In recent years, indigenous creators have started developing a board game aesthetic distinct from the mainstream. Coyote and Crow Games, NDN Players, Burn the Fort by Indigenous Action, Nunami by Thomassie Mangiok, Nawalli by Studio Tecuanis, and my own game Winter Rabbit are a few recent examples of what indigenous people in the (so-called) Americas are creating.
While indigenous game designers are as diverse as their cultures, some trends are starting to emerge in the aesthetics of indigenous games. It may be too early to dub this a “genre,” but it is amazing to see designers come to similar solutions to design problems. Here are a few of the trends I’m noticing.
Colonialism and Capitalism are deeply tied with the history of Western board games, as the Atlantic and Mary Flanagan have written. I’ve also written about the topic. It’s no surprise that every game on my list opposes colonialism or capitalism in some way. Some do so in theme, while others are also anti-colonial in the design of their game mechanisms.
The Coyote and Crow RPG is set in an alternate, uncolonized future, exploring what could have been and still could be for indigenous cultures freed from the fallout of colonial rule. Wolves, Naasii, and the upcoming 7 Clans are all set in the world of the C&C RPG, further exploring a world free of settler colonialism.
Burn the Fort has players directly take on invading colonizers, literally destroying their fortifications.
Potlatch, Winter Rabbit, Nawalli, and Nunami all set their games in an uncolonized past. While I don’t know the minds of the other designers, I very intentionally set Winter Rabbit in a period where colonization was unknown. There is something inherently anti-colonial in building a game that shows a culture thriving and unoppressed.
Nunami, Winter Rabbit, and Potlatch also focus on ideas of balance. Exploitation and expansion are absent here. Instead, each game has players progress with not only their goals in mind but also the needs of their fellow players, community, and environment.
Alternative Economic Systems
Capitalism is a modern invention imposed on cultures worldwide, cultures that thrived under their own systems and ways long before capitalism’s arrival. Many indigenous board games have players engage with alternative economic systems.
Potlach by NDN Players is an educational card game depicting the Salish people’s potlatch tradition. It very specifically has players engage with a receptacle economic system that is, by definition, anti-capitalist. Players win by giving the most to those who need it the most. This idea is refreshing and intriguing in a world where most games ask us to horde resources to build our empires.
Wolves and Winter Rabbit both take some inspiration from Potlach. Winter Rabbit builds positive interactions in the game by asking players to complete “tasks” for one another. Tasks in Winter Rabbit are the primary scoring mechanic. At the start of each in-game season, players choose the tasks that will be available for everyone else. When someone completes your chosen task, they get points and you get a resource benefit.
In Wolves, players must meet the resource needs of every player before they can store resources for future turns. Additionally, giving gifts alters a player’s status, which is important for the game’s outcome. This makes the choice of giving and accepting gifts integral to the game.
Semi-cooperative Gameplay and Positive Interactions
Unsurprisingly, indigenous board game designers avoid designs encouraging players to win at all costs. In terms of cultural values, the all-out destruction of enemies is something rarely seen among indigenous peoples. That said, most of us love to compete and win. Traditional competitive games have been a feature in nearly every culture around the world.
Wolves, Burn the Fort, and Winter Rabbit all feature semi-cooperative gameplay. In each game, players are balancing the needs of all against their personal goals. While we may strive for victory, it can’t come at the expense of our fellow players.
Showcasing indigenous art, culture, and history
Board games about indigenous cultures by non-indigenous creators are infamous for getting the details wrong, often mixing elements from multiple cultures with old stereotypes. Indigenous creators focus on historical accuracy, cultural sensitivity, and authentic indigenous art.
Coyote and Crow employed a variety of indigenous artists from nations all over Turtle Island. These come together to create an aesthetic for the C&C world that looks like nothing else I’ve seen. Fashion, architecture, technology, legendary creatures, and daily life depicted in the art of C&C place the reader into a world that is as unique as anything depicted in mainstream fantasy literature.
Nawalli features beautiful art by its creator, Gonzalo Alverez. The game has been described as Mesoamerican Pokemon. Each Nawal is beautiful and uniquely rendered in a traditional Aztec style that could only be done by someone deeply familiar with the culture and mythology. The look of Nawalli instantly catches the eye and sets it apart from similar dueling card games.
Thomassie Mangiok was both the artist and designer for Nunami. The game features triangular tiles, a component I’ve seen very rarely in board games. These tiles placed in hexagonal trays give the distinct impression of crossing the frozen North even though the components are essentially abstract in design. The art is a uniquely Inuit style set on the tiles’ plain white or black background.
Winter Rabbit features art by Cherokee artists Kindra Swafford and Jonni Ketcher. Kindra is a fine artist who works mainly with watercolors and has acquired some renown in the Native art scene. Her watercolors set the tone for Winter Rabbit by depicting the places and artifacts of ancient Cherokee life with warmth and depth. Jonni’s graphic design focuses on traditional symbols and patterns, building a visual language for the game that will appear unique but comfortable for players.
All of these examples of indigenous games are from the western hemisphere. I hope to see this space expand in the coming years and more indigenous designers try their hand at board games. As that happens, we may see these trends continue, or new trends emerge. In any case, seeing the growth of indigenous board games is exciting.
Do you know of any other trend-setting indigenous board games?