A great, important, and still vital design...
...that is pretty much the scowling poster child for white supremacy in hobby games. It isn’t just that you move brown tokens into fields...it’s that the game completely whitewashes the issues of slavery, colonialism, and exploitation in the service of a setting where the players are wealthy white Europeans getting wealthier and more prosperous on the backs of “colonists”. Sure that is a historical truth and it really happened. But this game is not a simulation, and it does not comment on or condemn the practice. Instead, it rewards it. Setting the game in Puerto Rico
and establishing a certain veneer of historicity reinforces the racism. It could have been, like Catan, a fictional setting where the “colonists” exist in a different context. But it’s not. Its Puerto Rico
, the New World, and Eurocentric colonialism. If there is ever a reprint of this game with a new setting, I hope whoever does it considers that this game is inherently an exercise in white supremacy and white privilege.
It’s not to say that Andreas Seyfarth is a racist or that the racism and historical aloofness (read: ignorance) is intentional. Like a lot of white Europeans, I’m sure he simply did not consider, acting from a position of white privilege, the historical and cultural ramifications of the setting or the themes it produces. But that’s how white supremacy often works and how it continues to poison culture in more supposedly enlightened times.
I remember the first time I thought about what I was actually doing in Puerto Rico
. I was introducing the game to a group of friends, one of whom is from Ethiopia. During the rules he sort of looked sideways and said “so we move the brown people from the ship and put them to work in the field?” I had not really thought of it, because I’m a white American and I simply had not considered it from a converse social angle.
It’s a problematic game because it is a brilliant design, and it was a seminal moment in games history. But it strikes me rather like Gone With The Wind or The Searchers, where you have to be willing to overlook white supremacy and “soft” racism to appreciate it.
Will I play it again? I don’t know. I saw a copy at Half Price Books last week and I thought about how if I bought it, I’d have to explain to my kids at some point that we are playing a game where slavery is glossed over in favor of “fun”.
It’s true that other games, like any game where you build pyramids or really do anything in the ancient world also gloss over humanitarian issues. And any number of games reward you for genocide. But this is an instance where the white supremacy/privilege is front and center and a key component of the design. By calling them colonists instead of slaves, it’s basically saying that they were willing to get on he boat, cross over, and work in a white man’s fields.
I thought it was so bold that Struggle of Empires put an African man in chains on its box cover. It was HONEST. It didn’t hide behind happy colonists. And if you go look at Civilization or Mare Nostrum, they also called it like it is- slavery. If it’s there, be honest about it. Puerto Rico
hides it plain sight so that the nice white people can enjoy their fun times without being rudely reminded of their ancestors’ cruelty, avarice, and inhumanity.