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Playing slavery in the new edition of Struggle of Empires

Patrick Rael
United States
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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.


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).

Board Game: Struggle of Empires

Figure 1: County counters by region in Struggle of Empires

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.

Board Game: Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas
Board Game: Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas

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:

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.

Board Game: Endeavor
Board Game: Endeavor: Age of Sail

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:

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.


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:

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.

External image

Figure 2: The most authoritative work on the slave trade identifies the centers from which Africans were brought to the Americas.

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:

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.


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.


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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