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Bloodless Board Games, Covert Colonialisms

On the imperial gaze in tabletop gaming

I’m waiting my turn in Settlers of Catan and thinking about the Robber. The Robber in Settlers of Catan is the only element of the game that can go on the attack, the only way to harm a player past depriving them of opportunities. The only element with any blood. But it is fundamentally a non-player character, a board element, with no agency of its own and no ability to win the game on its own. The game is fairly literal about what its mechanics represent: a church is represented by a church, a town by a town, a colony by a series of roads and towns. The Robber makes little sense as a Robber though, they are not the logical outcome of poverty or deprivation or laws or moral decay, and they don’t scale with the population of the island. So if they’re not meant to be a Robber in the sense of a criminal, what are they, and how can we figure that out?

Video and board games are chronically under analyzed by scholars and critics. This is a pity because there is so much to dig into. Games provide players with rich semiotic vocabularies which they manipulate explicitly and subliminally toward ends more conscious than we usually have in waking life. Every game contains a world, and this world, being the creation of an intelligent designer, contains a thesis. These theses are worthy of our attention and critique. But these theses are not only expressed through narratives and world-building. They also manifest themselves in the particular set of rules and ways of interacting which restrict how players can interact with the game world and each other. Following typical gamer convention, we might call these the game’s mechanics.

Board games have a unique utility for our purposes: the mechanics are laid bare for all to see, and especially because the only enforcement of the mechanics is through the players’ cooperation, the players are intimate with the mechanical language to an extent that is very rare among video games. Mechanics are an often underappreciated landscape, frequently treated as a trivial twist on textual or graphical representation. But mechanics define the players’ agency, and thus undergird the whole text of the game at every single point, since a game cannot be experienced as anything without the players’ interactions with the rules. They are also subject to a terrible overcorrection through superficial reviews such as “Gamefeel” reviews, where mechanics are mystified so heavily they become a purely subjective “good experience vs bad experience,” insulting players, developers, and critics by sandblasting the texture of play into nothing. The minimal expectation for any critical examination of a game is that it takes seriously its mechanics as the primary language of the game, through which its themes are explored and its meanings expressed. 

We ignore the propaganda potential of board games at our peril. It is a well known piece of board gaming history that Monopoly did not begin life as Monopoly designed by Charles Darrow, but as The Landlord’s Game designed by Elizabeth Magie. The Landlord’s Game was designed to demonstrate a key fault of capitalism, specifically that rentier economics impoverish the already poor while enriching the already rich. As a game rather than a Georgist tract, The Landlord’s Game forces players to experience rather than read about the frustrations of seeing one’s money continuously slip towards those who manage to get an early lead on property ownership.

A major fashion in the modern board game world is towards a style of game known as “Eurogame.” The Eurogame, so named for its origin in German board games such as Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan, has a number of distinctive attributes: abstract design, a focus on economic matters, and critically a refusal to formally eliminate any player from the game until its conclusion. This last element, which some critics refer to as “bloodless” for it prevents players from engaging in the sort of heated drama that defines other competitive games, lends itself to a particular motif that we will examine here: colonialism.

Specifically, colonialism as seen from the metropole and the eyes of the colonial conqueror. The competitors are other colonial powers, or other people in the colonial machinery. This specific orientation is valuable in service of the aforementioned bloodlessness design goal: seen from Europe with some selective amnesia, the scramble for Africa and the Americas can be viewed as a bit of collegial fun, a sporting competition with surely some stakes and prestige but never a dire existential threat to the self, or in our metaphor any of the players. In the reality of colonialism, it is only the subjects, the victims, of colonialism that faced extinction. The colonial board game thus never elevates the indigenous population to the level of player. In fact, the colonial board game will often render the indigenous subject completely subaltern — at best a non-player mechanic providing an occasional aid or nuisance — or even conspicuously absent. The absence of an indigenous population serves as a means of justifying the doctrine of terra nullius and perpetuating a colonialist narrative that ameliorates any feelings of guilt felt by the beneficiaries of colonialism, even to the present day.

