One of my biggest geek hobbies is Euro boardgaming. For those of you not familiar with Eurogames, the general difference between Euros and more traditional American boardgames like Monopoly is that Eurogames often have less luck and more strategy and tactical thinking involved. They’re usually played by small but dedicated groups of board game geeks like the folks I game with each Wednesday night. Probably the most well-known Eurogames in North America are Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne.
Maybe because the players tend to be a little geeky, many Eurogames are themed around historical events. There are games where you play pyramid builders in ancient Egypt, pirate captains, and Roman patricians.
But unfortunately there are also a significant number themed around European colonialism, and they really rub me the wrong way. The legacy of colonialism still underpins social inequalities in North America and around the world, so I want to take a closer look at the games I play that deal with this theme.
Puerto Rico is a multiple-award-winning game, in which players assume the role of plantation owners around the 1600s-1700s. The goal of the game is to accumulate victory points by developing useful buildings in San Juan, growing crops on your plantations, deploying colonists effectively, and sending goods back to Europe. Puerto Rico is sanitized of all references to the exploitation of African slaves on plantations, or the indigenous Taino inhabitants of the island, who were virtually wiped out by the Spanish colonists.
2. Age of Empires III (BGG Ranking: 36)
The board game Age of Empires III is based on the popular real-time PC game of the same name. Instead of totally omitting the conquering of indigenous peoples, AOE makes it one of the goals. Every time you send a ship of your colonists (including missionaries, soldiers, and settlers) over to the “New World” you have to have more colonists in your party than the number of “Natives” in the colony in order for your expedition to succeed. If you do, you get a “plunder” reward of money. If there’s one thing worse than ignoring the history of Aboriginal genocide it’s playing a game that gives you points for re-enacting it.
The artwork (image above) makes it particularly offensive, with stereotyped drawings of “Native” warriors symbolizing those you have to conquer.
3. Vasco Da Gama (ranked 132)
The description of Vasco Da Gama on Board Game Geek reads: “Recruit workers, buy projects, build ships. And use the ships to open new commercial routes to eastern Africa and India, to earn money and glory.” You can influence characters to help your missions, including a priest who sends Christian missionaries with your ships (left).
I guess the game would be less enjoyable if it’d dealt with the part of Vasco Da Gama’s career when he captured a ship carrying Muslim pilgrims and kept it on fire until all of the 400 people aboard had died, or the part where he dismembered 30 Indian fishermen outside what was then called Calicut and left them floating in the sea for their families to find.
Two more games that are much lower-ranked and which I’ve never played but are potentially even worse are the trading game Heart of Africa, which claims that “by the start of the 19th century the continent remained largely undiscovered” and Africa 1880: The Game of Exploration and Exploitation.
It’s interesting to note that very few popular and highly-ranked Eurogames are designed by women, and the vast majority of well-known game designers are white. I can’t really say why this is, but it likely plays a role in some of the problematic elements we see in these themes.
It might seem like these games are unimportant. After all, not too many people play Eurogames, and they are just games. What I’m saying is that they’re part of a culture that romanticizes colonialism and erases the history of genocide and cultural annihilation of indigenous peoples by European powers. You can argue a board game isn’t the best medium for a thorough and unbiased history lesson, but I don’t think you can argue that colonialist themes are necessary to make an enjoyable, marketable board game.
There are a lot of Eurogames that combine great theme, artwork, and mechanics. If you’re interested in Eurogaming and are looking for some more positive options, I’d suggest Carcassonne, which is a great game to play to get your feet wet and which is pretty uncontroversial. Some other good options are the award-winning farming gameAgricola, the sci-fi themed card game Race for the Galaxy, and the fabulously designed Stone Age.