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What Colonialism means in a board game

I have a confession to make.  I'm a two-faced asshole when it comes to colonialism.  I abhor it in real-life.  It was an irresponsible power-grab when implemented historically, full of all kinds of immorality.  Yet, somehow, I don't eschew games about European colonization, even when they get dangerously close to whitewashing the truth. 

Take Age of Empires III, the boardgame version, not the PC game.  Here, you play a European nation out to colonize the Americas.  How do you do so?  Loosely, you first overcome the native resistance in a new area, then you take the goods from that area and put it in your nation's treasury, then you send a whole lot of people of your nationality to that area, including missionaries to convert the heathens.  Textbook example of the various evils of colonialism.  Yet I love the game.  I similarly enjoy Struggle of Empires and Goa, and new colonization games coming out always grab my attention as well.

And I'm not alone.  Puerto Rico, for all that I hate it, is a mainstay of our hobby, including the little brown colonist pieces that come over on boats and work in your fields and buildings to enrich you.  Mykerinos' theme of excavating Egyptian treasures at the behest of patrons and museums in Britain is also popular.  Endeavor with its trade routes and colonies was one of the hottest games upon its release in 2008.

So, the question is, if I find the theme so abhorrent, why do I still play the games?  Try as I might, I can't blame the mechanics.  The only common mechanic I see in these games is a general economic engine, whereby you try to make wealth for yourself.  Besides being laughably general, this is also a major component of some games I really don't enjoy, like Princes of Florence and Amun Re.

So if mechanics aren't to blame, then it must be the theme that I enjoy.  And thinking about it, there are some things I really like that are frequently part of colonization themes.  I enjoy the sense of exploration and of doing something new.  I enjoy maps, and history.  I *ulp* enjoy claiming territory, saying "This is mine, and I'll kill the bastard who steps across this line."  I love epicness where the fates of whole nations swing in the balance.

That explains what I like.  Here's what I don't like.  I don't like whitewashing.  I don't like glorifying colonialism.  I don't like pretending that the atrocities of colonialism like slavery and manifest destiny never had a detrimental effect on other people.  I don't like euphemism.  The games I don't like about colonialism have several of these traits (I'm looking at you, Puerto Rico, and you, Mykerinos, and especially you, New England).  I would rather have my game come out and say that it understands the evils of colonialism.  It doesn't have to make an explicit statement of the rules, but it DOES have to acknowledge what it's dealing with, and the real people's lives being impacted. 


Image courtesy of Okinawa Soba on Flickr.