coffee break 20/2023

I am always interested in the aspects that make cultures diverse to the point of wanting to understand not how different they are, but rather how they saw each other and how the first contact was.

In a modern sense we are modelled by centuries of tradition of history, chronicles and neverending writing and rewriting of accounts that were originally already centuries old in some cases.

Furthermore there’s also a panoply of “modern era” national ethos adventure chronicles, especially in the neo-classical era and the imperialism drive that follows – the colonial era. The supremacy of this or that “civilization” during the middle and throughout the 19th century where the anglo-saxon colonization was better than the iberian savagery and all the other proponents.

In any discussion about “how to game colonisation” cannot detach itself from that interrogation of – what colonisation ?

All Gaul is divided into three parts (…)

Chapter I, Book I, The Gallic Wars, by Julius Caesar

While we easily pack all the word events that concern Western European drive to overseas and consequences to the populations from those affected far lands we must not excuse ourselves from the harm done by two or more centuries of popular history.

The intrepid explorers that populated the empty maps are boosted as impeccable British subjects while the expeditions to the truly uncharted jungles are portrayed as gold thirsty ‘conquistadores’ bound on carnage.

This is pop history and this is where board games, same as any good Alan Quatermain book or Pirates of the Caribbean version of Cortez treasures, drink the themes from.

In a sense the end objective is similar – to deliver an adventure to whatever persons are around the table – and to this objective much of history is suppressed in the sense that any design cannot contain all the perspectives, hope and dreams of all the groups of people represented, so a careful curation is done to fit the theme.

I go astray from the subject but serves the purpose to show there’s too much information, multiple angles of approach and centuries of rivalries to siph through before presenting a warm and charming product that presents history from two or more points of view.

By definition – asymmetric.

One of the greatest channels about tabletop games and sometimes focused on the more interesting variant of wargaming is Fred Serval’s own Homo Ludens channel; and there’s a series of guest panels which I find fascinating given the subject is always an underlying way of representing an aspect of history – be it generic or more specific – that isn’t clear in the broad landscape of games, or that maybe the games that do focus on some particular aspect aren’t necessarily popular. Popular in the sense of well known.

The last panel was tremendously good, as much as all the others, even if I suspect that six faces was too much, with four guests sort of having monologues was less than ideal. I would expect a bit more of “confrontation” and exchange of ideas and perceptions and how to work them together, but I get it is too short time to host such a round table.

Nonetheless all guests, Jason, Carl, Mary and Brian, along with the hosts did a wonderful 90 minutes of opinions and shared their own works. Maybe Brian was less focused on a particular work and more broad on the appreciation of the subject and explaining what motivates him to design particular conflicts, in a similar vein to what Mary kickstarted with the “populating the terra incognita” at the start; both not alluding to products. Note: I don’t want to sound diminishing of what Carl and Jason shared but at personal level I wasn’t too appreciative of the “in this game I designed we did it like this”. Words have power and me stating that “wasn’t too appreciative” is not synonymous of “I truly disliked it” but more “didn’t catch my attention as much”. In any context it is gratifying to learn what some person do when they design a game and what aspects they focused on, so a tip hat to both Jason and Carl.

If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.

Tacitus, Agricola XXX

Colonization is a well established word which means population migration and occupation of land and subsequent exploitation of both the native populations and land for the benefit of the occupier.

Is simple and timeless. It denotes no application to any particular period in history and from ancient times there’s mention of colonies in annexed regions.

Same as colonialism means a state policy and resultant practice of acquiring full or partial control over a sovereign region, and as history teaches us, occupying it with own population, usually adventurers settlers, and fortune seekers.

Maybe we could start from the beginning and Sumer, Ur and Elam. Maybe go through Sargon or push forward to the big Assyrian drive to the seas ( mediterranean and persian gulf as we know it ).

If we talk about colonization then plenty has occurred during these eras. Populations migrated and influenced into each other, dominated, enslaved and imposed language and culture. Even gods were stolen, taken as own, reinvented.

Moving forward we may reach the greater glory of Hittites and Old Kingdom, their pushes in Anatolia and into Nubia, which interestingly enough shows a higher degree of bilateral exchange than simple push of exploitation and with each new culture absorbed into the colonial powers adding more to the collective. Hittites were especially adept at adding deities and gods of conquered tribes ( natives ) into their own pantheon.

“But that’s too far away. Doesn’t touch us, is very immaterial.” – I read somewhere.

That would be all true if not for the writings they left us. And this makes the entire difference between being able to design that blank space with reasonable bilateral accuracy, given any of the powers left us records, no matter how loose they might be.

Cultures that relied heavily on oral traditions cannot be reproduced except through the writing of those that recorded the events. Artifacts can show the art, some daily life representation but do not talk back and as such the “terra incognita” remains.

Both words explode in the 19th century due to the national ethos of higher civilizations bringing modernity to all the corners of the globe. Maybe I am totally wrong in this but I will bet my best apples crop that this might be the word that was underlying in the live panel and a focus notice on the “Big Game” component of history, which for me isn’t necessarily honest when wanting to discuss a subject without any specifics.

