The tabletop hobby has grown significantly in recent years. Not just in terms of the number of players or games available, but in ideas and innovation too. We are living through a golden age of board games, with new and exciting ideas seeming to appear every week.
But in this hobby sometimes the tried and tested themes remain throughout the constant change and innovation we see. Although they may have faded in popularity games themed around colonial conquest and/or expansion have been a staple of board gaming for years. In any given board gaming shop you can find dozens of examples that follow similar ideas of explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate.
Whether it’s in straightforward historical settings or alternate universes the idea of players competing to carve up and dominate a shared map is common in tabletop gaming. In many cases this is part of a harmless setting that doesn’t present any issues – but often too games can require players to engage with real-world historical violence as a gameplay mechanic.
In hugely popular games like Puerto Rico, Age Of Empires or Imperial Settlers players are actively encouraged in taking actions that in reality equated to the displacement and murder of native groups and the exploitation of slave labour. The way in which games like these treat historic injustices is arguably problematic. However, many who love these games can defend their themes by claiming that fun is most important – and that critiquing complex sociohistorical problems in the world is not the job of a board game designer.
Understanding our shared history is important; especially so when it comes to issues like colonialism that have had such a powerful impact on our world. Engaging with history in various ways, even through board games, can be an incredibly valuable way of understanding this impact. However, the way in which board games fail to be critical of certain aspects of history, definitely paints colonialism in an unjustly positive light. (In the previously mentioned games there are no alternatives – if you fail or refuse to engage then you simply lose the game).
Critiquing the outdated ideas and ideologies of colonialism should be done whenever it is suitable. In our daily lives we often strive to criticise the hurtful and damaging ideas of things such as these. However, this still raises the argument of how this could, or should, look in the board gaming world.
The board game community is filled with incredibly smart and well-informed people. Unlike any other hobbyist community the ability to ability to be self-critical is common among fans and designers alike. But with this being said, there is still much uncertainty over what this means for designers and the themes of colonialism. Should designers be responsible for critiquing these ideas, or should players be left with a historically accurate setting and left to draw their own conclusions?
Like with TV, film and all other forms of art and media – the argument that something doesn’t need to be critical, simply fun, is quickly fading. Board gaming needs to be accessible for all people – including those who may find the notion of their ancestors being treated as passive game mechanics unsavoury or offensive. But for now, how exactly game designers can address these issues while keeping fun at the center of their work, is an ongoing struggle.