Update 3 May 2021
I hope to slowly add bits and pieces to this WIP, so if you're interested, please subscribe.
My purposes for this WIP are manifold: First, I simply wanted others interested in historically-themed boardgames to know that this is in the works. Second, I'm interested in receiving feedback and building interest in the game, in preparation for PnP release by the end of 2021. (I'm presently working on the first scenario, which covers the period from April to December 1865. This will be an introductory scenario designed to acquaint players with the system and prepare for more complex scenarios to come.) Finally, I'm harboring tiny hopes that maybe a game publisher might get interested in a game like this for their line.
The system is something between This Guilty Land and a COIN game such as Liberty or Death, with a dash of Divided Republic mixed in. It's basically fancy area control, tightly constrained by permissible actions and dictated events that still leave wide latitude for contingency. I'm envisioning this as an accessible but serious consideration of the topic, which will make a number of historical arguments. To analogize, whereas many historically-themed games are analogous to historically-theme feature films, I'm thinking of this one more as an entertaining documentary. Or maybe I'm going for Lincoln rather than Django Unchained. After all, Reconstruction is serious business, and it deserves a treatment that strives for respect and accuracy.
W.E.B. DuBois, the great African American historian, wrote of Reconstruction: “The attempt to make black men American citizens was in a certain sense all a failure, but a splendid failure.” He was speaking of a remarkable period in American history. With the unconditional surrender of Confederate forces in April 1865, the Civil War ended. The war destroyed slavery as well. Now two critical questions confronted the nation. On what terms would the states of the former Confederacy re-enter the Union? And what would be the fate of the 3.95 million African Americans who until recently had been held as property throughout the South?
Thus began a troubled decade, during which African Americans struggled to define freedom meaningfully, the Union public vacillated over its commitment to civil rights, and southern conservatives fought a desperate political insurgency to restore the racial caste system. Slavery may have been technically on the way to extinction in the U.S., but much room remained for forms of exploitation but one step removed from it. The Civil War decided that the Union would not be sundered and that slavery must end; Reconstruction defined the boundaries of ‘freedom’. In the end, conservativism won this last, long chapter of the Confederate insurrection. The secessionists had failed to create an independent state dedicated to slavery, but they had effectively nationalized the racial caste society that underlay it.
In this game, players assume roles as political leaders using their resources to activate the voting population in their favor. At the state level, mobilizing the electorate required energizing a divided and war-weary public. African Americans overwhelmingly supported the Republican Party that had led the nation to victory and emancipation. Much more tenuous was the support of southern whites. Both parties’ success thus depends on attracting this broad center of the electorate. This is the case on the national level as well, where you’ll have to consider the roles of Congress, President, and popular support for Reconstruction. You’ll also have to keep your eye on the shaky economy, which depends on tense negotiations between the freedpeople and white landowners.
The game has three player positions, organized into two competing sides. It has been designed primarily for solo play: one player plays both Union and Freedpeople factions, while the game plays the Conservative faction. (This obviates the need for anyone to have to play a position they may have values-based objections to playing.) It is possible to play with two players (one player playing Union and one player playing Freedpeople). And if you really want to see what things were like from the Democratic side, a three-player option will be available.
It's important that the Republican side is comprised of two separate factions. The freedpeople get their due in this game; they are not simply subordinate to the Republican Party that had delivered on emancipation and thought their vote secure. One of the game's objectives is to demonstrate that often these two groups were far from aligned in interests. It also seeks to acknowledge that their labor provided the bulk of labor in the entire South; as a consequence, despite being weaker on the political front, the freedpeople play the most active role in producing the resources needed for play (more on that in a later update).
Here is the mapboard in all its glory. It represents the eleven states that had formed the Confederacy. Each state has several features:
1. Vote value: Basically, the points you get if you control the state, and the vote contribution the state makes to national elections and ratification efforts.
2. Terrain: Each state is associate with one primary terrain type, and one or two secondary types. Within states, geography conditioned many aspects of southern life, so this is important.
3. Faction rows: The game basically runs on an area majority system, but its special features make it useful to organize cubes within spaces. Each colored row will hold the cubes of its respectively-colored faction. The dice-faces are there for several game purposes, usually related to game events.
4. The capital: These two spaces represent faction's influence in the state house and governor's mansion. It's hard to get cubes into these spaces, but doing so will break ties in your favor -- a critical advantage.
5. State tile space: These hold state tiles, which are used for random selections and other game purposes.
As an area control game, you'll basically be wanting to drop cubes all over the place, so your side has the most influence in a state, and can thus deliver its votes for you. Let's take a look at those:
So there are blue, red, and green cubes, each representing the political agents of one faction. Critically, these factions are vying for the allegiance of a large number of centrists who can be persuaded to align themselves with your faction (the natural cubes). This representation of nineteenth-century electioneering is one of the game's core arguments.
This is a game set nominally in a time of 'peace', but organized military forces played crucial roles in the period. Military factors are expensive to use and will cost you in public support, but can be very useful at influencing voters in the heated popular politics of the time.
As I'll detail later, the core of the game is about dropping cubes in states: organizing independents, lobbying your way into capitals, intimidating voters with military or paramilitary forces, and reacting to the flow of events as best as you can. Next, though, I want to introduce you to the other game systems, which will condition your ability to drop those cubes.
Thanks for reading this far, and don't hesitate to share your thoughts.
This is my spot for sharing tentative reflections on games, often in relation to their relationship to History and popular culture. You can find a Table of Contents here: http://www.bowdoin.edu/~prael/Ludica-ToC.htm
- [+] Dice rolls
29 Apr 2021
Dan Thurot is one of the smartest folks around when it comes to thinking critically about board games and the history they can teach. I was pleased to be a guest on his Space-Biff! podcast. I hope you'll check it out, and consider supporting him on Patreon.
- [+] Dice rolls
09 Feb 2021
This blog is about how board games represent the past, and can even make historical arguments. In thinking about how this works, I’d like to offer a heuristic that might be useful. I propose we think about board games as operating in three ‘rhetorics’, or modes of persuasive expression: ludic rhetoric, discursive rhetoric, and aesthetic rhetoric. If such terms make your eyes glaze over, not to worry – these are just fancy words for straightforward concepts. Let me lay them out briefly, then illustrate how they might help us make sense of one very interesting game – This Guilty Land (hereinafter TGL).
I. The three rhetorics of board games
Ludic rhetoric describes the game’s mechanics and more. What is the game’s design architecture, or set of mechanical systems? Is it cooperative or competitive? How many player positions are there, and of what sort -- symmetrical or not? aligned in teams? What does success or failure look like? Is conflict direct or indirect?
And then there are the procedures themselves, which determine the ways the game state can change. How do players take turns, perform actions, and work toward success? The things games ask players to actually do constitute the form of rhetoric most distinct to the medium. You’ll get the idea if you think about art collecting games in which players engage in auctions, or political games where players vote. Wargames usually require pieces to be destroyed and removed, while trading games often involve the accumulation and loss of play money.
Ludic rhetoric is my take on Ian Bogost’s notion of procedural rhetoric. As I understand the concept, procedural rhetoric could refer to many kinds of data systems; I’d like to reserve a special slice of procedural rhetoric to describe the kinds of procedures that are most frequently associated with games, like those that determine how competition happens, or how victory is decided. Ludic rhetoric asserts that the mechanic is the message — that the procedures games ask players to undertake are games’ most distinct mode of expression.
Discursive rhetoric describes how written language operates to relate mechanics to theme. You’re likely to find it in text on box covers, all over the rulebook, on the board and cards, on bits, etc. The discursive rhetoric of Chance cards in Monopoly explains that the $15 you just won came from taking first prize in a beauty contest. Wherever discursive rhetoric is found, words do the critical work of explaining how mechanics translate into theme. Arkham Horror makes sense because the game uses language to explain how all its little mechanics relate to the theme. An abstract like Go is so disconnected from its source as a wargame that it carries little discursive weight at all. Dixit, a quite different game, is also low on discursive rhetoric. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective is highly discursive, as generally are RPGs. Discursive rhetoric can operate independently of mechanics and yet still do critical work in marrying mechanics to theme. Think about how designer’s notes explain what a game is supposed to mean.
Aesthetic rhetoric describes the visual elements of a game. This ranges from box cover art to boards’n’bits, to the graphic layout of the rule book, to the materials used to make the physical game. Aesthetic rhetoric may powerfully reinforce theme, continuing the work of discursive rhetoric in explaining how players should understand the meaning of a game’s mechanics. The journey theme of Lost Cities would make less sense without the illustrations on the cards. But a lack of visuals also sends messages, intended or not. Low-budget components may reinforce a game’s identity as a home brew or limited distribution specialty game. While Eurogames tend to feature quality components made of wood, painted metal miniatures cater to another segment of the market, and colorful plastic bits often sell games for youngsters. Aesthetic rhetoric thus includes the materials the game is made of, encompassing its entire mode of physical presentation. As this includes elements that go beyond the merely visual, I’ve labeled this aesthetic rhetoric, which encompasses visual rhetoric.
These three components combine to help players understand not simply how to play a game, but what the game is meant to represent. We may properly consider these rhetorics, because in the broadest sense they are designed to persuade. Even if a game is not intended to make a historical point, its rhetorics may nonetheless convey important messages about how we might understand the past. A game featuring cartoon figures of Vikings may have no historical axe to grind, yet still reinforce popular misconceptions of who Vikings were. If this seems trivial, replace ‘Vikings’ with ‘Native Americans’, and recall how long histories of racial and cultural stereotypes have shaped consumer and entertainment culture. Representation matters.
II. Introducing This Guilty Land
I hope to develop these concepts more fully elsewhere, but for now it might be more useful to illustrate their utility. I’d like to do this by looking at This Guilty Land, a game by designer Tom Russell of Hollandspiele, about the political struggle over slavery in the antebellum United States.
