Slaves in a board game?


When we chose the theme for our first board game (17th Century Atlantic Trade) it did not take long to realize that one of the most common resources traded at this time was slaves. In fact, trade at this time was often referred to as the Atlantic Slave Trade because so much of the trade revolved around slaves. I remember planning out our port cities, and resources for our first prototype and including slaves because there was hardly a mention of any other resource that was exported from Africa. When I passed on my information to David for design, he questioned me on the inclusion of slaves and I told him there really was no way around it. We had to include slaves in the game. Not to do so, would make our game historically inaccurate. Thus, our first prototype included slaves, but this led to another question, what colour would we make the slave resource? I think it was at this point that we both realized just how controversial the inclusion of slaves in our game could be.

We had a few alternatives at this point. We could change the name of the resource to something less controversial like servants, or citizens which is what the makers of Puerto Rico chose to do. We could stick with the name slaves and stand behind historical context which is what board game makers Days of Wonder chose to do with their game Five Tribes. Thirdly, we could pull the resource from the game altogether.

In the end, we decided to pull the resource from the game altogether, but our reasoning was not entirely in an effort to avoid controversy. As we play tested our first prototype we realized that we had too many cities and too many resources for our game to flow properly. We already felt like we had stretched historical accuracy to include the gold resource as an export out of our African port cities, so we made the decision to remove the bottom 1/3 of the board. With the elimination of Africa from our board the resource of slaves no longer made any sense. In this way, we managed to avoid using slaves and the controversy that would have been brought with it, but also maintain historical accuracy because the cities and resources that do remain in our game do accurately represent trade that existed in the 17th Century.

So what do you think? Did we make the right decision?

For more reading on the controversy of slaves in board games check out the following link:

  • Kevin Brown

    I think you made the right choice for both reasons. If play testing threw up issues with including those locations and resources, you obviously had to make cuts. I think that historical accuracy can sometimes be a bit of a cop out these days. The question is, should historical accuracy in a game trump sensitivity in modern culture. By omitting it, you’re not pretending it didn’t happen, but you’re also not potentially causing genuine offence to a significant number of people. If you think about parallels, it would be like having the prosecution of gays as a historically accurate part of game play in a game set in the 1930s, or having child sex trafficking as a game function in a game set in 17th century Persia. These things were perfectly socially acceptable when they were happening, but (quite rightly) aren’t considered so today. To that end, I think making a subjective moral decision is wise both from a strategic business perspective but also from an altruistic perspective, the latter of which should be important to any business.

    • Chad Kosokowsky

      Comparing the use of slaves in a board game, to persecution of gays in a board game, is an interesting and fair comparison. I hadn’t thought of that, well said.