Not ‘just a game’: World of board games faces reckoning for colonial themes

As the board game industry expands and becomes more elaborate, many players and creators are starting to recognize the exploitative undercurrents in classic games — and are finding ways to diversify

While many classic board games give players goals such as conquering land, getting rich or destroying their opponents — the mission of James Corbiere’s game, at least for the Indigenous players, is simply to survive.

“[Games] tend to be about accumulation,” Corbiere says. “That’s been my experience. The winner has the most. That flies in the face of traditional Indigenous thinking, which is, ‘how much do I have to give away?’”

As an Indigenous language teacher turned artist, Corbiere – who is Anishinaabe and currently lives in Cowichan territory — used elements from both of his professions to create The Truth in Truth and Reconciliation. The board game, emblazoned with Corbiere’s signature vivid art style, teaches its players about Canada’s colonial history. 

Players in The Truth in Truth and Reconciliation are assigned various roles: the Indigenous, the Crown and the Church. Those who are Indigenous must try to survive long enough to carry on their traditions without running out of the four “currencies”: culture, identity, language and land. If they don’t manage to lap the board four times, they go extinct.

But not all roles are created equal. The Crown and the Church players can leave the “Rez” at the centre of the board at any time, while the Indigenous players must roll certain numbers in order to leave. “Truth and Consequence” cards are played throughout the game, which usually involve the Indigenous players losing different forms of their currency.

Indigenous players in “The Truth in Truth and Reconciliation” must roll certain numbers to leave the “Rez” at the center of the game, while the Church and Crown can move freely. Photo by Cara McKenna.

Recognizing colonialism in board games

Right now, Corbiere’s game is an anomaly in the largely white, European board game industry. But things are starting to change — and colonialism and other problematic themes in board games is an issue that has been gaining more attention. This awareness has helped instigate change in the industry, causing a wave of board game players, designers and publishers to no longer make light of such serious topics.

Over the past decade, the world of board games has transformed into a global phenomenon, even more so during the pandemic as people searched for ways to spend time indoors. The market size of the hobby is forecasted to reach US$30-billion by 2026.

Board game cafes, which allow customers to borrow a game from their massive libraries while ordering food and beer, have popped up in cities all over the world. On Vancouver Island, Victoria alone currently has two. Chances are, even someone who isn’t a board game hobbyist has heard of — or maybe even tried — a “gateway” game like Catan

However, like many other “nerdy” hobbies, board games have traditionally been created by white men, for white men. Among the designers of the top 400 games on the aggregator site BoardGameGeek, less than 10 per cent of them are not white men.

Lithuanian board game reviewer Efka Bladukas has studied post-colonial literature, and created an in-depth YouTube video on some of the history of colonialism in board games. He and his wife run the channel No Pun Included. 

But even Bladukas, someone knowledgeable on colonialism and who plays board games for his job, found himself denying that there was anything wrong with some of the games he had been enjoying playing for years. 

“We tend to think of [colonialism] as something that happened,” says Bladukas,it’s in the past and it doesn’t exist anymore, and we can look at it through a historical lens and see that’s completely not true.”

Teaching about the TRC 

The Truth in Truth and Reconciliation was first created when the Ontario Secondary School Teacher Federation (OSSTF) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) put out a joint call for writers with Indigenous heritage to develop projects for a toolkit that would help teachers to create engaging lessons about truth and reconciliation.

Corbiere, who was part of the OSSTF and working as a teacher at the time, pitched his board game, as well as an informative puzzle. While the federation ended up having more interest in the puzzle, a large Canadian educational publisher was interested in the game and asked Corbiere to refine it. The 52 Truth and Consequence cards in the original prototype became 100, and he created a new card type: Shame. The Shame cards are a currency that the Indigenous players can carry for the Crown and the Church as a way to stay alive.

But the company and Corbiere hit an impasse. Corbiere says the publisher identified concerns with the way that Shame cards were portraying Christianity, however he was not willing to take them out. From there, he says, the partnership faded. He still holds the only copy of the game to ever be produced.

Now, Corbiere wants to produce the game himself and distribute it for free to schools, and is looking for ways to cover those costs. For now, he continues to demonstrate the game at events, looking for the opportunity that will help him share his game with the world. 

He believes that his game can be tailored to fit the specific colonial histories of different provinces and territories, as well as other countries. 

“And this is just the truth in Truth and Reconciliation,” he says. His hope is to eventually create a sequel that focuses on the reconciliation element, exploring the possible solutions for dealing with Canada’s colonial history.

James Corbiere, a former teacher, mapped out his board game on paper before creating the professional version that exists today. He hopes to eventually distribute the game into schools across Canada. Photo by Cara McKenna.

Escapism but make it inclusive

Isaac Childres is the designer of the smash-hit fantasy board game Gloomhaven, which has not left the #1 spot on BoardGameGeek since 2017. The upcoming sequel, Frosthaven, raised nearly US$13-million through its Kickstarter campaign, making it the most funded board game project ever on the fundraising website. 

An update from last year on Frosthaven’s progress stirred up the controversy-loving Internet after Childres revealed that he had hired a cultural consultant and was reworking parts of the game’s narrative.

“In a nutshell,” Childres writes, “[the cultural consultant] is looking through all the narrative of Frosthaven and at all of the different cultures depicted within, and he is making sure everything is internally consistent and that it isn’t co-opting any real-world terms or ideas that may be harmful to players or any real-world cultures.”

