Imperialism is a tricky subject to tackle, and games about the expansion and maintenance of empires have to negotiate their paths carefully. Board games like Puerto Rico have been criticized for their portrayals of imperialism which gloss over the realities of what happened to the natives and the way in which slavery played a role in colonial development. At first blush, Eminent Domain would seem to dodge these issues by being set, not in the age of imperialism, but in the far future. Eminent Domain, however, is not understandable absent the context of European colonialism, and the use of sci-fi euphemisms threatens to obscure what is really going on.
Eminent Domain does not provide an excess of setting detail to flesh out its world, but a few things can be inferred. The players clearly represent different factions seeking to outdo each other through the accumulation of prestige via their colonial holdings. They are free to seek out new planets, but once one is claimed by a rival’s survey team, it is untouchable by the other players. Each planet can be brought under control either through colonization or warfare. The fact that each planet can be conquered militarily implies that each planet is inhabited by a native population, which further implies that colonization means landing settlers on an inhabited world and subjugating the natives through less direct means. Notably, players are not allowed to attack or interfere with each others’ colonial domains. A warmonger does not have the option to fly their attack fleet to another player’s planets and seize their holdings. The Escalation expansion adds a limited ability to do this with tech cards, at the cost of the target player getting “reparations.” The whole setup seems a little bit counterintuitive, which may be written off as merely facilitating game mechanics, but in fact it is directly analogous to a historical situation: The Berlin Conference of 1884-5 and the Scramble for Africa.
In a nutshell, the Berlin Conference was when the imperial powers of Europe formed a gentleman’s agreement to stay out of each others’ ways for the purposes of peaceably carving up Africa for their own use. Rather than fight each other directly, they would seek to conquer as much unclaimed territory in Africa as possible. Furthermore, the European powers agreed to a standard of “effective occupation,” which stated that a power had official control of a territory and could exploit it economically once it met a few minimum requirements, such as making treaties with local leaders, establishing an administration, and planting their flag. In the decade following the Berlin Conference, nearly all of Africa was brought under the political control of Europe, leading to the drawing of lines (without concern for the actual habitations of native groups) that form most of the modern nation-states of Africa.
Eminent Domain, then, is essentially the Scramble for Africa in space. Like the European powers of the end of the 19th century, the players must avoid direct conflict while planting their flags on inhabited planets and subjugating them for prestige and economic exploitation. When most of the surrounding regions of space are claimed, whoever has gained the most influence through expansion or trade emerges as the pre-eminent imperialist of the age (basically, Space Britain). One almost wonders if it wouldn’t be apt for Tasty Minstrel Games to follow up the Escalation expansion with a “Galactic War” expansion, as the tensions and rivalry between factions become uncontrollable and the balance of power falls apart.
I am uneasy about the implications of this setup. On the one hand, by using a science fiction setting, Eminent Domain avoids that image of “white folks picking up dark brown tokens from a ship and placing them onto sugar plantations”¹ that adhered to Puerto Rico. On the other hand, the level of abstraction involved makes it easy to forget that you are an imperialist at all. The native people (aliens?) of the worlds you conquer are rendered invisible, as are the costs to the colonists you send out to the far reaches of space. When it comes down to it, the notion of a galaxy full of empty planets to colonize and exploit is just a little bit too close to romantic notions of the American frontier or images of Africa as a vast, empty, “dark continent” waiting to be filled. I’d almost prefer an approach like Archipelago, which has its own glosses and problematic aspects, but which ascribes a modicum of agency to the people you are exploiting and forces you to see that exploitation.
¹ Atay, Memory Insufficient, page 12