This particular question sets us up for a topic that collides heavily with both game mechanics and critique of colonialism: agency. One of the sharpest features of colonialism is the wall between colonizer and colonized, and the survival of the system rests on the denial and abridgement of the agency of the colonized, the maximization of the agency of the colonizer. Agency is also one of the base components of mechanical expression: explicit agency is the most obvious break between games and the majority of other art forms like books or television, and the question of who is given agency is a necessary building block for nearly any other question about a game to be raised. Typically that agency is explored through player control: the connection between a player’s choices and the results seen in the game is a mechanical manifestation of narrative agency, and the limits of the player’s ability to affect the game become the boundaries of their avatars’ agency. Games are, as a rule, quite restrictive spaces, and even avatars as mighty as whole countries or gods find themselves running into limits, sharp and soft.

Studies of particular games

Settlers of Catan

Settlers of Catan looms large in the psyche of the board game player, being for many the first Eurogame they have played. This is unsurprising: it has sold upwards of 22 million copies in 30 languages,1Dave McNary, “Settlers of Catan Movie, TV Project in the Works,” Variety, February 19th, 2015. and dates back to 1995, giving it both a commercial clout and historical pedigree that most games scarcely dream of. Somehow it has won “Game of the Year” awards for both 19952“Full list of Spiel des Jarhes (Board Game of the Year) Award Winners.” Board game Halv. and 20053“Gra Roku Game of the Year.” Board Game Geek.. The game is relatively simple and innocuous. Players compete to be the first to claim territories on the fictional island of Catan, and interaction exists primarily in the form of mutually consenting trade.

Territory is controlled by the placement of settlements at the intersection of three hexes (locations). Each hex has a number and a resource associated with it. At the start of each player’s turn, two dice are rolled, and each hex with a matching number generates one of its matching resources to each settlement touching the tile. Constructing roadways, settlements, and internal developments requires multiple resources, and it is difficult and unlikely for the early parts of the game for any player to independently produce all necessary resources, creating a web of interdependence between the players. Ideally, it’s the shrewdest trader who wins the game.

The board suggested for first-time players can be seen in figure 1. 

Settlers of Catan board, from the rulebook, fair use.

Three related items in the figure present wrinkles to my earlier description: the absence of 7’s assigned to hexes, the presence of a nonproductive ‘desert’ hex, and an icon labeled “Robber.” When a 7 is rolled, rather than resources being produced by hexes, the player who rolled has temporary control of the Robber, who may be placed on any hex other than the one it currently occupies. Any hex occupied by the Robber is unproductive so long as the Robber sits on it, and the player who places the Robber takes a resource from a player with a settlement bordering the targeted hex. The Robber may also be ‘moved’ by a player using a “knight” development card , with the additional positive scoring points for deploying the largest army.

An assortment of knight development cards, from the Settlers of Catan rulebook, fair use.
Largest army development card, Settlers of Catan rulebook, fair use.

A trend emerges between these portrayals of martial might and the illustrations present in the other development cards: the characters all portrayed are white, and if anything the whole setting feels pre-Columbian exchange.4Later editions have added art that is more distinctively Colonial North America, mostly odd that it didn’t start there

The Robber thus becomes the only vector by which other players are actively harmed by another player, and this Robber takes on the aspect not of direct war, for when knights are used they just move the Robber, but of indirect, proxy warfare. This creates a certain emotional distance between the players, which is intentional from a game design perspective as it reduces the heatedness of arguments, but also latently functions to remove responsibility from the colonial state’s actions within the game world. 

So who, then, is the Robber? The mechanics, rather than the flavor text, contain the answer. The Robber is outside of the colonial state and the rules of colonial world order. In other words, a savage. The non-distinct term “Robber” serves to obfuscate the actual meaning of the Robber from a historical perspective: that of indigenous and colonized. Colonization campaigns do not tend to be clean and methodical, and outsider communities, of displaced indigenous people, escaped slaves, and the simply dispossessed, tended to congregate in marginal lands with a need to resort to expropriating (and reappropriating) materials from the colonizers. These communities, of maroons, pirates, and yes robbers, are the most romantic and sympathetic figures of the era. It is unfortunate that they are not who we get to play as.

