This past weekend, I wrote a blog post about GMT Games’, now removed, P500 title “Scramble for Africa.” In it, I bemoaned the poor marketing copy and highlighted concerns based on the combination of topic and game description. I further suggested that GMT Games consider the Hollandspiele approach to rolling out games on difficult topics as they did so well with This Guilty Land. Within 12 hours of the publication of that article, GMT Games issued a statement that addressed people’s concerns and restarted their core values as a company. While I encouraged people to both give space for such a statement AND to accept an earnest apology…the storm continues unabated.

That’s all I have to say about the conversations, whodunnit, whataboutism, and vitriol being spewed by the most opinionated on all sides of this issue. I will, however, dedicate this article to a broader and more deeply troubling theme that has emerged during the conversation about “Scramble for Africa.” It’s one that the United States, and many other countries for that matter, have been grappling with for some time. I don’t anticipate resolving anything, but I want to at least make the case for civility.

Who gets to control the identity of the past?

To quote Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, profound speech on race while addressing the city’s removal of Civil War general statues:

There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.

Mitch Landrieu

I think this summarizes perfectly the work of historical wargamers and of our hobby as a whole. The abject mischaracterization of a game as a glorification of a troubling episode in colonial history doesn’t suggest a moral shortcoming on the part of the designer, developer, publisher, or people who want to purchase such a game. Remembrance is allowed and cannot be shut out.

It’s a far different cry to celebrate the era through nostalgic eyes for some bygone colonial myth self-told to generations of Europeans who felt that colonial territories were somehow their land as much as the native soil under the empire’s capital. Historical wargaming does not in any way, shape, or form intend to glorify, gloss over, or revere historical tragedy or horror.

This misunderstanding seems to be at the heart of the conflict around Scramble for Africa since some people felt as though insufficient information was provided to fully pass judgement given the weak marketing copy while others felt that it pointed toward a celebration of colonialism in Africa that ignored indigenous populations.

History is Complex & Horrible

History is rarely a serene river flowing and carrying humanity along its gentle currents. Instead, it is a raging and untamed exploration of some wholly dark episodes punctuated by bright beacons of achievement. Even those achievements are often won on the backs of others who were broken to achieve it either figuratively or quite literally. So, where does that place the hobby?

We owe it to designers and publishers to trust their core values. Don’t mistake this trust with blind trust. When a company or designer needs constructive critique, it should be freely offered and accepted. Though, the offering doesn’t imply any obligation on the part of the designer or publisher to accept such critique. It merely suggests a sentiment that may exist. Our hobby, after all, tackles morally difficult terrain and for people who want to explore their history more completely, then there are awesome rewards to be gained.

For people who want to take simple-minded and moral absolutist positions, there is no room in the hobby for that kind of attitude. We are constantly learning, unlearning, and reshaping the lens through which history is viewed. But, that’s the point…history exists in a dual dimension. The current view and the historical era’s view. Publishers, designers, and gamers need to recognize the interplay and non-binary roles these two dimensions play at all times.

German Armor in World War II

Let’s take a look at German armor in World War II as a quick example. The German Tiger lived up to its fearsome reputation on the battlefields of World War II. As such, historical wargames have given the armored fighting vehicle the respect it is due. To some, this sounds like the glorification of Hitler’s war machine and it is a symbol of Nazi reverence. This couldn’t be further from the truth and such a simplistic interpretation unmasks a person’s single-minded obsession with simply making a point that conveniently fits their perspective.

Instead, we must on the one hand acknowledge the loathsome way in which these war machines were employed while still remaining detached (like a historian) to make an unemotional evaluation of them. This ability to understand and respect history while simultaneously being interested in the unique analysis and “simulation” of it is at the heart of the hobby. You can’t have one without the other. To do so would come off as hollow or too simplistic to be worthy of exploration.

In a hex and counter wargame, we need to know that the Tiger’s main armament was superior to that of the Sherman. We need to know factors like optics, armor composition, and gun stabilization were important components that made the Tiger a formidable enemy. This provides even more context on the bravery of those who would look down the sights of an anti-armor vehicle or weapon facing the Tiger. It provides an opportunity to understand history and see that sometimes things aren’t easily digested or black and white.

Reality regularly fails to conform with our expectations.

Tanks Schmanks… What about colonial oppression?

