Thorny themes in board games

In a recent Twitter exchange the topic of colonialist themes in board games was brought up. It’s a topic that, understandably, doesn’t sit too well with a number of people. One interjection asked why one kind of abstraction of problematic content was ok, whereas another was not.

I began to suspect that the problem wasn’t that colonialism was incorporated “the wrong way”; or even “at all”. It was the approach with which theme and mechanics were brought together that led to games being rejected. Basically, whenever you cherry-pick white European history for a game to create a soothing fantasy about being a bold entrepreneur in some exoticised locale, you’ve already driven your cart off the cliff.

But within that exchange there was also mention of a few games that tackled their respective themes well. So instead of ranting against games that I find too awkward to play, I thought I’d talk about games that treat their respective themes in a way that makes them worth playing.

Les Poilus (The Grizzled) Design by Fabien Riffaud & Juad Rodriguez, Art by Tignous

One of the first games mentioned was The Grizzled. It is a cooperative card game set during World War I. A small band of friends (the players) sign up for the Great War and have to survive until the end of it. Fans of the game praise the way it guides our attention to the fate of the everyday soldier. It does so, even as it refrains from pushing our faces into the grisly reality of mass murder at a distance. This restraint is also key to what makes The Grizzled so effective. Its impact relies on players’ previous knowledge and openness to the theme. Today we see World War I as synonymous with the inherent absurdity of war and the senseless waste of life that follows it. Popular culture still revisits that era for stories full of humanist pathos and pleas for pacifism. Among gaming nerds Blackadder Goes Forth is arguably the most prominent example of this. Stories like these echo in the back of our minds allowing The Grizzled to subtly implement its theme. Play brings to mind ideas of camaraderie, courage, fatalism or hopelessness because this is what we associate with World War I. to some extent.

The Grizzled’s design makes use of the same techniques as any well-made horror movies. Through implications and vague suggestions, it lets our imagination fill in the blanks. The more we know about the game’s background, the harder it hits us. Its illustrations are evocative. Its rules are simple and elegant and evoke notions of helplessness and loneliness. The Grizzled handles a complex theme because it doesn’t lecture us about it. Instead it trusts us to know and understand enough about its topic, to remind us of the countless human tragedies it hints at.

Design by Brian Mayer, Art by Steve Paschal & Jarek Nocoń

But lecturing players doesn’t have to be a bad thing in a game. In a roundabout way Freedom – The Underground Railroad is a game that wants to lecture its players. Set during the abolitionist movement in the United States, players try to safely lead slaves past the slave hunters searching the US for them and get them into Canada. The game doesn’t attempt to place the plight of individual slaves at the center of players’ attention. Players take an abstracted view of the events the game portrays, going so far as using wooden, faceless tokens to represent individuals or groups fleeing towards the northern border. To some extent this is a way of creating some emotional distance to allow us to approach the game’s theme. Any attempt to humanize the characters we’re trying to save, or attempts to make the dangers and threats they face explicit, would make the game, and the unavoidable ways we fail along the way, impossible to stomach. Instead Freedom The Underground Railroad is a teaching tool for this part of US American history. It is an illustration of historic events aimed to invite us into wanting to learn more. Our actions are set within a re-enacted history in the faintest sense of the word. Its only purpose is framing historical figures and events of the time. Play makes this part of history familiar. Our experience with the game provides some superficial emotional context to its names, places and political events. Freedom The Underground Railroad can engage a theme as difficult and painful as slavery, because it is not a game about slavery. It is a game about history.

Design by Michał Oracz & Jakub Wiśniewski

Yet another way to tackle difficult themes, is by going the opposite direction still. If you remove all historical specificity and instead push individual characters’ fates into the forefront you would have This War of Mine: The Board Game. It is the cardboard adaptation of the critically acclaimed computer game of the same name. You follow the lives of a number of civilians stuck in a city during warfare. Play sees you exploring a story about surviving day after day waiting for the war to come to an end. This War of Mine ably deglamorizes its own theme. It abandons the heart-pounding excitement of shooting guns or steering the course of a large scale conflict due to our skills as players, so we’re forced to view an overtly familiar theme from a different perspective. But what the game lacks in player agency, it makes up with in character depth. It adds psychological demands to the characters of the game. Their personalities aren’t thematic flourishes to dress up the underlying math problem you’re playing around with. They are an important aspect of the experience. By turning personality traits into game mechanics we grasp these characters even from our vantage point as players. We might even be able to empathise with their situation. The prose in This War of Mine occasionally feels very blunt in its depiction of bleakness and dread. But the game purposefully commits to maintaining its predetermined tone. It also gives players an emotional out, by letting you watch characters suffer as opposed to having to identify with them. This way play gets to explore its theme without being accused of glib exploitation.

Design by Cristophe Boelinger

Finally, there is a game that I always feel worth talking about when it comes to dealing with controversial themes. Even though response to it hasn’t been as vocally positive as with the other games in this article, Archipelago is a very insightful take on its theme. At first glance Archipelago appears to be another thoughtless entry of the “colonialism wasn’t all bad” school of board game themes. But I would posit that Archipelago is a game more about capitalism than colonialism. Instead it takes the common colonialist gaming fantasy and underpins it with mechanisms that seek to capture the cycles of exploitation, market manipulation and brinkmanship that shaped actual colonialist practices. This distinction between colonialism and capitalism matters here. Eurogames are generally games that present us with small-scale economic systems. We’re tasked with manipulating them for our personal gain. Every action we take, every resource we gather only matters to us in how it relates to the game’s ultimate currency: victory points. What we do or collect has no meaning, outside of its conversion rate to VP. It doesn’t matter what those things represent. Whether other players have to deal with the consequences of our actions only matters in regards to how it affects our ranking. It reduces personal interaction down to numerical values and personal profit. While this may truthfully mirror capitalist processes, it also opens the game up to be read as looking at those neutrally or even positively.

This is where the cooperative classification of Archipelago (or its semi-cooperative option) comes into play. It neutralizes the necessity for competition that we are so familiar with from other eurogames. After all, everyone wins, as soon as one of the hidden goals has been fulfilled. It is up to the players to keep their personal quirks and jockeying for position in check to succeed together. As a commentary on the fragility of capitalist models of society, Archipelago is superb. But once you expand it to the history of colonialism, things quickly become problematic.

Tackling difficult themes in a board game is no easy task. You have to consider prior knowledge of your players. The theme’s inclusion has to have a more ambitious aim than simply providing entertainment and something to pass the time. It should ideally be an indispensable part of gameplay, and not a mere selling point. Even then, you have to consider whether play interaction does the theme justice instead of unwittingly undermining it.

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