Road building and university development cards, Settlers of Catan rulebook, fair use.

Another element of the Robber is that the Robber begins on the nonproductive desert tile. In this way, the settler narrative that indigenous populations are incapable of productive labor — which real-world philosophers like John Locke used historically as justifications for expropriating native lands — is given yet another layer: in the ideology of the game’s ruleset, they so manifestly fail to understand the productive potential of the land that they opt to use marginal land instead of more lands. In fact, their presence is a contagion that prevents the use of otherwise productive territory. While it is coherent to suggest that the Robber is placed on the desert tile as a ‘compromise’ to prevent the robber being on any productive tiles at the start, this still raises questions of “why not simply have the Robber be in an off-map bank”5Speculatively, I think this is because doing so would suggest that bands of robbers are the result of state policies and state violence, which might make players slightly uncomfortable and liable to argue, but that is speculation. and “why have any nonproductive land,” questions the game does not seem keen on looking into.

Instead, through largely mechanical language, Settlers of Catan has created a particular political portrait, and one that trades on rather harmful stereotypes. The Robber is not a side that develops and cannot win, giving them a clear teleology in the game’s logic. The Robber cannot take action except when either deliberately or inadvertently prompted by the settlers, reducing both their agency and their rationality to only being extensions of the colonizers. The Robber is violent, the only part of the game with any blood and far more violent than any of the settlers. And finally the Robber is here first, predating any settlers in a very unambiguous way. If a movie were to depict a group of people this way, as doomed and indolent and irrational and infantilized and violent, only present because they were here first and only as obstacles to the actual agents of the story, the audience would hopefully recognize this as cruel, bigoted stereotypes about indigenous peoples without needing additional visual shorthands.

By the time my turn hits, I’m not so sure I want to win anymore.

Splendor

Splendor, superficially, bears little resemblance to most other board games. For one, it largely lacks a “board,” and what it does have is not a geographic map, but a matrix of gem-producing “Mine” cards. As in Catan, the objective is to secure a certain number of abstract “victory points” before the other players do.

Players in Splendor are gem traders, and their interactions consist of either collecting a pittance of gems directly or permanently acquiring “Mines” that better facilitate future purchases. Purchases are made with gems and with a renewable discount applied by their Mines. In this way, the players Mine cards form what is informally known as an “engine”: a means of producing the tools needed for victory. Some Mine cards, in addition to providing gem production, provide a quantity of victory points, making the efficient gathering of Mine cards the key to victory. It is the iconography of the Mine cards that concern us here, since their visuals tell us who is and is not an active participant in the gem trade.

The Mine cards are not, in fact, uniformly mines. Some are ships, some are caravans, some are city streets, and a few are gem inspectors. Disturbingly, the ones that resemble mines the most are absent any laborers or indeed people at all. The only people prominent on the Mine cards are the gem inspectors, who are very thoroughly white, and the only other prominent faces are the (white) nobility. 

A comparison of “Mine” cards. Note the reduced and even stereotyped way that the actual, pulling-out-of-the-ground miners (images 1-3) are portrayed, versus the white gem inspector and noblewoman (image 4 & 5). From a Splendor set, fair use.

Gems seem to spring from the ground with no effort. Compare this to a historical plate from South Africa’s Koffiefontein Diamond Mine of the 19th Century, or a photo of Zheltugan miners from the 1880s. 

South Africa: a group of miners working underground at a De Beers diamond mine named Koffiefontein. Photograph by J.E.M., 1896. CC BY 4.0.
Photograph of Zheltugan miners circa 1880, public domain.

The pre-mechanical mining process is extremely labor intensive. Yet the mines as represented in Splendor are not merely laborless, but practically still-lifes. This obfuscation of the reality of precious gem mining insulates the player of Splendor from the historical learning process, and the attendant guilt.

