Victorian Game Night

Martin Wallace’s board game Brass. Image courtesy of author.

Susan E. Cook
Southern New Hampshire University

If I take out a loan now, I’ll have enough money to build a coal mine.  The coal I produce will enable me to build rail to my cotton mill and eventually sell the cotton I produce to the distant market.  Or I can build a foundry, use the iron I produce to build another cotton mill, and then produce and sell cotton through other people’s ports, capitalizing on their infrastructure.

It’s Friday night and I’m in my living room playing Martin Wallace’s game Brass, an industrial revolution-themed board game in which players develop industry in Northern England during a canal era and then a railway era.  In the game, players own coal mines, cotton mills, foundries, ports, and shipyards; and they build canals and railways: truly captains of all industries.  The purpose is to build the most productive network, to earn money and points for every building and shipment, and there are no bonus points for efficiency.  Although the game begins in the eighteenth century, by its conclusion in the Victorian era Britain from Macclesfield to Barrow-in-Furness is a wasteland of mines and rails and buildings.

Brass is an economic game, and it’s no Monopoly.  It is one of thousands of such high-strategy board games circulating today in the back rooms of game shops and living rooms of enthusiasts, enjoyed by those who have long since graduated from the likes of Sorry or Risk.  These players prefer physical pieces and human interaction to the relatively virtual and detached computer and video game world.  Nor is Brass the only Victorian-flavored board game: there are games based on Victorian literary characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, and games based on notorious personages and events, like Jack the Ripper and colonialism (the most amusing title in this last category is Rampant Colonialism).  There is an entire sub-genre based on the development of the railway systems in Europe and the United States, several games of which incorporate historical events into the game play.  There are hundreds if not thousands of Victorian-themed games.

I contemplate this as I decide whether it’s worth trying to sell my cotton to the distant market (“distant” here means “East”: the distant market card features what appears to be a British chap in a top hat shaking hands with a man wearing a turban).  Why do games such as Brass adopt historical themes?  What do players get out of these themes—if anything at all?  It’s easy for me to see that this game designer knew a thing or two about the history and economics of the industrial revolution, though the game is not overly historical.  A casual inquiry among players, however, indicates that fewer than half of them really think about the theme of Brass or, for that matter, any of the games they play.  While theme may be an initial draw, the way a game works is ultimately the most important factor.  Competition is the focus; to win efficiently, players abstract the game to its bare mechanics.  For many players, Brass could be set anywhere.

Distant Market cards. Image courtesy of author.

Nevertheless, I hazard to suggest the game teaches something, however subtle the lesson and however unreceptive the audience.  This game, no matter how abstractly a gamer may look at it, is blatantly about setting up industrial trade routes.  People have been effaced from the game: goods simply appear, and each player represents more of an unregulated corporate conglomerate than any one person or company.  This is an apt mechanic for a game set during the explosion of the business corporation, and players might learn a bit about the depersonalization and mechanization underlying such financial ventures despite themselves.

The larger lesson might be about our own estrangement from history.  Let me explain, via a more extreme example.  Another, even more popular game, features as its theme plantation development and the circulation of goods in Puerto Rico during the sixteenth century.  The game, called Puerto Rico, works very well as a game, and hence its popularity.  It is also covertly about the triangle trade, and the surreptitious way it deals with this is troubling.  In the game, ships arrive with “colonists” on board.  These “colonists” are represented by dark brown discs, and they go to work on the plantation or in the businesses each player controls.  They are converted, during the next phase of the game, into goods: sugar, tobacco, corn, indigo, and coffee.  The goods are loaded onto the ships, the players collect points for the shipments, and the cycle repeats.

Although this game does not hide its theme, it uses the euphemistic name “colonists” in place of “slaves.”  Perhaps in part as a result of this displacement, players do not tend to over-analyze the fact that they are effectively playing at being slave owners.  This lack of reflection is disturbing.  If the themes of these games are so frequently dismissed or under-analyzed, what purpose do these themes then serve?  They seem to satisfy a mild interest, a kind of passive engagement with history.

“Colonists” working plantations in Puerto Rico. Image courtesy of author.

A culture can be understood, in part, through the games it plays.  The Victorians played games such as Beggar My Neighbor, Speculation, and Commerce—games that reflect an interest in the world of finance.  What do our loosely historical games say about us?  The complexity of the industrial revolution in England is flattened out in Brass—how could it not be?  It’s a game that takes an hour and a half to play on a board that can fit on my coffee table.  But maybe what we learn in place of a complete Victorian history is a story about our cultural values, mirrored in the game mechanics themselves.  These values appear to prioritize abstract mechanization over historical narrative, corporate conglomeration over individual worker, economic triumph over anything else.  Perhaps this is a bit unjust—after all, winning is the goal of most games.  But if you win by being the most ruthless captain of industry or slave owner, what do you take away from the game?

