The Colossal Board Game of Colonialist Greed: John Company

2023-11-28T19:08:43Z

I got distracted about half-way through this by Tom’s mug reminding me of Azul.

Edit: Ending the video with a piece on the “Molly House” crowdfunding campaign felt a bit icky, but maybe I’m already primed for icky-ness because the SUSD Instagram account had a sponsored post for “That’s Not a Hat” today.

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Two things:

Please don't be a White Saviour

1.) I understand if people don’t want to play these sort of games. But when I heard that people would think it’s an affront to minorities like me, I instantly thought “Fuck off.”. It was a good review tho, overall.

This isn’t towards Tom, but in general: Listen. If you’re uncomfortable about such topics, that’s fine. But you don’t need to be a fucking White Saviour about it. We can speak for ourselves. We have agency and we can decide, individually, on what is offensive to us or isn’t.

Colonialism as a System and board games can't get it right

2.) It wasn’t a deep look into Colonial economics. It would be boring if it is. So I can’t complain about that. I found that it’s hard for board games to really represent these sort of concepts (Hegemony comes to mind). Because the thing that is often unmentioned about Colonialism is that it is systemic. I find that people tend to talk about it through emotional appeal. This is understandable because it’s more relatable to the listener. So it’s easier to talk about the looting of the land and the death of millions.

And systems are just boring. They are also complex and hard to replicate on a board game. But it was these colonial systems that are the ones that strips people of their rights. Systems are the ones that makes it illegal for any Indian to engage in trades, like Salt, reserved to the British only. Systems that strips people of agency, blocks any socio-economic advancements, and keep people in perpetual poverty. What’s worse is that after the Europeans have withdrawn from their empires, these hollowed out institutions left behind were then taken over by the local elites. One good example was a British colony in West Africa (if I remember correctly: Ghana?) where the farmers can only legally sell their produce to this British Trade Board at a rapaciously low price. Then, the Board proceeds to sell it to the world market at market price. After the British left, the elites took over this Board and business went on as usual.

In a way, this is important to highlight why post-colonial countries tend to do very poorly after independence, because these colonial systems (or, at least, parts of them) were in place after independence, and some are perhaps still in place today.

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Are those responses to the video, or just general points you wanted to make?

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Both. Something that Tom said that triggered me on the first response. 2nd is about how the review and the game focuses on a certain angle of Colonialism.

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I haven’t watched the video yet. Do they mention that the game lampoons colonialism?

I actually haven’t gotten the game on my table yet (I really should), but it seems to be that the design is unapologetically transparent about what John Company meant to the people and politics. Maybe I’ve read wrong.

I plan to watch the video this evening.

I thought Tom did ok in reporting how other players reacted to the game, and I didn’t see any overbearing white saviour nonsense, but since I am very white I’m less sensitive to these things.

I liked the review, fwiw.

I haven’t watched the video yet. Do they mention that the game lampoons colonialism?

I think “lampoon” isn’t the right word, but at least half the video is about that, yeah.

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Watched the video.

I think it comes down to that I’m not British.

There are many things that the American education system fails to teach or teaches through a tragic lens, and perhaps a game rooted in exploring those areas would ‘hit’ the same as this may, perhaps, affect a Brit. But for a good portion of my time spent watching this video felt like watching editorial navel-gazing.

Historical wargaming has, for decades (or, likely, centuries), been rooted to some degree in the practice of exploring the past through the lens of gaming; the game provides the tools and the sandbox to explore the politics, humanity and realities of the past. I love the idea. But I absolutely become uncomfortable around games depicting modern warfare and/or modern geo-politics. In part because of the the very human connection that myself or others I know can have to those events that happened only decades ago; but primarily, it is because I will not thoroughly research and explore those events and I will rely on whichever lens the publisher provides me – and I just don’t know who to trust (Wehrlegig Games seems like safe hands, but it wasn’t that long ago that Cole Wehrle was publishing games at Sierra Madre)

I have glommed onto wargames featuring ancient/medieval conflicts to explore, in part, because those politics, figures, events and cultural norms are far removed and more easily viewed flattened at a distance, as through a long lens, than things closer along the timeline that require more nuance and texture to understand.

John Company does not seem to me to be as problematic as, for instance, train games I’ve looked at set in the American south. Do 18xx games ever mention who built the track? No. But perhaps if one did, I would buy it. As it stands, I’ve generally avoided anything set in the American south during the 19th century. Was slavery an issue in other parts of the world, prior to, during or following the 19th century? Yes, absolutely – and if that history came to the forefront when considering other games, I would explore where I felt the publisher provided accurate tools and information, and avoid where I felt otherwise.

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I wouldn’t have put John Company 2e and historical wargames in the same context at all. Wargames that I have played have never looked at why a war came about or put the players in a position of exploring the motivations of the people who caused the war. Different focus, different scope, different interests. Twilight Struggle is at least in a similar ballpark, but most historical wargamers seem to consider that to not be a wargame.

