Disclaimer: It’s important to note that I am a white woman of European descent, critiquing this game from an obviously privileged perspective. I can only speak for my perspective of the game, and not for anyone else’s.
A recent lecture on representation in gaming from my Analog Gaming and Libraries class has really been encouraging me to take on discussions and critiques of some beloved games. Being a product of human imagination, games are bound to carry problematic themes and misrepresent people and cultures, in line with our own biases. While people can still enjoy playing these games, it’s important to also use them to critique the social issues that are embedded in them. One game that really stands out in my mind to critique, that I recently had a chance to play for the first time, is Smallworld, a game which center’s around problematic ideals of colonization.
Smallworld is a fantasy themed strategy game designed by Phillipe Keyearts and published by Days of Wonder. In Smallworld you play various fantasy races, attempting to build your civilization and collecting the most gold. You collect gold for each region you occupy each turn, and whoever has the most gold by the end of the game wins. Each race has special powers to overtake land more easily, defend that land, or gain more money from it. What separates this from other colonization games is the premise of civilizations going into decline; Smallworld is, of course, small, and there’s limited space to grow, thus you will eventually decide to stop growing your race’s colony and start building a new civilization with a new race. You’ll no longer be able to actively move your declined race, but can still gain money from their territories. The strategy in Smallworld is knowing when to put your civilizations in decline before they are spread too thin and unable to defend themselves.
European and North American obsession with colonization games is not a new issue, but it was particularly striking to me in this game because of the problematic representation of aboriginal peoples. At the beginning of the game, there need to be obstacles on regions to prevent any player from sweeping the board too easy, and the main obstacle in place are “Lost Tribe” tokens, functioning the same as a civilization as declining. Equating an aboriginal culture to a declining civilization is obviously problematic, especially given the history of colonization around the world where aboriginal cultures were wrongfully described as “primitive” or “barbaric” by European colonizers.
It could be argued, and was argued by a friend at the table, that it’s better to acknowledge that these things happened than to ignore them. There is truth to this, as an obviously colonial game like Smallworld does provoke more discussion on the issue than games that are less explicitly colonial, but still problematic, like Settlers of Catan. It’s important to have games that include this issue, however, there is a difference between properly acknowledging it and simply normalizing it, and I believe that Smallworld does the latter. To properly acknowledge oppression and genocide of aboriginal peoples, a game (or other media) needs to be educational and respectful, but Smallworld is not. No identity is given to the “Lost Tribes” in the narrative background or even in the artwork, which reduces them to shadowy figures. Since the entire game resolves around civilizations going into decline, it’s easy to pass of the “Lost Tribes” decline as a normal process that’s the same as the other colonizing races. The mechanics present the idea that colonization is inevitable, that as one race grows, it must expand and overtake another. There are ways to play without playing aggressively, but in order to be successful and gather more money, you must gather as much territory as you can. Perhaps this is some sort of commentary on our acceptance of this principle in real life, and designed to make us aware of its flaws, but I doubt any critique was intentionally designed. By setting the game in a fantasy realm, a sense of brutality stemming from the colonization mechanics can be more easily ignored.
Overall, I would caution against playing this game with just any crowd, but, as long as all players are OK with the theme, and are especially comfortable critiquing the theme, Smallworld can be fun to play and can spur some productive discussion about the problems of colonial ideals. I hope to see some variants in the future that retain the fun but create a more respectful environment, similar to what the First Nations of Catan did for Settlers of Catan, and that properly acknowledge aboriginal issues from an aboriginal perspective.