Let’s start by introducing the game to those who might be unfamiliar with it. Here’s the full description, from its publisher’s website:Quote:This Guilty Land is about the political struggle over slavery in the decades leading up to the American Civil War. Its central premise is that the war was the only way to achieve abolition: the slave states never would have willingly given up the practice, nor would it have worked itself out at some point down the road. This is a story of how the systems that democracies use to solve problems - debate and legislation - utterly failed in the face of an undeniable moral evil, of how that evil was defended by those systems, and of how calls for compromise only strengthened it and delayed the reckoning that had to come.So that’s the game. Those still interested but unfamiliar with it may want to check out a video review before going on, as I spend my words below thinking more about the game than describing it. Let’s get to that, and tackle TGL in terms of our three categories.
In this game, each player acts on behalf of an abstract idea - Justice and Oppression - with one player working for abolition and the other working against it. It seeks to treat the subject matter with sensitivity and respect. There is no piece that represents a human being - no action that replicates the horrors and the lived experience of slavery. Instead, this is about the framework that allowed that evil to exist, and the moral cowardice that enabled it to continue to exist.
This is a card-driven game, but not in the sense that the term is typically employed. There is no hidden information, and there is no "ops"/"events" dichotomy. Instead, cards are dealt into a face-up display, and each card's uses are determined by a generic card type. Many of these cards can also be tucked away into a "Reserve" - a semi-permanent ancillary hand of cards that each player builds over the course of the game. You will always know what your opponent can accomplish, and the actions you take on your turn dictate the amount of political capitol they will have available on theirs. Because of this, the game is uniquely well suited for solitaire play in the "play both sides" style.
III. TGL’s discursive messages
Discursive rhetoric in TGL plays an extraordinary role, so let’s begin there. In 2017, amidst national outrage over police killings of African Americans, under an administration congenial to white supremacists, how could anyone risk designing a game where one player is asked to represent the interests of slaveholders? As I’ve discussed elsewhere, games offer liberating opportunities for imaginative play, but that doesn’t mean that everything that can be gamified should be gamified. Every gamer brings to the experience their own lusory attitude, or set of values about what we should and should not play, and how and why we play. But asking gamers to play the most notorious institution in human history may be risky business indeed.
Typically, conflict simulations assert their neutrality in whatever they represent, lest players worry that a game’s design favors one side over another. In contrast, the first move TGL makes is to offset the danger that it may be misunderstood by loudly proclaiming its stance on slavery. The title itself begins this work. Russell pulled it from the note that John Brown, the militant abolitionist who sought to spark a slave uprising in Virginia in 1859, passed to his jailer shortly before his execution:Quote:Charlestown, Va, 2nd, December, 1859
I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done.John Brown on his way to the gallows, December 2, 1859
Thomas Hovenden, “The Last Moments of John Brown (1883),” Metropolitan Museum of Art
If there’s any question about the game’s sympathies, the title positively references the most militant action for slave freedom since Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831.
But the title is just the start. The designer’s strong editorial hand is evident throughout the rulebook, ensuring that readers make no mistake about her intent in making a game that permits players to engage in slavery. First the game explains the player positions in clear Manichean terms: “One player—Justice—fights for the abolition of slavery. Her opponent—Oppression—fights for its retention and spread.” It then immediately speaks to the social problem this produces for players who may not be sure whether they want to play such a game: “Some players will be uncomfortable with the idea of playing Oppression. This discomfort is intentional.” The game itself understands the position it places players in, yet clarifies that it does so for no light purpose, but to confront players with the reality of historical slavery. Whereas many games may obscure their incorporation of slavery in order to attract a broad audience (think Puerto Rico), this one resists the criticism that it whitewashes or exploits history by declaring its purpose boldly. This is not a game that says ‘everyone should buy me’; it's a game that says caveat emptor’.
The rulebook goes beyond this, though, to set forth a clear historical argument in its very first section. Here’s how it appears:
We must always take care to retain some healthy skepticism, and not automatically accept a game’s discursive description of itself. Just because a game says it’s about something doesn’t mean it actually is. (I can’t tell you how many academic manuscripts I’ve reviewed that announce a thesis as X, yet wind up arguing Y and Z.) But clear discursive statements at the very least offer a standard against which the rest of the game may be measured. (Spoiler: the game does not disappoint on this point.)
More deeply, the game asserts that it is not a simple story of good versus evil. Instead, it makes these moral forces contend for the attention of an otherwise indifferent public.Quote:A third, non-player Faction—Compromise—futilely attempts to find a middle ground that does not, cannot, and should not exist. Compromise may be sympathetic to either party, and partisans on both sides might think them allies, but in their desire to avoid a decisive conflict and to maintain an untenable status quo, Compromise is truly and only the bedfellow of Oppression.Oppression may be the villain in this game, but TGL spares little sympathy for the great many who had to be dragged, often literally kicking and screaming, into understanding slavery as an evil.
IV. A historical digression
This dovetails nicely with points historians frequently make in understanding the origins of the American Civil War. As I’ve explored in my own work, abolishing slavery in the United States proceeded differently from other patterns of mass emancipation in the Atlantic world, precisely because a highly democratic political system mediated the struggle. It seems paradoxical that the prevalence of democratic institutions would retard the abolition of slavery, but that is indeed what happened.
The unique qualities of the U.S. experience of emancipation stand out when compared with other experiences. Most of the nations that emerged from Latin American revolutions abolished slavery earlier in the century, melding their natural rights justifications for revolution with practical needs for slave manpower, which was often exchanged military service for emancipation. The nations of Western Europe began abolishing slavery in their empires in 1834, when Great Britain’s Parliament ended the practice. Like England, other nations flatly imposed abolition on their colonies, using their political control to dictate slavery's fate.
But the British colonies of mainland North America had revolted precisely to establish their independence from imperial dictates. Freed from the rule of a powerful colonial government, the slave states of the South came to exercise considerable power under the new federal system, which the Constitution of 1787 furthered through protections for slavery such as the three-fifths clause. Slavery in the U.S. South could not be defeated by a powerful central government because to the extent that such existed in the U.S., it was often controlled by slaveholders and their northern ‘doughface’ minions. As historian Leonard Richards has noted:Quote:In the sixty-two years between Washington's election and the Compromise of 1850, for example, slaveholders controlled the presidency for fifty years, the Speaker's chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of House Ways and Means for forty-two years. The only men to be reelected president — Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson — were all slaveholders. The men who sat in the Speaker's chair the longest — Henry Clay, Andrew Stevenson, and Nathaniel Macon — were slaveholders.Slavery and the political power it conferred did not die by the “slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees” George Washington had hoped, but grew, as demand for southern cotton fueled the industries that led the industrial revolution. While the UK, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands were managing the abolition of slavery in their own empires, antislavery in the U.S. faced an uphill battle that delayed the process. The United States ended slavery late (Cuba and Brazil were the only large slave societies abolished after it), largely because what could be accomplished in other societies had to be accomplished here through a political system that did not want to discuss slavery, lest the issue split national parties. (Martin Van Buren, the great but unheralded architect of the two-party system, argued that national parties promoted unity, suppressing “geographical divisions founded on local interests or, what is worse prejudices between free and slaveholding states will inevitably take their place.”) If for no reason other than to retain their party’s prominence, Democratic and Whig leaders spent decades trying to bury the issue.
Yet antislavery activists refused to ignore the issue. Led by slave runaways, black activists, and white abolitionists, antislavery politicians intruded their agenda into the political process, until it finally broke the system. Decades of ‘Slave Power’ victories (e.g., the gag rule in the House of Representatives, the censorship of the mail to southern states, the annexation of Texas, the breaking of the Missouri Compromise in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision) kept antislavery at bay, but simultaneously raised awareness of an issue that ultimately could not be tabled. Every time the country expanded westward, the fate of slavery in the territories intruded. Every time enslaved people protested their bondage, slaveholders made a case for their own barbarism.
Slowly, the tail wagged the dog. It took decades of dangerous labor and frustrating in-fighting to build an effective antislavery social movement, but slowly the message seeped into politics, as political antislavers posed constant examples of an anti-majoritarian Slave Power bent on tyrannizing not just its own slaves but the northern states as well.
the political system reformed around the slavery issue. The Whig Party split along sectional lines. In the North, the Republican Party emerged from the ashes. The party of Abraham Lincoln compromised its antislavery to broaden its appeal; dropping the abolitionists' moral radicalism, it called only for the abolition of slavery only in federal territories. The strategy worked well enough that in a sectionally-divided four-way race, the party could command the electoral majority it needed to win the White House in 1860.
With Lincoln's victory, southern states began seceding, hoping independence would pre-empt the eventual loss of the social system at the foundation of their society and their political power. They had enjoyed protections beyond what comparable slave powers in other societies had, but when Lincoln refused to accept secession, the Civil War ensued. And while the Union government began the conflict with no intent to destroy slavery, slavery ultimately fell, as a consequence of the "friction and abrasion" of war, to use Lincoln's phrase.
So what happened with relative (I stress relative!) ease elsewhere was far harder to accomplish here. The United States experienced the widest temporal gulf between the start of its abolition process (Vermont, in 1777) and the end (ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865). And when the final crisis over slavery did come, it appeared in the form of a bloody civil war that cost the lives of up to a million Americans. Only the Haitian Revolution, a singular event in the Atlantic world, could compare with the cost in blood and treasure spent in the United States to end slavery.
TGL captures the key element to this narrative. We see slavery and antislavery competing to activate an indifferent public. Both sides seek to sway the balance in different regions of the country, which then send delegates to Congress, where laws may be passed that advance each sides' interest. Significantly, we do not get to the election of 1860. In another distancing move, Russell asserts that "when the game ends, the Civil War begins, and that war will always be won by the Union, and will always result in the abolition of slavery." Ultimately, no matter how well Oppression does in TGL, it can never succeed in maintaining slavery.
