Tabletop gaming at its heart is a social sport. Many games created reflect different aspects of society, perhaps wrapped in a fun fantasy or sci-fi setting. Back in the day, the list of board games families played was limited to choices such as Monopoly, Game of Life, and Risk; nowadays, the list is much longer but not always progressive and accessible in subject choice. Games with a ‘conquering’ mechanic are not rare, but in this article I wish to argue that we should be more critical of the themes presented in some of our favourite games.
Board games are traditionally competitive, with one winner taking victory over other players. However, we should be more critical of games in which victory is achieved by subjugating the other players. Previously one of my favourite ever games to play was Small World by Days of Wonder. The silly themes of super-powered fantasy races constantly taking territory from one another to gain victory points is designed to be amusing and light-at-heart. It is a game in which Behemoth Halflings can take on Bivouaking Tritons, only to then be defeated by Barricading Sorcerers…. but the game has a darker side. The first race to defeat is the defenceless natives of the land, who are represented by tokens at the beginning of the game. They usually only last the first round on the board, representing a small obstacle to get players to use up more of their own race tokens, and therefore restricting how many territories they can conquer in round one.
Small World is just the tip of a large iceberg that needs to be identified and systematically deconstructed. We cannot keep letting popular games take advantage of minority groups in the name of fun. The board-gaming community prides itself on its openness, accessibility and overall friendliness. Other games have had great mechanics but cultural appropriation and colonialism at their core and there just isn’t any need for it when there are so many great themes out there. An example from last year was Favelas; a game of pretty tile placing to build the best slums/shanty towns. Imperial Settlers has just brought out a roll and write version and continues to be a popular game franchise even despite its name and theme…. and these are just a small handful of games that are in some way guilty of cultural appropriation.
At UK Games Expo 2019 I saw that trends are slowly changing in the right direction, mostly because of the larger number of female and minority ethnic players who have joined the hobby and are actually designing the games now! For example, there have been great strides in the RPG community with independent companies promoting LGBT+ and accessibility for all mindsets.