Whenever I play a new board game, I think about whether my friends and students would also enjoy it. Even though I'm primarily a solo gamer, I love to talk about games, and most of my social gatherings focus on playing games. At work, my best times with students also revolve around games.
This means that even if I'm playing alone, I can't bring myself to engage with certain board game themes.
Everyone has themes that they just don't like. Even though it's supposed to be amazing, I'm not even considering Kingdom Death: Monster. Not only is the cost prohibitive, but I think its depictions of women are gross.
There are also themes that I am more than happy to explore, even though they might make other people uncomfortable. I have yet to play Letters from Whitechapel, but I don't think I would mind roleplaying as Jack the Ripper on the run from the police. I certainly enjoy a round or two of Cards Against Humanity, and I have slain many enemies across many universes. I get a real kick out of forcing my children into arranged marriages in Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy. And in the world of video games... let's just say I acquired all of the Daedric artifacts in Skyrim.
But there is one theme in games I object to deeply, and that is European colonialism, including the exploitation of slaves. A game like Settlers of Catan, which was meant to evoke the Vikings' exploration of Iceland, is a game in which the settlers take over land that is untouched and that does not already belong to somebody else. I enjoy Catan, and I choose interpret the fact that the robber in the game is represented by a black pawn as an oversight. But there is no way I am ever going to invest time and money in a game like Archipelago or Puerto Rico, both of which feature slavery—overtly or not—as a game mechanic.
In Puerto Rico, you use tokens that represent dark brown "colonists" who do your bidding. Some people will argue that the game is abstract, or they will make convoluted historical arguments to downplay the issue. Because Puerto Rico is more about role selection mechanics than about Puerto Rican history, some people find it easy to overlook all of this and "just play the game." But to me, there is something inherently wrong about moving a lot of little brown people off of your boats and into your factories/fields/whatever.
Archipelago is a bit more self-aware than Puerto Rico, as it's clear from the outset that you are foreigners who are taking land and resources from local people—and also that you are turning local people into a resource. (There is even a "slavery" card.) Within the game, the people you are exploiting will rebel unless you find ways to keep them happy. If a rebellion occurs, everyone loses. Because of its overt recognition of slavery as a real thing in the game—one that can have consequences for players--Archipelago often gets a pass. But for me, "consequences" aren't enough. It's still not acceptable to roleplay as a colonist who is actively suppressing native people.
The reason this theme is a no-go for me, when I am willing to tolerate a lot of other things, is that the effects of European colonialism still have a very real, very negative effect on actual people in the modern world. I can't enjoy myself while making light of something that is both morally repugnant and still massively impactful. That isn't pretending to be a little bit naughty. That's implicitly being okay with white supremacy in a world where white supremacy is actively damaging people's lives.
One comment I've noticed repeatedly on forums and in reviews is that even though someone might be willing to play a game like Puerto Rico or Archipelago, "I probably wouldn't play it with my black friends." The students at my school are overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic, and there is no way on this earth I would ever ask them to play Puerto Rico or Archipelago with me. And if I wouldn't play a game like that with them, why would I play it at all? The answer: I won't.
My name is Liz, and I play a lot of games. By day, I am a teacher. By night, I am an avid gamer.