You can’t deny the factors that made the Tiger tank uniquely powerful. Similarly, you can’t deny that colonial oppression occurred and that human rights violations were par for the course as a part of that oppression. There is, however, a vast difference between a game focused on mechanics that asks, “How strong is a Tiger tank?” versus something as complex as “How can I embody a colonial power and exploit the resources and land of an indigenous people?”

These things are simply not equivalent. That said, they are BOTH valid historical topics that are worthy as gaming topics.

To understand why, it’s important first to differentiate games designed solely for fun from games for learning and understanding. A game of Apples to Apples with friends is intended to be lighthearted and social. That’s it’s core design and output. Based on sales, I’d say that it did a great job of that! Hollandspiele’s game A Guilty Land, on the other hand, is designed to ask questions and present an experience that challenges the players. It too should be fun, but that’s a byproduct of the learning and experience not its sole intent.

A core question about these kinds of games is whether you’re the kind of person who derives fun from an “a ha!” moment about history or not!

It’s okay to be on either end of that spectrum or anywhere in between. However, when we talk about historical wargames…we’re typically leaning pretty heavily toward the end of the spectrum of folks who find fun in the exploration and deeper understanding of history. That’s one of the best parts of the hobby. I’ve learned so much from opponents about every imaginable historical topic. Not a day goes by on my Twitter feed where a wargamer isn’t sharing an interesting historical article, video, or book recommendation. Wargamers are deeply curious about the past.

With this groundwork laid, then, it’s important to recognize that historical wargames aren’t intended to be marketed like other boardgames. People are going to read the history and bring a wealth of context to the game. As such, it’s critical that the game facilitates gameplay that is equal the gravity of the subject matter. It is unreasonable to expect that people will approach wargame topics as they did 30 or 40 years ago. The world has changed. It’s equally unreasonable to suggest that people can’t enjoy difficult or complex topics that grapple with unpleasant history or social norms.

That’s not a reverence of the past…it’s a remembrance when done well!

A game covering the historical Scramble for Africa deserves to be made. There’s a wealth of ground to cover that remains undiscovered because the history can be inaccessible or intentionally repressed because of the shocking nature of it. When researching my last article, I learned an awful lot and my hope would be that others get to do the same thing. Games can absolutely do that. Look at Volko Ruhnke’s Labyrinth: The War on Terror from GMT Games.

Not only did this game explain some of the power dynamics in the Global War on Terror, but it also successfully modeled why Pakistan and Indonesia were critical centers of terrorism. Had people simply dismissed it by saying, “You can’t make a game about this because of 9/11 and the widespread deaths of Iraqis following the US Invasion of Iraq in 2003.” then we would have lost an important way to engage with recent history. We would have lost an opportunity to explore contemporary problems. We would have lost the many rich observations and difficult truths uncovered by this game.

The difference between GMT’s Scramble for Africa and Labyrinth?

Marketing.

Let’s not forget that Volko spent many frustrating hours providing direct support for this title. People disagreed with him on fundamental issues in the way the Global War on Terror was portrayed in the game. Instead of shying away from the complexity, it was brought to the forefront and defended. Gamers either moved on and dismissed the title or gained a greater understanding of the deep respect and scholarship that Volko brought to the title that might not have been evident at first blush.

The Ruhnke-Russell equivalency.

This equivalency says that the more complex or sensitive the game topic is, the more time that must be invested in the pre-publication, and post-publication support. An equal amount of direct market support and care in the wordsmithing and support of a game will be required in these instances.

Obvious right?

Not so fast… The complication here is that you need to know how controversial the game will be PRIOR to any marketing taking place. It’s more art than science unfortunately.

Market Misbehavior

I think it’s also important to note that while GMT Games made a business decision based on whatever their behind the scenes calculus looks like to determine how a games gets onto and stays on the P500…the market misbehaved in a way that’s somewhat unique to the past 3 – 5 years.

Outrage culture reigns

You may think…Hey…didn’t you write an article blasting Scramble for Africa?

I wrote an article that blasted the marketing copy for Scramble for Africa and I presented an example of how it could have been better handled. I also presented three concrete recommendations for GMT Games that didn’t include outright pulling the game. So, please lower your torches and pitchforks.