Even more so than Settlers of Catan, Splendor insulates players from each others’ actions. The most aggressive action that a player may take against another is the “reserve” action, which, along with strategic purchasing, is a form of “blocking” strategy. Outside of this limited blocking and competition for the victory points themselves, players do not interfere with each other. This makes even more invisible the historical reality of the violence of the precious gem trade on indigenous populations, which involves not merely the exploitation of indigenous labor but also the forced relocation of indigenous populations. 

In this way, there is no sin in the gem trade.

Trajan

Trajan concerns a much older period of colonial and imperial expansion and exploitation: the Pax Romana. However, the theme ultimately remains the same: the indigenous population is subaltern. This may be an example of our modern understanding of colonialism being projected backwards into the Classical era, distorting our understanding of what the colonial enterprise was actually like.6Greg Woolf, “Beyond Romans and Natives,” World Archaeology Vol 28, No. 3 (Feb 1997), pp 339-350 In it, the players are Roman nobles, competing to accrue the most personal glory for themselves above the other players. 

Mechanically, Trajan is much more complicated than Settlers of Catan or Splendor. We will ignore a full five of the six actions in the game in the interests of space and time (and that the game effectively includes mancala as a subgame), and concern ourselves exclusively with the ‘military’ action. In common with most Eurogames, the game involves the accumulation of abstract ‘victory points’ rather than elimination of other players or creating a specific board state.

With the military action, the player may do one of three things: moving a general to a province, garrisoning a province with an army of soldiers, or converting a generic worker unit to an army of soldiers. Each province has a resource placed in it randomly at the beginning of the game, which is claimed by the first general to enter a province. Victory points are awarded to players who garrison a province with an army, with decreasing points for garrisoning a province already garrisoned. The resources are replenished from a random pool at three junctures throughout the game, so long as the province has neither general nor garrison in it.

Critically, the indigenous populations of Gaul, Germania, and Britannia are simply rolled over by the Roman forces, with no resistance or even attrition suffered by the conquering forces. The only expenditure of material resources happens by garrisoning, which puts the province into the Roman fold. The indigenous people exists entirely for the glory of Rome. While this may be argued as an accurate representation of how Roman patricians thought of the non-Roman peoples, it contradicts the much more real history that these campaigns involved continuous violent suppression. 

Further, this military adventurism is very safely external. The largest military risk the players face is that another player has beaten them to the punch – not a risk of losing, nor a risk of directly confronting another player, just of not getting the ripest fruit. The historicity of this is dubious: the Roman Republic had, by a quick count on Wikipedia, sixteen civil wars in the last sixty years of the Republic –  still quite tame compared to the civil wars of the Imperial era. The game design logic of this can be attributed to a basic element of Eurogame design philosophy – avoid encouraging strife between players and do not build mechanisms that would eliminate a player. This game design choice reverberates through the game’s fiction, creating not just an ahistorically cooperative Roman politics but having the somewhat worse implication that a society can reasonably keep the peace at home through military adventurism abroad. A “we employ them over there so we don’t employ them over here” logic, a “blood sacrifice to keep the economy rolling” logic. Unfortunately the constraints of the game do not provide room where that could be treated critically, and so we are left with a sort of untreated infection in the fiction.

Mombasa

Mombasa is overwhelmingly aggressive about its colonialist framing. The players are colonial investors, scrambling for control of Africa with/for the aid of colonialist companies such as the British South Africa Company (though they are not referred to by name – the British South Africa Company is represented as “Cape Town,” for example, and the game takes its name from Mombasa, the coastal city of Kenya where the British East Africa Company was centered). While the game uses the common victory point tracker, this victory point total is not meant to describe an abstract amalgamation of general performance, it instead corresponds to the amount of profit your investor has made in Africa, a sort of index of pillaging efficiency. The goals of the players have nothing to do with any sort of ‘civilizing,’ enriching, or altruistic mission, but instead with raw enrichment and extraction. The game’s mechanics cut straight through the nonsense of colonial propaganda and its stated aims: you are not here to make friends, you are here to steal everything that isn’t nailed down.

