For those of you unfamiliar, the Cities & Knights expansion to Settlers of Catan moves the players beyond the initial settlement of the new land and into the building and development of more established cities (along with the need to defend them). It’s actually a substantial expansion, easily doubling the depth and strategic complexity of the game.
But does it make any developments on the representation front?
Well, native people still don’t exist, but as we’re moving out of initial colonisation and into the development of existing cities, thematically, this is slightly less of a problematic element than the original game. Slightly.
And we get another person of colour! There are 6 cards (of 47 depicting people) in the merchant deck that feature dark-skinned traders with camels, Middle Eastern dress, and lots of sand. 1 So that’s … something, at least.
There is a ‘Barbarian Ship’ that periodically attacks the settlers. While traditionally a negative, heavily racially coded word, in the game, it’s just a black ship and there’s no art of what the ‘barbarians’ look like. So we’re going to let this one slide.
Interestingly, there are exactly the same number of cards depicting women in this expansion as there are in the base set (4), but there’s nearly double the number of cards depicting people, so the overall representation percentage falls dramatically. The cover art does include 3 women to 2 men, but that’s far outweighed by the fact that in this expansion each player gets 6 playable knights–all men.
Well, there’s no longer a little hetero family on the cover, but there are a few wedding cards that offer bonuses. There’s actually not a clear bride and groom in the art, so it’s a stretch, but if you wanted to use this card to get gifts to celebrate your same-sex wedding, technically nothing in the game is stopping you. That bumps us up a star, to the ‘nothing actively preventing you from getting your gay on within one very slim opportunity’’ category.
We do get a teeeeny bit more variety of bodies in this expansion. A few older people. A little more variation in shapes in heights. Not as much as I would like and still no people with disabilities, but it’s not ‘absolutely no variation from the single beauty mold’ like the base set, so:
So I already had a follow-up article queued up on the Settlers of Catan expansion, Cities & Knights, but on my PAX panel, I was talking about the morning I dug through all my games for a Twitter rant on whether people who were not straight, white men existed within games I owned. And I was reminded of this gem of a game, which just barely passed this most basic test with a single picture of native woman handing a man blankets.
For those of you unfamiliar, Settlers of America is a spin-off (not an expansion, I guess–it plays standalone) of Catan focused on the westward expansion of colonisation in America:
Similar dynamics of resource management as the original, but without the randomisation of the board. The main mechanism and victory conditions are a bit different–instead of just building your own settlements, you have to build railroads connecting your cities to others’ to deliver them goods; the first to deliver 8 goods wins. It’s… not as good as the original by far, and the problematic elements of the colonial theme are even worse.
But on a second look, I was actually wrong about it passing the representation test based only on that single native woman! I missed that there’s another solo woman pictured on the back of the resource card. My sincere apologies. This changes everything. Ha!
So I’ll make this fast and easy and just show you all of the cards that don’t have only white men on them upfront:
Native folk exist! Sort of! Their presence in the west has no impact on game play or your character’s manifest destiny 1, but at least they’ll give you blankets.
I’m on a panel Friday evening and moderating one Saturday afternoon. Please come along!
Cultivating Safe & Inclusive Nerd Spaces – Friday, 4 November at 6:30pm in Kookaburra Theatre So you’ve recognized our community has a problem with inclusivity & hasn’t always prioritized the safety/needs of people from different backgrounds. But enough about the problem–what are you going to do about it? It’s one thing to want safe, inclusive spaces. It’s another to make them happen. This panel is targeted at everyone who wants to take an active role in creating more diverse & inclusive nerd spaces. Come along to learn specific, practical, tested strategies for building such spaces.
Geekological Diversity: Tabletop Edition – Saturday, 5 November at 2:00pm in Kookaburra Theatre We hear a lot about issues of diversity & representation in video gaming. But what about the tabletop side of geekdom? Don’t those nerds deserve to see themselves represented in their games too? So who’s doing this well? Who’s doing it badly? What does that even mean? Can you have good games that handle representation issues poorly? How do we engage with problematic games as conscientious gamers? Join a gamer, creator, blogger, & academic to explore these critical questions.
Otherwise, I’ll be attending a few panels, wandering the expo hall, tabletop gaming heaps, and chatting up people who might be interested in getting involved with the tabletop side of GXAustralia.
The front of the box for Billionaire Banshee says:
Trust me! This game is awesome!
I can endorse this perspective. (With some caveats and a few cards tossed in the bin.)
I got this gem of a game after a friend introduced me to it post-PAX last year. 1 So it seems appropriate as I gear up for PAX this weekend (come say hi or see my panels!) to showcase it. It’s sheer silliness and fun.
For those of you unfamiliar, Billionaire Banshee is a party game about finding your perfect partner. I’d put it in a similar category as Cards Against Humanity, but with less of a race-to-the-bottom to see who can be more horrible. It’s really a game of how well you know your friends and expressing outrage and incredulousness when they don’t live up to your expectations, but let’s keep pretending it’s about dating.