V. TGL’s ludic message
TGL’s ludic rhetoric aligns completely with this argument. We’ve already seen how discursive rhetoric in the rulebook explains the player positions and their meanings. Those positions themselves are a function of the game’s ludic rhetoric, or the procedural systems underlying the game. The game’s very design architecture helps it make its point. This is a two player game wherein slavery and antislavery vie to persuade neutral (non-player) parties, whose conversion is necessary to achieve political control in six regions, which in turns gives you the opportunity to pass laws favorable to your side, and thus score the points necessary to win. In mechanical terms, the game offers an interesting wrinkle on area control (El Grande is an iconic example of such a game), in which player-protagonists work to place the most influence on board spaces, which then deliver the points necessary for victory. TGL toys with the area control formula by introducing a third party – undecided voters – who must be swayed to your side. It also creates layers between controlling an area and gaining points: area control is necessary to gain influence in the House of Representatives and Senate (they work differently), which must then be deployed to pass laws favorable to your cause. The process is not easy.
Effectively, the game is a complicated machine to convert the disinterested, which players then seek to manipulate in their interests. That manipulation happens through an interesting action system that permits players shifting but always constrained opportunities to change the board. Cards drive the action, but you are always limited -- by the number from which you can choose, by the number you can retain, by the circumstances in which you can use them, by their cost to use, etc. For both sides, changing minds is hard, and using those changed minds to give you the political power to pass laws in your favor is harder still.
It’s important that both sides confront equal difficulty in accomplishing this. Despite that discursively the game declares its sympathies for Justice, ludically Oppression has real chance. Following new media scholar Jonathan Rey Lee (following sociologist Roger Caillot), this is the concept of agon at work. This approach considers games contests of skill, which are best tested when other factors are rendered equal. By way of example, think of professional sports, where such principles are foundational: teams have the same number of players, the rules are the same for both sides, referees exist to ensure equal treatment, etc.
A commitment to agon can bedevil historical simulations, especially when they depict oppressed people like those who were enslaved. Maintaining balance when representing highly asymmetrical conflicts frequently requires altering victory conditions to reward weak powers for accomplishing achievements relative to their strength. The game Liberty or Death features a Native American faction that may 'win' the American Revolution, but designer Harold Buchanan explains the qualified nature of such a victory discursively:Quote:If Indian: Proclamation Line confirmed! With the colonies brought under firm control by the combined efforts of British and Indians, King George and his Parliament guarantees the rights of the native nations of America in the territories west of the Proclamation Line of 1763. While skirmishes and raids will continue, the frontier will remain stationary in the Appalachians for several decades before population pressure starts to force it westward again.In LoD, a Native American victory will not reverse colonization or decimation, simply hold at bay for a while what seems inevitable.
TGL evades the need for asymmetric victories by alighting on a component of slavery's history that was indeed pretty symmetrical. The game represents a conflict not between slaveholders and slaves, but between political forces that promoted slavery and those that challenged it -- a much more equal contest. In history, the Slave Power enjoyed much control for a long time, until the radical abolition movement of the 1830s began challenging it, as described above. It still won many victories after that, but demographic realities meant that sooner or later the South's outsized political power would be dwarfed by what Confederate President Jefferson Davis called "the despotism of numbers"; the North's free labor economy attracted immigrants seeking opportunity, while the rigors of working in the South's slave economy depressed the growth of the bound population. I've not played enough to see how clearly this narrative emerges, but the game does properly pose pro- and anti-slavery forces as locked in a tight contest for control of the center of the electorate.
A final component of the game’s design architecture merits attention: how players are represented in the game. In one game on slavery, Freedom: The Underground Railroad, each player is represented by a in-game avatar depicting a character drawn from one of six antislavery types, each with its own special powers. Thus individualizing players' in-game representation intimately connects players to theme by making it easier for them to imagine working to liberate individual fugitive slaves.
TGL moves in the opposite direction. In an essay on the game, Russell explains that TGL was designed precisely to distance players from the subject of the game. Players represent not individuals, but abstract concepts, precisely to avoid personalizing play: “The idea is to put a great deal of distance between the player and their role, and thus between the player and their actions.” Clearly, this serves the need to clearly state sympathies: “To be blunt, I have zero interest in the point of view of people who owned other human beings.”
VI. TGL’s aesthetic message
TGL’s aesthetic rhetoric strongly reinforces the theme of its discursive rhetoric. The game’s box cover begins this work. It features a famous image of an enslaved man’s back, scarred by whippings. This is the iconic photograph of Gordon, who in 1863 escaped from a Louisiana Plantation to Union lines, whose image circulated throughout the northern press. Rather than replicate the image here, let me instead share an example of how editors could use it to help the Union public understand what it was fighting against.Theodore Tilton, “The Scourged Back,” The Independent (New York City) 15, no. 756 (28 May 1863), 4.
Clearly, the use of such a provocative image on the cover conveys that this is not a game to be entered into lightly. While Gordon's appearance suggests the grim historical reality waiting for those who open the box, I can imagine downsides to the move. Some may reject the cover for reinforcing images of the enslaved as little but agency-less victims, reduced to nothing but emblems of their own subjugation. Even in antebellum days, slave narratives offered dramatic examples of exploitation that may have appealed as much for their lurid qualities as for their humanitarian messages. Long traditions of African American protest thought have argued over the degree to which slaveholders’ oppression should be balanced with the individuality, agency, and resistance of the enslaved themselves. By way of example, some criticized Steve McQueen’s film “Twelve Years a Slave” (2013) on this account. On broken bodies we may easily read narratives of violence, but we must take care to remember that bodies are more than this, just as oppression involves far more than physical damage.
Another powerful use of images appears on the cover of the rulebook, a famous lithograph depicting South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks caning Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in 1856. The incident followed Sumner’s “crime against Kansas” speech, in which he declared that South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, who had co-sponsored the bill permitting slavery in the Kansas territory under the principle of “popular sovereignty,” had taken “the harlot, slavery” for his “mistress.” Butler’s cousin, Brooks, took exception, and when Sumner refused to duel him in an affair of honor, Brooks resorted to attacking him in the Capitol itself.
The northern and antislavery press widely publicized the incident, which they used to suggest the violent, tryanical nature of he system, producing cries of “bleeding Kansas” and “bleeding Sumner.” The appearance of such an image on the first page of TGL’s rulebook, which replicates the message of antislavery politics in antebellum America, once again loudly proclaims the game’s sympathies with the abolitionist cause.
As powerful as these two images are, they contrast with a graphic design that is relatively understated. While the box cover's image of Gordon suggests the grim historical reality awaiting those who open the box, inside one is hard-pressed to find imagery as incendiary as that which dominates players’ initial encounters with the game.
The understated design sensibility of the counters and cards of TGL contrast with the provocative images that appear on its cover and rulebook.
Again, I suspect that this is no accident, for it helps reinforce the game’s divided identity in useful ways. Once again, we have a sharp contrast between the game’s effort to declare its antislavery sympathies, and mechanical systems that offer Oppression a real chance for victory. But whereas the game’s discursive rhetoric is almost wholly dedicated to distancing the designer from one of the game's central design elements, its aesthetic rhetoric must serve both functions. Its box cover and rulebook image serve the editorial purpose of asserting the designer’s sympathies, but the components themselves render the game’s two player-positions far more neutrally, as befits the equal competition the game seeks to model.
We may be used to thinking of images as the game’s primary expression of aesthetic rhetoric, but even a game’s components and materials can reinforce the designer’s message on how the game should be understood. TGL features a heavy cardboard playboard in two colors, nice cardboard counters in two more colors, a deck of standard-quality game cards, and a rulebook that follows the modern wargame design aesthetic, with full-color illustrations. The package works well, but few will confuse it with family games that wind up on Target shelves before the holidays. Instead, materials are matched well to the game’s identity as a niche product, its aesthetic modesty offering a degree of humility befitting its sensitive subject. To reinforce this, Hollandspiele offers an inexpensive print and play version, further reducing the risk that anyone would understand the game as an effort to commercially exploit anyone’s historical misery.
The game’s aesthetic rhetoric thus does double duty, supporting the ludic’s focus on equal contest, as well as the discursive’s insistence that equal player-positions does not moral equals make.
We’ve now covered the way the three rhetorics of board games operate in TGL. The game’s discursive rhetoric loudly proclaims its sympathies toward one of its player-positions, while the game’s ludic rhetoric suggests that both sides have similar difficulty in achieving their goals; meanwhile, the game’s aesthetic rhetoric is divided, working in different ways to support both points. To me, this review suggests the unique quality of this game, which gives one player every chance to succeed by playing slavery, while simultaneously voicing its abhorrence for the institution.
In other games such divided messages might be a bad thing. In TGL, though, it is crucial to reassuring players that the game offers a space in which it might be ok to play slavery. Because the game itself so prominently declares its antislavery sympathies, players may be less likely to feel that playing the game would conflict with their deeply held values. That, I think, is the bold calculation that Russell has made – that the game sufficiently distances itself from the evil it gives agency to that it will remain safe to play.
Boardgame history suggests that Russell’s concern that her game might be misinterpreted is not unwarranted. Consider what happened to Monopoly. Pioneering feminist Lizzie Magie invented its precursor, The Landlord’s Game, to illustrate the economic ideas of Henry George, who argued against the consolidation and appropriation of wealth he saw an inherent in capitalism. The game began with impeccable anti-capitalist credentials; radical economist Scott Nearing used the game to teach his students at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania. But as homebrewed versions of the game circulated, Magie lost control of its message. By the time Parker Brothers appropriated and reformulated the game as Monopoly, its radical message had been transformed into a celebration of unbridled capitalism. Indeed, the very process by which Parker Brothers deployed its economic power to rob an entrepreneur of the fruits of her labor this mirrored the very thing The Landlord’s Game criticized.
Russell's discursive rhetoric helps ensure that her game will not be misunderstood. Still, as she accepts, many will still refrain. We don’t all share the same tastes and tolerances, after all. But for those who might enter into the enterprise with the right faith –- that it can be ethically safe to play slavery if the play is properly contextualized -– Russell stakes out a tricky but valuable space, which offers an opportunity to explore a terrible social evil in a way that actually promotes understanding.
