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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.

The Kids Are All Right and the Lagoon Cinema

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I love going to the Lagoon, my local theater for small-release and indie films.  A few nights ago, on a whim, Tara and I decided to go out for a movie.  Tara had heard good things about The Kids Are All Right, so we plunked down our cash and saw a late night show.  The film was good, but what it really enforced for me was just how much I can trust the Lagoon.

Here's to a good local theater.  Here's to walking a few blocks, picking a movie based on the titles alone, and seeing something that makes you think.  Here's to a theater that curates what it shows, rather than picking the largest blockbusters.  Here's to exposing small-run films to larger audiences.  Here's to showing the shorts nominated for an Oscar in a special showing.  Here's to not being afraid to be highbrow.  Here's to good writing, fresh directing, and small-budgets.  Here's to the small film studios, even those that are part of gigantic studios that we hate.  Here's to the unsanitized independent drama laden with social criticism.  Here's to the independent comedy that relies on dark humor rather than slapstick.  Here's to the young director, striving to make himself known.  Here's to familiar actors, using small-release films to step outside the normal comfort zone. 

Oh, and I suppose you want to know what I thought of the movie.  It was a good-but-not-great family drama that seemed to use all of its experimental cachet when it decided that it was going to be about a lesbian couple, leaving it unable to challenge some of the other preconceptions.  It's good to see a GLBT couple onscreen portrayed as your average suburban household.  But the movie misses some chances to make some incisive points about the .  I am guessing this is at least partially a conscious choice in order to focus on Annette Benning and Julianne Moore's relationship and portray how "normal" it is.  I respect the decision, but I think the movie suffers a bit for not taking the risks.  I'm not sure that the risks would have paid off, but not taking them keeps the movie from being anything more than your run-of-the-mill independent drama.

star star star star star star star no star no star no star

The World Cup: Why the referees break soccer

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For the first time in my life, I'm actually watching the World Cup.  I don't really know what's compelled me to watch it this time, as my general feeling aligns with most Americans' feelings about soccer.

Why am I finding it compelling?  I gotta admit, the what-if scenarios of the first round have kept me interested.  Crunching the numbers about who is likely to move on, what it will take to clinch positions, and what kind of help teams will need is always interesting.  It might seem a whole lot more dry once the knockout round actually starts.  At that point, it's a fairer but less interesting format of win-or-go-home.

I am getting fed up, however, with the role of luck in soccer.  Yes, I said luck.  Specifically, I mean refereeing.  Goals are so rare that something that leads to a goal or takes one away changes the whole flow of the game.  It's next to impossible to "make up" a score due to something bad that happens.

No other team sport I can think of has scores as low as soccer.  There have been 95 goals scored in 44 games in this World Cup, a hair over 2 per game.  The average for all previous World Cups, according to this NY Times article, is just under 3.  The only other sport whose major professional league even comes close is the hockey, whose NHL is in a historically low-scoring period of about 5.5 goals per game.  Baseball has around 10 runs per game, and the NFL and NBA are much, much higher.

When you have such low-scoring games, you have is an environment where one single score has overwhelming importance.  As a result, an occurrence which takes away a goal or gives an artificially inflated chance to score a goal is very likely to impact the game.  After all, the odds are much, much higher that single goal will be the margin of victory.

Not that I really blame the refs.  Soccer referees have the power to take away goals.  They need this power.  They also need the power to grant penalty shots.  But, there is simply an unfair burden placed on these refs to make the right call, every time the ball gets near the net.  To compound the problem, there's only one referee on the field of play, with three other largely powerless assistants on the periphery.  And that's a big field.  By contrast, the NFL has a smaller field of play, with no less than 7 referees, all with the power to call any penalty they see.  That's not even bringing instant replay into the equation.

Soccer has the fewest referees, with the most responsibility, and the most game-changing calls of any major sport.  It makes for a perfect storm where even a good referee can make a mistake, and that mistake can change the match more than any single person has a right to do.  Until something happens to fix this for soccer, I'm going to continue to look down on it as a second-tier sport.  Yup, like fast food and marketing, in sports, the Americans do it better.

Photo courtesy of flickr, via ElvertBarnes.

Why I didn't go to my five-year college reunion

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I've been getting a lot of crap for this, especially because I'm only across the river from campus, and this is clearly a lot closer than a lot of people who came in from far away.  So, the question logically follows: If they can come from so far away, why can't I come from across the river?

First of all, the reason I am not going to reunion has nothing to do with not wanting to see my good friends who are back in town.  So, I don't want anybody to feel hurt that I didn't want to see them, didn't want to hang out with them, or harbored some kind of secret resentment.  That's not the case at all.

The only good reason I can give is that it spurs this feeling of "too soon."  I've tried explaining this to a few people, and it seems to do nothing for the furrowed brow, so I sense that the feeling must be more isolated than I realized.  But I really do think it's too soon.  Maybe not too soon for everybody, but at least too soon for me. 

I actually did end up going on campus for about a half hour when I met a few friends from out of town for lunch on Friday.  It was very disorienting, because it was flashing back to an earlier time, a time from which I feel very emotionally distant, but which is really not very geographically distant.

And that, perhaps, is the crux of the problem.  There's not a lot of physical space separating me from my old campus, but there is a whole lot of emotional space that I maintain for my own well-being.  I feel a little bit self-conscious for never "breaking the bubble" and getting out of the Twin Cities to see what it's like elsewhere.  For my own sanity, I tell myself that I'm different from what I was then.  It's important to me to prove it to myself, even if I can't prove it to anybody else.  It's the good old fashioned solipsism rearing its ugly head again.

Or, maybe I'm just an emotionally crippled man-child.  Yeah, we'll go with that one.  So, if anybody asks, now you know.

So I have a website now

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Well, I don't really have a website, I have a subdomain on Tara's website.  But it functions entirely as if I had my own website.

I have a lot of thinking to do about how I want to organize my site.  But here's a limited outline, as much for myself as for anybody else

  • reviews of much of the media I consume in my life, especially books, games, and movies
  • personal thoughts and rambling philosophic blather
  • maybe, very occasionally, programming stuff
  • categorized blog postings, including an easy system that allows people to access pages that will automatically show only the postings relevant to them.  This means that my geographically distant friends don't have to read my thoughts on gaming to keep up with me
  • a place for me to code small little web-apps and side projects
  • some kind of integration with BoardGameGeek and Goodreads, which I already use intensively
  • Perhaps some kind of better managed email list/poll system for WAGN?


That's it, really.  We'll see how it goes.

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