So in the standard rules (there are a few variants for added nonsense), everyone has two voting cards: DATE and DENY. There are two stacks of potential-partner cards: PERK and QUIRK. The reader reads one then the other, and together these form the profile of a potential partner for them. For example, the namesake cards:
The reader secretly selects whether they would DATE or DENY this person, placing the corresponding voting card in front of them–is it a big deal that they’re a banshee? If so, does them being a billionaire outweigh it? Everyone else attempts to guess what the reader will answer for this hypothetical future person and also secretly selects a voting card. Then everyone reveals their answers–if you match the reader, you win the round. Except like most party games and also real life, the points pretty much don’t matter at all and no one really pays attention to them.
The Perk card is ostensibly a positive trait about the potential-partner and the quirk is a weird, negative, or just unique-but-not-for-everyone trait. But you’ll quickly see that much like real dating, one person’s Perk is another person’s Quirk, and you’ll spend most of the game fighting it out.
Race is not much of a factor in the game play, and blessedly there are no ‘they are of a different race than you!’ or ‘they are black!’ grossness cards that legitimise the idea that it’s okay to discriminate against people solely for their race when dating, particularly without taking in account any individual facts about the person. 2
Race is an interesting factor in the card art, though. There are a handful of cards with clear white characters on them, a handful of black characters, and a couple that seem to be coded as east Asian. But a majority of cards are some variety of Ambiguously Brown(™).
Before I start an article, I normally count of how many cards showed people of colour and people who were not men (more on that below), and… I couldn’t with this game. I’ve talked before about how it’s inherently problematic to try to racially identify characters when all you have is a single picture of them and no background (and I definitely hate trying to be the arbitrar of ‘is your skin brown enough to make you not-white’), but this game really was an extreme case of that (deliberately, I am pretty sure). But in a positive way, not a ‘everyone is white but one character who is a little tan, do we give you ‘credit’ for it?’ kind of way like we usually see in games.
I know there is debate about how much Ambiguously Brown(™) characters actually increase diversity and it’s an interesting discussion, one that is particularly relevant to TV & movies where someone’s experience as a person of colour in modern society can be explored or ignored. But in this context, of visual art of showing a variety of shades of brown skin as the ‘default’ character? I hands-down loved it.
As the (excellent) article I linked just above says: “Maybe brownness is ambiguous in part because our hazy shared concepts of what people ‘should’ look like don’t necessarily reflect reality.”
I’m doing it:
Several things that kick total ass:
The game is specifically and clearly designed to be gender-neutral and gender-inclusive–there are no assumptions about the gender of the players, the gender of the potential partners, or the gender preferences of any players.
There are three pieces of art on the back of the cards: a rainbow unicorn (fantasy Perks/Quirks), a purple bear wearing leather and holding a whip (sex-related Perks/Quirks, and a deliberately-coded androgynous or non-binary person (everyday life Perks/Quirks).
On the front of the cards, a vast, vast majority show a gender-ambiguous person (a small number are gender-coded in fairly distinct masculine or feminine ways, but not many).
All cards use gender-neutral language to refer to the potential partners.
The rules use gender-neutral language to refer to the players.
However, then we get to these two cards:
And of course both are quirk cards.
I have debated how I feel about these cards and how to talk about them for quite some time now. I actually wrote many paragraphs about it but then a few weeks ago I was at a friend of a friend’s birthday party. It was a significantly younger crowd, a wonderful little enclave of queer/poly/gender diverse late teens/very early 20s folk that made me persistently think, “Yeah, the kids are all right.”
We were playing Billionaire Banshee and one of these cards came out, and they said something that cut through all the bullshit I was internally debating:
Kid 1: “They have genitals of the opposite sex.”
Kid 2: “What?”
Kid 3: “Opposite of what? What does that even mean?”
Kid 4: “Yeah. This card is for the hets. Moving on.”
Everyone simultaneously: “DATE!”
Overall, there are very few games that put so much effort into rejecting the gendered binary and respecting a wide range of gender diversity, so it’s extra weird to have these cards that just don’t even make sense within that paradigm. Opposite of what? What does that even mean?
These might be good cards to just quietly remove from your set, but they’re more confusing than anything. I am docking half a point and throwing some mild side-eye. These cards are for the hets. Moving on.
Similarly to gender, I don’t know any other published games 3 that put so much effort in rejecting heteronormative standards, in art, in language, and game-play mechanics. Whether you’re straight, gay, bi, pan, ace, 4 or robot, this game accommodates your preferences. As mentioned, there’s no assumed gender of players, of partners, or of preferences. Yay!
But there’s some somewhat weird handling of sexuality I thought worth mentioning, particularly given how inclusive the rest of the game is:
“They are a virgin” is a Perk. What? Everyone I’ve ever played with finds this super gross. The general consensus is that being a virgin is by no means a deal-breaker and it would be a good Quirk card, but outside of a small number of very specific scenarios (You’re also a virgin and would prefer someone with a similar experience level for your first time?), if you think finding a partner who is a virgin is a perk, you probably have some deeply problematic, sex-negative, and likely misogynistic shit you need to go unpack.
