Dave from To The Table: Gaming with Family & Friends plays A Touch of Evil Dark: Dark Gothic using the stand-alone expansion called Colonial Horror. Can our heroes fend off the evil villains terrorizing the countryside? Watch and find out.
This post is inspired by a very brief interchange about colonialism in games. u/ithayla very rightly called colonialism gross. I certainly don't want to come across as defending colonialism, or nazism, or war, or..... But, he did touch a bit of a hobby horse of mine in regards to theme in boardgames. And, u/ithayla, I am not calling you out. I don't think what you said is wrong. I am merely using it as a springboard.
I furthermore recognize that this is a sensitive topic. I don't really want to offend anyone, and if you think I am wrong I am happy to engage in civil discourse with you. Also, in terms of themes, I will mostly discuss it in light of colonialism. There are many many other themes that are potentially objectionable that we could discuss. For instance.... Pirates, Slavery, Viking pillaging, Playing the wrong side in a war simulation......
The first thing that I think we need to realize is that there is bound to be a fair amount of subjectivity in regards to theme. I find certain themes gross, zombies for instance, so I never seek out games that have that theme. I have even avoided games because of that theme. I don't think that zombies are wrong per se, I just don't personally enjoy imagining or playing with/against them. This is a subjective opinion, much much different than the atrocities which were commited in the name of colonialism, much evil was done in the name of progress. People sometimes want to say themes they don't like are bad. That is not my what I am writing about here. My question is, "Is it bad to have themes based on regrettable parts of history?"
The thing about many of these things is that they happened. Colonialism did happen, and I have no desire to deny or justify it. Real people did really bad stuff to real people. But here is the thing with colonialism in particular. Real people did it. It wasn't some sort of ga'ould inhabiting the minds of men that took control and made them do what they did do. It wasn't like there was a Darth Vader directing the forces of colinialism against the poor rebels. No, these were real people who did awful things. I think that even the most abstracted Euro with colonialism as it's theme, even if it "glorifies" it is a profound reminder of the human condition. You might say that these themes are problematic because they justify atrocities. Here is the deal, the atrocities were justified, just the way they are in the games. When I play Puerto Rico I can see that the driving force of colonialism can be expressed in a formula.
Selfishness+Belief system that justified Selfishnes+Power to do what you wanted to= Colonialism
And, at the risk of sounding political, the reminder of the atrocities that followed this, is profoundly relevant for those of us who are citizens in a first world country.
Furthermore, while I don't want to justify colonialism, I don't think that the colonialists arrived to native peacefulness in most cases. I live in El Salvador, a country profoundly, and mostly negatively, impacted by old colonialism, and new ways colonialism is working today. One thing I enjoy doing if I have some time off is visiting Mayan ruins in Central America. I see the beautiful pyramids, they are a wonder. I see the alters for human sacrifice, I reflect on how these wondrous pyramids were built without the assistence of domesticated animals. In fact, they were built with slave labor, for human sacrifice. Is that better than the conquistidors? I don't know that it is, nor do I think it is worse than what the conquistidors did.
Maybe most people are different. When I play a game, or read a book that is even loosely based in a historical time I must look into that time period more. So, I appreciate when a designer or offer engages with a historical period, even in the loosest possible sense. If he "approves" of slavery, or genocide, or other horrible things in his design, it is a reminder of how depraved ordinary humans can be, if he judges it harshly, it is still a teaching opportunity.
So, I want mister Pfister to continue pumping out games about colonialism, It is great that we have games about Robbery, or Piracy, or...... It is a continual teaching opportunity for me and for those that I play with. Furthermore, I appreciate these things taking place in the "real world" the world that we recognize when we look at a globe. Far, far, to often designers are justly afraid of putting objectionable themes in their games, so they hide their genocide, not in colonialism but in space etc..... This, frequently, neuters the teaching opportunities inherent with building the theme in a world where we can see the results of the mistakes that the people in the game made.
Firstly, before I start with my list, I do want to clearly state that I do support more representation in board games. I especially think that there should be more representation in Euro games. Euro games tend to, there are exceptions, but they tend to have a fairly pasted on theme. I would encourage them pick themes that allow for broader representation. And, the fact that, by and large, they are not doing so is something that I believe needs to be changed.
With that disclaimer out of the way..... If you are going to design a historically themed euro, don't whitewash the problems. I am fine with games about colonization themes in euros. But don't give me cards that are called "native." At the least, do enough research so that you know what the names of the native peoples were. If my prospering is caused by slavery, well, then tell me so, explicitly, in the game. A famous game often acused of whitewashing is the great game of #Puerto Rico. In that game you use brown discs, called colonists, to work your plantations etc..... The acusation is that these discs are brown, because the discs aren't colonists, but slaves who you are buying to work your plantations. There are many people who have a problem with that percieved whitewashing. I don't know if that is whitewashing or not. The fact is that, while there were some slaves in colonial Puerto Rico, for the first several hundred years of its colonial history the economy was primarily colonist driven. So, maybe that isn't a case of whitewashing.
I really don't appreciate when there is obviously no thought about the historicity of the culture wherein the game is set. A hilariously bad example of this is #Manitoba. This is a game supposedly focused on the cree people. But, the have totem poles fairly tightly integrated in the game. Of course the the Cree, to our knowledge, never made totem poles. Those were almost exclusively, if not exclusively, a product of the first nations groups in the NW west of North America. It also has this bit of flavour text. "The Canadian province of Manitoba is wild, fascinating, and almost without any limits: countless lakes, majestic mountains, a vast tundra in the north and endless prairies in the south." Manitoba, Majestic mountains???? Their highest point is Mt. Baldy at 2730 ft above sea level. I mean Kansas has their highest point at over 4000 ft above sea level. I wish this were a singular example, but, unfortunately it isn't. There are lots and lots of examples of this sort of hanky panky laziness. So, please, if you are designing a historical Euro, do at least a little research.
I really deplore the paucity of themes in historical euros. Do I always have to a merchant, or a noble, or colonial governor???? really??? Do I have to always be stuck in "trading in the mediterranean?" do I have to be colonising? or banking? If you are designing a game in which the player has to make certain quotas by the end of the game, or round or whatever, why don't you cast the players as slaves on a cotton plantation in the south? If you are desinging a punishing game, and you want a historical them, why don't you give me a game where I am representing a native American, or native African group pushing back against western expansion? There are scores of ways in which you can do this sort of thing.
Again, this is specifically about historically themed Euro's. I do applaude the nonhistorical Euros which are coming out with new and interesting themes. But, I love historical themes. I do just wish there was more variety and more honesty in the themes which they tackle. And, if you want more representation in your game, find a theme in which you can have that representation. Don't pick your theme and then try to force history.