Recently I went on a search for RPGs and board games designed by Native American/First Nations designers. This proved to be more difficult than expected, so I broadened that search to include all games from Indigenous designers. Today I’m here to share what I found.
This topic was inspired by one of our Tabletop Bellhop Patreon patrons who recently discovered the Coyote & Crow RPG and was wondering if there were other games out there by Native designers.
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Why talk about games from Indigenous Designers?
This article is based on a topic we covered on Episode 127 of the Tabletop Bellhop Gaming Podcast: Tabletop Games from Indigenous Designers. That discussion and the follow-up come from a question we received from Bryan Shein. Bryan is a Native American geek who discovered the RPG Coyote & Crow that recently funded on Kickstarter.
What games, board and RPG, are produced by Native Americans/First Nations creators? I am particularly interested in game experiences from the Native American/First Nations perspective versus the typical view through the lens of colonialism.
Before I dive into the games I found while researching this topic I do need to note a few things.
First off, I use the terms Native and Indigenous fairly interchangeably. Research has lead me to believe that “Indigenous Peoples” is currently the most accepted term to use, but that many people still also recognize and use the term Native. With this, there is the fact that language and understandings change, terms I use here today may not remain appropriate. Please realize I mean all respect for all of these creators and the games they have created.
Next, I have to express my disappointment by just how hard it was to find games that fit Bryan’s question. When Bryan first reached out to me, I fully expected to find a significant number of games designed by Indigenous people. I expected that I would be able to come up with a fairly sizable list and perhaps be able to do a top ten. As it was, I was only able to find about a dozen games in total and that includes some very old games.
Now I was able to find a surprisingly large number of games about Indigenous people. Many of these seemed to do a great job with handling First Nations cultures. The thing is, most of these games were designed by Non-Natives, with a very high number being created by German or Italian game designers. Sadly it also looks like almost none of these designers hired or used any Indigenous consultants.
There are also, of course, a very large number of games that don’t handle Native history or issues well at all, but that’s outside the scope of this article. I want to keep things positive here.
Due to how few games I did find I went a bit outside of Bryan’s original question and broadened the scope of my research to include games by any Indigenous designers instead of limiting myself to the Americas.
Overall I hope that this situation improves and that the recent success of a couple of modern games on our list tonight will open the doors for a new wave of Indigenous/Native/First Nations designers and games.
What RPGs and Board Games come from Indigenous Designers?
I have broken the following list of games into four sections. I start with historic games, these are older games, many of which are still being played today. This is followed by modern hobby games which I’ve divided into a group of board games and a group of RPGs. Finally, I do have some honourable mentions.
Historical games from Indigenous designers
First, one important note about the games in this section. Due to colonization, many of the rules for these historical games come by way of Spanish, German or English game historians. These were often taken from records brought back from overseas, and not from the records of the people who actually created these games.
This is a two-player board game created by Aztecs. Patolli translates to “kidney bean” and when originally documented the players of Patolli were using beans like dice.
In Patolli, players roll their beans and based on what they roll they place tokens on the board or move existing tokens with the goal being to get your tokens from one side of the board across the board and out the other side. On the board, some spots are considered safe but others are not and your opponent can eat your tokens on those spaces if they land on your piece. One of the aspects that made this game popular was that if you managed to roll an ‘edge’ with a bean, you won. This meant that you always had a chance, even up until the last turn, to make a lucky bean roll and seal the victory.
Patolli is recognized as one of the oldest board games discovered in America. While articles I found listed Patolli as being “discovered” in 1350, an archaeological dig in 2011 discovered what they believed is a Patolli board inscription dated between 600-900 AD.
Historically, one big part of playing Patolli was gambling. Most games were played for some form of treasure and that form of treasure sometimes meant other people. There was a time when the invading Spanish priests banned the game due to the fact that people were selling themselves and their families into slavery over it.
The next game on the list is one that most of you have probably played a modern version of, Dudo. Dudo, “Yo dudo” or “I doubt” has South American roots with the earliest written mention of the game coming up in 1800. It is a dice-based bluffing game, a game that eventually evolved into what we know today as Perudo or Liar’s Dice.
I have to admit that I had no clue that this popular dice game, which I’ve played many a time, had Indigenous roots.
While the last two games were dice/bean rolling games that often involved gambling, this next game, Zohn Ahl, is known to be a family game. In fact, it’s documented that this game was mostly played by the women and girls of the Kiowa Indians of North America. That is where Zohn Ahl originated before spreading to other tribes including the Navaho, Keres and Zuni, who each have their own names for the game: Settilth (Navaho), Owasokotz (Keres) and Tasholiiwe (Zuni).