It is not alone in attempting this feat. Consider Brenda Romero’s Train, which she designed as much as an art piece as a game. Players begin the game seeking to move people by train, only to be horrified when they discover later in the game that they have been acting as Nazi officials moving people to concentration camps. The game’s rhetoric operates by withholding from players full knowledge of who they represent in the game, thus confronting them with the complicity of a public that should have known better, a theme reprised in TGL. So volatile is its subject that the designer permitted the game to be played only a few times before retiring it, lest anyone play it without fully appreciating its meaning and purpose. Indeed, the game's point may still be made simply by describing it.
TGL also examines how complicity with oppression happens, and like Train its rhetorical strategy is to distance its designer from the thing designed, to ensure that players cannot misunderstand the presence of oppression in the game. And, like Train, instead of being made to make money, the game was made to challenge players to think about the very meaning of their play. But unlike Train, TGL is meant to be purchased and played, so it uses different techniques. Instead of withholding meaning, TGL proclaims it up front.
In that way, it may offer more of a model for the future than does Train. Games designed not to be played can constitute powerful artistic statements, but their value as ludic ones is less evident. Games are made to be played, and perhaps only by playing them may their messages be experienced fully and as intended. For this reason, I hesitate to endorse the notion that ‘games can be art’, for it seems to imply that games are lower than art on some imagined scale. Art may take the form of games, and games the form of art, but I would venture that both are phenomena fundamental to the human experience.
Like all media forms, games may help us confront the darkest moments of our collective past, so long as they are posed with proper sensitivity and contextualized responsibly. This is no small feat, for with the great power of the ludic form comes great responsibility to use it constructively. Doubtless some will never play TGL, for absolutely legitimate reasons. But for those willing to engage on the game's terms, Russell has offered a highly circumscribed space of play that works hard to contextualize what it represents. At the least, no thoughtful player can avoid its important message, which I take to be this:
Oppression always has a strong chance of winning, and the indifference that leads to complicity with evil always hampers justice. At the same time, we may also learn that no matter what constraints we operate under, we always possess our own agency in working toward the kind of world we want to create.
- [+] Dice rolls
I’ll soon be publishing my take on This Guilty Land, a board game designed by Tom Russell that depicts the political struggle in antebellum America between the interests of slavery and the interests of antislavery. In my view, the game is a fascinating ludic work, which makes important statements about how board games might responsibly consider historically difficult issues. I’m very grateful for Tom’s willingness to share the process issues that went into designing this important game.
Ludica: For those unfamiliar with your work, could you describe your games and your approach to designing?
TR: That’s a difficult question to answer concisely in that I’ve had fifty or sixty games published over the years, of a variety of types and on a variety of topics. This is largely a function of being a “working designer”, i.e., I do this full-time as my career. Some of the games – the ones that get the most attention and the strongest sales – are games that try to make or explore a serious argument. I will sometimes call these my “prestige” or “end-of-year” games, because they tend to be the one or two “big” games I do that are released toward the end of the year. This Guilty Land is a prime example of this sort of game, but this also includes something like last year’s The Vote, which is a kind of spiritual successor to This Guilty Land, or 2019’s Westphalia, which is a negotiation game for six players. Exactly six: no more, no less, and gosh, am I glad we released it in 2019 and not in 2020!
While almost all of my games try to engage with history in some meaningful way, not all of them are as “serious”. Like, This Guilty Land tries to make a moral argument, but something like With it Or On It is about Greek hoplite battles. It makes an argument about the pluses and minuses of hoplite tactics, and seeks to model how those battles played out, but it’s not the sort of argument that is necessarily “useful” or “relevant” to the here and now.
I do these “less important” games for a variety of reasons. Money is one; if all I did were the big “important” games, I wouldn’t have nearly as many games to my credit, and the months between might get a little thin. Another reason has to do with my own well-being. A game like This Guilty Land involves me immersing myself in the period and the subject matter for an extended period of time, and as you can imagine that’s a very depressing and angry place; if all I did were games like that, I wouldn’t be able to function.
All my games however are a little weird and many of them are somewhat experimental. They’re often deliberately abrasive and off-putting. I don’t really care about the same things other designers seem to care about, or at least I don’t give them the same weight.
Ludica: How did you decide to design This Guilty Land? What was your inspiration? Your game design resume seems to focus on wargames and train games; how did you move to a topic less directly associated with military conflict?
TR: I honestly felt compelled to do it, and I initially resisted that compulsion.
It occurred to me in 2017 that a game on this topic, with the approach I ended up taking, could be used to make useful arguments about political deadlock, radicalization, and poisonous compromises. And it also occurred to me that such a game would come with many pitfalls, and could leave itself open to being misinterpreted or misconstrued (in good faith and in bad). I think when I had the idea, my initial reaction was, “Okay, I think such a game can and should exist, but there’s no way I’m going to be the one that makes it. No way I’m gonna touch it with a ten foot pole.”
But I kept being drawn to it. The argument itself had a very strong, elemental appeal to me. And to a degree, there was the ambitious nature of the thing. By this time I had done, oh, a couple dozen games, all of which were small and quirky and “interesting”, but none of them were particularly ambitious. They were games that made you say, “oh, that’s clever and cute” rather than games that made you sit up and take notice. And we had at that time published Cole Wehrle’s game An Infamous Traffic, which was a more ambitious, serious sort of game, a game that made an argument and did so I think coherently and cohesively, and so I was thinking a lot about the use and potential of board games. So this is on my mind, and I keep being drawn to this idea, and eventually I decided, okay, I’ll do it.
Now, I knew what I was getting into. I knew I would be spending a year and a half just neck-deep in a period that would frustrate and enrage me. And I also knew that Mary and I would have to be very deliberate in how we presented the game, how we talked about the game. We had to clearly and consistently tell people what the game was, and what the game was not, so there would be no room for them to draw incorrect conclusions about it. We had to demonstrate that we were acting in good faith, and taking the subject and the game seriously and soberly. So in a way we were very conscious of the “optics” in a way that we never had to be before, and to a degree have never had to be since.
That included being very specific that we were discussing and depicting the politics of slavery, and not the lived experience of it. That we were not gamifying the horrors and abuses, but modeling the systemic framework that permitted them. This was especially important because as a white person, that was absolutely not my story to tell. I made a point of saying, “look, I am a middle-class cis white straight man, I’ve got oodles of privilege, so I’m not going to tell that story, my voice is not useful there. But this argument about the complicity of compromise, that’s something I can talk about.”
Of course, it turned out that I wasn’t a cis straight man, but a trans queer woman. (And I am appropriately embarrassed by how stridently I insisted that I was cis and straight and male.) My economic class and ethnic background still gives me a lot of relative privilege, as did the fact that at the time I presented as a cis straight man, so I think the general point still stands.
Ludica: You seem to take special care to ensure that players properly understand that while it's possible to "play slavery" in this game, you as designer do not endorse anything about the Oppression side of the game. I’m curious to hear more about how you thought about this issue. What were your major concerns, and what was the thinking behind your final approach?
TR: I think the thing I most wanted to avoid was any kind of identification with those arguing for slavery. Games, and particularly history games, thrive on identification, on “assume the role of so-and-so, here are their goals, here are the tools at their disposal”. It’s a kind of empathy, and I did not see any reason to extend any empathy in that direction. Such an extension would run the risk of giving those arguments and their proponents equal weight. Certainly, they had their reasons and their justifications –reasons that were morally and intellectually bankrupt. In fact I would say one of the most depressing things about working on This Guilty Land, and for that matter on The Vote, is how many of the arguments were so very similar to the arguments made today. And how seriously people take them. So, for me, “see things from the other side” was never something I was going to be interested in. I wanted to avoid identification as much as possible, and to achieve that, I leaned into the abstract didacticism of the nineteenth century. You are not this abolitionist or even this group of abolitionists, or this slave-holder or this group of slave-holders; you are Justice, you are Oppression, straight out of an allegorical painting. Essentially this was a form of Brechtian alienation, putting the player at a distance from the game, which would hopefully give them space and time to engage with the model, observe it, and ask questions of themselves.
Ludica: Were/are you concerned that some might not be willing to play the Oppression side, or the game itself, because of the moral freight it carries? How do you think about the representation in games of difficult historical issues such as slavery?
TR: It was a concern, yes. And one thing I try to be careful to acknowledge is, it is a perfectly valid position for someone to have, that they won’t play Oppression, or that they won’t engage with the game at all. It isn’t for everyone, and folks who come to games mostly as a diversion probably should stay away from it.
I did try to make play of Oppression as “palatable” as possible, by using that distance that we talked about earlier. It was also important to me that I avoid what I think of as a false (if trendy) question of complicity: here’s a game where you do bad things, do the bad things, now feel bad because you did the things the game told you to do. For me, that’s not interesting or useful. So there’s a reason why the game doesn’t have a piece that represents a human being, doesn’t have an action that represents the enslavement, torture, or death of a human being.
The question of complicity the game is seeking to ask, or rather is creating space for the players to ask, is about the complicity of the middle – of the non-player faction Compromise that, as Dr. King put it at a later time, prefers the negative peace of the absence of tension rather than the positive peace of the presence of justice. And that’s a personal question: am I doing enough in my time to fight for equality and human rights? Is my silence or inaction complicit?
Ludica: TGL is framed as a moral struggle, but its mechanics focus on politics. I’m curious to know more about how you conceived of the struggle the game depicts. Were you informed by particular historical sources or approaches?
TR: I don’t make a distinction between morality and politics, because political struggle is moral struggle; politics are how rights are defended or attacked, how progress is made or subverted. One can arguably look at the entire history of human political struggle as being over the ever-evolving answer to the question, who has what rights?: who “counts” as fully human?