What I witnessed, and why I wrote the article are critically important to understand. I felt like GMT Games was:

  • not getting the space to make a statement
  • going to get even more negative coverage regardless of what they said next
  • in a difficult position with a game that was still in development
  • getting wildly unfair treatment

Boardgamegeek’s forums were a mess to be generous about it. At one point, a poster suggested that because two photos of the playtest kit being played by the developer and his wife along with another couple showed only white people playing the game that it was clear evidence of the game’s racist intent. That’s an unreasonable and unfair allegation. On Twitter, because the developer noted that his wife also enjoyed playing the game, that was taken as an indication that GMT Games was misogynistic. The arguments quickly derailed into ad hominem attacks on GMT Games fans, designers, and even on Gene himself.

Apology Not Accepted

After GMT Games published their response and removed Scramble for Africa from the P500 list…people were still incensed about the game. Supporters of the game felt betrayed and began attacking anyone who said a sideways word (myself included). Understand that GMT Games is not controlled by an angry mob, twitter feedback, bgg forum posters, or bloggers. Instead, they make their own business decisions and can weigh for themselves whether it’s a good business decision to keep a game on the market. To paraphrase The Godfather … it’s not personal…it’s business.

The world IS difficult.

Put another way…the world is a complex and difficult place.

Affording that complexity a modicum of respect and the expectation of both giving and receiving the benefit of the doubt underpins civil society. To judge absolutely is to KNOW absolutely and I hardly think anyone is in a place to do that… Honest critique is open to both being proven wrong and not taking a stance that is unsupported. What happened with the outrage following the P500 of Scramble for Africa demonstrated none of that charity or an attempt to come to understanding or even the space to issue an apology that was respectfully heard.

What is even more disheartening is the deafening silence from the most vocal critics to either applaud GMT Games for doing what they perceived to be the right thing or to simply apologize for the borderline slanderous commentary they spewed.

Back to the beginning

Historical wargames must always aim to remember rather than revere. That is the work of honest historians who see the layered complexity of the past. That’s is the joy of wargamers who revel in the nugget of truth being presented to them in a pseudo-simulation. This remembrance takes the good with the bad in equal measure as appropriate.

The entire Scramble for Africa episode revealed a passion that I suspect GMT Games had not envisioned. They said as much in their missive regarding removing the game from P500. The good news is that there is clearly a hunger for a complex game that tackles the colonial race to claim the interior of the African continent. It is an essential history to understand as the new race for Africa has already begun with new players this time around including an globally expansive Chinese empire.

My sincere hope is that people can move forward and if (when?) this game is brought back to market…give it an honest chance. Give the designer and developer an opportunity to cure what they’re interested in to the degree that they’re interested. Give GMT Games the space to provide a pro-active marketing campaign that helps to address concerns before conjecture and name-calling dominate the discussion. Finally, my hope is that publishers use this as an opportunity to recognize the ugly side of social media for what it is and calibrate games to their core values.

Strong Values = Strong Following

This article is a bit of a mishmash of thoughts at this point so I’ll throw in one last nugget.

Every business, wargaming publishers included, must operate first and foremost from a their core values. The stronger these core values are, the better the company will perform and connect with their followers.

  • Apple Computers value design simplicity and, in the words of Steve Jobs, an interface that “just works.”
  • Coca-Cola sells a soft-drink that evokes good times, nostalgia, and personal connections.
  • Ford Motor Company sells cars that work as hard as the people who drive them.

How do I know this? Their advertising, product focus, and the way they communicate expresses this over and over again. You may hate these products and love Dell, Pepsi, and GM more than the examples here. They too operate from core values that connected with you and converted you into a follower!

GMT Games should be applauded, loudly I might add, for sticking to their core values when they pulled Scramble for Africa from P500. They admitted there was a misalignment there and hopefully they can work behind the scenes to correct that. That’s what core values are all about. That’s what makes businesses strong.

I’ve seen plenty of folks saying, “I’ll never buy another GMT Games release again because they were cowards and caved!” Great. Don’t. You are 100% a customer than they can afford to lose because you aren’t buying into their core values and you don’t respect it when they stick to their core values. These are not customer conversions that are going to happen for GMT by chasing the values of people on EITHER side of the issue around Scramble for Africa. The only winning move is to stick to the values that built the company.

For GMT Games…that core value seems to be:

We make high quality, opinionated games, with a focus on helping our customers understand the history of the world.

That opinionated games part is critically important because it highlights the complexity that GMT Games has to struggle with every time they put a game on the P500. There are going to be times when they get it wrong and have to re-evaluate. Aside from Mike Nagel, I don’t think anyone was as bummed about Captain’s Sea getting dismissed from GMT Games P500 as I was. I didn’t “abandon ship” and leave GMT Games! I respected their decision and continued to buy into their core values as a company.

