Back in 2014, a game called Hyperborea came out, by Andrea Chiarvesio and Peirlucca Zizzi. It was the raving-mad-new-hotness of its year, and now is mostly forgotten, which is a brief side lesson in how fickle and fast-moving the board game industry is these days. We are like the film industry now: trends are king, but are a harsh master. Dice drafting is already on the way out. Vikings have already reached saturation point. You’re only as good as your last picture. And like films, as we tunnel into a more mainstream position in the zeitgeist, we have to be even more conscious of how we affect that zeitgeist.
Hyperborea’s backstory is that a thousand years ago the Hyperborean kingdom went kersplodo and a huge magical barrier appeared around it protecting the satellite nations from the magical radiation. But now, the magical curtain is dropped and the inner empire is a smorgasbord of riches for the six now-kingdoms rushing into fill the gap. I mention this because they at least took the time and effort to come up with a conceit which explains something we see so often in board games (and computer games): the vast empty wildnerness, waiting to be eXplored, eXpanded into and eXploited.
And it’s not just in 4X games. Look through the history of successful board games, especially the “euro” ones, look at the winners of the Spiel Der Jahre over the years and you’ll see a lot of these kinds of scenarios. Some of them are generic, like Settlers of Catan, or in a fantasy world, like Small World or Terra Mystica, or in space like Race For the Galaxy or Ad Astra. Some of them borrow from actual history which shows the problem much more clearly. Games like Imperial Settlers, Peurto Rico, San Juan, Keyflower, Endeavour, Entdecker, Indonesia, Macau, The Great Zimbabwe, and of course the infamous Archipelago all turn the real age of colonisation into a economic question of getting the most resources from areas that, if inhabited by locals at all, not by locals who get any say in what you take. In Archipelago, you lose when the natives push back. Space game Eminent Domain’s title comes from a rule used to steal native land (among other things). As yet I am unaware of a game called Terra Nullius but there is one called Manifest Destinty, because oh my god of course there is what is wrong with this goddamn hobby.
Tabletop could use a harsh lesson in better use of its historical themes, and so far basically only Spirit Island has done it. While large chunks of America is getting rid of Columbus Day, Santa Maria with its joyful Conquistadors and “migrant workers” replacing slaves comes out early next year. But as mentioned, even without actual history, we’ll still have placeholders and coded explorations. The people on the cover of Settlers of Catan look very much like European colonists in the New World, after all. And Small World has Ancient Tribes on the board that you must annihilate (don’t worry, though, they are already In Decline). In short, it’s the very concept of exploration that is mired in a European mythology that is deeply problematic. From the Portugese to the Spanish to the Dutch to the French to the English to the American empires, the assumption of colonisation has been that “out there” is empty, lacking in civilisation, and waiting to be eXplored and eXploited, waiting, waiting for the white man’s great touch.
Perhaps the way of all Empires, you might say, but it is the fall out of those european empires we are dealing with to this day. The Prime Minister of Australia in 2014 – the same year Hyperborea came out – suggested that when European colonists arrived in Australia, there was “nothing but bush”, and this colonial mindset is the foundation of the idea that keeps indigenous people oppressed and unequal around the world. It was the justification of the slave trade and it remains the justification for its descendant cruelties. It remains the justification for wars and invasions into the Middle East as well.
Now, let’s be clear: exploration is something humans love, in reality and in games. We love to reach out to the great beyond. Many of my generation have lamented that they live in an age where there is nothing quite yet to explore in space, but all the world has already been explored and hides no mysteries. But that very sense of the new hides a terribly dangerous othering. As the old joke goes, when colonists show up to discover a country, the inhabitants weren’t aware they’d been lost. When Star Trek claims to go where no-one has gone before, they of course find everyone is already there (and quite rightly see the Federation as invaders). In Star Trek VI, Kirk romantically sets his ship into the great beyond, quoting Peter Pan: “Second star to the right, and straight on until morning”. Peter Pan’s Neverland, of course, echoed the boyhood fantasies of J.M. Barrie which were tales of the golden age of piracy; where the Lost Boys are colonising an island full of native americans.
