Expansions!: Catan: Cities & Knights

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.

Shows the commodities flipbook, metropolis, barbarian ship, commodity dice, knights, and city walls.
New components!

But does it make any developments on the representation front?

Race

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.

It’s earned:

1 star

Gender

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.

Disappointing.

1 star

Sexuality

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.

1 star

Body

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:

1 star

Overall

Overall, some minor improvements in most categories. People who are not white men with the exact same conventionally attractive bodies exist at least, and there’s a very, very minor opportunity to queer the narrative. Still a long way to go, but significant improvements from the original and from the Settlers of America spin-off as well.

Race ★☆☆
Gender ★☆☆
Sexuality ★☆☆
Body ★☆☆
Overall Average 1.00

 

Notes:

  1. How and why they brought camels over the ocean to this tiny island is neither here nor there.

The Red Dragon Inn

Like Villainy, this is another game that is just sheer fun. More random/luck-based and less strategy than Villainy, but equally fun in flavour. (This is another game JimmyTheGeek introduced me to; he’s all about the awesome flavour text. If you want more fun games (specifically unique RPGs), check out his and Bea Bravo ‘s new podcast, Have You Roleplayed.)

For those of you unfamiliar, this game is about the adventure after the adventure. You’re a band of DnD-style adventurers–you’ve got a wizard, a warrior, a rogue, and a cleric. The adventure is over for the day, presumably successfully, and now you’re at the pub unwinding by drinking to excess, gambling away your earning, and giving your teammates shit (real-world drinking and gambling not required; talking shit heavily encouraged). The aim of the game is simple: be the last person standing after all of your friends have been kicked out of the pub for being too drunk or out of gold. 

This is the first in a series of five variants; we’re only looking at the original today.

Also: POOKIE! Hands-down, my favourite part of this game is Pookie, my drunk rabbit. Well, okay, technically he belongs to the character I always play and not to me, personally, but a girl can dream.

Picture of the box of Red Dragon In, showing the five characters discussed below

I genuinely love this game. It’s not at all heavy or particularly strategic, but I always have a riot playing. I’ve left this game *feeling* drunk on nonsense and laughter, having not touched a drop of actual booze myself. It’s…. got a few problems, though. (Content note: references to date-rape drugs.)

Race/Nationality

But first, let’s look at its race-related problems. All of the playable characters are white, but the serving wench is a woman of colour. (She is the only non-playable character in the artwork; she has multiple cards that refer to her, playable by all of the other characters.)

So it meets the “people of colour exist!” test… but not in a way I feel very good about. I am glad she is in the game at all, but if a non-playable servant is the only non-white character in your entire game, ima side-eye you a little bit.

I’m giving it:

1 star

Gender

This is the category this game does reasonably well in. 2 of the 4 playable characters are women; 2 are men. Plus the only NPC, the serving wench, is a woman. No evidence of gender-diverse characters, however.

Fiona the Volatile is pretty badass. It’s nice to have the warrior character be female, and she takes zero shit.

The rulebook uses gender neutral pronouns throughout, except when giving examples of play. Then it uses the character’s gender, which is obviously fine.

Overall:

2 stars

Sexuality

There’s a wee bit of innuendo in cards that can be played against other characters/players of any gender;  I guess you could argue that this is a mechanism that allows choices that implicitly identify sexuality and nothing prevents a player from queering those choices?

But it ultimately doesn’t matter because I am giving this game an automatic fail and some Serious Side-Eye in the Sexuality category because of the following card, which is in Gerki The Sneak’s deck:

A Gerki The Sneak's card reading "Slip a Mickey"

I prefer my board games without jokes about dosing people with date-rape drugs, thanks. 1

0 stars

Body

All the women all have pretty identical body types–slender with a few curves and nice breasts; the dudes get a little more diversity with a scrawny, short, buck-toothed thief and a tall, old wizard. (Plus a cute chubby bunny!) So a little but not a lot.

Also, while the women aren’t particularly scantily clad in most of the cards, there is an absurd over-focus on all of their boobs and more than a little gratuitous boob art. Now I like boobs as much as the next person really into ladies, but this over-sexualisation of these characters was pretty unnecessary, felt pretty out of place with the rest of the game, and made me a bit uncomfortable.

Three cards showing the gratuitous boob art. Also my fingernails, which are painted blue with purple spots.
I didn’t fully crop my hand out of this picture because my silly nail art game was on point last week.