I overbuild someone else’s foundry in Manchester, which is this game’s way of messing with your opponent.  It also represents a corporate takeover and worker layoffs.  This will allow me to earn immediate points and money, to build a ship in Liverpool, and to win.


  1. I Googled you and I found a link on twitter to an article you wrote about Brass.

    My friends and I are avid gamers, we’ve played a lot of games, such as Settlers of Cataan, Ticket to Ride, Arkham Horror, and an old Dune game from the seventies among them. We also play Puerto Rico (zer boyfriend owns it, I think). I was totally shocked at what you wrote about the game being a subtle reference to the slave trade! I’m kind of baffled that I hadn’t noticed it before.

    When I talked to zer boyfriend about it, he refuted it. He suggested that the game mechanics came first, and then that Puerto Rico was just a convenient setting for the idea they had, that they hadn’t intentionally set out to make a game about slavery. Hm, I am not articulating this well. The game designers had an idea (let’s make a trading and settling game, but it can’t be like Settlers or people will hate it), worked out what the workings of the gameplay, and then picked what it was they should set it in. Er, does that make sense?

    I was just curious to see if you had a rebuttal. Your idea intrigues me, but I also think zer boyfriend might have a point.

  2. Oh, interesting question! I’m glad you asked about this. Here’s my rebuttal:

    Your boyfriend is, on the one hand, completely right. Puerto Rico is a Euro game, and like most Euro games, the mechanics are at the heart of the game–not the theme. This is no Axis and Allies. Some people complain about the extent to which Euro themes are kind of tacked on last minute. So in this sense, yes: your boyfriend is correct that the theme is not the reason why most people play Puerto Rico–they play it for the excellent game mechanics.

    But–and this is important—Puerto Rico *does* have a theme, as do most Euros. It is not just an abstract game. The designers thought it needed something (in this case, something historical) to help attract players.

    It seems there are two issues up for debate: 1, to what extent is Puerto Rico about the slave trade, and 2, to what extent is the theme of the game important to the experience one has playing Puerto Rico?

    For issue 1, I would argue that Puerto Rico is most definitely about the slave trade. From the back of the box: “In 1493 Christopher Columbus discovered the eastern-most island of the Great Antilles. About 50 years later, Puerto Rico began to really blossom–through you! Which roles will you play in this new world: Prospector? Governor? Settler? Trader? Whatever you do, you have one goal: to achieve the greatest prosperity and highest reputation? Who will have the most fruitful plantation? Who will build the most impressive buildings? And, who will earn the most victory points?”

    In the original German version, the “Craftsman” is called the “Aufseher.” The better English translation is “Overseer.” Here is an interesting comment from BoardGameGeek user Dr. Schlotter on Aug. 24, 2008:

    “To make things worse, the German equivalent of the Craftsman role card is called ‘Aufseher’ which translates into ‘Overseer’ (although it does not have quite the connotation of the English word). Then again, if the ‘colonists’ travelled to P.R. for the joy of it, why would they need to be pressed into bringin in the harvest? So, yes, the brown pieces represent slaves, at least in fraction, and yes, slavery was a vital part of colonial economy in the period. People who consent to slavery do, in absence of a better word, suck. However, you can play a game of P.R. and even enjoy it without being a supporter of slavery. I would prefer a game of P.R. with an open minded individual who is aware of the theme over a game of , say, innocent Bohnanza with a racist any old day.”

    While many (including me) have interpreted the “colonists” as a euphemism for “slaves,” there *is* some debate about this issue. See, for instance, the debate here: But, I mean, come on. The “colonists” are dark brown, they are brought in on boats, they work on plantations, and they produce goods which are then loaded onto the boats.

    But it seems your boyfriend’s argument has more to do with issue 2, the extent to which this theme impacts the playing of the game. This is what my online post was all about. I would argue that the theme *does* matter, even when we are not actively thinking about it while playing games such as Puerto Rico. Basically, I would respond with a couple of questions of my own:

    1. Why do we theme these games at all, if the themes don’t matter? What is the theme doing for us when we play the game? I think the games have themes because we need these games rooted somehow in the world, or in space, or in a fantasy realm–we need to be located somewhere. But why?

    2. Why *this* theme? There are other themes that could accomplish the same goal, I’m sure. Related to this: where do we draw the line? If the *only* theme that works for a given mechanic is, say, transporting “sub-humans” on trains to a gas chamber…well, you see the problem with *that* example. So why are brown discs in pre-19th c. Puerto Rico–called “colonists” but traded for goods–okay?

    3. Why do we reject historical analysis? That’s the real heart of my original post. Why do most of my board gaming friends ignore the themes? And since so many people ignore the themes, why do the themes exist in the first place?

    But now we’re back at the beginning. I like the mechanics of the game Puerto Rico. At the same time I’m troubled by the theme. I believe we should think more actively about the ways this game and others make us participants in historical scenarios. I believe the resistance to this kind of thinking is perhaps the most troubling thing of all.

Leave a Reply

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