The variety of means by which players can loot the continent is extremely wide by board game standards, and creates a strategic explosion that will have to tolerate a more surface treatment than the other games. The wealth of players at the end of the game is an amalgamation of their cash, total stock holdings, diamond stores, and value of books published (mercifully, ‘books’ is a very abstract mechanic). The player actions are to cash in trade goods, publish books, engage in the diamond trade, and most importantly “expand.” Expanding is pretty obviously a violent action, but the only forms of mechanical friction against expansion are 1) terrain – distance and geographic barriers 2) trade posts by rival companies. The population densities, attitudes, diplomacy, etc. of those about to be occupied are all uniform and zero. That said, it is not possible to treat Africa as a terra nullius mechanically – the very reason to enter the territory is not for productive land but to immediately extract cash, claims for stock companies, and content for books.7The game is unclear on if this is for travel diaries, scientific surveys, or adventure novels, but I’ve consistently been darkly amused by the fact that it doesn’t actually matter: all is equally profitable content.

The main source of mechanical chaos is that players are not married to any particular company, and may expand or buy shares in any of them. The most efficient mechanism for making money is undoubtedly to invest in a poor company that another player expands to greatness. This creates a highly chaotic and uncertain situation where growing a company that you are invested in becomes a questionable choice if it helps another player catch up to or surpass you, and is the main thing holding these companies back from methodically stripping Africa bare. Africa is a loot piñata whose only defense is the cooperation problems and prisoner’s dilemmas happening among Europeans.

Which leads us to the beginning of the Mombasa rulebook, which opens with this quote:

In Mombasa, players acquire shares of chartered companies based in Mombasa, Cape Town, Saint-Louis and Cairo and spread their trading posts throughout the African continent in order to earn the most money.

Chartered companies were associations formed for the purpose of exploration, trade and colonization, which links them inextricably to a very dark chapter in human history: global colonialism.  This period lasted roughly from the 15th century to the middle of the 20th century and is associated with exploitation and slavery.

Although Mombasa is loosely set within this time frame, it is not a historical simulation. It is a strategy game with an economic focus that roughly refers to historical categories and places them in a fictional setting. The exploitation of the African continent and its people is not explicitly depicted within the game play.

If you want to learn more about the underlying history, we recommend the following read:

History of Modern Africa: 1800 to the Present by Richard J. Reid. (Blackwell Concise History of the Modern World). Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.

Which is to say: the developers of Mombasa anticipated and understood the very criticisms that would be leveled against it, and hung a lampshade on their own game very, very quickly. Credit where credit’s due: they knew what they were portraying, and knew that it was wrong. They just saw that the chaos of free for all investment in chartered companies was an interesting game. Moments like these are bewildering – the game of looting Africa wasn’t made by sleepwalking, but with eyes wide open. What was subtle and covert before has now kicked down the door screaming.

Spirit Island

What might an anticolonial board game look like? Spirit Island was designed as a deliberate response to many of the above described traditions. From the rulebook 

The Seed for Spirit Island was prompted by a colonization action in some other game – Goa? Navegador? Endeavor? – where I thought, “I wonder how angry the locals are about this new colony of foreigners? We’ll never know, because this game has entirely abstracted away the people who already lived there. Well, that’s kind of rude.”

The creator, R. Eric Reuss, decided not to create a game of a real historical anti-colonial struggle, but instead a mythic fantasy of anti-colonial struggle. The players do not play as the people under threat of colonization, but the natural deities of a land under threat of colonization. These deities are not from any actual existing religion but are original creations, centered on a force or concept of varying degrees of abstraction (no points for guessing what Lightning’s Swift Strikes represents, though Shadows Flicker Like Flame is a bit more obscure).8The names of the Spirits being in English, and in particular their evocative grammar, bears most similarity to the very American habit of translating North American Indigenous names into English nouns, such that Maȟpíya Lúta becomes Red Cloud. This is notably not done for the Europeans – France is not mangled into “The Honest Ones” or the more etymologically grounded “Spearbearers” or “Fierce People.” The indigenous population, which was thankfully given the dignity of a name,9Dahan, another invention; Dahan is a word in both Malay and Tagalog, but the connection is not explicit. This is part of the clumsy liberalism of trying to have an indigenous story deracinated from any actual indigenous history, of trying to honor indigenous people without actually having them present. is firmly represented in gameplay but not necessarily on good terms with the players. The players are trying to save the land, not its inhabitants.

Spirit Island is a fully cooperative game – rather than each player individually seeking out victory, they all win together or lose together. The colonizers are played by a sort of artificial intelligence – a set of rules where they take a set of predictable actions based on the result of drawing cards. While the colonizers are by no means particularly intelligent, they display a greater degree of narrative agency than generally given to non-player characters: they are a legitimate threat, and they are not perfectly predictable, both of which forces the players into a frequently reactive posture. Negotiation is not an option, but when you cannot outright kill the colonizers, you often resort to stalling, mitigation, and misdirection. 

The turn resolution is fairly complex, creating a certain amount of texture: the actions to be taken by the colonizers are determined and announced, then the players determine and announce their actions, and then all actions are resolved (including some less predictable events that do not fall neatly into either colonizer or spirit). Some player actions are “swift” and happen before the colonizers, and some are “slow” and happen after the colonizers. Since players know what the colonizers are going to do, players have to prioritize their actions in terms of preventing immediate harm, slowing the colonizer’s ability to do harm in the future, and advancing the players’ own victory condition of kicking the colonizer’s off the island entirely.

The actions of the colonizers are a clever piece of game design: each turn a card is drawn with a set of locations, and those locations will be explored. The next turn, that card is the set of locations for where the colonizers will build new buildings, and the turn after those locations will be “ravaged,” a deliberately violent yet indistinct term. Ravaging blights the land, injures spirits, and kills Dahan; conversely, the Dahan may kill colonizers back. The colonizers are methodical and precise: already explored lands will be reinforced, already built up lands developed further, and blighting becomes more radical. The methodical nature of the invaders is where players are able to be the most strategic: explorers need to depart from towns, towns won’t get built in areas that don’t at least have an explorer already, cities won’t be built without at least a town, and lands with no colonizers are safe from being ravaged. Carefully timed floods, locusts, fires, and nightmares can derail the chain of destruction.

What of the Dahan in all of this? Unfortunately, Spirit Island does not actually get that much closer to addressing the issue set forth by Reuss. The subjectivity of the victims of colonization is still ignored. They exist, and are both more sympathetic and more present than in the other games discussed, but they are ultimately a game element, and not even always a particularly potent one. The players’ choice of spirits affects the import of the Dahan, and one, Thunderspeaker, represents not so much a natural force so much as an anti-colonial fervor & organization, with the player marshaling and commanding armies of Dahan to flatten colonial cities. This mystifies the act of political organization, but it does also add some real teeth to the Dahan and their place in the story. For most of the rest of the spirits, Dahan serve as a useful bonus-force that can, over time and with some support, make defending areas somewhat more efficient. At the other extreme, Keeper of the Forbidden Wilds will merrily kill Dahan en masse.

The decision to draw attention away from the actual living people to alien divinities was likely the right choice in terms of opening up design space. Their ephemerality makes the logic of being so out-of-time feel more natural and enables a hard to deny grandeur: sweeping whole cities away in tsunamis feels really cool in a way that is largely outside the scope of what a real person could do. The politics are also prudent, as the optics of a 21st century American ‘speaking for’ a group of fictitious supernatural beings is less troubling than doing so for people who actually lived and died from colonial violence. Still, as much as it makes real strides towards a non-horrifying game about colonialism, it does not realize even its own stated goal.

To quote from its own rulebook: “how angry are the locals”? The game does not come close to answering that. Without prodding by Spirits or colonizers, the Dahan are generally inert. With some optional rules they take on more character, occasionally spreading, fixing the land, or fortifying their location, but by and large they will 1) retaliate against colonizers who attack them or 2) act on the urging of specific Spirit powers. Returning to Thunderspeaker: most of Thunderspeaker’s powers either move Dahan or cause Dahan to attack colonizers. While there is a rich tradition, including Western religions, of attributing bold action to supernatural motivation (muses, vocation, and so on), the context makes it hard to believe that Thunderspeaker is participating on that level. The Spirit is put on the same level as a sentient ocean and a local Zeus, and the power to use a military operates much the same way as a supernatural sinkhole or teleportation. This is less a question of inspiration among people with agency than divine intervention on behalf of the idle masses.

Further, the survival of the Dahan is not mission-critical. Several of the Spirits can very readily kill Dahan through collateral damage – Keeper of the Forbidden Wilds, Ocean’s Hungry Grasp, Vengeance as a Burning Plague, and Volcano Looming High. Ending a game with no human presence whatsoever is a perfectly valid way to win. To put it mildly, “that’s kind of rude.” Portraying such an alien perspective is generally interesting, but the game itself explicitly invites the player to critique games for their indifference to the victims of colonization. Spirit Island provides something of an incomplete antidote to the established design trend. Explicitly antagonistic to settler colonialism and unabashedly violent in its opposition, it nevertheless replicates an infantilizing portrayal of colonized people through the design of its mechanics. 

Root

Root is something of a visual departure – rather than representing either very explicit European colonizers, or abstracted versions of those humans, Root represents its particular bloodbath with cute watercolor animals. The story that leads up to the game is pure fiction but readily recognizable: the Marquise de Cat has come to the woodland to cut down all the trees for her industrial machinery, leading to simultaneous rebellions by the working-class Woodland Alliance and the aristocratic Eyrie Dynasties.  The fictionalization is necessary to create such a clean narrative, where the capitalists, workers, and reactionaries have straightforward caricatures that all enter into a frenzied conflict simultaneously. 

The game takes many of its design clues from an as-yet unmentioned board gaming tradition: GMT Game’s Counter-Insurgency series, which are gritty, grinding representations of real-life conflicts like the US occupation of Afghanistan (A Distant Plain) and the Cuban civil war (Cuba Libre). The major commonality is having players with radically different power, options, and goals. In Root, the Marquise de Cat’s power and play flow from its supply chain management: recruitment offices to field armies, workshops to expand options, and lumber yards to build buildings (including more lumber yards, more quickly). A well-oiled supply chain can field large, flexible armies that can be rapidly replenished and redeployed, overwhelming the opposition through attrition. The Woodland Alliance’s mechanics revolve around building sympathy among the populace to create strategic outbursts of violence, lacking in efficiency and conventional armies but gaining in resilience and unpredictability. The Eyrie corrects in the other direction: any committed move becomes a tradition, and thus are free actions on future turns, and so the Eyries have incredibly efficient turns after a time. However if any of those free actions become mechanically illegitimate (e.g. “build a building” but all of the available spaces are fully developed) the entire government collapses with ruinous penalties, which encourages the Eyrie player to balance cautious sustainable play against massive swings to decide the game sooner.

The politics in Root are explicit and followed through to their logical ends. The game does not make any argument that the Marquise’s capitalism will profit anybody other than the Marquise: even for the other cats, this mostly seems a bad deal since the main thing they get out of it is thrown into a meatgrinder. While at first glance it’s curious that the Woodlanders themselves are not particularly agentic unless they participate in organized resistance, this is a valid political thesis. The Marquise and Eyries do not need the Woodlanders to affirmatively support them, they just need to be pacified. The Woodlanders can seize their agency through collective action, but day-to-day participation in the world is effectively a rounding error to all factions. For the Woodland Alliance, this means apathy is death.

The expansions to the game add new factions that can be substituted for existing ones, and these create some genuinely curious wrinkles. The brute force capitalism of the Marquise de Cat can be replaced with a softer set of traveling merchants of the Riverfolk Company, and the “knights beating peasants” of the Eyries can be replaced with the more subtle Corvid Conspiracy (among others). Doing this while leaving in the Woodland Alliance changes the politics considerably. Instead of a fairly straightforward Marxist story of a class based movement against the exploiters, you get wide-eyed conspiracy theorists railing against globalists and the deep state. While the takeaway here is pretty obvious – an opposition movement is largely defined by what they’re opposed to, and no discussion of ‘insurgents’ is coherent without what they’re against – it is a fascinating piece of mechanics that players read this change pretty intuitively without any direct changes to the Woodland Alliance itself.

As yet unmentioned is the presence of a heroic faction. As one friend put it, the Marquise is playing Civilization, the Eyrie is playing Crusader Kings, and the Vagabond is playing Skyrim – a solo adventurer looking for loot and glory. Even more than the others, the Vagabond makes a mess of any clean thesis. The Vagabond can win as a single person, and I cannot make this make any sort of ‘real’ sense. For any of the other factions, their victory means that they have successfully imposed their vision of society on the others, whether that be a giant factory or self-organizing communes. Why should any organization that has those capabilities take it seriously that one jerk with a sword has a bunch of trinkets?

That aside, the question of who is a legitimate player in Root is refreshingly clear and meaningful. Most of the factions have unambiguous governments, states even, and the Woodland Alliance provides an interesting take on who gets to participate outside the state: those who dare to seize their own agency and participate in a struggle for their own liberation. Implicitly most of the residents are outside of the conflict, and are not players because they are not willing to be players. It is a strikingly Maoist vision of who matters, and in this way takes quite seriously the question of how the oppressed fight back.

Analysis

Spirit Island and even more strongly Mombasa make something very clear: the board gaming community is aware of the problematic elements of colonial representation. They do not need some semi-educated outsider to push up their glasses and tut-tut at them for having not read enough Edward Said or John Kelly. They know, and frankly have some follow through on addressing the issue, at least at the level of game design itself.

This historical arc inside of a niche hobby community provides lessons for us: first in the semiotics of game mechanics, and second the persistence of cultural momentum. There are common threads to how colonialism comes through in play, even by looking at what are the largest questions in any game regardless of relation to colonialism: who is given mechanical consideration, what are the goals of play, and how does one go about achieving one’s goals. The majority of these games give mechanical consideration and thus agency almost entirely to the colonizers, both erasing the humanity of colonized people as well as shifting the empathy of players to the colonizers. The goals of play are both competitive and placed in terms of out-competing other colonizers, further reducing the colony to simply a means to the end of the metropole, while neutralizing the morality of that colonization as a trivial concern next to the considerations of how you can beat your ‘real’ peers, be they European countries or adventurers or stock companies. The how of the mechanics, rather than the who, has both more variety and more subtlety: most common is the intense extractivist focus of the mechanics, but even questions of “is it better to hold on and cultivate land or to rapidly acquire more of it” has its own subtleties, with rapid acquisition reinforcing colonialist norms of disrespecting the land and people.

The other is the internal historical lineage of these games. While the larger cultural context of a world of colonialism feeds into this story constantly, we can see the internal lessons and conversations of these games quickly. Spirit Island of course is explicitly responding to existing colonialist board gaming, while the others take a theme of colonialist board gaming and twist it – what if the trade wasn’t free, what if you didn’t actually need to occupy the land, and so on. There is something hopeful here – once one leaves the largest hegemons of the industry and enter the indie sphere, you rapidly get into an environment where invested hobbyists are able to make significant impacts. While buying/selling your way out of politics is a neoliberal trap, it is still good to see people use the artistic tools they have in a serious fashion, and uplifting to see that some of the obvious lines of political critique are not lying dormant.

Spirit Island and Root aren’t exactly the decolonized board games we’ve been waiting for. But their mechanics are an earnest attempt to grapple with some of the issues raised by settler-colonialist games like Settlers of Catan and Mombasa, and they show that at least in principle such a decolonized board game is possible. Our poor Robber has been robbed of their rightful agency so far, but the mechanics, the tools and vocabulary necessary to restore them are getting ever closer.

Author

  • Kyle Flannery is a co-editor of Strange Matters based in NYC. His focus is on cultural critique, particularly from post-colonial and anthropological perspectives. He reads Bureau of Labor Statistics tables for fun, the sicko.

Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.