Zohn Ahl is a horse racing game where the players’ horses, represented by sticks, race around a circular board made of forty stones. In the centre of the board is a larger stone. Players would throw three sticks at the centre striking stone and where they landed determined how far their horses moved.
Next up I have Puluc, which is an abstract strategy war game for two players that originated with the Kekchi people of Guatemala. As the game grew in popularity and spread around the world it became known by other names, like Bul, Buul or Boolik. It is also speculated that this game may be much older and of Mayan origins, as the Kekchi are descendants of the Mayans.
The game is based on a board with twenty-one spaces, sometimes presented in a straight row, other times in a curve or circle. Originally the game was played with corn stalks to create the rows and corn for pieces.
In Puluc, each player has five warrior pieces and the goal is to capture all of the opponent’s warriors. While there are a large number of variations of Puluc, there are five variants that are the most popular. Most modern versions include playing each of these five popular variations in order, with the overall winner being the player who won three out of five games.
These variations are called: Aj sayil (Ant), Aj t’iwil (Eagle), Aj sina’anil (Scorpion), Aj sakalil (Warrior Ants) and A k’aak’il (Fire).
This abstract strategy game is better known by its English name of Fighting Serpents. Kolowis Awithlaknannai comes from the Zuni Indians of New Mexico, who took the game Alquerque that the Spaniard invaders were playing and made it their own.
To play this game all you need is some version of the board, and some stones or pottery pieces. Historians have found Fighting Serpents boards in all manner of places, carved into wood or stone, or depicted on cloth or tapestries with some of the earliest dating back to the year 1500, though it’s expected that the game is much older than that.
The gameplay in Fighting Serpents is similar to Checkers or Draughts where you are trying to capture all of the opponent’s pieces, capturing is done by jumping over an opponent’s piece and captures are mandatory. The board though is quite different from Checkers, consisting of three rows of spaces connected by a series of diagonal lines, as well as having a terminus point at each end that connects the three rows.
This is another game that is still rather popular today.
The final game on my list of historic games from Indigenous designers is another two-player abstract game that’s also similar to Checkers and Draughts. Actually, Tukvnanawopi looks like an off-balance Checkers board. This game was played and created by the Hopi Native Americans of Arizona.
Similar to the last game on this list, all you needed to play was a copy of the board and some form of playing pieces. Playing pieces were often stones or bits of pottery. Traditional boards were usually carved into flat rocks, but have been found carved into wood and on cloth
In Tukvnanawopi, players are trying to capture all of the opponent’s pieces by jumping over them, though whether or not jumping was mandatory is up for debate and seems to have varied over time. The most interesting rule that I found in regards to this game is that there’s a system where when parts of the board become empty they are removed from the game and cannot be moved onto or through.
Modern Roleplaying Games by Indigenous Designers
The first RPG I want to mention is Coyote & Crow. The reason for this is that this roleplaying game, which recently funded on Kickstarter and has raised over 1 million dollars (US), was the inspiration for this topic in the first place. Bryan, who initially asked us about Native American games, discovered Coyote & Crow, pointed it out to us, and then asked the question I shared above.
Since our initial podcast discussion of this topic, both Sean, my podcast co-host, and I became backers of the Coyote & Crow project. This is an RPG we fully support and believe in.
Coyote & Crow is a science fantasy roleplaying game set in an uncolonized future. Instead of extrapolating what happens from now into the future, Coyote & Crow instead presents a future where the colonization of the Americas never happened, depicting a future world of spirituality and science. This unique game was created and led by a team of Native Americans representing more than a dozen Indigenous tribes.
Everything about this game looks fantastic, the world, the design work, even the price (a very reasonable $50 for the hardcover and PDF version of the book).
If there’s one game from this list that you should take the time to check out, Coyote & Crow is my strongest recommendation.
Next up, I’ve got Ehdrigohr a game created by a black Native American game designer, Allen Turner, who promises a game that reflects the Native experience and how Native storytelling differs from standard Western narratives.
Similar to Coyote & Crow one of the big things removed from the background of Ehdrigohr are the colonizers. This is a non-colonial world where nine tribes must survive against horrible things that walk the land from sundown to sunrise. Ehdrigohr invites you to immerse yourself in a fantastic world of cultures, myths and legends where magic is everywhere.
Mechanically Ehdrigohr uses the popular Fate Core system, which is a great modern system that’s an interesting mix of crunch and narrative storytelling.