There is zero acknowledgement of alternative relationship models. None. In fact, a lot of cards explicitly enforce single-couple monogamy. How hard would it be to have like one card of “They only want to have non-monogamous relationships”? This would spark interesting discussions, surely.
Oh, but “They randomly cheat on you” is a card. Which I think is a fine card in general, it just frustrates me in the context of being pretty much the only reference to non-monogamy in this game. And you can’t even be like “meh, I don’t care if they fuck other people” which this card because it explicitly discusses them lying to you about it, which my crowd tends to find more bothersome.
“They are asexual” is a card. So we’re back to the voting-about-people’s-identity thing. And the card explicitly says they’re monogamous and want you to be monogamous, which again has been the bigger deal breaker in my crowds. The other day, I got “They are asexual” and “They are a world-class cuddler” together, and I would BE ALL OVER DATING THAT if they weren’t also going to force me to be monogamous.
I find this whole area frustrating, because my perfect long-term partner *wouldn’t* enforce monogamy, regardless of any of their other traits. But this game doesn’t allow that as an option.
Still, though, I’m going to stick to my original scale, which awarded bonus points for alternative relationship models but didn’t detract for their lack. Given how this meets and exceed the top standard for sexuality representation–“there are queer-identified characters and/or game play explicitly allows or encourages queer identities and behaviours”–I’m giving it:
Like the other categories, there are a lot of things Billionaire Banshee does well in the body department. If you’re just talking body size/shape/lack of adherence to impossible social body norms, it’s a stand-out. If you’re talking about avoiding ableism and representing people with disabilities…. Not so much.
The good stuff first. As mentioned, the only human character on the backs of the cards is a short, chubby adorable enby. On the front of the cards, the default body-shape is a squat, squarish person, with the occasional variation. Some of the variations are tall bodies, some short, some slim, etc. There is only one card that refers to body type at all and it’s “They are Hercules-level muscular”. And it is actually listed as a Quirk, not a Perk. Overall, no real complaints with this part.
But. Then it starts to get grim. There are a few cards that allude to people with disabilities — “they have no feet,” for example. But there are no depictions of people with visible disabilities just casually in the art, which I think is a damn shame. How hard is it to have a few people using mobility aids? Spolier: Not hard, you just have to try. Also, I think it would be cool to have some cards that highlighted people with disabilities in funny ways like the game does with able-bodied people–for example, “Their wheelchair can go car speeds.” Or “Their cane can turn into a hoop snake”. So the fact that they’re in a wheelchair or use a cane is incidental, and we’re voting on a ridiculous perk a la several existing cards.
And then there are these two cards:
(If you can’t quite make them out, the cards read “They have tourettes.” & “They are narcoleptic.”)
And…. no. Just no. I actually had to get this shot from a friend, because I had thrown mine away the moment I saw them.
Every other card in the game refers to a person’s traits. These are the only two cards that refer to a medical diagnosis. 5 A medical diagnosis that in both cases has a wide, wide range of symptoms and the amount it actually impacts anyone’s life or partner’s life. But instead we’re told to draw on the most extreme pop culture stereotypes you have of these diseases and then vote on that person’s value as a human.
Talking about a symptom and asking you to evaluate a very specific trait outside the context of identity is very different to me than asking you to pass a referendum on a person based on your own or others’ stereotypes about that identity and legitimises discrimination against people in that category. If it was instead “They shout random curse words at strangers” then explained in the description that it’s a verbal tic, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. But “they have tourrette’s”? No. So much no. (Spoiler: many people with tourette’s don’t have this as a tic and those who do can sometimes control it or minimise it with good medical care.)
For this amount of problematic grossness, I’m docking a half-star and throwing even more side-eye.
I guess a single game can’t be everything to everyone. But this one sure tried. Remove those two gross cards about people’s medical diagnoses and, soften up the MONOGAMY ONLY vibe, stop speculating on other people’s genitals, and increase representation of people with disabilities in the art, and you’d have me saying it succeeded.
Uh, okay, actually, his copy is actually now my copy after I borrowed it and someone spilled a glass of wine all over it at my table and thus my brand new clean copy is now his copy. If we’re being technical. #oops ↩
Well, I guess there are a couple cards that boil down to ‘they are a non-human race’. I am sure the centaurs are upset at legitimising their discrimination, but I think centaur rights are outside the scope of my discussion. But if any centaurs would like me reconsider my position on this, let me know. ↩
There are cards that explicitly refer to sex or the partner wanting sex or specific kinds of sex, BUT they’re clearly labelled on the back, with the intent that you can sort them out from the game entirely if you don’t want to play with sexual considerations or just skip drawing them yourself. Also, you can always draw them anyway and DENY them if they want something you’re not offering. ↩
Some cards refer to a specific symptom of a probable medical problem–”They have random mid-sleep diarrhea”, for example–but not the name of a medical problem. And that one has mostly been a deal-breaker for people because part of the card description says they refuse to wear any incontinence aids. And to me “they have this specific symptom” AND “they refuse to take any practical steps to minimize its impact on your shared life” is a completely different situation than “they have X medical condition, please draw your own stereotypes”. ↩