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How do you even title a blog post about race in board games?

->Preface: I mentioned this to a few friends awhile ago, because I've started playing more board games recently, but board games, and you can ask any person of color whose willing to level with you about race, are incredibly white. This is a blog about that.

->Thought One: I am afraid of board games, in the sense that I am one of those people who can only play board games with an ironic detachment. Otherwise, I get antsy. They piss me off boundlessly. I'm someone who thinks about games, gameplay, and mechanics a lot, so it stands to reason that I am invested in diagnosing why I feel this particular fear concerning board games. There are a couple of reasons for this, well, really a triple of reasons for this.

  1. My mortal fear of the magic circle.
  2. Board game mechanics tend in general to bad.
  3. There is a wordlessly large amount of board games that are centered in colonial and imperial ideas, and the main form of meaning making in these games is not their mechanics but rather mere colonial roleplay.

->Thought Two: Here is the argument of this essay, and that is that each of these reasons for disliking board games is actually one and the same. Which is to say: the majority of popular board games do not make their social meaning out of the strength of their mechanics, but rather out of the colonial visual and narrative design elements that accompany them, such that treating them as games almost seems silly to me, when rather they should be treated as 21st century cabinets of curiosity.

->Thought Three: Strong words. Let's start with defining one of my favorite terms in the anthropological study of games, and that is "the magic circle."

->Thought Three cont'd: The idea of the magic circle is akin to the art historical/anthropological idea of liminality. An experience is liminoid if, during the experience, previous rites and rules are suspended and replaced with those that exist within the liminal space. How I like to think of it is that it is the creation of a community for a predetermined amount of time. Sports are a liminoid experience. Airplanes are liminoid: when you enter them, certain rules with regards to personal space are suspended. Visiting your friend's house is liminoid for you, and when your friends come over to your place for a party, that is likewise liminal. In art history, it applies to the space of the museum: we do not spend a majority of our time staring at objects and ruminating on their meanings, but with a museum our previous heuristics concerning how we are to approach objects get replaced with a strategy of pondering. Duchamp's Fountain, or the pranks where someone places a didactic text next to a fire extinguisher or something thus causing patrons to ponder it, leverage this fact: they are normal objects, but the space itself has abnormal rules, and as such we treat the urinal with a new--though temporary--respect.

->Thought Three cont'd: The magic circle is a liminoid object that concerns itself with games. It is the zone in which normal reality is suspended and replaced with game reality. It is normally used with digital media, in which the strange transcription of physical to cybernetic requires a term beyond mere liminality to describe it, but I believe it is also a good fit for board games. One of the important things about the magic circle, as opposed to mere liminality, in my mind, is that the transmutation of rules is inherently formalistic: life is not lived with the rigid rules of a game of Risk or of Settler's of Cataan, and so there is a double liminality to games. They are liminal in sociological role and in a formal role--a magic circle is requisite in order to marry the psychology of a game with the anti-psychology inherent in having mathematical and logical rule systems.

->Thought Three cont'd: There is also a multiplicity in the magic circle that I think I like, and something that goes beyond liminality, and that is that players can enter into completely sepearate magic circles while playing the same game. An example would be trolls and campers: while other players enter into a magic circle in which the main objective is to win a game, those who are here to camp decide to enter the game with an augmented magic circle, in which being a nuisance is preferable. The conflict between multiple magic circles produces novel experiences: roleplayers in MMORPGs live in contention with those playing MMORPGs with a goal of leveling up, or those who play MMORPGs in order to make money. Pannenkoek's entire ouevre is based on playing Super Mario 64 with arbitrary rules, with a meta-objective of displaying the inner technical workings of the 64 game as programmed, turning it into a computational object rather than a ludological object.

->Thought Four: The best games seal their players into the same magic circle and prevent this multiplicity. They do this with what we can call meta-mechanics.

->Brief break: I go to board game nights a lot, because I live in a very white state and I work in tech. Tech people have a real fondness for board games, as do Midwesterners. I'm surrounded by a lot of Midwesterners. But, some of the games I have played of late that fall into this weird racial category that I am talking about here include: Settlers of Cataan, Bangladesh (which I haven't played), Cards Against Humanity (oh, there is an essay on meta-mechanics and magic circles to write on this one, I assure you), Risk, Ticket To Ride (trains always had a weird association with whiteness and destiny so manifest), Othello, and Clue (a strange Moonstone/Christie pastiche). I'm saying this now because I see that this is getting kind of "heady" rather than being as galavanting and delicious as I wanted it to. I want to give something good, but instead we get, um, half misremembered psych from video game school as well as some anthro. Truly I am a sickening liberal arts kid so lol.

->Thought Four cont'd: Meta-mechanics are necessary because the magic circle is both formalistic in its rule set and sociological in its rule set.

->Thought Four cont'd: Meta-mechanics, for me, is anything designed to force the player into the magic circle and to play the rules.

->Thought Four cont'd: I am going to illustrate this idea with what I like to call Shitty Risk.

The Thought Experiment Known As Shitty Risk

->Thought Five: What the hell is shitty risk??

->Answer To Thought Five: Shitty Risk is this:

->Thought Six: What the hell is this?