Now, the game isn’t about the moral question in and of itself, because to my mind that is a settled question, the answer self-evident. It’s about the mechanics of the struggle, in much the same way that a traditional wargame doesn’t model the underlying cause of a battle, but rather the maneuvers on the field. One of the core arguments that the game is making is that this particular battlefield – one fought with legislation, elections, and debate – was one that could only result in deadlock and stalemate. You were never going to convince the folks benefitting from slavery to give it up. At least not in the short term. I’ve heard from folks who take issue with the game’s core argument that the American Civil War was necessary, inevitable, and justified, who say, “well, it would have been phased out on its own eventually”; even if that was the case – and given efforts to expand slavery into new territories, I don’t think that’s really a supportable assertion – but even if it was, you’re still talking about years and decades of incredible, and preventable, suffering. The only moral and justifiable answer to the question of slavery was its immediate abolition. This is something the south never would have agreed to, except as a term of surrender.
And this was largely because, not in spite of, a political system that is built on compromise and moderation – on a society that is built on those principles. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but on the question of human rights, when we’re talking about systemic oppression and inequality, moderation is immoral. Incrementalism is immoral: minorities can have little a rights, as a treat. To be clear, this isn’t to dismiss incremental progress, because progress is progress, and it is always made fighting tooth and nail against fierce opposition. It’s just that incrementalism is not in and of itself a virtue or a thing to be celebrated.
And the game somewhat models this, because while Compromise – even Compromise that “leans” toward Justice – will give its support to Oppression, to the status quo, to “not rocking the boat”, it does have its uses. It lets Justice gain a foothold on power. Historically, compromise and moderation, is what made Lincoln palatable as a candidate in the first place; if some full-blown radical abolitionist had been on the ticket, they never would have gotten anywhere. The game tries to acknowledge the realities of the political system and landscape, while also trying to recognize how horrid it is.
In this way, I’m not sure if I would call the game a work of “history” so much as I would call it “political art” that engages with history. I’m an angry trans girl making an angry argument with an angry game. Somehow – and I really don’t know how this is possible – The Vote ended up being even angrier and more political than This Guilty Land was. In both cases, I’m not really interested in conveying historical information about there and then so much as I’m interested in agitating people to take action against oppression in the here and now.
Because of this, my reading in both cases was largely restricted to primary sources - newspapers, pamphlets, speeches – rather than works produced by historians. That is somewhat specific to these games, however; with my more traditional wargames, I’m much more likely to look at what the current scholarship is about the topic.
Ludica: I see that you've designed other games that stretch the boundaries of theme and mechanics (Reign of Witches, The Vote). Can you share your views on the possibilities of games in making historical arguments?
TR: I think this is one of the most promising areas for board games. Because games are systems – and because board games in particular are systems made transparent and observable – games are especially good at modeling systems. Systems, and systemic oppression, are often hard for humans to grasp; we love stories too much. It’s easy for us to see anecdotal racism, sexism, and queerphobia, to see the big obvious personal examples, but it’s difficult for us to see how these things subtly pervade the culture on a systemic level, to recognize our own complicity in that system, and ultimately to recognize that the system itself must be dismantled. So a form that specializes in systems has a tremendous potential toward that end.
Of course, I want to be careful not to overstate the case. Board games are already a very niche form, largely only accessible to people with disposable income, and largely only decipherable to people who have the time and energy to become experienced with them and to learn a new game. And there we’re just talking about “normal” games that don’t consciously have any kind of message or argument. Once you introduce that element, you narrow the audience considerably, and I dare say the audience for something like This Guilty Land is even smaller.
So, like I said, I don’t want to oversell the potential of games as an instrument of social consciousness or social change. Or perhaps it is better to say that that potential is as-yet unrealized compared to, say, more traditional mass media, and that there are many hurdles to overcome. I know at any rate that I won’t be the one to realize it; I’m too comfortable in my weird little corner.
Ludica: Fans who are new to Hollandspiele see Mary Russell’s name frequently associated with your games. Can you share with readers more about Mary’s role?
So, Mary is the one who runs the company. Hollandspiele as a business would not function without her. She's also responsible for the layout of our books and player aids, and I think with This Guilty Land she really knocked it out of the park. The first thing people are going to really dig into with a new game is the rulebook, so it needs to have a clean and appealing look. She did an even better job with The Vote. Both games have books that really evoke the period and the "feel" that I wanted, and go a long way toward immersing people in the game.
She's also a sounding board for both my graphic design and my game design. I do the cards and box covers, and I don't have any particular education or background in that; I'm entirely self-taught. Mary does have that educational background, and she has a very discerning eye to boot, so she'll tell me quite readily when something isn't working, and suggest ways to make it work. I talk to her frequently about my game designs, about problems I'm working on. With This Guilty Land of course she and I also spent a lot of time talking about the pitfalls that come with tackling such a sensitive topic, and how we should go about preemptively identifying and addressing any concerns that folks might have.
On top of all that, she puts up with me. I haven't always been easy to live with - I was in fact pretty miserable to live with before my egg cracked - but she's been there through the thick and the thin. She keeps me steady and centered. When working on something heavy and depressing like This Guilty Land, she kept me sane.
Ludica: What projects are you working on now? What should your fans be looking for from Hollandspiele?
TR: We’ve got more than a dozen games on the schedule for this year, but how it pans out is going to be anyone’s guess. More germane to this discussion would be this year’s big “end of year” game, Nicaea.
It’s about the Council of Nicaea, and is in a weird way a sort of stock game in which players “invest” in theological positions. I might feel that the substance of Christ was homoousian, which is what eventually became the orthodox position, and you might feel that it was homoiousian, which was deemed heretical. What happens is eventually one side has more folks invested in it, and that side becomes “real” and the other side is deemed heterodox.
Of course, with a handful of exceptions, everyone that came into Nicaea thinking Christ was homoiousian came out of it swearing up and down that Christ was homoousian – and any bishop who didn’t was going to wind up excommunicated and stripped of their cushy gig. The game’s argument is that this was more about these kind of power politics and the threat of marginalization than, you know, divine inspiration and righteousness or whatever.
There was a fellow who got quite upset when he heard this argument. He wanted to know what historical sources I was using, where was it that it said that was why the council’s decision was essentially unanimous. As if Eusebius of Caesarea was going to write about the other Nicene Fathers in anything less than glowing terms. I really didn’t know how to tell the guy that, look, my source is I’ve been alive for a few decades, and I know what human beings are like. No matter how far back you go, people are still people, and politics is still politics.
Ludica: Thanks, Tom, for sharing so much about this important game, and how you approached it.
- [+] Dice rolls
I recently spoke with the folks at the Board Again Games 'cast. Here's their description. Thanks to Chris and Ryan for being willing to take on some heavy issues. Enjoy, and all constructive comments are welcome.
"We talk about a number of topics with our guest including representation, race, and history in games. We also discuss his distinction between the ludic and discursive elements of games, how games make an argument for a certain point of view.
Dr. Rael is Professor of History at Bowdin College and has written professionally about race, slavery, and reconstruction. His hobby writing has included a blog on board games, and he is also a game designer.
Although this episode does not contain explicit material, it does include reference to some serious topics including the Dylan Roof murders and suicide.
If you or someone is having suicidal thoughts, please call: 1-800-273-8255 (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
Games that we discuss in this episode:
Kingmaker, Ogre, Freedom, Puerto Rico, Endeavor: Age of Sail, Struggle of Empires, Liberty or Death, Twilight Struggle, Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Lewis & Clark: The Expedition, Founding Fathers, Modern Art, Colonial, Lord of the Rings: Journeys in Middle Earth, Mansions of Madness 2E, Jeff Davis, Codenames, Here I Stand, 1960: The Making of a President, Warhammer 40K, and Watergate."
- [+] Dice rolls
I’ve been thinking about how board games contend with the difficult issue of slavery. In this video, I offer some thoughts about the range of ways this happens. My purpose is emphatically not to suggest that some approaches are better than others, but instead to lay out the issues involved. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
- [+] Dice rolls
This is to share a work in progress.
I love train games, though I’m not particularly good at them. Among my favorites are Railways of the World and Chicago Express. I haven’t been bitten by the 18xx bug, despite several outings with generous teachers – too dry for my taste.
When the pandemic deprived us of face-to-face play across the table, I began working on my own train game. I was going for a weight just under Railways, but hoping to approach that game’s tight but epic feel. I wanted a game that would engage mid-weight gamers such as myself, but at the same time let players compete to build something they might really appreciate when the game ends.
The result was inspired by a history course I taught in Spring 2020, titled ‘Between Revolution and Rebellion: The United States, 1787-1861’. Before we moved to distance learning in March, my class was fortunate enough to visit an exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, titled ‘Rufus Porter’s Curious World: Art and Invention in America, 1815-1860’.
Porter was one of New England’s many antebellum Renaissance men – a polymath who did everything from paint portraits to invent firearms to design airships. As exhibit’s press release states,“Like Benjamin Franklin before him, Porter promoted the ideals of the American Enlightenment and advocated for an educated populace rooted in practical knowledge of the arts and sciences,” said Laura F. Sprague, Senior Consulting Curator and the exhibition’s co-curator. “Porter contributed to the modernization of American society in the antebellum age through his dogged efforts in diverse fields.” Justin Wolff, Professor of Art History at the University of Maine and exhibition co-curator, added: “Rufus Porter’s trades—itinerant painter, inventor, publisher of scientific journals—seem disparate at first. But they are all mechanical arts beholden to his era’s beloved ‘useful knowledge.’ Porter had a farseeing vision for a networked nation, a country literally connected by transportation systems and metaphorically connected by shared knowledge and vigorous optimism.”
Thus inspired, I thought it might be interesting to incorporate not simply train technology into my game, but the other forms of transportation technology that developed in the antebellum period as well. A famous book on this topic took its title from this process: The Transportation Revolution, 1815-1860.
