Board but Not Boring – Cole Wehrle’s board games don’t just teach you history—they make you live it.

By Luke Winkie for Slate

Cole Wehrle dreams of someday making a board game about Reconstruction. The 38-year-old designer has tinkered with a number of different prototypes over the years, but invariably he finds himself stymied by the same obstacle. Sure, table games have simulated the Civil War for decades, but its catastrophic aftermath—where an apartheid state reconstituted itself from the remnants of slavery—is terrain far more layered than the traditional realms of cardboard and dice. Cannon fire is easy to gamify. Racial trauma, to nobody’s surprise, is not.

These are uncommon aspirations for a tabletop author. The board game industry is booming—the total market grew by 6.5 percent in 2022—but the hobby itself tends to be politically inert. By most mainstream audits, a good board game is quantified by the interesting ways it allows players to score points. The thematic resonance of the setting is usually pushed to the fringes. When a board game intersects with history—even harrowing history—it does so only to provide a one-dimensional backdrop for the card-playing and tile-laying. The lack of mindfulness can sometimes be baffling: One of the most acclaimed tabletop games of all time, Puerto Rico, takes place on the namesake island during the height of European imperial power, when merchant ships poured into the Caribbean. Performing well in the game requires you to develop plantations of coffee, tobacco, and sugar in the verdant interior, which, historically speaking, were worked by slaves. Puerto Rico, of course, never acknowledges those crimes against humanity—it’s only meant to be digested as a game, rather than a text. Nothing more, nothing less.

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