Island, if you haven’t already. The players are nature spirits driving out the colonial invaders. And it’s damn fun as well.

  5. says

    Bakunin @4,
    I have heard of Spirit Island albeit only in the context of talking about colonialism in board games. It’s notable that Spirit Island‘s (entirely valid) approach to making an anti-colonialist game, is to make it cooperative.

  6. Bakunin says

    Speaking of colonialism in boardgames, I was reminded of Age of Empires III, or at least the board game version. Notably bad for blatant colonialist themes, to the point that the tokens representing the natives have stereotypical ‘Savage Indians’ on them. And the only option to deal with them is by sending soldiers, and you get to loot them afterwards!

  7. suttkus says

    At least Settlers of Catan is being colonial on an apparently uninhabited island. Unless there’s an expansion that I don’t know about that adds natives to stomp. Puerto Rico gets away with it by calling the little brown thingies “colonists”, so the only way to recognize them as slaves is to.. well, know the history of Puerto Rico, which most people don’t. Hi, Puerto Rico! We’re part of a system that has been brutally suppressing you for decades and we don’t even care enough to know it! USA USA, Land of the free!

    I wonder if this is the subconscious reason I seem to have avoided these games. I can’t remember ever thinking, “Oh, ick, colonialism!” when playing a Eurogame of that sort, but on the other hand, the only colonial Eurogame in my collection is Settlers of Catan, which is, as you said, about as sanitized as you can get. Not a real place so no history to get in your face and make you feel bad, and no sign of native inhabitants. I’ve played Roll for the Galaxy and Puerto Rico, but never felt the urge to buy them. My favorite Eurogames include Terraforming Mars, which is safely free from natives, Smallworld, which is safely ensconced in its fantasy theme, or Caverna, which is about making a family farm instead of an empire.

    Not that I don’t have other games with problematic elements. But at least I Have the second printing of Five Tribes where they took the slaves out and replaced them with fakirs. Though, I honestly don’t know what the theme of Five Tribes is, other than “vaguely Arabian”. What exactly are you supposed to be doing on your turn? Taking over chunks of land, sure, but it doesn’t feel like colonizing them because you’re taking the meeples you sent there off the land, and other people can still use them and… bluntly the game makes Chess look like a masterpiece of a sensible theme.

    But, in the end, a lot of games fall into the “problematic if you think about it”. Pirates were mostly pretty terrible people that lived by stealing and murdering. But they sure are the active players in a lot of good games! Anything with knights in a medieval theme is supporting a fairly terrible economic system, and a tyrannical system of government. And then there’s Gloom, the game about making people miserable and then killing them for points. It’s really awesome!

    At least I can play Sagrada without feeling like I’m supporting the religious intolerance that led to all that beautiful stained glass.

  8. says

    suttkus @8,
    I’ve heard the interpretation that the “robber” in Settlers of Catan is a representation of natives fighting back. But Catan is a fictional place so it’s hard to say.

    A sanitized colonialism feels worse in some ways, like we can’t even be bothered to acknowledge the existence of victims. But when you think of the alternative–take for example Age of Empires III as mentioned in #7, or imagine a version of Puerto Rico where the colonists are simply called slaves–it hardly seems better. And then there are games like Terraforming Mars, which still strikes me as colonialist, but with a setting where the sanitization makes a lot of sense, so maybe it’s not so bad.

    I definitely don’t think pirates, knights, or the Gorey-esque setting of Gloom are nearly as problematic. These are very distant and fantastical settings for us. Whereas colonialism… also feels distant, but perhaps really ought not to, considering our history.

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