In March I attended an event at the Art Gallery of Ontario here in Toronto, which had a number of events and installations about feminism and intersectional ideas and politics. Tucked away in one of the event spaces, a number of tables were set up with games of Settlers of Catan to play – with some very interesting modifications that caught my eye. I found the creator, Golboo Amani – Toronto-based interdisciplinary artist – and asked her about what the project was. After a brief rundown that this was a project called Unsettling Settlers of Catan, I was intrigued – I followed up with Amani after the event to find out more about her approach to understanding the ideas behind a modern board game like Settlers of Catan, critiquing it, and what that entails.
Amani heard about Catan in the mid 2010s, as its popularity (along with modern board games) rose, and the game itself became a sort of buzzword. She wanted to hold a series of game nights to play Catan, and for all involved to have the time and opportunity to engage in “critical discussion about its narratives and mechanics” after each game. This ended up being about a year’s worth of sitting down to play a few times a week with a range of people (often at Toronto’s Games Making Dames space). Amani herself went in aware of the theme of the game and curious about it, and sensitive to her position as a settler colonial, as well as allowing a space for people of colour to encounter the game (sometimes for the first time). I was interested in hearing how the particular idea for Unsettling Settlers came out of all of this, especially as a white woman from a settler colonial background who had never stopped to think critically in this way about the game. Despite my anthropology background, I haven’t until recently begun approaching board games with thoughts beyond how to play, especially issues to do with colonial and race issues – for someone to be taking this approach to one of the hobby’s most well-known games was amazing to see.
While she is an interdisciplinary artist, Amani has had specific experience with game design previously (understanding mechanics, aesthetics, how to put together a game) in other projects, so it was almost a natural progression to have Catan inspire her to create. She decided what she “wanted to produce was a game in response [to Catan], and that it was going to do something potentially different than all of the expansion/development games [she] had experienced in the past.” Amani set out to put together something that could work with the idea of “beta” testing a game in further game nights and the overall concept working with the base game, but also with the nature of it being an artwork alongside this.
What had brought Amani to games like Catan in the first place was an interest in social engagement and knowledge exchange, “group learning through aesthetic & entertaining social exercises”. Games – as you most likely know, dear reader – provide that kind of platform, so she wanted to use this as a ready-made way to engage with players and their experiences. When returning to a game like Catan – or any popular, similar game – and trending narratives, people inherently understand the concept of a game so thoroughly they can slip into a role without thinking about it any differently to their day to day. Amani wanted to bring some collaboration into the expansion (having been inspired by games like Freedom: Underground Railroad), representing the reality of a settling situation, how interventions could be different, and changing the narrative of the game to provide unique strategies and experiences.
So beyond the concept, what changes does Unsettling Settlers of Catan make to the structure of Catan, and how does it adjust the gameplay? Amani wanted to make sure it was still accessible to players – that it could share a number of concepts with Catan in order to make it easy enough to integrate and understand. What came out of her game nights was “wanting to address settlers as the players of this game”, and the first step was taking the “robber” out of the game, and bringing the roles of “allies” into it. In many areas of colonization around the world, if it hadn’t been for indigenous people & their knowledge, settlers would not have survived in many places – the importance of this is highlighted in Unsettling Settlers of Catan. Allies play collaboratively as a group, against the players representing the settlers, who play competitively as usual (the game’s designed to take 4 players on each side, but can be smaller groups if needed).
Amani added ally-specific resources to the game to represent and hold space for the knowledge and resources of Indigenous people, overlooked not just in a lot of colonial-theme games, but often in particular historic narratives – they include agriculture, game (meat and fur), medicine and navigation cards. Instead of creating spots to harvest resources like settlers, allies have movement cards that direct them around the board to gather resources – and just like settlers, the ally resources can be used to purchase items unique to the Allies (road blocks, treaties and land reclamation actions). These actions focus on a key issue for Amani – a game like Catan representing the idea of unlimited resource extraction or availability, and how unrealistic that is when it comes to playing out between two groups of people. With the allies’ actions handing some power back to that group, settlers are forced to realize their role in the game and, hopefully for the players, in the world at large. What fascinates me most beyond these changes are the “crisis” cards Amani has added – like a Long Winter, Plague, Spoiled Crop and the like – which force the two groups together to exchange knowledge, negotiate resources and really drive home her “desire for cross pollination and negotiations for the survival of both groups.”
Beyond straight-up postcolonial critique, Unsettling Settlers of Catan also aims to address the abstraction of Catan from real-world history and how that could be used as a learning space. Catan was “so abstract that it could be and has been created in permutations related to every continent that has experienced colonization and the aggressions and violence that come out of that.” So, Unsettling Settlers of Catan has come about to address being a better settler-colonial – changing the narrative, imbuing the experience with allyship – as a general idea no matter where it is situated. Catan as a game has allowed introductions of new concepts as an expansion of sorts in order to allow players to experience the game and the idea of history from more than just the settler-colonial perspective. There are many other European strategy-style games on the market that are couched in just enough historical narrative that it can be hard to break out of to amend and examine from a postcolonial stance. This means a positive experience for settler-colonials is played out with Indigenous representation abstracted to the point of almost erasure – or outright omission in many cases. While it doesn’t seem overt, the legacy of colonialism and imperialism lives on in many ways in game libraries around the world.
After speaking with Amani and learning more about Unsettling Settlers of Catan, I wondered what people could take away from their experience with the game. I asked what, out of all the many nights of playtesting and developing with diverse groups, was the most important thing she’d gotten out of the playtesting experience? Most of all, having non-settler voices as part of the project and development process was critical, their responses to the game were invaluable and formative when it came to creating the ally addition. One of the questions she had posed to the various groups was “what kind of intervention do you want to see on this site and why?”, allowing for valuable input from all perspectives. It was critical for Amani to consult with as many diverse people as possible for insight, and I truly think that is a wise strategy for any game developer or designer in the hobby right now.
This project ended up being a ready-made situation that players could insert themselves into, in order to participate in the critique of a colonial narrative – helping them grasp the concepts of what colonialism means, and what decolonizing a game like Catan can do to help understand that. Familiarity with or prior knowledge of the game is a big part of what brings people to play Catan, and what can make the “intervention pack” slightly more accessible rather than an entirely new game to experience. Ideally, this also helps “people to maybe notice how easy it is for them to slip into the role of settler-colonial.” Amani wants players to “see how naturalized the narrative of the settler-colonial is and how it gets played out into our everyday experiences,” including leisure activities like board games. As I mentioned earlier, it never had occurred to me until recently just how many games invite players to slip into these roles without thought, and so I assume many others never think about this issue actively. Where could we go next as a hobby, with the opportunities projects like this offer? I’m hoping it will help us as gamers think about context in games more, and could also give game designers a lens through which to look at the choices they’re making regarding the narratives of their games. We’re all starting to make positive changes to incorporate the world around us into gaming, and I appreciate the efforts of Amani’s project as a response piece to this, and in bringing these ideas to light.
Thank you so much to Golboo for taking the time to speak to me about her fantastic project! She provided all of the images for this article, and you can read more about it at her blog, and see a video about the project here.