So here’s my version of an epic ‘train’ game that includes other technologies as well, is playable in an evening, and might attract a range of medium-weight gamers who do not mind a little luck in their games. It’s title is simple: The Transportation Revolution. Here’s the rulebook introduction:In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the United States underwent a revolution in transportation. New technologies permitted hard-surfaced roads that resisted mud and flood. Canals expanded the riverway networks plied by new steamships, connecting the growing towns of the West with the great cities of the East. And new locomotives – ‘iron horses’ in the parlance of the day – began traversing new networks of rails, connecting communities in an expanding web of commerce and information. Inventors imagined even greater wonders – airships that promised to negate the terrain that hobbled the construction of earth-bound transportation systems. Technological progress seemed inevitable. The world seemed to become closer, as new goods, people, and ideas connected the mountains and the valleys, the urban and the rural, and the raw and the made.
This game depicts the age of common carriers, when private joint stock corporations built transportation networks designed to profit from the movement of others’ goods. This was a time when success meant not only building expansive networks, but building technologically proficient ones. Efficiency meant profits, which might be enhanced by improving old technologies and developing new ones.
In this game, players take on the construction of their own transportation network. Beginning with low-level technology, they build their networks, with the goal of supplying cities with the goods they demand. Earn victory points (‘Dividends’) by fulfilling cities demands’ for goods, improving your transportation technology, and funding your Innovators to develop arts and industries. After playing through two quarter-century eras, the player who has earned the most Dividends wins the game.
The game is ready to be shared. I’ve designed it with generic bits, so it can easily be built as a print-and-play design. I’ve posted an introductory video on YouTube, as well as a play-through of the entire game. I’d like to use this space to share some basics, in the hopes of eliciting useful feedback or enthusiastic playtesters. I’m interested in any and all reactions.“The Travelling Balloon,” Scientific American (New York, N.Y.), September 18, 1845, by Rufus Porter, American, 1792–1884. Courtesy American Antiquarian Society.
The mapboard depicts the northern part of the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. It features two kinds of cities: grey cities are ‘major’ cities always included in a game; white cities are ‘minor’ cities that may not appear in the game. There are two kinds of terrain: river hexsides, and mountain hexsides. That means that players are building networks of – of turnpikes, canals, railroads, and possibly airships – which they will use to pick up and deliver goods.Red has a one-link connection from Washington to Philadelphia. Blue has a one-link connection from Albany to Baltimore. Green has established a two-link network consisting of Newark, Buffalo, and Cleveland.
City cards represent delivery contracts players will seek to fulfill. They let you move goods from the Goods Markets to the Supply bins depicted on the cards. From here, players will try to deliver these goods to City cards in their network where they are in demand. Doing so will help fulfill the City’s entire demand, which lets you ‘retire’ the card. This gives you Dividends (victory points), as well as bonus actions that help you further develop your network.
Each city card has a name, city size, direction, and type (white = minor; grey = required; orange = setup).
So Wheeling is a minor western city with a size of two. It has two supply bins, which means it can have up to two goods cubes in supply at once. One bin produces wood products or coal; the other produces only coal. Wheeling has two demands bins, which must be filled for it to retire and score points. One wants metal goods or finished goods; the other wants cereal grains and food products. As a small city, Wheeling offers a delivery bonus for filling its demand for finished goods – a free action that places another good in a city’s supply.
Albany is a size three eastern city with two bins for supply and two for demand. Its orange color means it is required in setup. (The game begins with players working the Albany-Buffalo connection that played such an important role in the era.)
Philadelphia is a major eastern city with a size of six. As a larger city, it’s got three supply bins, and requires all five of its demand bins to fill before it can retire. Question marks denote bins that can accept any good – a feature only of large cities.
There are six types of goods in the game:
The technological development track determines the maximum length of your deliveries – the higher the tech, the more links can be in your delivery. This is important, because the Dividends you score when you retire a City card are determined by multiplying the size of the retired city by the length of a delivery. If you retire a 3-sized city by making a delivery four links long, you’ll earn 12 Dividends (3x4). But you’ll need a tech level of at least four to do that.
Players will race to develop their technology by taking actions that let their innovators attempt to develop all the elements required of new technology. Everyone begins at Turnpike 1, which represents road technology just before the rise of hard-surfaced (macademized) roads. Since one-link deliveries will not win you the game, you’ll need step-by-step upgrades to better, and perhaps different, technologies. Above Turnpike 1, for example, you may choose to pursue Turnpike 2, or Canal 2. Both will let you make two-link deliveries. But as the less innovative of these two technologies, Turnpike 2 will be easier to develop, but not offer the benefits of the higher, more difficult version of tech at this level. Keep developing and you’ll encounter railroads, and perhaps even the airships Rufus Porter dreamed of.
In the game, different transportation technologies have different costs. When building turnpikes, you’ll pay an addition $1 to cross any colored hexside. Canals cost nothing additional to cross rivers, but you’ll pay an extra $2 to cross mountains. Building railroads an additional $2 when crossing any colored hexside.
You’ll need to spend Invent actions to seek these new technologies. On each action, you’ll buy and roll dice, seeking to roll high enough to match the colored dice on the track. When you succeed, you’ll place one of your Innovator meeples to mark the success. It may take several turns to complete the new tech, but there are ways of getting positive die-roll modifiers to make this easier.Yellow is on Turnpike 2, in the process of seeking Railroad 3. They’ve had one success, so need to roll two more sixes to achieve it. Blue is going for the easier 3-level tech: Canal 3, which is easier to acquire. Since its presently on the better of the 2-level techs, it will get a +1 die-roll modifier on its next Invent action.
You’ll be buying goods from and selling them back to the goods market. Each market has two bins – left and right. Each market can hold a total of three goods cubes total. How these are distributed across the two bins in the market determines what you can buy and sell.Market 1 (left): The right bin has the majority (finished goods) so it is tilted upward. Symbols indicate that goods may only leave this market from the right bin, and may only be delivered to the left bin.
Market 2 (middle): The goods (finished goods and wood products) are distributed equally across both bins, to the market card is aligned to show that you can buy or sell from either bin.
Market 3 (right): The left bin has the majority (coal and cotton), which means goods can only leave it, not be returned to it. Goods may only be returned to the right bin in this market. But the market itself is full (the metal parts cube makes for the three goods maximum), so no goods may be sold to the right bin.
I’m proud of this market mechanism. Earlier versions felt too static, offering too few interesting choices. With this market, you’ll still want to buy low and sell high, but it won’t be easy. The system here may seem a little non-intuitive, but it makes sense, and doesn’t take long to feel natural.
The flow of play in the game is built on rounds, during which each player will have a turn on which they activate three of seven possible action phases: deliver, build, contract, manipulate your hand of city cards, invent (tech upgrades), move your Innovators in Arts and Industries action, or gain more operating capital. You have to take these in sequence, but some are repeatable. Many actions create the possibility of taking more actions within a phase. For example, if you deliver a good that retires a city card, you’ll be able to take a free city card action, and a free arts and industries action. Extracting action opportunities is critical in this game, as you’re basically racing to retire city cards with high-scoring deliveries. I use this board to help me keep track of the action phases I want to activate:
I mentioned something about Arts and Industries. This is the last major component of the game I want to share with you. Key to your success will be your eight Innovators; these are the inventors, mechanics, artisans, and others who will help you grow your network. We’ve seen how they’re used to upgrade your technology, but you can also use them on the Arts and Industries board to take bonus actions.
Your Innovators will start in the Lyceum, where they’ll help you upgrade your tech and raise cash. As the game progresses, you’ll get more, and find them more and more useful in the vital game of action extraction. Moving them around is expensive, but will earn you extra actions, which may come with a vital bonus at just the right time.
The game may end after you’ve cycled through the City card deck once. After that, one player can initiate the last round by ending the turn with no or one City card in front of them. Final scores consist of the Dividends you collected throughout the game, along with a few other possibilities. You can earn extra Dividends by advancing high up the tech track, by occupying certain spaces in Arts and Industries, and by making East-West connections. Don’t clog up your hand with uncompleted City cards, as these count against you.
And that is The Transportation Revolution. I hope you’re interested enough to explore it further, and maybe share with others. Toward that end, here are some links:
• Rulebook, mapboard, play boards, cards, and Dividend notes needed for play
• Video overview and rules teach
• Video playthrough
• Tabletop Simulator mod
Apart from these, you’ll need a new other bits:
1. Player token sets for up to five players (red, blue, yellow, green, orange)
• Control discs (2/player): 15mm x 4mm wood discs
• Network segments (18/player): 25mm x 5mm roads
• Innovators (8/player): 12mm x 12mm x 8mm baby meeples
2. Operating capital: Poker chips in denominations of $1 and $5
3. 8mm goods cubes (3x each): black, brown, white, grey, natural, purple
4. ‘Filled’ tokens: 12+ small (5mm) uniform neutral tokens to indicate filled demand bins
I’m sharing the game here in the hopes that it will intrigue others enough to build and play it as a print-and-play game. Perhaps I’ll try to make it available via Tabletop Simulator, or Game Crafter. I’m not interested in publishing it myself, so if you’re a publisher looking for a new train game design, please explore. And development never ends, so if you have any questions or comments, feel free to reply here, or mail me privately.
This game is now available as a workshop mod on Tabletop Simulator:
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I recently had the pleasure of playtesting Eagle-Gryphon Games’ Deluxe Edition of Martin Wallace’s Struggle of Empires. As you can see from EGG’s BGG journal, it promises to give new life to a game that never achieved the legendary status some say it deserves. I myself have had the 2004 edition on the table at least half a dozen times without ever even playing it. The Deluxe Edition’s vastly improved rulebook, beautiful graphic design, cleaner systems, and interesting variants combined to make my first actual play of the game a complete redemption. I can’t wait to see how this is received.
But I’m not sure that, were it made today rather than in 2004, Struggle of Empires would look the same. It’s not so very old — only fifteen years. But a lot has happened in that time. As the modern boardgame revolution spreads to new communities of gamers, so too have concerns about the ideological work done by the games we play. As both a historian of slavery and a boardgame enthusiast, I’m particularly interested in how historically-themed games can reinforce pernicious mythologies around the history of European expansion, colonization, and exploitation. It’s well appreciated now that, in posing themes of colonization as family-friendly alternatives to wargames, Eurogames such as Puerto Rico also effectively, and with no malevolent intent, erased histories of decimation and enslavement.