As for 18xx, isn’t that just what Tom talked about regarding Puerto Rico?

I don’t think “being British” is particularly significant, except for the very specific recent news cycle of horrible politicians being “proud of the British empire” (which I was totally ignorant of until watching this video).

It was a lot of navel gazing, but I don’t begrudge Tom that. He engaged with the theme and arguments of the game, learned a lot while doing so, and wanted to talk about that. (He also apparently had to, given that over half the people he played with were made uncomfortable by the game!) It’s perfectly possible to just play without doing or experiencing any of that though.

All that said, I enjoyed his big fat raspberry to the “it’s just a game” crowd.

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The British politicians segment went to remind me of Florida changing the school curriculum to paint slavery in a more positive light, because slaves “learned useful skills,” something being pushed by the current governor and his appointees.

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I think so. A thing a like about 1830 is the way it encourages malicious and destructive actions with little regard for the effective working of a company or it’s value as well as well as being as harsh as possible to other players in order to gain ‘the most personal worth’. It effectively works as a satire of the robber barons and their behaviours in pursuit of wealth. I think it’s unlikely that this was intentional so probably falls in a similar bracket to Puerto Rico here.

I think at the moment I like the idea of what this game is trying to do. I am unlikely to play it but I think making explicit the issue with lauding the wealthiest of the past and the behaviours that enriched them. I think I’d rather play Puerto Rico with brown worker discs than blue as it forces people to not white wash the past and realise that wealth of that era was inextricably linked to slavery. I think that is better than Mombassa’s hand waving pretend you’re playing a nice alt history of colonialism without the misery. But I also feel uncomfortable that Puerto Rico is most likely doing that unthinkingly and authorial voice is often important. So that is a tick in John Company’s favour that it is intentional and baked in to the game design.

As to the review, I missed the white saviour bits, probably due to ignorance. Could you elaborate for learning’s sake?

I found it fairly thought provoking and I quite liked the discussion around ‘it’s just a game’ and the space for exploration in games. I like
Splotter games for being satirical in their take on the accumulation of wealth so probably touches on something in me there. Also makes me glad I didn’t back as one player in my group would struggle with it and I have enough long games in all the 18xx I own.

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I still felt rather harsh with what I said despite trying not to, because Tom did ok. But there’s one point that triggered that negative response. I felt that I’ve been interacting with mediums (that obviously leans to one political side) that are repeatedly hitting on my nerves. I can only take enough “X is oppressive to…” before Im starting to go nuts.

Or maybe I need to touch more grass (or cardboard).

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To be fair, Tom did not say it would be an affront to minorities, but rather to “marginalized populations where the lingering effects of colonial rule are felt profoundly,” which basically ties into your second point about Colonialism being systemic, and one could see how someone suffering under those lingering effects might take issue with this game were they made aware of its existence. I don’t see this as White Savior anything, just recognizing that there are people who still suffer because of events that occurred in the setting of this game.

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You mean that people in group X might have a diverse range of views on a given subject, and also might prefer people to speak to them rather than for them? :exploding_head:

(Sarcasm, in case that wasn’t obvious. Also I have not watched the video yet)

Edit: this seems like an appropriate response to some of our more obnoxious politicians

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I didn’t express that very well… I meant that I think it’s reasonable to be annoyed by people insisting that something is offensive/harmful to everyone in a group that you are in, and they are not, without considering that there might be varying opinions/experiences within that group.

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And of course there’s something particularly ironic about white English guys insisting who is offended by things relating to colonialism…

edited to say at least I assume there’s something ironic about it. As a white English guy myself I’m possibly not the best judge. Not that we weren’t brutally colonised too, of course - just longer ago.

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I know Tom and most other Western people who express these sentiments mean well. But I feel it’s something I have to express when these feelings comes viscerally from my gut

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I’m often torn when it comes to things like this. I want to be an ally. And I want to be informed and helpful. But often, I feel the best I can do as a white American male is listen and not speak.

But often, by not speaking, it allows vocal minorities more room to create all varieties of noise and misdirection on the matters.

So I can certainly understand when someone like myself or Tom would use the pedestal we have to speak to these matters… but it’s never going to move the needle.

After reflecting on this thread and the video for a bit… it would have just be categorically better to, if SUSD wanted to say something on the subject, extend their platform to marginalized communities. But even that might feel hollow.

It’s sort of a no-win.

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Indeed. I also understand. But something jars when people perhaps go overboard on a board game which seems (I haven’t played it so am not sure) guilty only of having a setting/theme which is historically pretty horrid. But does this game culturally appropriate? Or stereotype, or erase anyone? Or trivialise the historical events it simulates? I don’t get the impression that it does any of this. Rather, it might even make a few people aware of some historical details they knew little if anything about - I imagine hardly anyone knows about the East India Company. I certainly get the feeling that there are only good intentions on the part of the makers…

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I don’t think Tom accused JoCo of doing any of that?

I imagine hardly anyone knows about the East India Company

This is scary though.

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