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How Board Games Handle Slavery

A medium that often looks to the past, board games often have to confront questions about slavery's place in game design.

Header photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Board games are probably more popular than they have ever been, and the hobby's boom has allowed it to speak to new audiences in new ways. With their surge in popularity, they have come to tackle a wide variety of subjects and themes. Often, tabletop adventures offer pure escapist entertainment: from hunting and gathering during the stone age, to the awakening of nightmarish Lovecraftian beasts, to the colonization of Mars in the not-too-distant future. It also goes to darker places: The horrors of war, mining yellow cake for atomic bombs during World War II, the spread of deadly disease are also fodder for play around the table.

Board game designers—like their counterparts in PC strategy gaming—often tend to look to history as backdrops for their projects. This often takes board games to places their digital counterparts would never visit, like the 16th century spice trade or trading in the Mediterranean during the height of the Roman Empire.

In addition to the more benign facets of world history, this liberal use of the past brings many board games within striking range of some of the more tragic and divisive aspects of humanity's history. For example, Twilight Struggle, a game that spent time atop Board Game Geek's rankings, sees players acting out the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Russia, and CO2 tasks players with reducing pollution in an increasingly industrial world.

Given that nearly the whole of human history has been represented in cardboard by one game or another, it was perhaps inevitable that the topic of slavery found its way into the hobby.

There are a number of games utilize slavery in some form, including one of the most popular games of all time. 2002's Puerto Rico by Andreas Seyfarth takes place on the titular Caribbean island during the 15th century. Players assume the roles of leaders of the developing export giant, and send workers to tend to the plantations and processing buildings. The game refers to these workers, who are packed on board a ship and sent to the island, as "colonists," but examination of the game, as well as the history of the island, pegs them squarely as slaves.

Photo by Rio Grande Games

The island's European "discovery"—after being inhabited for millennia—came in 1493 by the hands of none other than Christopher Columbus, and Puerto Rico was under Spanish rule until taken by the United States in 1898. At the time of colonization during the 1500s, slavery was commonplace in the Spanish Empire, and played a massive role in the establishment of the New World. Puerto Rico was no exception. Slavery was used on the island until the abolishment of the institution in the late 1800s.

In foregoing the term "slaves" in favor of "colonists," Puerto Rico sweeps the institution under the rug. While you could argue that the omission allowed the designer to focus more on gameplay without miring the experience in the hopelessness and despair of human servitude, we shouldn't overlook how simplicity of design in this case takes on a very loaded ideological aspect.

It feels disrespectful for Seyfarth to disregard slavery so completely. By using slavery as a gameplay mechanic without acknowledging the human cost of it (or even using its name directly), by rendering the institution to a mere tool, the true costs of running your economic engine are ignored. It almost seems to uncritically adopt the slavers' mindset, without any self-awareness. The effect is to make players gathered around a table for a game of Puerto Rico into unwitting moral accomplices in the horrors of human servitude. 

A game that includes direct references to slavery is 2009's Endeavor by Carl de Visser and Jarratt Gray. Here, players take on the role of imperial overlords of growing empires who seek to increase their influence and hold territory in hopes of earning the most glory for their people.

Included in the game is a deck of "slavery" cards that represents the use of human capital in the growth of players' empires. The slaves are optional, and they might help you achieve glory quicker, but the game also includes an "abolition of slavery" card that, when drawn, forces all players to discard their slaves. Emancipation also causes players to lose one glory point at the end of the game for every slave used.

Unlike Puerto Rico, Endeavor is unafraid to make direct references to slavery, but it does so in a way that feels accurate and respectful to history. There is no avoiding the fact that slavery was used in the growth of many of the strongest empires the world has seen. But by making slavery an optional mechanic, players uncomfortable with the idea are able to pursue different paths to victory.

That players are capable of being penalized for using slavery in Endeavor also captures the historical decline of the practice. On paper, it's just a push-your-luck mechanic, but it also represents the shift from enormously profitable industry to crumbling institution. 

A somewhat abstract trading game, Five Tribes' first edition featured slavery.

There have been instances of the inclusion of slavery in a game being met with pushback from the public. Five Tribes is a game that takes place during the time of Arabian Nights, the collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk tales. In these tales, slavery is often used as a method of storytelling.   

In the game, players assume the roles of influential leaders vying for control over an important city-state. As an action, players can trade goods for the favor of djinns, magical beings that can bestow powerful boons. When Five Tribes was published in 2014, one of the goods players could trade in were slaves. This was explicitly stated by the game, and it was implied that these slaves were sacrificed to the djinns to gain their favor.

This was met with a huge amount of controversy from players and critics alike. The pushback was so severe that Days of Wonder, the game's publisher, removed the slaves from future printings of the game. You can read the full story here. The comment section in the link gets pretty heated and offers up a good look at where the conversation among board gamers around representations of slavery stands today. 

The slaves were replaced with new "fakir" cards that served the same purpose mechanically, but the game now avoided any mention or reference to slaves. In a press release, a Days of Wonder representative expressed that their intention was never disrespect. But the whole debacle raised questions of artistic integrity, respect to source material, evolving modern understanding, and new or different perspectives on familiar historical themes.

In discussing slavery as a gameplay mechanic, special care must be taken in determining the designer's intent. Is the game design meant to acknowledge the abhorrence of slavery? Are slaves central to any victory conditions? Do we as players have direct influence over the establishment? There are a number of examples from which to pull answers, and certainly I have not covered them all here, not by a long shot.

It is morally wrong to avoid the topic of slavery as if it never happened, but game designers need to take care to utilize it in a way that feels thematic and does not glorify the establishment. In this way, many games can serve as a lesson in history and respect, while at the same time providing a satisfying and thought-provoking play experience.