1 star

Overall

Overall, a fun game in the ‘somewhat problematic fav’ category. I want to check out some of the future games in the series and see if they capture the same vibe without some of the grossness. 

Race ★☆☆
Gender ★★☆
Sexuality ☆☆☆
Body ★☆☆
Overall Average 1

Notes:

  1. There is an argument to be made that historically, ‘slip a mickey’ meant to drug someone for the purpose of robbing them, not assaulting them, but that’s no longer the common usage and it’s pretty gross and unnecessary regardless.

…and then we held hands

So. This is a completely abstract, non-verbal 2-player collaborative game about feelings.

Image of the '...and then we held hands' game box.

I’ll let anyone who knows me well guess how I feel about it overall and refrain from rambling too much about my opinions of it as a game (subjecting you only to my opinions of it on the representation front, which are strong enough), because I know people who are not me who are better at feelings and shit in general who quite enjoy it.

For those of you unfamiliar, the theme of the game is that you’re in a relationship dealing with a difficult situation (it’s not specified what the situation is); you have to work smoothly with your partner to move through the situation by coordinating your efforts, predicting their behaviour, and acting in consideration of both them and yourself–all without talking or communicating in any way other than through your game place.

As mentioned, the actual game play is an abstract puzzle, matching emotion-themed coloured cards to coloured dots on a board to progress around and into the middle of several concentric circles, all while staying in ’emotional balance’ and not harming/blocking your partner. It has a few interesting mechanics–the way the cards swap orientation, being able to play with your own or your partner’s cards, etc.–but that’s about it. 1

This was one of the games named explicitly in early discussions by some of my friends as an example of why representation issues are basically a non-issue in many tabletop games, due to their completely abstract nature. And as you’ll see in the article, this game is actually a good example of why that thinking is a fallacy in many cases. We can see this specifically with…

Race/Nationality

Exhibit A. At a first glance, it may seem this game is too abstract for race to play a role at all.  The player tokens are just red & blue circles. There isn’t anything indicating what your player looks like or where they’re from or what their background is. There’s no explicit setting (although I would argue it’s implied modern times and probably also implied western developed world). You essentially play yourself, against your co-player who plays themselves-as-your-partner.

These are the circumstances where we might rate a N/A, where a game might truly be too abstract to look at issues of race/nationality.

EXCEPT–the emotion cards feature a lot of different artwork. 16 of which feature depictions of people (mostly children). Who are all white. 2

Sigh.

The only way issues of representation and diversity are a non-issue in this game is if you don’t actually think games frequently and consistently showcasing only people who are white is a problem.

I’m giving it:

0 stars

Gender

Here we do a bit better. Of the 16 cards featuring people, 9 depict female-presenting people and 7 present male-presenting people. This might be the first game I’ve written about where women/girls outnumber the men/boys, and the rulebook is written in gender-neutral language (more on that below). However, there are no indications of gender-diverse, trans, or non-gender-conforming characters.

Still,  a solid:

2 stars

Sexuality

This is the one area where this game does well, specifically in its presentation of game dynamics to be queer-inclusive. As noted, the entire premise of this game is based around a relationship dynamic. The rules and all game text uses clear gender-neutral language, making no assumptions about the gender of the players or the gender of the people they choose to partner with.

This is appreciated and well-deserving of full marks according to our scale.

3 stars

Body

All the human art features slender, nearly identical able-bodied children. If this game is abstract and the features of the people in the art don’t matter, don’t have any historical or game-play relevance… why can’t we get a diversity of bodies up in here?

0 stars

Overall

Sometimes people argue that all the characters HAVE to be white or HAVE to be men or HAVE to be able-bodied because Setting or History or Theme. So in an ‘abstract’ game absent a setting, absent a historical time period, and very light on theme… why do we still not see any diversity in representation of the people who are depicted in the game art? It’s extremely disappointing. (But explicitly allowing queer relationship dynamics is appreciated!)

Race ☆☆☆
Gender ★★☆
Sexuality ★★★
Body ☆☆☆
Overall Average 1.25

Notes:

  1. I personally found the ’emotional balance’ mechanism so thematically fucked that it broke the entire game for me. But footnoting this because I said I’d spare you my grumping.
  2. I guess brown kids are too abstract to even make it into this game?

Cold War: CIA vs KGB

This was a game that pleasantly surprised me.