Exploration is also something that works naturally in games. Just as combat and warfare have natural elements that lend themselves to games (direct competition, resource management, the thrill of the chase), exploration is at the heart of even abstract games. The mystery of not knowing what cards are in your opponents hands, or what domino you’ll pick up, or where the tiles are in Mahjong are all about exploration, and turning over tiles and discovering hidden information is always going to be entertaining and a core game mechanic. But there are plenty of games where these worlds aren’t empty – as simplistic a model of World of Warcraft got this right, for example, even if everything there had to be punched, at least it wasn’t any different than home.
Colonisation also fits gaming because we have this innate understanding of taking something empty, and rough, and primitive, and making it established and built and bigger, and that excellent fits our desire in games to build, expand and create. Games have distinct acts and building up an engine and a place fit that tempo and give us the joy of seeing our creation come alive, our tactics pay off, and our story resolve. But again, there is a question of EMPTINESS at hand. In Chinatown, the shopping blocks are all empty to begin with because, we assume, the government has just knocked down a bunch of other buildings and rezoned an area for shops. We might wonder what was there before, but this isn’t inherently a problematic story. Whereas when we play Puerto Rico, the map is clearly empty. The island has nothing on it. Even when we play San Juan where there is no map to fill in, we start with nothing. The white man has to come and put in the mines and the factories, because, we must assume, either there was nobody there to use the resources or those who were there weren’t using them properly.
And that’s the real danger. That’s that European narrative that gets us in trouble. Not only is the world empty, the terra nullius, where there is nothing but nature to face down and explore, but it is also undeveloped, waiting for white man (ie civilisation) to civilise it with mines and factories and houses and a church. Every civ game ever is guilty of this sin; the land starts out untamed, even though we begin in the stone age. As if at some point, we had a blank slate. And this myth is so powerful and so ingrained, we barely even notice it. We forget that the Native Americans had traveled to Europe long before the Mayflower arrived, that they had vast nations and complex governments and great merchant trade routes. We are ignorant that indigenous Australians had farms and mines and churches, which the white invaders knocked down because they didn’t recognise as being those things. We cannot imagine that indigenous peoples fought wars and made peace, and had kings and queens and parliaments, raised up gods and tore those gods down and all the things we think of empires doing; all of that was going on, all the time. They weren’t playing Civilisation and stuck on the first technology and the first social policies, they were just slightly behind on weapons.
(We also forget that the these civilising efforts were done almost exclusively not by smiling happy free settlers keen to build a new world like a bunch of clever, hardy Robinson Crusoes, but by slaves stolen from other lands on the way there, or taken upon arrival, and/or prisoners.)
But as I say, exploration is a lovely mechanic. But we can explore not like colonists, but like naturalists: with the sense that we are not finding an emptiness, but stepping into a world fully populated, and where everything we do may have enormous impact. Where we should not perhaps smash a butterfly lest we change not the future, but break a balance we cannot understand. And building is a lovely mechanic. But we can build like sharers, understanding that others have built here also, that our farms and mines and churches are strange and ill-fitting, perhaps even may fail to stand or last because they are ill-suited.
The third city founded in Australia is called Windsor and when settlers reached it they found the soil so rich and bountiful they believed it was a paradise gifted by God, and couldn’t understand why the Aboriginal inhabitants kept trying to tell them not to farm there. The soil was so moist because the valley where they founded the town goes underwater every twenty years, which they discovered soon. I mention this because it’s the kind of story we don’t see in all the countless civilising games I’ve mentioned. Or if we do, it’s as a natural disaster when of course it is about communication between people, not nature.
And I say it’s a story we don’t see because that’s what this comes down to. You can for the most part keep your Wide Blue Yonder and your 4X games. As long as you’re aware of how dangerous they can be, how insidiously they might be programming you to believe in the lie of terra nullius. But you CAN keep them. But what we need, what we always need, is new ideas. New stories. Different stories. Maybe even better stories. Instead of a thousand new 4X games which all feel the same, where somehow, against everything we’ve ever known, there’s some vast empty space waiting to be taken by whomever gets their first, and we fight over those territories, not our safe home bases. We’re supposed to be explorers: so let’s EXPLORE. Let’s go somewhere new for once. Somewhere realistic. Somewhere true.