Ultimately, this episode was pretty ugly on all sides of the issue. Though a strong core group continued to debate the historical merit and approaches, the lengthier the debate the less related to the actual marketing copy that existed. As such, it diverged from informed debate well into the territory of pure speculation. There’s a passion here that’s been revealed and hopefully it will lead to a game about the Scramble for Africa that people seem keenly interested in based on the productive parts of public conversation.


THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN SUPERSEDED AT THIS POINT AND I WOULD RECOMMEND YOU CHECK OUT THE LAST ARTICLE I’LL BE WRITING ON THIS TOPIC: https://wargamehq.com/scramble-for-identity-the-struggle-to-control-the-past/

UPDATE:

GMT Games issued a statement today (4/7/19) that indicated they would remove Scramble for Africa from the P500 program. Their response provided a framework for respecting the designer/developer team while also recommitting themselves to their core values. They admitted to the concerns expressed and acknowledged the constructive conversation (though there were many who were not…) both publicly and privately.

KUDOS to GMT GAMES!

The Belgians mutilated the bodies of the Congolese, largely slaves or slaves in everything but name, who couldn’t keep up with King Leopold II’s rubber demands. How did Leopold II manage to secure Belgian Congolese interests? You probably remember the quote, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” Well, that was said by Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh explorer thrust into fame when he found David Livingstone a Scottish missionary and Victorian era hero whose motto “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization” are now remembered on his statue at Victoria Falls. Livingstone would make a few missions to Africa and famously, at least by hobby gamer standards, was his try to find “the source of the Nile.” Later, this expedition would inspire a game by Avalon Hill that drew upon many elements of these Victorian expeditions into the heart of Africa. A similar game from Legion Wargames has been on their Customer Pre-Order (CPO) called “Heart of Darkness” which focuses on the single explorer experience like “Source of the Nile.”

More recently, GMT Games has thrown their hat into the ring with a Victorian era game about Africa called “Scramble for Africa.” As the website indicates, players:

explore, build, and compete economically in Africa from around 1850 to 1900. In this game, you will take the role of one of six European powers with an eye toward exploring the unknown interior of Africa, discovering land and natural resources, and building economic infrastructure to rival and exceed that of your fellow players.

https://www.gmtgames.com/p-746-scramble-for-africa.aspx

Where “Source of the Nile” focused on enriching yourself as an explorer by leveraging exploration strategies that might include cooperating with local guides, “Scramble for Africa” focuses on European colonial exploitation of Africa. As you can imagine, stories about the atrocities of this period were quickly remembered by the gaming community at large. After all, photos of children with their hands cut off, or the heartbreaking photo of a father staring at his daughters hands which had been chopped off for not meeting rubber production are potent reminders of the savagery of colonialism in the not too distant past. The hurt remains contemporaneously accessible in our 21st Century. After all, it was only 2005 when the Belgian government formally called by the British House of Commons to recognize the atrocities of the Congo Free State as genocidal and to issue a formal apology.

What Went Wrong?

Given the backdrop of a colonial multifaceted race to exploit a continent, how can a “game” be sensitive to this topic?

Frankly, I’m not entirely sure I can. That said, I know I could do a better job than what’s going on with this title at GMT Games right now.

