Capitalism and Unfairness in Competitive Board Games

Games offer a good medium for critical reflection of social inequality.

In his article “Capitalism and Unfairness in Catan: Oil Springs”, published in Analog Game Studies, Jonathan Rey Lee analyzes the possibility of critical reflection of capitalism in games. The article claims that capitalism is based on a myth of fairness, and the social inequality of a capitalist society cannot be accurately reflected in a game that is based on fairness. The author uses the competitive board game Settlers of Catan as an example, more specifically the Oil Springs scenario that adds oil as a very valuable resource.

Competitive games are usually supposed to begin from a level playing field, which then allows for loss or victory through skill and chance. However, the rules that dictate the emergence of skill and chance often allow for inequality in the game system. For example, the starting positions in the Oil Springs scenario are not equally valuable, but they are randomly chosen with a system that tries to give every player the chance to get a good start. This implies that there is a possibility for everyone to elevate into a winning position, which is not the case in real world capitalism.


The game does not take into account things like ethnicity or gender, and completely ignores the workers. Instead, the players are simply given the resources, and the competition is between capitalists. Oil Springs underlines the issue of environmental exploitation for financial gain, as oil becomes by far the most valuable resource in the game. Using oil has negative environmental consequences, but a player that focuses on oil may not have to pay the price. Instead, it may make the game more difficult for players that do not focus on the resource, if their coastal settlements are flooded, for example.

The problem of runaway leader is also present in the game. This means that the closer to victory one player gets, the faster they will move towards victory, and it will become increasingly difficult for others to catch them. The problem is even bigger in Oil Springs, as the player with the most oil will quickly become free of dependence on trade with other players, and the actions of other players will become more inconsequential. This reflects the way capitalism rewards people who already have money through inheritance, for example.

Playing to win in Oil Springs means playing out capitalism with no regard for the consequences, and the author states that because he started from an advantageous position, winning wasn’t fun. However, losing from such a position would have been even worse, and players had to stick to the roles in the capitalist system they were reduced to. Playing as an environmentalist would have been more fun, but a very bad winning strategy.

Unbalanced games are much more reflective of the real world than balanced ones, and in order to be truly critical, this aim for fairness needs to be taken away from the game design process.

Author: Jonathan Rey Lee
Published in: Analog Game Studies, March 20, 2017
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