Recently, I have been getting really into board games. I’ve liked them in some capacity since I was a kid, but it seems like there is a golden age of board games right now. Developers are trying new things and making some really interested (and also ridiculously complicated games). The current flood of board games began around 15 years ago in Germany and Western Europe. This is where games like Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride came from. In the time since, board games caught on in the United States. I’ve often heard that the key distinctions between European and American board games (beyond geographies of production) is the differences in emphasis in game design and presentation. European games are supposed to be more abstract and less with a defined ‘genre.’ For example, building a city for points in Carcassone, or settling an island in Catan. On the other hand, American games are rife in themes or ‘genres.’ Space, horror, westerns, etc. are common forms of American board games. Several even tap into licensed franchises (Fantasy Flight Games has several games based on IPs).
For European games to create a ‘genre-less’ board game they largely turn to history as their means of presentation and justifications for game design elements. While this can turn out to typical Hellenistic, Roman, or focused on the European Renaissance, there is an uncomfortable emphasis on European colonization. Rio Grande Game’s Puerto Rico is easily one of the most uncomfortable in this genre. The back of the box reads:
In 1493, Christopher Columbus discovered the eastern-most island of the Great Antilles. About 50 years later–Puerto Rico really began to blossom – through you! Which role would you play? Prospector, captain, mayor, trader, settler, craftsman, or builder? Which roles will you play in the new world? Will you own the most prosperous plantations? Will you build the most valuable buildings? You have but one goal: achieve the greatest prosperity and highest respect! This is shown by the player who earns the most victory points. He will win the game!
What is uncomfortable about Puerto Rico is not only its theme of setting a game in the aftermath of the colonial violence of the Columbus expeditions, but importantly that you, as a player in the game, actively participate in this colonial nostalgia. Games like Puerto Rico are less an exception, but rather incredibly common in the board game market. Themes of race, colonialism, orientalism, and gendering are rife in the current board game market. As someone who both enjoys playing board games and as an academic I’ve wanted to try and make sense of these games.
As an academic trained in Cultural Studies, a field where popular culture is taken seriously I began to wonder how board games could be studies. Certainly there is the dynamic of how representations work in board games, as well as the prompts. But how do you account for the experience of playing the game itself? What kind of meanings are inscribed into the board games by their designers and distributors? What meanings are then produced by players when playing the game? As a scholar, what kinds of methods are available here? How does a study of board games differ from video games (or any other medium for that matter)?
I wanted to make this post, partially for myself, but to put my thoughts out there regarding the value and strategies for scholarship on board games?
P.S. If you know of any projects related to board games leave them in the comments!