For those of you unfamiliar, Cold War: CIA vs KGB is a two-player ‘Secret Unit Deployment’ card game, where one player plays the CIA and one plays the KGB. Players send ‘undercover agents’ to influence the outcomes of events in different regions of the world via the manipulation of various groups (represented by ‘group cards’). It’s quite light and a little more luck-based than I like, but I enjoy it on occasion.

I guess because so much…everything, really… surrounding the Cold War seems to forget that the conflict involved or impacted anyone other than (white, male) politicians, I opened this game up expecting it to fare poorly on my initial “Do non-white men exist?” test. But lo and behold, the creators seem to have made a deliberate effort to include depictions of historical people of different races and genders, including 3 of the 12 playable characters. High-fives.

Race

This is the category I was most impressed about. In the group cards (all which showed images of people), 36% depicted people of colour. There’s also a playable black character (on the US side) which I was not expecting but definitely appreciate in a game about Cold War era spies. (More of this!) The group cards depict events/groups of people throughout the world & 12 of the 21 objective (country or event) cards depict African, Asian, Latin American, or Middle Eastern countries, which is a good nod to how the Cold War affected places that were not just the US and USSR–it also depicts people of various countries and ethnicities in a variety of different roles, not just negative or stereotypical ones.

If you add the total number of cards-depicting-people together (group cards and all characters), we come in just under 30%. But 57% of geography card depict non-European or North American countries. All told, I feel positively about the creators’ efforts to depict a wide range of people and cultures in a game about history’s most famous decades-long White Dudes’ Dick Measuring Contest.

I’m giving it:

2 stars

Gender

There are two playable female characters, one for the CIA and one for the KGB. And in the group cards, 25% depict women.

Image of the USSR Assassin card, who is a woman.

This is better than I expected, but short of the two-star threshold. Given the subject matter and time period being depicted, I was tempted to round up for effort not usually seen around the topic BUT… there were absolutely zero depictions of women of colour. Yup–every one of the 10 group cards depicting people of colour depicted men only. AND the rulebook uses male pronouns, which is generally the loss of a full star. So I’m ditching the possible rounding for that and calling it:

1 star

Sexuality

There are no queer-coded characters or references to queer people that I could find in group or character cards. There are no mechanisms that could indicate a character’s sexuality, queer or otherwise.

Given how suspected homosexuals were persecuted as supposed ‘communists’ in the United States during the Cold War (not that the situation was any better in the USSR), it’s not like LGBT history is completely irrelevant to the Cold War. But it is to my casual observation, queer people are completely missing from Cold War: CIA v KGB. (I’d love to be proven wrong, though, if someone recognises a queer-related historical scene in the group cards I missed, let me know.)

0 stars

Body

The group cards all use actual historical photographs and show a diversity of real people and real bodies, sans photoshop and strict adherence to modern beauty standards. There are no depictions of people with disabilities I could find, which is disappointing, but there are muscular, fit soldiers and fat politicians and scrawny bankers and old wrinkled women and thin people and average-sized people and more.

2 stars

Overall

Overall, outperformed expectations given the theme, although obviously a few areas where representations of diversity could be improved.

Race ★★☆
Gender ★☆☆
Sexuality ☆☆☆
Body ★★☆
Overall Average 1.25

 

Tzolk’in

So I first played Tzolk’in on a date. They’d warned me they were recently out of a relationship and were even more recently realising they weren’t quite ready to date, but that my message what the best thing they had ever received on OKC (noting specifically the lack of sexism, racism, and homophobia in it and my profile–man, the bar is low for being awesome some days) and they’d like to meet up any way.

We went out a few times and sparks did not fly, but fuck did they introduce me to some cool games. I bought a copy of every game we’d played together after we both kind stopped replying to each other’s texts, and that was pretty much the best outcome of any date I’ve ever been on.

For those of you unfamiliar, Tzolk’in is an amazing worker placement game. It has one of the most interesting play mechanism I’ve ever seen. I don’t know any other games that are quite like it. And the board is wicked cool. AND it takes place entirely in an indigenous society in a way that seems deeply researched and minimally problematic.

Image of the laid-out board of Tzolk'in, featuring the unique gear-based game design.

Game play is based on a conceptualisation of Tzolk’in, the Mayan 1 calendar that controlled the daily life and rituals within traditional Maya culture. The board consists of one large main gear (divided into 26 sections, representing the 260 days of the original calendar), interlocking with 5 smaller gears. Each round, you advance the large gear one space, which rotates all of the smaller gears. These smaller gears have worker places, associated with different bonuses and actions that change as the gears rotate. The primary method of game play involves adding or removing workers from the smaller gears in a way that lets you maximise the bonuses and actions you want to take advantage of.