The end of his post has Childres telling those who disagree with his actions to cancel their pre-orders of the game, and he said the same to anyone who did not agree with his support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the comments on his post, one argument comes up repeatedly: It’s just a game, and politics ruin the escapism. 

This sentiment is easy to find anytime the topic of problematic theming in board games is brought up online.

“I believe this common argument is just an excuse to run away from things we are afraid to embrace,” writes Lydia Wehmeyer, a consultant on diversity, equity, inclusion and culture for the board game publisher Stonemaier Games, in an emailed interview response.

Exploitation as a theme

Wehmeyer questions if some of the changes being made in the industry come from genuine concern, or if it’s because the increased awareness around equity issues means that making the changes are now profitable. The game that got Wehmeyer — and many others — into the hobby, is Catan. This shiny red box has sold more than 32 million copies worldwide.

The game face of Catan, where players take on the role of settlers acquiring resources. Stock photo.

Back in 1995, when it first released, the game was called Settlers of Catan. For the release of the 5th edition 20 years later, the title was changed to the short and sweet Catan in an attempt to rebrand.

Even with a name change, the contents of Catan are still colonial. The only way to win is to exploit the natural resources and build the most prosperous settlement on an island ripe for the taking. The unofficial online version of the game is simply called Colonist.

Other colonialist-themed board games have also seen new editions released with minor tweaks. Puerto Rico is considered a classic and innovative board game by many and holds the 34th spot on BoardGameGeek. The rulebook of this 2002 game tells players to “place plantations and build buildings. They produce goods and then sell or ship them. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner!”

Inside the box of Puerto Rico there is a cardboard tile shaped like a boat, the colonist ship. Players use this to get new “colonists” — workers that run the plantations, and who were represented by brown discs. In an updated version of the game, the colour of those discs was changed to purple. 

Race and gender

Meanwhile, the pirate-themed board game Libertalia is getting more than a few minor tweaks in its upcoming edition, as all the human characters are being replaced with anthropomorphic animals. Jamey Stegmaier, who is publishing the new edition, writes that “ethnic and gender sensitivity played a role in [this] choice.”

Stegmaier is the founder of Stonemaier games, and has designed and published popular games such as Scythe, which is rated #14 on BoardGameGeek. Like Childres, Stegmaier is open with his fans online, sharing his thoughts on topics like diversity within the board game industry. In an emailed interview response, he acknowledges that it has been a journey for him to learn “how to be a force for good” when it comes to inclusivity in the industry.

“And I’m still learning,” he writes.

Stegmaier and his cultural consultant, Wehmeyer, both share similar thoughts about designing board games that depict historical events: do your research.

Spirit Island is a board game that is praised not only for its mechanics, but also how it flips the conventions of colonial themes in the medium. Players take on the roles of ancient spirits, protecting the titular island and its inhabitants, the Dahan, from wave after wave of invading settlers. The game’s designer, R. Eric Reuss, wanted to make the fictional Dahan people believable. This goal led him to extensively research the topic, ultimately creating a 25 to 30-page overview of Dahan culture.

Gender inclusivity in the hobby has also changed in one way that may be completely invisible to most players. Read almost any rulebook from a game that is more than a decade old, and more than likely the only pronoun used is “he.” Most modern rulebooks now use the singular “they” or the all-encompassing “players.”

The line between satire and harm

Some board gamers struggle with knowing where to draw the line in terms of problematic themes, settings and practices. The wildly popular party game Secret Hitler tasks players with finding and killing the titular character. Some players find this theme to be overstepping boundaries, while many others see it as satire on how fascist governments gain power.

Cards Against Humanity (CAH) is another game that has been criticized for walking the line between irony and offensiveness too closely. CAH is a fill-in-the-blank party game, where players use humorous — and usually offensive — cards in hopes of getting the biggest laugh at the table. The publisher, who shares a name with their game, has always insisted that the game should be looked at as ironic satire. But cards such as “the hardworking Mexican” and “the Virginia tech massacre” made many people feel that the game was more than just lighthearted fun. Since its creation, the game has inspired an Indigenous spinoff called Cards For Decolonization (formerly known as Cards Against Colonialism) which is described as “a satire and humor based game created by and for native people.” The game includes cards based in Indigenous humour such as “taking stoic pictures” and “a pack of rez dogs” that are meant to put stereotypes in front of players and drive conversation.

The board game Mombasa has also been critiqued for the way it handles its theme. The rulebook labels colonialism in Africa as “a very dark chapter in human history.” It also says that “the exploitation of the African continent and its people is not explicitly depicted in its gameplay,” right before explaining to the players how to profit off of diamond mines. 

“I think once you zero in on a subject,” says Bladukas, “then you owe that subject the conversation it deserves.”

Fun but not trivial

Bladukas says it’s important for board game creators to take responsibility and learn from mistakes others have made in art forms such as music, video games and literature — and adapt. He says the most “immediate and obvious answer” is to diversify the talent pool in who is creating games, and points to initiatives such as the Zenobia Award, which gives cash prizes, mentorship and feedback to diverse board game creators.

“Board games are becoming more and more elaborate, and it’s time we take some ownership over what we, as an art form, want to say to the world,” Bladukas says in his YouTube video.  

“If we want to be relevant, I don’t want us, as an industry, to blunder into the cultural scene with egg on our face.” 

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