Do not want to detract into any vocabulary rant, which is rife nowadays, and thus need to continue the prospect of finding where and how to promote the design of what is in that “blank space in the map”.

My own journey trying to design interesting games – of note that I have next to blow zero experience, I just like the hobby activity – I am taken to exotic places and having to face extreme problems similar to the roman-gauls example of having almost exclusively the Romans point of view, their description of geography and even the Roman map orientation.

One of the designs I am trying to come up with is the how the kingdoms of the river Niger up to Timbuktu coped with the arrival of the West Europeans from the 15th century onward.

It is a tremendous prospect of cross referencing data and eagerly awaiting for the documents of the library to be scanned and saved from further destruction – remember that Mali is one of the most war torn places as I write this and since a couple years that Humanitarian organizations with the help of hi-tech companies are trying to save to digital all the data that can be saved ( alongside the work of all the other organisations that measure up to the daily needs of the population ).

And one of the most fascinating things I’ve come across is the dynamics of territorial expansion and contraction according to seasonal floods, in a very different form as to what the newcomers were accustomed to, with lines drawn on a map, which probably led to civilisation clash and land grab.

After all there’s a culture clash. For the powers to be there must be a distinct line in the sand and if there’s none then all the lands and peoples within are up for grabs.

We do have both sides of the history. That “terra incognita” isn’t anymore. And we have the benefit of great hindsight to be able to populate a game with data.

What are we missing ? The clash of cultures.

To design a game that represents equitatively all the human societies involved in any particular activity we need the records, the writings, the human touch and for that reason, for many “terra incognita” parts we need to rely on writings of the colonisers.

Another big example of a game I would enjoy much to do is about the “first contact” of the amazon tribes with the newcomer explorers. To do this we must fear not but rely much on both Spanish and Portuguese records, of which the most valuable are the missionary ones. They are extremely detailed and precise due to the nature of what they were order to – record the land, the peoples, the customs, the rivers, the roads, and mapping the way to reach them, and how the christian faith came to them and how it was accepted. It goes much further with extensive records of population census, produce activity, technology used, etecetera.

This aspects are tremendously valuable and some of the records that were dismissed as fable came to light as being mostly true, especially the description of the “metropolis” deep in the Amazon. Teams and tech ( LIDAR ) corroborated and found the locations. Do follow the work of Michael Heckenberger and all his colleagues and teams to follow up and find inspiration. We are able to populate that “terra incognita” with dots ( literally circles ), connected by “highways” in a big network covering a vast expanse now swallowed by jungle.

The first colonizers did testimony these locations and wrote about them. Maybe lacking due respect – context is important – but nonetheless very accurate in what they wrote and drew.

There’s delicate subjects only if the designers and players aren’t ready to face both beauty and beast and the idyllic native paradise, untouched by corruption, is also an invention of the 19th century Imperialist minds that want to bring civilisation to the savages.

For a wargamer mind there’s always conflict happening, especially in a “colonisation” theme where there’s no way around the cultural armageddon. The Laws of the stronger will allow to take over vast swathes of land and call it “new world”, religion, trade practices and exploration, followed by exploitation, take over the day to day life and one of the cultures is changed, not to be entirely equal to the colonizer but adjusts its own original practices and forcefully incorporates some of the imposed.

So how do we game Colonisation ? Truly is up to what point of view the designer wants and how deep and long the research will be.

Does the design romanticise the culture represented – such as many authors like to elevate mythical mesoamerican empires – or also incorporates the dark side of humanity in it ? Or do we want to design a 19th century idyllic paradise to contrast with the profoundly imperialistic western all conquering colonialism ?

How we would go about designing first contact of the deep amazon tribes during the age of exploration ? It is almost sci fi and “alien” despite all being humans, with eyes, minds, voices and rites.

How does a game represent change in any given population ? Change in its indigenous customs, beliefs and social apparatus. How to represent that change overtime where a prevalent power promotes the decline of anothe through colonisation process ? Because that’s what is inherent to colonisation.

Do we focus trade ? Religion ? Do we focus only on the military campaigns ? Rebellions ? What makes what was lost ?

How about colonisation of space ? How do games represent the first contact and how to deal and get to learn a completely new culture ? How does humankind represents itself in a game like that ? How do we design ourselves in a game about our planet becoming a colony of a galaxy power ?

I find these last questions more to the core of the subject and truer to the challenge than a historical “great game” contemplation game.

History is, and cannot be changed but it is a vast web of events that warrant careful representation and for each game designed there’s one more piece to be explored.

Big names games lack asymmetry in the sense that the rules ( laws! ) that command a major power are not the rules ( traditions! ) that are understood by native peoples in some “terra incognita”.

Think about that for your next design.

We players do not want a lesson, my book library is more vast than the games library and your games cannot possibly replace any of those lessons, but what we, players, want is interactive time travel and great models to explore the history of colonisation and the challenges presented to both sides.

I must end the coffee break by excusing myself if I completely misunderstood the subject but as I see it, it is nothing short of “clash of cultures” where one will prevail down history. The game designer job is to incorporate the factors of that prevalence and resistance into a playable experience and thus provide us, mere players, with a fulfilling experience.

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