How strategy games get away with saying things like, “Africa sucks”

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The Assassins Creed games open with a hand-wringing disclaimer about how all world religions are equally valid and Ubisoft intends no offense based on anything it depicts. Which turns out to be pretty much nothing of consequence and, hey, look, you can climb this building! Action games keep you too preoccupied to think about being offended until they stop and intentionally offend you to make sure blogs talk about them. I think the last time I considered someone might actually be offended by an action game was when I found out several months after playing Prey that the lead character was supposed to have been Native American. Maybe some folks would object to the “native” class in multiplayer Call of Juarez bringing a bow to a gunfight. But no one plays that game, which raises the question, “If someone programs an ethnic stereotype on an empty server, will anyone hear it?”

After the jump, the games that can only offend people too smart to get offended

Strategy games have it easier, even if they don’t always take advantage of the opportunity to say something meaningful enough to offend anyone. For instance, Risk is a game without any sort of perspective. It teaches that Australia should have conquered the world by now. No such thing has happened outside of Hollywood. Firaxis’ Civilization games have steadfastly refused any sort of gameplay perspective on world religions. Civilization IV cleverly modeled religion as a viral culture out of the player’s control. A generic viral culture. Then Civilization V ignored religion as anything other than an opportunity for a paid add-on, coming to a download near you this August.

Compare this to Paradox’s spreadsheetly comprehensive approach, which would be offensive if the sort of people to get offended could read spreadsheets. As befits a bunch of Scandinavians, Paradox is either unafraid of or oblivious to the potential pitfalls of having an opinion about religion. Their games freely relate specific religions to specific gameplay mechanics. Jews good with finance? Catholics dogmatic and oppressive? Protestants hard working? Muslims warlike? It’s all in a Paradox game somewhere, exactly as it should be.

One of my favorite boardgames hides its historical commentary under a simple premise and a seemingly random set up. When you start a game of Endeavor, you randomly scatter tokens across a world map. The game then begins with players setting out to gather these tokens to enrich their home cities. It’s all the elegance of a Eurogame with all the tiny bits of an Ameritrash game.

But once you’ve eaten up the little tokens, Endeavor reveals a deck of preset cards in each region of the world. The tokens were just the appetizers! The cards are the main course! Bring these cards back to Europe to really enrich your home cities. Let the geographically specific plundering begin.

These cards all have varying degrees of value for the game’s mechanics. Each card confers bonuses to industry, culture, finance, politics, or glory. In other words, these cards are commentary on the specific historical value of various parts of the world. If you look closely at these cards — and what self-respecting strategy gamer wouldn’t? — they’ll say things to you. Things with a definite opinion.

For instance, if you add up the total value of all the cards in each region, the best source of glory, which is the game’s version of victory points and arguably the most important resource, is North America. How very forward looking for a game about exploration and colonial expansion. But the world of Endeavor is the real world, so anyone who knows history will know to position himself in such a way to anticipate a shift in the balance of power, even if it’s still a couple of centuries out. Spoiler.

The best source of industry, which determines how advanced the buildings are in your home city, is the Far East. You can interpret this as a comment on the level of civilization in the Far East, compared to the level of civilization in the undeveloped Newer Worlds. India is a rich source of financial and political power. Just fast forward a hundred years and ask the British. Also, tea.

Culture is an important concept in Endeavor. It’s basically the determinant of how many “skilled” workers you have to drive your economy, sail your ships, fight your wars, and so forth. An important early tactic in Endeavor is to build up your culture with things like theaters and shipyards. Wait, shipyards? It’s as if Endeavor is saying culture is a factor of your people’s exposure to the wider world and its goods, its people, its various experiences, its stories as related to your home city by playwrights and sailors. Hence, theaters and shipyards.

Most regions offer culture in their cards. There are four points each in India and North America and two points each in the Far East and the Caribbean. South America is lousy with culture, sporting nine points for the taking. You’d think Europe is going to adopt human sacrifice and ziggurat shaped city halls for how much culture is available from South America! I guess sometimes you have to figure it’s a matter of gameplay balance. Maybe the cards aren’t saying anything at all beyond “Endeavor is carefully tuned”.

But then there’s Africa. There is not a single point of culture available from Africa. You might find shreds of it there because of the way tokens are blindly placed when the game starts. But in terms of shipping goods out of Africa, in terms of plundering its natural resources, there is not a single point of culture to be found. Its stories and its traditions will not enrich your home city. Instead, like the game’s unflinching portrayal of slavery, Africa will boost your industry and finance. If that’s not a reflection of one of the ugly realities of the age, I don’t know what is.

Furthermore, the map itself has no shortage of commentary about the world. The regions tend to have three cities available. Settling these cities provides the infrastructure necessary to ship home the most lucrative cards. At the end of the game, the cities also give you glory — victory points — for controlling the city itself and their associated trade routes. The Far East is the most expansive region in terms of territory. It has four cities, including a lucrative two-pointer. Africa, on the other hand, has only two cities.

The Caribbean is the single richest source of political power, but it’s also unique in terms of how it’s portrayed on the map. It’s a veritable web of trade routes to Europe, North America, and South America. Africa, on the other hand, has fewer outgoing trade routes than anyplace else.

In one of his columns, my friend Christien Murawski has a great story about discovering Endeavor. He jokes that he was surprised to conquer the world by controlling the Caribbean. Which is no surprise to any of us who’ve played Pirates and carefully threaded our way among all those French, British, Spanish, and Dutch ships. Those guys weren’t there for the snorkeling.

Endeavor even has an opinion on slavery. Hey, it’s a pretty good thing, Endeavor suggests. If you can get away with it, Endeavor adds. The basic idea is that it’s an effective jumpstart to an economy. Early slavery cards will add to your industry and finance. But someone who controls Europe can pull the rug out from under nations that embrace slavery. Basically, the player who runs Europe gets to decide whether Enlightenment happens, because he’s the guy who can dig deep enough into Europe’s treasures to reach the Emancipation card. This inflicts a potentially painful victory point hit on anyone who bought into the early game’s “it’s a pretty good thing” opinion on slavery.

I like this longer term view much more than the simple loss of population you suffer when you hurry production in Civilization IV. Your city was size four. Now it’s size three and you have an extra frowny face for a few turns that your theater will offset. There. Slavery. In Endeavor, it’s a risk/reward proposition, with the potential to get away scott-free, but a game-long vulnerability to being held accountable for your transgression against humanity. Because sometimes history doesn’t punish the people who do terrible things. That’s as sad a truth as ever a strategy game could teach you.

Endeavor was made by a couple of dudes from New Zealand. I love seeing the faces of people who make the things I like. So here are Carl de Visser on the left and Jarratt Gray on the right.

De Visser looks like he should be on the prow of a whaling ship hefting a harpoon. I can imagine Gray lashing his surfboard to the roof of a VW bug. In the actual world, de Visser is working on Paths of Exile, a free-to-play Diablo clone in development at Grinding Gear Games. I’m not sure what Gray does besides LARPing and video production. If they’re reading, apologies to de Visser and Gray for the mild cyberstalking. And thanks for making a simple boardgame with complex historical opinions lurking inside.