Africa is a Board Game

Players in the board game, "Ticket to Ride: The Heart of Africa," are cast in the role of colonists, competing to make the largest imprint on Africa's "vast wilderness."

The train between Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya, which you won't find in this game (Michał Huniewicz, via Flickr CC).

While shopping for Christmas presents this past December in a local gaming store, this little number caught my eye: Ticket to Ride: The Heart of Africa is a variation of a popular board game in which players compete to build railways connecting major cities. The original version of the game uses a map of the U.S. There are also versions for Europe, Germany, and Scandinavia. As board games go, Ticket to Ride is well-designed and wildly addictive. I should know: I made the mistake of downloading the iPad version to “research” this post.

The artwork for all versions of the game is meant to evoke nostalgia for the early 1900s “golden era” of railway travel. In the U.S. version, for instance, various characters are depicted doffing top hats or twirling parasols, and the playing cards feature images of steam locomotives. Lately, Days of Wonder, the game’s manufacturer, has branched out from Europe and North America, releasing game maps for Asia, India, and Africa. The historical setting of the game becomes a bit more problematic in these contexts.

The cover art for “Ticket to Ride: The Heart of Africa” depicts an explorer in a pith helmet looking at a map whilst being tormented by a troop of monkeys, with a smiling “native” African in “traditional” dress in the foreground. The accompanying rules book (available for your perusal on the Days of Wonder website), continues to lay on the colonial nostalgia: the game, it tells us, is “set in the vast wilderness of Africa at the height of its exploration by intrepid explorers, missionaries and adventurers.” (Exploration by explorers? Really?) Players are invited to “build routes through some of the continent’s most remote and desolate locales.” The game’s title too, with its obvious indebtedness to Joseph Conrad, is meant to evoke the frisson of colonial ventures into the “dark continent.” (Oddly, the African version of Ticket to Ride is the only one with such a subtitle, although the website for the Asia version does invite players to “venture into the forbidden eastern lands of … Legendary Asia.”)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with setting a board game—or a book, or a film—in Africa during the colonial era. I wouldn’t even argue that the game needs to be made more “realistic.” (Say with the addition of cards reading, “Your railway’s proposed route passes through a large village. Do you wish to miss a turn, or simply bulldoze the obstructing houses and kill those who seek to oppose you?” etc.)

It’s one thing, however, to use colonial-era Africa as a backdrop without directly critiquing colonialism (or to use early-1900s North America without addressing conflicts with First Nations and forced migrant labor, for that matter); and it’s another thing to play on stereotypes and romanticism in order to increase the game’s popularity. There is no question that players of Ticket to Ride Africa are cast in the role of colonists, competing with one another to make the largest imprint on the continent’s “vast wilderness.” The fact that this seems to be a selling point reveals something quite disturbing about the Euro-North American psyche.

Further Reading

We are here

As the slaughter continues unabated in Gaza, it is abundantly clear that both the present and history are often written by the victors.