The fifteen years between the original Struggle of Empires and the new edition has witnessed some charged moments on this front. We’ve seen the Slave card in Days of Wonder’s Five Tribes, a spate of new games that allow players to fight against rather than use slavery (e.g., Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Pax Emancipation), and GMT’s withdrawal of Scramble for Africa. Furthermore, these conversations are taking place in a political climate in which old norms constraining racial and ethnic intolerance have been loosened, shaken free by a wave of racial nationalism across the developed world that threatens the very existence of democracy. After more than a half-century of limited gains for marginalized social groups, the forces of reaction are counter-striking, hard. People are on high alert for attacks against them made solely on the basis of accidents of color and birth. Popular culture is a battleground.
To publish a new edition of Struggle of Empires thus invites some interesting questions. Given growing awareness of sensitive issues in historically-themed boardgames, how should the presence of slavery in the game be treated? Before considering that, let’s seek to understand the presence of slavery in the original game, and where that fits amidst the competition.I
In Struggle of Empires, slavery constitutes a small portion of a sweeping game. Its historical setting – the clash of global European empires in the eighteenth-century – seems to demand the inclusion of slavery. After all, every major colonial experiment in the western hemisphere included the practice, and the most valuable colonies in the eighteenth-century world were the sugar colonies of St. Domingue (France) and Jamaica (Great Britain). The slave trade stood at the center of Atlantic commerce, and worldwide networks expanded the trade in human flesh to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Africa lost 13 million people to the slave trade. Before the American Revolution, more people came to the shores of colonial America from that continent than from Europe. And where the slave population reproduced itself naturally, as in the British colonies that became the United States, millions more were consigned to status of chattels in the land of their birth – movable property with no individual rights, not even those of self-defense and reproduction. Owners and managers stole slaves’ forced labor, worked them to death, raped and mutilated them with impunity, sought to eradicate their cultural heritage, and denied them stable families and communities. In the United States, which was birthed in a violent revolution justified by transcendent principles of natural liberty, slavery became not just an inhumane institution, but one at war with the most sacred principles of civic life.
The original Struggle of Empires dealt with slavery by building it into the game as a possibility rather than a necessity. In the game, slave tokens serve as one type of ‘Country’ token. These are scattered across the regions that are up for grabs. Players want to collect them in order to place their Control tokens, which help them raise money, control spaces, and ultimately gain victory points. Placing Control tokens might cost you a valuable population, as settlers leave your shores to occupy the colonies, or it might take fighting the indigenous forces there (this is the only way native people are represented in the game).
Slaves are a different kind of Country token, which you need neither fight nor lose population to claim; you simply replace the slave marker with a control marker. They appear exclusively in the Caribbean, South America, and North America – the main historical destinations of the Atlantic slave trade. One needs a naval fleet off the coast of Africa in order to collect these, but that’s a pretty cheap price of entry for a useful action.
If anything, though, slavery’s significance seems underrepresented in the game. In the United States on the eve of the Civil War, slaves constituted the single largest category of property ($3.1-$3.6B), far outpacing the value of southern farmland ($2.5B). Over a quarter of white incomes in the slaveholding South depended on slavery. And far from displacing slavery, nascent industrialization relied upon it. Half of the value of U.S. exports in 1860 owed to slave-grown cotton, which supplied 70 percent of the cotton used in the British textile industry. Does Struggle of Empire reflect this history?
In my maiden outing I set out to see how the hard game would let me ‘play slavery’. My plan was to, at whatever cost, seek to exploit this aspect of the game to test its viability as a central strategy. I failed utterly, and not only because of my own ineptitude. Experienced players around me explained that the starting draw of Country counters made this difficult. But that alone demonstrates that a slavery strategy is not always viable. At best it seems like a slightly different opportunity for players to explore, and one not always available. When Population tokens appear on the board, players generally scramble for them; when Slave tokens appear on the board, players with fleets off Africa generally scramble for them. Other than their different costs, there’s little functional difference between the two. I’m just learning the game, but I found it hard to imagine slavery playing a central component of consistently successful strategies. Like other area control games, Struggle of Empires instead rewards players for diversifying their claims, and defending them most efficiently. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for concentrating on any one strategy. Nor does it do much to comment on the morality of slavery and its role in the process of colonization.
Contrast this approach with that of Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas, another game set in the age of European expansion and colonization. Slavery in this game lures players into seeking short-term benefits with long-term costs. Among the easiest resources to control early in the game, trafficking in slaves can give players an early jump on the competition. This benefit is obviated, though, once the first player advances their economy to its highest level. For a large-scale, low-resolution simulation of colonization, this effectively replicates the broad contours of history, in which industrialization largely obviated slavery. In the game, the penalty matches the crime: if you trade slaves after the rest of the world has moved past it, you suffer a diplomatic loss, making it easier for others to attack you and harder for you to attack them.
This principle is extended in Endeavor, a game published five years after Struggle of Empires, which also received a recent update (Endeavor: Age of Sail). In this game, Asset Cards represent the riches that can be gained through empire. Slavery Asset Cards offer players, as in Colonial, early advantages. But, as in Colonial, successfully growing the economy leads to the destruction of slavery, and resource penalties for those who practiced it. The rules explain:Quote:Thee value “5” card in the Europe & the Mediterranean deck is special; it features a label that announces the Abolition Of Slavery. ¬The first time this card is drawn by any player, all players must immediately set aside all Slavery cards they hold, reducing their Status Track scores as appropriate to reflect the lost icons. ¬The set-aside Slavery cards are turned face down and kept near the player’s Player Board as a reminder that the player will lose 1 Glory per card at the end of the game for resorting to Slavery.In other words, playing slavery may give you a head start, as it did for the Portuguese and Spanish in history, but eventually industrialization will negate the benefits of practicing slavery, and even turn them into liabilities.
All three of these games effectively relegate slavery to a marginal position in history, as if they want to acknowledge the institution but not concentrate on it. In them, slavery emerges as a historical element necessary to address, but one that could have been eliminated without fundamentally disturbing the design. This ‘oblique’ approach acknowledges slavery without letting it take over the game. Of the three, Struggle of Empires offers the least nuanced representation of slavery, but it is also the oldest design. Slavery is the most incidental in the game, and the game does less than the others to punish players for practicing slavery. As the earliest of these designs, Struggle of Empires may have inspired the later ones. If so, we may be seeing the evolution of Atlantic slavery as an ever more meaningful component of the explore/expand/exploit games that have become so familiar.
At the least, we can begin to outline the range of ways designers think of the problem slavery presents to these games. On the one hand is the approach of Glenn Drover, designer of Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery:Quote:The Atlantic Trade Slave Trade [sic] was one of the most horrific events in human history and just too politically sensitive to depict in any overt manner in a commercial product. Even though it certainly deserves to be discussed and remembered accurately, I felt that there was too much risk that the perception could be that the topic was being trivialized by having it in a game, or that the game rewarded players for utilizing slavery.This approach maximally ‘distances’ (to use game designer Tom Russell’s formulation) the player from the experience of slavery, for the game does not depict it at all. Moving toward the other end of the spectrum are games that increasingly confront players with the historical reality of slavery, like Colonial, Endeavor, and Struggle of Empires. When games want players to become really intimate with slavery, though, it becomes necessary to change the player’s point of view, so the sympathies remain clear. A game asking players to become managers of plantation slaves is pretty much Juden Raus, the Nazi-era game in which players are challenged to expel Jews from Germany. Games that place slavery front and center – such as Freedom: The Underground Railroad and Pax Emancipation – ask players to battle slavery rather than practice it. The closer you ask players to get to the subject, the greater the concern about what you ask them to do. This is a general principle. Those who play the classic SimCity poorly have doubtlessly killed more imaginary people than have the characters in the notoriously violent Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; what matters is how intimately designers ask players to experience such actions.
Thus the challenge takes shape. On one end of the spectrum is Drover’s concern that incorporating slavery obliquely, as the three games considered here do, ‘trivializes’ the issue; better to simply omit it. This is a perspective that accounts for the concerns of players who might have serious moral qualms about practicing slavery even in a game. But it invites charges of ‘whitewashing’ history by neglecting to represent a historically critical, if morally repugnant, institution. On the other end are games that feature slavery centrally. These negate the concern with whitewashing, but risk making players complicit with slavery by asking them to practice it, if only ludically. The fuller and more detailed the simulation, the more morally complicit the game asks players to become. The solution for designers wishing to explore slavery has been to switch the perspective of the player. Games that treat slavery centrally do not ask players to practice slavery, they ask them to destroy it. The principle seems pretty clear: the more intimate players become with morally questionable behaviors, the more important it is for the game to distance players from the practice of morally questionable behaviors.II
Where does the Struggle of Empires re-issue stand against this context? Ralph H. Anderson at Eagle-Gryphon Games has approached the project as a clean-up rather than a re-do. Struggle of Empire’s original rulebook, which has been a notorious roadblock to broader enjoyment of the game, will be improved. Some wonky elements of the original, like adjacency in Europe, will be streamlined. Variants will permit players to enjoy the original game or tinker with new possibilities.
Anderson has also re-considered the representation of slavery in the game. On the first substantive page of the rulebook will now appear this statement:Quote:The era depicted in Struggle of Empires was one in which the barbarous transatlantic slave trade was prominent - centered on what became known as the Gold Coast in western Africa. It has been called one of the greatest tragedies in the history of humanity in terms of scale and duration and is often regarded as the first known instance of globalization. In the game, this is referred to as Gold Coast Commerce.No reader will ever be able to claim that the game condones what it asks players to do.
