Scramble for Africa: A Lesson in How NOT To Launch a Game

How Not To Launch A Game



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.


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.

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.

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:

Have your say!

0 0


  1. Good read. Thanks for this. I wish more companies took more time to consider their contribution to the revisionist history, or at least were half as intelligent as Tom and Mary of Hollandspiele -T

  2. Thanks, Keith.

  3. I understand your opinion, but I do not understand why you take exception with SfA. In A Distant Plain, you can take control of the Talibans: I do not remember similar accusations on whether the game accurately portrays the horrors that this group has inflicted, from forced recruitment to the curtailing of freedom for millions of women. What about playing the warlords? Should we criticise the game for not simulating the impact of the poppy fields on drug addicts around the world? Talking about another game, Labyrinth comes to mind as a game that ignores the cruel realities inflicted by both sides, and some events could certainly be criticised in the same manner as your argument on the Berlin Conference.

    So why should this game take so much flack? You say it is due to its presentation. First, I would urge you to look at the blurbs from other games, including the ones I cited above. I do not see a clear difference. I live in Africa, and I know enough to recognise whitewashing when I see it. “Exploration, colonisation and exploitation of Africa” is not whitewashing, it actually a rather factual description; maybe it would be interesting for you to compare this short description to the language used in France and Great Britain when trying to revise colonisation. “Bringing civilisation” comes to mind, I have not seen anything like that in SfA.

    Pretty much any historical game produced by GMT et al can be criticised in the way you do here. Considering the name of this site, I would urge you to consider balancing your opinions. I am not saying you should change your attitude towards SfA, I am just pointing out that singling this one out seems rather unfair. I do agree however that GMT and the designer should have taken the criticism head-on, but again, they might have simply have been surprised at a reaction that has never been encountered before.

    • I was critical of the copy provided given the nature of the topic. I pointed out specific phrases that were either under-explained or misleading and why I felt that way. I also provided a real-world framework for tackling complex issues a la Hollandspiele.

      There are MANY historical topics that are difficult to negotiate. The HOW in those cases is more important than the WHAT. That the topic is difficult or complex demands a higher degree of care when crafting the messaging.

      If you don’t see the difference in presentation, then I’m not going to dive in to try and assist here. Suffice it to say that the market felt differently than you do and its entirely up to you to decide if you are okay with that or not. From a marketing copy perspective, there was A LOT to be desired from the SfA developer blog and P500 page.

      Does that mean it should be shelved forever? Absolutely not.

      If anything, I think there’s a great opportunity here for GMT to resurrect this game with some additional development and a coordinated marketing campaign that goes live knowing full well the concerns that have been raised by others. I think they’ve left themselves the room to do this and, if anything, I see the controversy as an opportunity to educate and service a topic that maybe NEEDS serious and nuanced attention!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Lost Password

Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email.

Sign Up

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.