A Cancelled Board Game Revealed How Colonialism Inspires and Haunts Games
'Scramble for Africa' was cancelled amid apologies from a publisher and a broader debate about ethical gaming in the tabletop space.
Credit: GMT Games
On April 7th, prominent publisher of board wargames GMT Games released a statement announcing that they’d pulled a game from their pre-order list: Scramble for Africa. The game, portraying the eponymous invasion of the African continent by European powers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seemed like one that portrayed the colonial period in Africa in a simplistic way, ultimately rewarding players for being the best at recreating a piece of history that included genocide in Namibia and mass enslavement in the Belgian Congo Free State. It had come under heavy critique from board gamers for, in the words of GMT’s own statement, “both topic and treatment” of its colonialist historical setting.
The company’s decision to pull the game fanned the flames of discussion in the relatively small board games community. While some praised GMT for the statement and decision, it infuriated others who saw the decision to pull the game as bowing to “politically correct” pressure or “erasing history.” Multi-page threads of arguing and insults saw BoardGameGeek moderators leaving whole strings of comments removed. When the game entry for Scramble for Africa was removed, those threads went to the entry for “Unpublished Prototype.” They’ve since drawn so much attention and commentary that Unpublished Prototype has shot to the top ranks of BoardGameGeek’s “The Hotness” list and stayed there all week.
The controversy around colonialist themes in board games is not new. It has been a drawn out, protracted event, and nobody working in board games design has an excuse to be ignorant of it. Different designers and critics have addressed the problem of how to treat colonialist themes properly in different ways—it’s a much discussed subject. From Bruno Faidutti’s widely-read essay “Postcolonial Catan” to more scholarly takes like Borit, Borit, and Olsen’s “Representations of Colonialism in Three Popular, Modern Board Games.”
Modern board games trace most of their heritage to Europe, where distinctly European and historical themes dominated. The Ur-example for many is The Settlers of Catan—just recently renamed Catan—a game which certainly fires up the European imagination on themes of colonization. Scramble for Africa was one of these European-style strategy games, games which emphasize competition over direct conflict, but which are often criticized for their distance from the events they portray. Older classics of the Eurogame genre obscure their colonialist themes behind a gauze of historicity: Little, polite lies. In the game Puerto Rico players are colonial governors, but the little brown tokens that work the fields and factories are called “colonists.” The historical plantations of Puerto Rico were not worked by colonists, they were worked by enslaved peoples, first indigenous Taíno and later Africans.
Dealing with these themes requires caution and care, and some games handle it well, while others, like Puerto Rico, erase the realities of history by employing complex themes with a light hand. It’s not that these games engage with this historical material that’s wrong, but that they do so without the due gravity that one should give to the situation. They do so without caring whether or not your “colonists” suffer and die after arriving on their “colonist ship,” or are nearly exterminated by forced labor and disease as the Taíno were. They only care that you got enough points to win. The suffering that took place—and still takes place—is either ignored or has no repercussions.
Thus, we have Scramble for Africa. Another in the tradition of using a historical theme without considering precisely what the game mechanics say about that theme. GMT Games put it up as a pre-order with minimal information on February 20th, and there it sat for over a month without further elaboration. (A Twitter comment on February 22nd asks “How will the game portray the crimes of colonialism?” There is no response.) GMT uses a pre-order system, P500, that means a game prototype goes into pre-production if 500 people pre-order it and gets printed once it gets “about 700-750 orders.” Scramble for Africa accrued just shy of 300 orders before it came to the attention of the wider public. On March 26th, GMT posted a set of “Developer’s Notes” with more detail about the game.
By April 5th, however, the wider world of board gamers had noticed the game and the backlash became intense. Social media posts sprang up decrying the game’s light treatment of the subject matter in what had been released about it so far. “Tone deaf doesn’t even start to describe it,” said one poster. Another called it a “genocide ass game.” One wargames blogger posted a lengthy dissection of the game’s marketing copy highlighting Scramble for Africa’s place alongside past games with similar themes. These critiques had a lot of merit, focusing mostly around the language used to describe and market the game, as well as the game’s described mechanics.
Random events in the game included “penalties for atrocities,” reducing the horrors of rhino-hide whips to a minor setback, an unavoidable consequence of being good at colonization. The game had you explore new “terrain tiles” and then build mines or plantations to exploit them, simply assuming a labor force would appear, as well as garrisons to guard against insurrections by the natives. Those natives could be incited to revolt by other players, but that was just a setback—there was no discussed mechanic to provide for something like Ethiopia’s successful defense against invading European powers. You could even choose to play on a random map, fictionalizing a real place to better represent “the mystery of 19th Century Africa.” Ultimately, the winner of the game was the one who had exploited the peoples and resources of Africa the best.
By all available information it was not a nuanced, careful game about the realities of a historical period. GMT confronted the critique, pulled the game, apologized, thanked the critics, and promised to do better in the future. Aside from a short comment specifying that they were thanking those who were civil in their critique, it was a model response to the situation. I reached out to GMT for further comment, but they declined.
Of course, there are some who would have you believe that this is a signal battle in some apocalyptic culture war. That it heralds the fall of historicity, of free speech, of civilizations. They would have you believe that the critics of Scramble for Africa and games like it are people who would see history erased, ignored, and forgotten. They are wrong.
It is unlikely that GMT will stop publishing historical, nuanced games. Their game Colonial Twilight is a superb representation of the complexities of the French-Algerian war. Their games Navajo Wars and Comancheria are excellent, informed takes on the experiences of indigenous people in the American west. Historical games are at a better place than they’ve ever been, with a wider variety of subject matters and perspectives than ever before. It’s a matter of seeing a game and asking yourself “Why this theme?” and “Why this game?” instead of blindly accepting or ignoring it based on the strength of the mechanical design alone. Scramble for Africa might have been a blast to play if you ignored the history it claimed to represent. Its critics are just asking for more: More understanding of power dynamics, more engagement with the historical theme, and a more intellectual bent when dealing with complex issues.
There are many games that already do this: Academy Games’ Freedom: The Underground Railroad confronts the terrible struggle to help slaves escape in the United States, ultimately teaching you that you can’t save everyone. Hollandspiele’s This Guilty Land takes another tack on American slavery, focusing instead on the failure of institutions and systems to undo the evil on which they were founded. Games like Scott Leibbrandt’s Colonialism are about the colonizers doing awful things, ultimately resulting in an economic victory based on grabbing up resources, but the art and presentation presents those things as being awful and oppressive—not as discovering new wonders and closing down slave markets for victory points. Cole Wehrle and Phil Eklund’s Pax Pamir has players as Afghan tribes caught between the British Empire and Russia, trying to find their way to a position of prominence with whomever wins The Great Game—Britain, Russia, or an emergent Afghan state. These are all games—good games—that use history as a stage for gameplay while realizing that Colonialism and its aftermaths are complex issues that shape our modern world.
It’s acceptable that game designers and publishers make mistakes, but those mistakes must be confronted. Only by demanding better games and better people playing them can we confront these issues.