->Answer To Thought Six: This is a graph theoretic reconstruction of the map in Risk. The links between the nodes are isomorphic to the map in Risk: though not shaped like the Kamchatka Peninsula, there is a node on this graph that links with a node that could represent Japan (they are, by the way, Node X and Node Y respectively). (A brief foray into graph theory: Shitty Risk leverages the fact that any planar graph can be represented as a map and that, vice versa, every map represents a planar graph. That is: the Shitty Risk board and the Regular Risk board are identical at a mathematical level, the both of them simply exposing the links between countries through which a player can stage their attacks. For cartography nerds, or those with an exoteric knowledge of map-making, the famed Four Color Theorem, which is often stated that were you to wish to draw a map in which all of regions that share a border have different colors, you would only require four colors to make this happen, leverages this isomorphism between planar graphs and maps as the original theorem is written for graphs in which you color the nodes rather than the regions, and it is proven through the analysis of all possible Kempe chains--a graph theoretic construct whose name indicates its relation to links and node; graphs make chains beautifully. I'm saying this so that people who do not know cartography, and who do not know graph theory, can take me in good faith that Regular Risk and Shitty Risk have the same map from a mathematical perspective, and as such should retain the same gameplay, at least in terms of mechanics and the abstract functional components of gameplay). That is, it is mechanically identical to the map of Risk, it just has all of the global domination trappings stripped away. You would be able to put "tokens" (not troops) on these nodes, which can be used to "interact with" the tokens of opposing forces. These interactions would include the traditional die rolls: up to three for the initiating player, and up to two for the receiving player (not attacker and defender, like in Risk). You get more tokens every round based on nodes within your control. There are cards that you receive which can be used to cash in for more tokens. The nodes are color-coded and would give the "Continent Bonuses" that Regular Risk does, should you hold all of them at the end of any given round. It is Risk, but dressed up like tic-tac-toe or Go, that is, with the highest amount of austerity in visual design.

->Thought Six cont'd: It is Risk, and it doesn't have a leg to stand on. Mechanically, it is very bad, because Risk is a very bad game, mechanically speaking. It's lopsided, turns take forever, and the nodes have too few links between them to have a really joyous time. Anyone who has attempted to take over Australia from an opponent who has focused defenses there knows what I am talking about: the actual game of Risk is very bad, and its badness is written into its graph theoretic underpinnings. The argument of Shitty Risk, which I think you can see from my example, is that Risk itself is not a fun game, but rather the mythos that surrounds Risk is incredibly fun. The game is only meta-mechanic, is only the joy of roleplay.

->Thought Seven: There are analogue shitty versions for all board games. Monopoly, but take away the familiar street names and the cute narratives attached to Community Chest. Chess, but each figure is identified by a serial number. Catan, but with resources replaced merely with some abstract but mechanically isomorphic concept. These games would not be fun. In fact, they would be actively annoying.

Now, it's time for the outro

->Thought Eight: Okay, we're getting somewhere! The last couple lines of That's That by MF Doom come to mind: "Can it be I stayed away too long? Did you miss these rhymes when I was gone?" Now, we get back to the point, which is that many board games, both the old school ones like Risk and the modern Eurogame/German-style board game, are based not in mechanics but in colonial fetish. Let's play this crazy track.

->Thought Nine: That's right. Catan is the most egregious example. It imagines one of those lovely and people-free islands, something that happened with, say, the settling of São Tomé and Príncipe or the Falkland Islands, but which was also leveraged against indigenous people across the settler state by inventing an imaginary of historyless lands regardless of prior inhabitation: finally, a place with no people, where us settlers can duke it out without interference (please ignore the Polynesians on stage left). Then there's Clue: the classic guessing game with annoying mechanics that brings you back to the English manor. These games aren't fun in the slightest, but they do have this strange fixation on old school white nostalgia. What about Escape: The Curse of the Temple, where you play coloboratively as Indiana Jones style adventurers, complete with a soundtrack disk that apes the worst of the "exotic" tones of old Hollywood movie scores, monkey screeches and drum beats and all. Okay, that one is the actual most egregious example, I just don't think enough people have played it. Finally, Risk! It's not fun except for in the world imperial fantasy of it all. World conquest! That's what the game is about! Dreadfully unfun world conquest. How is it that there are so many board games that so quickly fall into colonial modes? The pieces of culture you consider most neutral oft have the most snakes within: the real problem is that everything is colonial, so of course board games would be.

->Thought Ten: But therein lies the audacity of board games, and the reason that I find them so particularly grating. They are games whose only mechanics are meta-mechanics. That is, as games they are designed to create a special magic circle mood of adventure and exploration, to give you a colonial vibe that you can keep in your studio apartment, and they are exclusively designed for that. They are games without mechanics whatsoever, perversions of games like, say, mancala and chess and go, games that are purely mechanical and actually fun. Which, to say it straight: they are pieces of colonial production that aren't even that good! Come on, at least Lawrence of Arabia brought Omar Sharif to a Western audience and had cinematography that you could drink up. Board games seem baffled by the very existence of games; and as with most things on this bitch of an earth, I think it's notable that the best games humanity has made, chess and go and spades, all come from POC.

->Thought Eleven: Since they are games whose only purpose is to seal people into a this colonial little magic circle, the only thing they are good for is for watching your white friends have pure mirth on their face while moving their "troops" around and "conquering the world."

->Thought Twelve: Next time, I'll blog about something I like, so it doesn't come off as dour. I'll probably revisit this with more coherence when I have less of a bazooka fury against it.