Black board games are key to the future of tabletop

New voices and perspectives at the table benefit everyone.

In the first five years I spent enjoying modern board games, I got comfortable playing games that never felt like they were made for me. I casually noticed that most of the names on the boxes sounded either European or generically American; the first games in my collection were designed by Ted Alspach, Don Eskridge, Stefan Dorra, Steve Jackson and Paul Peterson. I assumed there were very few Black designers (if any) and just went on with my life. I was the only Black person in my local gaming group for years. It always feels a little bit strange to participate in a hobby when you’re “the only one” of a particular group. I blamed myself for picking another "White" thing to be interested in - as a pretty nerdy Black person, this was definitely not the first time I felt this way.

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That all changed when I started designing my first game, Rap Godz - a project sparked by asking questions about the industry and how it ended up with so little representation of Black people and Black culture. Fast-forward three years and now I've designed, published and sold out my premiere title, which portrays hip-hop and Black culture with attention and love. Unfortunately, I still don't have any real answers to those initial questions, but what's more important to me now is changing the landscape and teaching others how to bring that much-needed representation into tabletop gaming.

The more Black game creators we can bring into the industry, the more likely we are to see games where Black people are the centrepiece and not just another decorative element.

In those same three years, I've had ideas for so many Black history and culture-based games that I want to see made and probably won't ever have time to make myself. The more Black game creators we can bring into the industry, the more likely we are to see games like this become a reality - games where Black people are the centrepiece and not just another decorative element.

Imagine a game based on Wild Seed, the early sci-fi novel by Octavia Butler centred around a pair of supernatural semi-immortal characters: Doro, with the capacity to feed off the life force of others, and Anyanwu, a shape-shifter. I could imagine gameplay that rivals Fury of Dracula, with Anyanwu desperate to evade Doro across the country over the course of multiple decades and both growing their individual communities of psionic offspring to support their individual objectives.

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Rap Godz sees players control hip-hop artists as they work their way toward widespread fame. Image: Omari Akil/Board Game Brothas

My fascination with linguistics makes me want Pidgin, a game based on the ingenuity of slaves who often did not speak the same language but developed methods of verbal communication despite their impossible situation. A game like this could ask players to use completely different toolsets to communicate and complete simple objectives. It would teach us in a very small way about the extreme challenges that slaves faced and, if done right, would expand our understanding of communication and language in games.

Then I think about all the subcultures of Black America, such as Gullah. This would be a game based on the distinctive group of people and culture off the coast of North and South Carolina. This would be predominantly a farming/agricultural game, but with the added layer of trying to hold onto your land and cultural practices as the rest of the country impresses on your region, somewhat similar to Spirit Island. A game like this would give players an opportunity to reflect on the cultural erasure that has taken place over centuries - not only as it relates to Black people in America, but to indigenous people all over the world.

That's just scratching the surface of what's possible.

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A big mistake here would be to think that these games aren't for you because you're not Black. If there's one thing that I know about gamers, it's that we mostly just want great gaming experiences. I knew that when I started designing, so I make sure that I design games that are absolutely fun to play and produced at the highest quality of which I'm capable, given the tools and resources I can attain. In the case of Rap Godz, the end result for us was an audience that is very diverse, and currently has more engagement from non-Black fans than our Black fans. There’s nothing wrong with that.

For an industry that is constantly clamouring for games that give us new mechanics, fresh experiences and more variety in themes, it only makes sense that new voices and new perspectives be invited to the table. Once more Black designers are able to find their footing, new design approaches and ideas will emerge. As more Black games are made, the themes we explore will branch out in new directions. All of these things will bring new gamers into the community; we could reach a point of stagnation if we don't evolve with the times.

For an industry that is constantly clamouring for games that give us new mechanics, fresh experiences and more variety in themes, it only makes sense that new voices and new perspectives be invited to the table.

I'm just one guy with a two-person game publishing company, a desire to see a lot more Black games and not enough power and resources to make that happen quickly. So, really, I'm asking for your help to ensure that we welcome, make space for and support more Black game creators to make the games that we want to make. Historically, the industry has done a very poor job at making sure that people who look like me are able to make representative contributions in game art, design and publishing. I'm determined to be a part of an industry that cares about me in a real way, and this is where it starts.

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We are all responsible for the direction tabletop gaming is going. It’s time to seriously consider the wide range of games that are possible and the people who are best equipped to make them. No matter who you are, if you seek out and support more games made by people who look different from you, the hobby will grow and bring us all closer together by letting us embrace the ways we are different and the ways we are the same. It takes a little bit of effort but, in the end, we all win.


Omari Akil

Contributor

Omari is a North Carolina-based game designer, content creator and gaming community advocate. He is a co-founder of Board Game Brothas, a contributor on the Tabletop Backer Party media team and a member of the leadership team for game design mentoring and support programme Pathways Fellowship.

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