Next up I have to thank Twitter for pointing me towards the games of Mercedes Acosta. She is an Indigenous Trans Femme from the Taino nation. Mercedes is a children’s literature creator, illustrator, and editor.
Two of their RPGs currently available are Los Arboles, a mini horror RPG about being lost in the woods that is played in a single session lasting a couple of hours or less, and What Happened?, a missing persons horror tabletop roleplay about spiritual danger, cosmic encroachment, and inevitability.
Dog Eat Dog is a Diana Jones award-nominated RPG about colonialism and its consequences. It comes from Liam and William Burke who are both Hawaiian Natives.
As a group, the players will create one of the hundreds of small islands in the Pacific Ocean, creating its people and customs. Once done, one of the players swaps over to the role of the occupying forces who then play against the other players who control the Natives.
The actual gameplay doesn’t start until the end of the war where you will be playing out the conflicted relationships between the two parties, deciding what the colonizers do to maintain control, how the Natives react in turn and who ends up owning the land in the end.
Thanks to Jeff Szusz, Tabletop Bellhop Patreon patron, for pointing this one out to me as I had missed it during my research.
Modern Board Games by Indigenous Designers
This is a strategic, educational card game based on Indigenous philosophies. Potlatch was developed as a community effort with local elders and language experts in the Salish tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The game is presented in both English and the local Lushootseed languages.
Potlatch features cooperative game mechanics that are based on sharing resources to meet the needs of others in the form of food, materials, knowledge, and technology. Victory is based on all of the players having all of their needs satisfied by the end of the game.
I’ve got to say that’s quite a different victory condition from most of the games I own. Potlatch was originally funded on Kickstarter but is available for print on demand as well.
The next board game I’ve got is the recently Kickstarted Nunami, an Inuit game, from Thomassie Mangiok
This is a hex-based abstract strategy game in which the players work with nature to improve their influence in the community in respect to others. Players must maintain a balance between man and nature when scoring points, which is done by playing triangular cards onto unique hex-shaped boards. It’s only once a board is filled do players get, or lose, points.
This looks like a really unique twist on area control and is a game I’m very curious to try out myself.
Sadly I’ve only got one other modern board game for this list and that’s Orang Rimba: The Forest Keeper which was published in 2017 by Anggreini Pratiwi a native Indonesian.
In this game, players play members of the Orang Rimba tribe which are natives of the Bukit Dua Belas National Park in Jambi. The Orang Rimba are a tribe that normally lives harmoniously with nature, that is until illegal loggers arrive on the scene. The player’s goal here is to manage to collect everything your family needs despite these external influences and threats.
Note this is a competitive game, not a cooperative one, with each player acting in the interest of only their own families.
My first honourable mention is the board game Inuit: The Snow Folk which was published in 2019. The reason this game didn’t make the main list is that it was not directly designed by a Native American. That said, the designers of Inuit did hire three actual Inuit consultants to help them work on this game and keep the theme and representation on track.
Another aspect I thought was rather pleasing about Inuit: The Snow Folk is that the designers (and their consultants) actually took an older game called Natives, published in 2017, which was considered to be culturally insensitive in many ways, and updated it to be much more accurate and considerate.
The next item I have is a resource instead of a specific game. Native Teaching Aids sells a number of educational games created by Natives for Natives.
Their shop includes a number of regional history games as well as light card and board games translated to various native languages. Most of these light games seem to be modifications of classic card games like UNO and Go Fish along with standard playing cards. They are also the company behind Cards for Decolonization, a native take on Cards Against Humanity.
In addition to these games, Native Teaching Aids also has a series of conversation and phrase builder games for teaching various Native languages.
While these games may not be of much interest to hobby board gamers I think it’s awesome to see tribes using gaming as a way to pass on their heritage.
The last item I want to highlight is a game from Indigenous designer Elizabeth LaPensée who is Anishinaabe with family from Bay Mills, Métis, and Irish heritage. She has worked on a number of games both as a designer, consultant, and artist. Most of her work has been digital but she has produced one board game called The Gift of Food.
The Gift of Food is a board game about Northwest Native Foods that was published by the Northwest Indian College as a way for Pacific Northwest Native communities to pass on cultural teaching about where to gather foods and medicines.
The reason this game didn’t make the main list above is that it’s not something you can go out and purchase. Instead, this game is being directly distributed to Pacific Northwest Native communities. This game sounds fascinating and I personally think it’s a shame that it’s not being more widely distributed.
While this list of games by Indigenous designers is shorter than I would have liked it to be I am fascinated by the various different types and styles of games I was able to find. I truly hope that the success of games like Coyote and Crow helps to open the doorway for more games from Native designers.