Colonialism in Euro Boardgames

by | December 19, 2010
filed under Pop Culture, Racism

Plantations in the game Puerto Rico

Over the past couple of years I’ve become quite interested in 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 far less luck and far more strategy and tactical thinking involved. They’re usually played by small but dedicated groups of board game geeks like my group of friends who meet on Wednesday nights. Probably the most well-known Eurogames 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, Roman patricians, and World War II financiers. But it’s the ones with colonialist themes that tend to rub me the wrong way. I’d be hard-pressed to think of any harmful effects of romanticizing Roman patricians, but the legacy of European colonialism still underpins social inequalities in North America and around the world, so do colonization-themed games make it seem like the problems of colonization are insignificant and/or all in the past?

Here are some examples of colonization games (with their Boardgamegeek rating in brackets) with a look at how they glorify colonialism while ignoring its destructive sides.

1. Puerto Rico (2)

Puerto Rico is a multiple award winning game and the number 2 game on Board Game Geek. In it, players take on the role of plantation owners around the 1600s-1700s. The goal of the game is to accumulate victory points through 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.

Cards from Age of Empires III

2. Age of Empires III (33)

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, Age of Empires III makes it one of the goals. Every time you send a ship of your colonists over to the “New World” you have to have more colonists in your party than the number of “Native Americans” 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.

3. Endeavor (43)

Endeavor is similarly themed to Age of Empires III, but it’s much more abstract – no little cartoon “Native Americans” here to conquer. In Endeavor you play an undefined European power colonizing the world. When you open up a new area you can colonize it, attack it, or take its resources. Your goal is to build your empire’s prestige in industry, politics, culture, and finance…at the expense of the regions you’re exploring. 

The Priest Caracter in Vasco Da Gama

4. Vasco Da Gama (102)

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.

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 Muslim ship carrying pilgrims and kept it on fire for four until all of the 400 men, women, and children aboard had died, or the part where he dismembered 30 Indian fishermen outside Calicut and left them floating in the sea for their families to find.

It might seem like games like these are unimportant. After all, not too many people play Eurogames, and they are just games, after all. That’s true, but all I’m arguing is that they contribute to a culture that already 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 nor do I think you can argue the colonialist themes are necessary to make an enjoyable, best-selling board game.

-Jarrah


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  • Patrick M.

    It’s interesting to me (as another euro game geek) that games like Settlers and whatnot have done so much in the realm of colonial thinking. One of the big reasons is probably because the big industry for euro games is Germany, where games of direct conflict are shied away from for cultural and historical reasons.

    It’s really neat that they moved immediately into the other big Euro regret, occupation and colonization in an attempt to shy away from the big regret, militaristic conquest fueled by dictatorship (or monarchy).

    Puerto Rico by the way is a really neat game.

    • jarrahpenguin

      That’s an interesting analysis, Patrick. I’m not bothered by Catan because it’s a lot more abstract and “Catan” is an imaginary place, so it doesn’t have the same effect of ignoring the history. And agreed about Puerto Rico. I do enjoy the strategic thinking and mechanics of all the games on the list, but I admit a bit of liberal guilt around their themes.

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  • Peter Rogneholt

    Interesting piece you have written here.
    My own experience is that most of the time when we play games (also abstract or fictional games) we tend to see behind the abstractions or behind the scenes of the games so we can implement our findings in our jobs as teachers. That way our students get to know and understand the atrocities made. A lesson lost without the games.

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