As I said, wicked cool. And better on the representation front than anything else we’ve looked at so far.

Race

I am not an indigenous scholar by any means, and while I did do a bit of further research while writing this article to confirm my initial impressions,  it’s possible I’ve missed some problematic elements in my ignorance. (Please let me know if this is the case!)

But overall, while certainly a bit reductionist by the nature of turning centuries of culture into an hour-long tabletop game, the game play and theme are deeply steeped in knowledge about Maya culture and land. Game play involves a rich and varied society–there are tracks & strategies for agriculture, production, technology, building, and religion. 2

The different gears are all named for major Maya cities and the resources & actions of those gears vaaaaguely correspond to things those cities were known for. There is an element where you can leave crystal skulls in Chichen Itza, which I thought was a classy way of handling the Tzompantli (skull platform) by modern standards.

The religious tracks honors 3 gods. This is the one area that’s a little dodgy, historically speaking. The gods are Chaac (Maya!), Kukulkan (Maya!), & Quetzalcoatl (definitely not Maya!). Quetzalcoatl is an Aztec god–in fact, the Aztec ‘equivalent’ of Kukulkan. So not sure what’s up with that, except creator ignorance?  Particularly since there are dozens and dozens of other Maya gods (and even a handful of goddesses) to chose from. Maybe Google was down that day? But I don’t think this minor mistake is problematic enough to dock points for.

Hands down:

3 stars.

Gender

In the next reprint, I can recommend Ixchel, Maya goddess of midwifery and medicine, to replace Quetzalcoatl? We could stand to get some ladies up in here. Also she’s a badass old woman/jaguar. Just sayin’.

The woman situation is a bit grim. Well, to be fair, there’s very little depictions of human/humanoid characters in the art at all. But of what there is: The cover on the box is dudely dude. All three gods are dudes. The generic ‘worker’ symbols are a little gender-ambiguous (all identical though), but from the limited information available about traditional Maya dress, overall body shape, etc., they lean more masculine in my perception. But they are carrying baskets of fruit on their head, a task that is usually heavily considered a female one in most depictions of ‘traditional’ cultures. So, not sure.

The rulebook does a lovely job of being gender-inclusive of players themselves, though. It alternates between using second-person (‘you’)  and using ‘he or she’, depending on context. Usually “uses gender neutral language” is my base standard and is not worthy of extra points, but I really appreciate in the specific examples it gave of game play, it alternated between giving examples with female players and male players in equal numbers.

So between that and the gender-ambiguity of the workers, I’m just barely giving it:

1 star.

Sexuality

For a game about calendar that is thought by many scholars to reflect the human gestational cycle that may have been originally crafted by Maya midwives to predict the birth dates of babies (which makes it even weirder there are zero women in art or female goddesses), this game has absolutely no references to sex, reproduction or sexuality. So I guess I’ll file this under “no mechanism for a player to make choices that implicitly identify a queer sexuality”. 3

Which is to say:

0 stars.

Body

Dude on the cover of the box is conventionally smokin’. But gender-ambiguous workers are solid and squat. Two of other gods have fairly generic bodies (one with a bit of a belly), and one is just a feathered head with no body. A limited number of bodies overall but each one is different and there’s no dominant body type. I think I’m going to go with:

2 stars.

Overall

Given the limited humanoid art and theme, I can forgive the lack of sexuality diversity. But not the complete lack of women, particularly given that one of the gods chosen wasn’t even  a Maya one. But the depiction of an indigenous society in a mainstream game was excellent! More like this!

Race ★★★
Gender ★☆☆
Sexuality ☆☆☆
Body ★★☆
Overall Average 1.5

 

Notes:

  1. Technically, this should be ‘Maya’ here as well–’Mayan’ refers only to language. But it’s what’s printed on the box, so we’ll go with it and not be overly pedantic.
  2. I note this because while games about European societies often have many or all of these elements (although not all), the handful of other games I can think of with substantial indigenous presence focus on a very limited or stereotypical reduction of indigenous life–like, ‘attack people with arrows’ or ‘hunt and migrate’. I know many games have to reduce entire societies to 1-2 elements by the nature of game development, but it’s nice to see one that recognises the diverse complexity of life in a non-European setting.
  3. There are so few human characters at all and the gender-ambiguous-meeple-art makes me want to lean towards an n/a a bit, though. Feedback welcome.