I can imagine some quibbles with this. The Gold Coast was but one of many slave-trading regions in Africa, which historians estimate supplied over 1.2 million Africans for the trade. In contrast, the bulk of the trade came from West Central Africa (now roughly the regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola), which delivered nearly 6 million. (Readers can find authoritative maps and statistics from the Slave Voyages website.) Perhaps ‘Africa Trade’ would suffice. But as the game is already a highly abstracted, low-resolution simulation, this may be picking nits.
Figure 2: The most authoritative work on the slave trade identifies the centers from which Africans were brought to the Americas. www.slavevoyages.org
More significantly, the change in nomenclature mutes the presence of slavery in the game, making it less clear that taking certain Country tokens mean practicing slavery. In effect, the re-design will push the game toward the Drover end of the spectrum, in which slavery is largely elided, and away from a more slavery-specific approach. The new disclaimer may help offset concerns that a diminished depiction of slavery trivializes the issue. There will be as many thoughts on this solution as there are people who play the game, but I view the choice as defensible. As Wallace designed slavery into the game obliquely, reconsidering its place would require a thorough deconstruction and redesign, a move that would make the game something else.
This is also the path taken with Endeavor: Age of Sail, the 2018 update of the original that retains a system for handling slavery. Burnt Island Games’s Helaina Cappel explains that the company felt it could not ethically ignore the role of slavery in the history the game depicts, a move that would have undermined the game’s ”historical significance as an educational piece, and an opportunity for conversation and learning.” That seems to be a solid motive. It is buttressed by the game’s design, which in penalizing players for practicing slavery permits possibilities for reflection that Struggle of Empires, which lacks a slavery-punishment mechanic, may lack. Cappel reflects:Quote:The game sometimes creates situations where players might find themselves in an armed struggle trying to defend their own investment in slavery, or wipe it off the board to ruin other players who have leaned on it heavily. We have noticed that a lot of players hesitate or refuse to use slavery in the game, even if it would provide them with a gameplay advantage. This is interesting. We don't see this happen a lot in board games, and it has sparked many conversations around our table about how that feels.For a game that includes slavery but it not about slavery, one could do far worse.III
How should slavery appear in games about the history of expansion and colonization? Certainly the game’s designers, developers, and owners should get a large say, and deserve some latitude in how they wish to incorporate slavery into the game. One of my graduate school professors used to say, “in the study of history, there is rarely a single correct interpretation, only a series of more or less defensible ones.” Similarly, there are lots of arguments games can make about sensitive historical topics, and considerable room for viable interpretations. We don’t all have to agree on how a game approaches slavery to accept that it has made a good-faith effort to address its reality – whether by explaining its absence in a design, or by explaining how and why it is present. There’s no way to inoculate a game from criticism, but an appreciation of the multiple ways games can simulate history seems like generosity most gamers are willing to bring to the table – at least until there’s a reason to begin otherwise. We can debate finer points for and against each position, but all emerge from the good intentions of people willing to listen and try. That means much.
Still, creators are accountable for their choices. It won’t do for Juden Raus’s defenders to say “well that’s just what the game’s about,” for the game was designed to celebrate a moral atrocity. But obviously the intent of games such as Colonial, Endeavor, or Struggle of Empires is not to celebrate the moral atrocity of slavery, but to acknowledge its role in the larger phenomena they simulate. Even the painless slavery Wallace offers is clearly not meant to endorse the institution’s role in history – a point Anderson is now amplifying.
Nonetheless, the trend toward a more accurate portrayal of the past is gaining steam. Even if the slavery problem in games is ever solved, new scrutiny is being trained on the broader histories surrounding slavery. As the controversy over Scramble for Africa shows, thoughtful gamers are reconsidering the mythological narratives embedded in the histories of colonialism they encounter. Games have done a great job of putting players in the position of the European potentates who conquer the globe; they’ve done a generally poor job of depicting the atrocities entailed in that process, as well as the agency of the indigenous and subjugated people who resisted them.
It’s doubtful that Struggle of Empires would be made the same way today as it was in 2004, and that’s a good thing. At the same time, I’m delighted that we have new opportunities to play an excellent game that asks us to question the role of slavery in the making of the modern world. My personal take is that there is room in the hobby to play with slavery in a range of ways. So long as we bring our full critical capacities to bear, we can have games that offer players a choice to practice it abstractly, incidentally, and at low resolution, just as we can have games that offer players a chance to destroy it. There is danger in ‘playing slavery’, but to me, that is kind of the point of critical play: to offer low-stakes (but not no-stakes) spaces to explore interesting and difficult issues. I do not imagine that I am endorsing what I do in games, but I do value games’ ability to let me consider what it might be like to do them.
Obviously, there are limits to this, and just as obviously we do not all agree on exactly where the boundaries lie. There may be times when games transgress our personal thresholds of acceptability, and we feel the need to take a strong stand. That’s the lesson taught by the Scramble for Africa controversy. Our jobs as thoughtful consumers of these objects of cultural representation is to bring to bear not just our values, but our reasoning as well. In other words, make your case – with passion, for sure, but also with evidence and reason. “Arguments are to be avoided,” quipped Oscar Wilde, for “they are always vulgar and often convincing.” But given the rapidly declining state of public discourse today, I’ll side with that kind of vulgarity every time.
Thanks to Ralph H. Anderson for the playtest and corrections, and to Michael Nerdahl for notes and corrections.
In terms of historical representation, the game much more effectively captures the significance of the system of European diplomatic alliances than it does speak to slavery as a historical issue. Like Colonial, the game abstracts much of the history, but for such a low-resolution simulation, it scores one supremely impressive hit. This is the alliance system, in which the familiar Martin Wallace turn order auction also determines which players can attack each other. It can feel secure to know that a powerful military cannot be used against you. For the powerful player, quickly flipping alliances can allow you eject weak allies from valuable regions and distance yourself from them in the standings.
This makes complete historical sense to me. Once Europe recovered from the Thirty Year’s War, the Peace of Westphalia, which ended that conflict in 1648, marked the founding of the modern system of nation-states. These quickly fell back into conflict, often dividing into two broad alliances – usually anchored in the rivalries between England and France, and Prussia and Austria. A Grand Alliance between England, the Dutch Republic, and Austria helped fend off the ambitions of France’s Louis XIV in 1689. Shortly after, the War of Spanish Succession paired off the same foes, this time their conflicts spilling into the colonial world. Sometimes, as with the Seven Years’ War, when Great Britain allied with Austria’s enemy Prussia, the alliances shifted. That pattern repeated until the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which set the stage for the American Revolution. Indeed, British historians have long understood the Revolution not as a solely American event, but as effectively the next war in a long succession of European great power conflicts; after all, it was French and Spanish aid that secured victory for the new United States. Everyone who has played Struggle of Empires will recognize in it something of this history. For me, this is what elevates this into the top tier of Wallace games.
FOR FURTHER READING
Cornel Borit, Melania Borit, and Petter Olsen, “Representations of Colonialism in Three Popular, Modern Board Games: Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago,” Postcolonial Perspectives in Game Studies (10 April 2018), online.
Jeremy Sam Desatoff,”How Board Games Handle Slavery,” Vice (14 March 2017), online.
Bruno Faidutti, “Postcolonial Catan,” Boardgame Design by Bruno Faidutti (6 February 2017), online.
Matthew Kapell, “Civilization and its Discontents: American Monomythic Structure as Historical Simulacrum,” Popular Culture Review 13, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 129-35.
Will Robinson, “Orientalism and Abstraction in Eurogames,” Analog Game Studies, Aaron Trammell, Evan Torner, and Emma Leigh Waldron, eds. (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon ETC Press, 2016): 55-63, online.
Jeremy Signor, “Fuck Colonialism,” Unwinnable (16 November 2017), online.
Struggle of EmpiresColonial: Europe's Empires OverseasEndeavorEndeavor: Age of Sail
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29 May 2019
For some time I've been working on a game design around Reconstruction, the troubled decade following the American Civil War. Whereas of course the CW itself is a popular game topic, the period after it is not. In fact, many people do not know much about the period at all, other than perhaps something about constitutional amendments and the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.
This is a shame, because Reconstruction is in many ways more fascinating than the Civil War itself. The unconditional surrender of Confederate forces in April 1865 did not resolve the issues that had led to the war itself. The nature of the federal compact, the meaning of freedom, the definition of citizenship, the fate of secessionists -- all had to be settled through the same political system whose failure to resolve the slavery issue had brought about the war. It is little wonder that, in the face of a concerted campaign of racial terrorism, and weakened by a massive economic depression, Reconstruction failed to secure the success of the Republican Party in the South, and hence failed to secure rights of the freedpeople themselves.
This had disastrous consequences for American democracy: it left the South 'solid' behind one-party rule, and this inhibited the formation of a legitimate opposition in the South, which could speak to the class interests of the non-elite. Even more, it paved the way for Jim Crow, an American system of racial Apartheid that effectively rendered African Americans second-class citizenship. Redeeming that catastrophe would take a 'second Reconstruction' -- the one that followed WWII.
These lectures are designed to offer the background for the game I am designing. They begin to lay out my case for understanding Reconstruction as a political insurgency. My goal is to make this argument not through a book, but through a game. If you've been following my engagement with Pax Emancipation, you have a sense of where I stand. A few books and essays make pieces of this case for Reconstruction as insurgency; I hope to make the argument ludically.
Thanks in advance for your patience. Compared to other videos I've made, this is super lo-tech: just me talking over an enormous PowerPoint. YouTube degraded the resolution considerably, so I apologize if the text is hard to read. And this sucker is long -- too long to view all at once.
To conclude, this is offered as support for my Reconstruction game design. I hope soon to offer a designer diary for that game. In the mean time, please let me know if you find my effort here valuable. I welcome comments, criticisms, support, and suggestions.
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15 May 2019
Here's a link to my longform essay on Pax Emancipation. This is a first draft and may change. Many thanks to all for participating in this discussion -- all the moreso because it is a challenging conversation about a challenging topic. I welcome all constructive comments.
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