  • Don’t minimize genocide, human rights abuses, and a dark unethical colonial past with marketing copy like “The random events include penalties for atrocities and rewards for discovering natural wonders and ending slavery.”
    • A few points here, because this needs to unpacked a bit. First, this game minimizes the Berlin Conference’s slavery suppression mandate to a random event despite the fact that it was included in the conference because it was clear that European powers were raiding central Africa for slave labor well past when many of their nations had outlawed slavery. Second, atrocities are something that “just happens” in this game. This implies that atrocities were somehow deterministic in their occurrence. This is revisionist hogwash that effectively takes the possibility of trying to play morally out of the player’s hands.
  • Another bad piece of copy here that misses an opportunity to live up to the “Scramble for Africa” game title is ” You may also have your Explorers build facilities on an explored terrain tile, thus claiming control over that part of Africa.”
    • Again, even a cursory review of the era would establish the actual historical setting and context for how powers would secure rights. These were hugely exploitative and were intended to carve up Africa while minimizing continental tensions. This method implies that if you build it, you bought it.
    • What might you build? According to the site, ” Like your late-19th Century counterparts, you have the strategic choice between exploring for mineral wealth (gold, diamonds, or copper), and building plantations (cocoa, coffee, rubber).” So, effectively, you must recommit the crimes of the past to gain points in a whitewashed “economic success” final victory condition.
  • The Designer Diary that was recently posted adds more context to the native African population’s options, ” The active player pays money to the bank and then rolls a die to see if they can place a Revolt on an opposing player’s tile. If successful, the opposing player removes ALL facilities built on that tile! To help prevent revolts, players may want to use a Build Action to put Garrisons on their tiles.”
    • So, this game doubles down on exploitation by implying that tribes would be used as weapons against other colonial powers, but their success can only even be so limited that it never gains any form of independence. This also doesn’t remotely jive with the history. Ethiopia was able to drive Italy out and self-rule with the exception of 1936-43. This was self-led, as were other coordinated and organized revolts across Africa.

These are only a handful of the concerns I have. Others have posted concerns on the Developer Diary, Board Game Geek game page, and Twitter.

The Hollandspiele Model

Unfortunately, GMT Games has done nothing to respond despite ample opportunity. Neither the developer, designer, nor anyone from GMT Games themselves have commented in any of these public venues about the game’s initial reception. This is a far cry from the way that Hollandspiele handled the pre-release diaries and marketing communication for their game “This Guilty Land.” That game pits players against each other as abstract ideas of justice and oppression. The marketing copy is clear and to the point.

In this game, each player acts on behalf of an abstract idea – Justice and Oppression – with one player working for abolition and the other working against it. It seeks to treat the subject matter with sensitivity and respect. There is no piece that represents a human being – no action that replicates the horrors and the lived experience of slavery. Instead, this is about the framework that allowed that evil to exist, and the moral cowardice that enabled it to continue to exist.

https://hollandspiele.com/products/this-guilty-land

Tom Russell even did a lengthy interview about the game with the Low Player Count podcast on September 3rd, 2018. In this interview, he lays out the struggle to design with compassion and nuance. Russell presents the game in the context in which he wants it to be seen and gives far greater credit to gamers for being able to “game” such a serious and complex moral subject. The heart of Russell’s work is compassion.

A Way Forward I Presume?

It’s this compassion that’s so dearly missing from the GMT Games pre-release of “Scramble for Africa.” Instead of nuance, the copy on the website reads like the giddy marketing-speak on the back of a 1950’s Milton Bradley game. It’s tone deaf at just the wrong time on the wrong subject. Instead of finding a way to create a complex and nuanced way to experience history, we’re being given a simplified colonial fairy-tale intended to whitewash (or at least ignore) the actual painful history of European colonization in Africa. That’s not what GMT Games is known for and, bluntly put, I expect a whole lot more of them out of this situation both in terms of clarifying and in terms of taking common-sense steps to correct the first-impression people are getting.

Everyone deserves the right of an honest acceptance of an apology or clarification. Good faith must be granted, especially for a game so early in its marketing cycle. The P500 system exists to test the waters. I have deleted my P500 order for this game after some additional thought. I back nearly everything GMT offers as soon as it goes on P500 and own close to 200 of their games and expansions. I cannot, in good conscience lend my support to “Scramble for Africa” in its current state though. What is sad, is that this game has more P500 orders (297 for Scramble) than St. Omer to St. Crispin: Tactical Battles of the Hundred Years War from designer Mike Nagel which is sitting at 281 after much longer on the P500 list. Nagel is a proven designer with some of the best Age of Sail fleet combat games on the market to his name (Flying Colors). I know what you’re saying, “Keith, that’s a wargame…and a niche one at that. Scramble for Africa is more of a strategy game.” I would say…great! Then why does “Mystery Wizard” a capture the flag fantasy battle game ALSO not have as many pre-orders? In effect, it’s not just that “Scramble for Africa” is a lighter game that makes it more attractive.

So, what are some common-sense next steps for GMT Games?

  • Encourage the designer to get out there and defend his work.
  • Revise the marketing copy if there is a more nuanced game here than is being represented currently.
  • Defend your choice of placing this game on the P500 and explain how it fits in with GMT Games’ view of topics that it wants to publish.

More Information

For those of you who would like more information on this time period, I suggest looking at the following resources: