Teaching Imperialism, Colonialism, and Racism in United States History: A Board Game About Columbus

September 6, 2008 at 11:30 pm 5 comments

Edit: Oops, apparently there was a broken link on this post. It has been fixed now.

The history of Columbus is a turbulent one – and the way we are traditionally taught (and teach) about him is a way built into imperialism, racism, and is European-centric. Our nationally-supported tale of Columbus ignores his impact on the Native Americans he encountered and builds up a false mythology around him that we still worship today. Below is a board-game I crafted in order to help combat this. It is important to note that this game still has some problems and that it should not be regarded as an attempt to be the only way to teach about the history of Columbus. This game is still from the perspective of Columbus and Europeans, as most history of Columbus are, but that is because this game/learning tool is based off of the question: “We have a national holiday named after Christopher Columbus, which means we are supposed to view Columbus as a hero and that we should emulate his actions. So, what were his actions and would we want to live up to them? Would he be a hero to us? To all people?” This does not mean that this learning tool is an endorsement of Columbus – far from it. It just asks learners to take on the role of Columbus and see if his actions and impacts would be what they would view as heroic and good. However, I’m currently attempting to develop a teaching/learning tool that tells the same tale of Columbus’s arrival while the learners take on the role of the American Indians.

I should note a couple more things. First, this game was designed to be counter the traditional tales of pro-imperialism, pro-colonialism, pro-racism, and so on that compile the regular histories told of Columbus. It was also designed to show the impact of Columbus’s arrivals and actions on the rest of the world (including the Americas) and not just Europe – again, a habit of traditional history-telling. However, there was a couple of pit-falls that I fell into when I crafted this activity that I realized too late. The game does not provide a space to show learners how they can go on and continue their learning on the subject elsewhere. This makes the game semi-dogmatic. I have constructed a follow up activity to this game that can be used for that purpose, and that helps teach learners how to challenge and think critically about dogmatic histories – I will post this shortly.

On to the game – (OR You can download the maps, instructions, and game pieces HERE and the cards for the game HERE).

Activity: The Arrival of Columbus and The Importance of it Today

• Goal of this activity: To understand what the arrival of Columbus to the Americas meant to the entire world and the lasting impact it has had on us today, through an experiential process.

• Materials Needed: A board, paper, scissors, glue, writing utensil, change

• Participants: 1-4 per game board (or can make several boards and do it with more participants).

• Time Needed: 70-90 minutes

1. Before you start the board game (and after the game):

Before the game:

• On a board or some visible place, make three sections for the purpose of writing on: 1) What we know and feel about Columbus now (Pre-Game), 2) What we now know and feel about Columbus (Post-Game), 3) Who were the Arawak/Taíno people?

• Have the students go up to the board and write down what they know/feel in sections 1 and 3. All answers are completely acceptable – also, if there are any points of contention amongst the participants, allow them to talk it out.

• Also, pose these questions/problems: “Many states in the U.S. celebrate Columbus Day. This obviously means that we are supposed to treat Columbus as a hero, which means we are supposed to want to live up to Columbus an emulate the things he stood for. So, what exactly would it mean for us to live up to Columbus – and is this something we want to do?”

After the game:

• Ask the students to revisit the board and to address spaces 2 and 3 together (talking amongst each other is highly encouraged). Also ask the students if they can think of any other ways that this issue has influence over our lives today.

2. The Board Game


Introduction: This is a board game based on the expeditions of Christopher Columbus. In the Untied States, many students are told that Columbus “discovered” the “New World” in 1492 that led to Europeans “settling” the Americas. For the most part, the story is left at that. Columbus is treated as a hero and many U.S. states celebrate a “Columbus Day” in October. However, the story is much more complex and Columbus had a much larger and possibly different impact on the Americas than is generally recognized. (Ask: are the terms that are normally used – i.e. “settle,” “discover,” and “New World” – appropriate to use?). Because Columbus is thought of as a hero in many parts of the United States, this implies that we should look up to him and respect what he accomplished. Thus, in this game, players take on the role and the perspective of Columbus. It is not meant to endorse Columbus or his actions, but to simply demonstrate what it would mean to live up to Columbus and what he accomplished. This game uses primary source quotes and facts about Columbus after his arrival to the Americas.


Objective: The object of the game is to pay off your debt to Spain and to make enough money to retire wealthy.

You Are: You are Columbus right after he has landed on “Hispaniola” for the first time, which is the island that makes up modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic. You will be making trips back and forth between Spain and the “West Indies.” In real life, Columbus made five trips to the Americas. There are four Columbus icons to choose from, each with a different depiction of Columbus. That is because Columbus never actually had a portrait done of him in his lifetime, and all portraits of him were done after he died by people who imagined what he had looked like.

How The Game Works:

Turns: Players move once a turn. They must do their actions when they land on a Space. They roll the die to see how many spaces they move. At the start of the game, each player will start at the arrow before the “1” spot on the West Indies. Every turn that you are in the West Indies, you must pay the Kingdom of Spain 2 gold. When the player reaches space “10,” they travel with their ship across the ocean. When reaching Spain, the player stops on the first space. When the player comes to the space marked “4,” they then head back to the West Indies on their ship. When arriving in Spain, you get 10 extra gold. On the departure from Spain, players get 2 extra soldiers.

Spaces: While in the West Indies, there are two kinds of Spaces. One is a Card Space and the other is an Action Space. In Spain, there are Card Spaces and Rest Spaces. Card Spaces: There are two different types of cards designated, one designated for use in Spain and one for the West Indies. When you land on a card space, read the “Info” section – which are facts about Columbus, the Americas, or quotes from the writings of Las Casas – and then follow the directions of the “Action” section. Action Space: The action spaces in the West Indies are spaces where you can use either your Priest units or your Soldier units. Ocean Space: Once you reach the Ocean Spaces, you must travel to the next continent. Roll the dice to see how many spaces you travel. If you roll a six, your ship shipwrecks (note: this is only true if a players rolls a six while on an ocean space). This means that players lose their ship (ships are put it back in the Kingdom of Spain). Players must begin again from the continent you started sailing on.

Units: There are three kinds of units in this game.

1. Ships. You start out with three ships. Each ship costs 20 gold. Your ships are your units which allow you to travel from continent to continent. You must always have at least one ships. If you are down to zero, you must buy a ship at the start of your turn.

2. Soldier. You start off with 2 soldier units. Each soldier unit costs 5 gold. You must at least have 2 soldier units at all times. If you start a turn with less than five soldiers, you must buy enough to get you to at least 2 before you move your Columbus icon. The soldier units are used for the action spaces; they are sent out on Raiding Parties. You have two possibilities for these spaces: -You can send a soldier unit out on a Raiding Party. Roll the dice. If you roll a 3 or above, the raiding party is successful and you receive 5 gold. If you roll 1 or 2, the soldier unit dies. Put it back in the Kingdom of Spain. You can only do this once an Action Space. -You can send out 10 soldiers. If you roll 3 or above, all survive and you get 30 gold. If you roll a 1 or 2, all die. Put five of them back in the Kingdom of Spain. You can only do this once a stay on the West Indies (meaning you have to wait to return from Spain for the next time to do this).

3. Priest. You start out with 1 priest unit. Each priest unit costs 10 gold. The priest units are used for action spaces. You send the priests to the Arawaks and African slaves to convert them to Christianity. You always have to have at least 1 priest unit. If you start a turn without a priest unit, the first thing you must do before you can move is buy a new priest unit. You can only use priest units three times total on a stay in the West Indies (meaning you have to wait for your return from Spain to use a priest again). -If you roll a 1, 2, or 3 your priest is killed. -If you roll a 4 or a 5, your priest makes 15 gold. -If you roll 6, your priest makes 25 gold.

Starting and Finishing: You start the game 200 gold in debt to Spain. You finish the game when you have paid off the 200 gold debt (extended game play: and then when you make 200 gold to retire).

Kingdom of Spain: A player in the game, or any independent individual (teacher/facilitator), acts as the Kingdom of Spain. The Kingdom of Spain is responsible for giving out and collecting the gold and all of the units. When a player has 200 gold, that player pays it back to the Kingdom of Spain (they must then make 200 extra gold to retire wealthy).

2. How to make the Board Game:

Constructing the board game takes a little time, but it is fairly simple. Here are some easy steps. Each material that has been included in this is represented by a number in the “how to” that corresponds with the number (#) that it is in the materials provided below.

• Get a large board/paper board (when I made the game, I used a blue board, to give the effect of the Atlantic Ocean).

• Cut out the map of the “West Indies” (1) and the “Kingdom of Spain” (2). Glue the “Kingdom of Spain” to the top right corner and the “West Indies” to the bottom left corner.

• Next to the space marked “1C” on the “West Indies” map draw a space and mark it “starting point.” From the space marked “4” on the “Kingdom of Spain” map, draw six spaces to the “starting point” you have just made – mark these numbers numerically (1, 2, 3, etc.). Then draw six spaces from the “West Indies” space marked “10C” to the Spain space marked “1” – also mark them numerically.

• In the top left hand corner, make three-inch wide spaces – and mark one “Soldier,” one “Priest,” and one “Ship.” These are where the game units will be placed.

• Cut out the four Columbus (3) pieces.

• Cut out the game pieces: soldiers (4), priests (5), and soldiers (6). (Because of space allotment, I did not put as many of each unit as are needed below. You may want to photocopy them to make more – or to simply cut them out, and the students can keep track of how many of each unit they are supposed to have on a piece of paper). • Cut out all the game Cards. Next to the “West Indies” map, draw another large box. Place the “West Indies” Cards here (7). In the Atlantic Ocean, between Spain and the Islands, glue down the Ocean Card (8). Next to the “Kingdom of Spain” map, draw a large box. Place the Spain Cards (9) here.

• For the “gold” pieces, you can use pennies/nickels to represent “5” gold, dimes to represent “10” gold, and quarters to represent “25” gold. Or you can come up with another measuring device, or the students can simply keep track by using math.

Here is an example of what the board might look like:

In the following pages, some of the different materials are provided. Remember, you might want to photocopy them if you might want to have more for the future. Or, if cutting/pasting/photocopying doesn’t work for you, you can simply draw the parts:

(Click on images for full-size versions. You can download them and print them, full-size to use on the board). OR (You can download the maps and cards in a PDF format HERE.) Just to note: You should probably make 20 Ship cards, 50 Priest Cards, and 100 Soldier cards. Of course, if you don’t have the resources to print/copy this amount of cards, you can just have the players keep tallies of how many of each units they have).

1. Map of “West Indies”

2. Map of Kingdom of Spain

3. Columbus Pieces

4. Ship Pieces


20 Gold

5. Priest Pieces


10 Gold

6. Soldier Pieces


5 Gold

Cards for the Columbus Game:

9. “West Indies” Cards (OR download the cards in PDF format HERE)

INFO: Christopher Columbus owed Spain a lot of money for financing his trips. He didn’t find “fields of gold” like he had imagined, so he had to pay back the Kingdom somehow. In 1495 he sent a raiding party into the interior of the island with weapons and dogs and captured 1,500 Arawaks. He then selected the best 500 of them to send back to the Kingdom as payment. In route, 200 of the Arawaks died.
ACTION: You have not located any fields of gold. You have sent a raiding party into the interior to capture Arawaks. Roll a dice to see how many you will keep as slaves. If you roll a six, you keep six hundred. If you roll a five, you keep five hundred. And so on. Send them back to the Kingdom. You make 5 gold for each slave you send back.
“Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”
– Christopher Columbus

INFO: The search for gold, wealth, and the spreading of Christianity was extremely important to Christopher Columbus and all other European powers.
ACTION: You have sent a priest to the Arawaks. Roll a dice to see if he succeeds in converting Arawaks. If the dice is 3 or below the priest succeeds, if it is 4 or above the priest is killed and you lose 10 gold. If the priest succeeds, you get 10 gold from the converted Arawaks.

INFO: When Columbus returned to Hispaniola for the first time, with a small Army granted to him by Spain, many Arawaks resisted giving the Spaniards all of their gold and food. To set an example of what brutality Columbus and the Spaniards could achieve, they cut off the ears or nose of disobedient Arawaks.
ACTION: You send your soldiers to deal with the disobedient Arawaks. Roll the dice, if it lands on 4 or above none of your soldiers die and you get 10 gold. If 3 or below you lose 2 soldier units.

INFO: Many Arawaks resisted Columbus’s orders that they provide the Europeans with food, women for sex, and cotton. The Arawaks intended this to be a message for Columbus to go home but Columbus took it as an act of war. Columbus surprised the Arawaks and cut them down with volleys from guns and attack dogs.
ACTION: You get 10 gold from raided Arawak villages.

INFO: Columbus and his men began to hunt Arawaks as sport and kill them for dog food. They were forced into slave labor and had to pay tribute to the Spanish.
ACTION: You receive 10 gold from forced labor and tributes paid to Arawak.

INFO: Christopher Columbus would reward his men with Arawak women to rape.
ACTION: Uh… don’t make this a card. Find out a different way to portray it.

INFO: The Spanish actions on the islands known today as the Caribbean Islands destroyed the Arawak ecosystem and culture. New and horrendous diseases were introduced to the Arawaks, who had no resistance because they had never been exposed to them before. As a result, the Arawaks died off in great numbers. There may have been up to 8 million Arawak Indians on all of the islands when Columbus arrived. There were 3 million by 1496 (that’s 5 million less in 4 years). There were 12,000 by 1516, and, according to Las Casas, there were 200 by 1546. By 1555 they were all dead. Because of the large-scale loss of Indians, Columbus imported slaves from Africa. Thus, by sending Arawaks to Europe and Africans to the Americas – Columbus initiated the transatlantic slave trade that would last for hundreds of years.
ACTION: The imported slaves from Africa bring you 5 gold.

INFO: When Columbus met the Arawak Indians, they presented him with gifts made of gold and they wore trinkets made of gold – as was accustom in Arawak society. This, unfortunately for the Arawaks, intrigued Columbus greatly.
ACTION: You receive 2 gold from the Arawaks as a gift.

INFO: Columbus left soldiers on Hispaniola after he went back to Spain with Arawaks he had captured as slaves. He returned to find his soldiers killed in battle because they had roamed the island looking for gold and kidnapped women and children for sex and labor.
ACTION: You lose 3 soldier units and 5 gold.

INFO: Initially, too many Arawak slaves died in captivity to be profitable for Columbus. However, he had to make good on paying the Spanish Kingdom back. Columbus imagined huge fields of gold to be on Hispaniola, and thus he determined that he needed to fill his ships with gold to send back to Spain. Columbus ordered all Arawaks that were 14 or older to collect a certain quantity of gold every three months as tribute. When they brought it, they were given a copper token to wear around their necks. Arawaks who were found without these copper tokens had their hands cut off and were left to bleed to death.
ACTION: You make 10 gold in tributes from the Arawaks.

INFO: Las Casas, from History of the Indies:
“…mountains are stripped from top to bottom and bottom to top a thousand times; they [the Arawak men] dig, split rocks, move stones, and carry dirt on their backs to wash it in the rivers, while those who wash gold stay in the water all the time with their backs bent so constantly it breaks them; and when water invades the mines , the most arduous task of all is to dry the mines by scooping up pansful of water and throwing it up outside…”
Each crew of Arawaks was forced to mine from six to eight months. During that time, up to a third of the men died.
ACTION: You make 15 gold from Arawaks forced to mine.

INFO: Arawak men were forced to mine by Spaniards, and women were forced to work the soil for agriculture and for the growing of the prized cassava plants. This consisted of the difficult and strenuous job of making thousands of hills for the products desired by Columbus and the Spanish. Las Casas, from History of the West Indies:
“Thus husbands and wives were together only once every eight or ten months and when they met they were so exhausted and depressed on both sides… they ceased to procreate. As for the newly born, they died early because their mothers, overworked and famished, had no milk to nurse them, and for this reason, while I was in Cuba, 7000 children died in three months. Some mothers even drowned their babies from sheer desperation… In this same way, husbands died in mines, husbands died at work, and children died from lack of milk… and in a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile… was depopulated… My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write…”
ACTION: You make 10 gold from cassava plants and other crops farmed by Arawak women.

INFO: When Columbus and his crew arrived to the Americas, they threw away their wool clothing for the American Indian’s cotton clothes. The cotton plant was native to the Americas and had been utilized for many different uses. Cotton, in turn, would have a major impact on European clothing and industry.
ACTION: You make 15 gold for shipping cotton and cotton plants to Europe.

INFO: Some Arawaks and other American Indians thought that Columbus and his crew were gods, with their ships from an unknown place and their mysterious guns. The Europeans accepted this notion until the Taíno started to test this empirically: by shoving the Europeans’ heads under water to see if they were actually immortal.
ACTION: You lose 5 amount of gold in dead crew and 2 soldiers.

INFO: By the time Columbus landed, the Americas had some of the most densely populated areas on Earth. Central Mexico, part of Mesoamerica, alone had 25.2 million people in it. To put that into perspective, Spain and Portugal combined had 10 million. This means that central Mexico may have had the most people per square mile, more than China or India. The year before Columbus arrived, the Americas may have been home to between 90 million and 112 million people. This means that more people lived in the Americas than in Europe.
ACTION: The islands that Columbus landed on were initially densely populated. The Kingdom of Spain gives you ten gold to help your journey so that you might bring back slaves.

INFO: The people who populated the Americas had also erected complicated and sophisticated societies. With the arrival of Columbus and other European powers, however, devastating diseases swept through the Americas. The American Indians had never been exposed to the diseases the Europeans brought with them and thus had no natural resistances to them. In the first 150 years after the arrival of Columbus, 85% of the people in the Americas may have died. If this is right, 1 in 5 people on Earth may have perished from these epidemics.
ACTION: Many of the Arawak slaves you’ve captured die of smallpox. You lose 5 gold in investments.

INFO: The Arawaks were a people who lived on the islands of the “West Indies,” mainly on “Hispaniola,” and were closely related to the Taíno who lived on what is today called Cuba. Europeans time and time again noted the Arawaks, like the people who lived on the mainland of the Americas, for their hospitality and their willingness to share. When Columbus arrived at their island, the Arawaks swam out to meet him.
ACTION: You make 5 gold from the friendly Arawaks.

INFO: Here are a few things we learned about the Arawaks from Las Casas’ History of the Indies:
-The Arawaks had canoes that could fit up to 40 or 50 people.
-Marriage laws were non-existent. Women and men could choose their partners equally and they could both leave each other whenever they pleased. Women were treated so well in American Indian society that it shocked the Spaniards.
-The Arawaks lived in communal housing and on land communally (meaning they shared the land, it was not owned privately by individuals).
-Whenever the Arawaks did battle, it was for personal grievances coming from the people, not because of orders from Kings.
ACTION: Women were treated so well in Arawak society that it shocked the Spaniards who were used to supreme male domination over women. As a result of your forced labor, you make 10 gold.

INFO: Bartolomé de Las Casas was a young priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba. He even owned a plantation with American Indian slaves on it for a while until he later gave that up and became a serious critic of Spanish cruelty. He would later write History of the Indies which described the American Indian people of the West Indies and Columbus’s actions against them.
ACTION: You lose one priest unit.

8. Ocean Card

INFO: Columbus and other European sailors shipwrecked off of the Caribbean islands often. When they did, Arawaks usually found them and took care of them for months on end until they were able to sail again.
ACTION: Roll the dice to move that many spaces across the ocean. If the die lands on “6” your ship has shipwrecked and you lose a turn while you are being taken care of by the Arawaks. You must start sailing again from the continent you began on. You also lose 5 gold and 2 soldier units.

9. Spain Cards

INFO: When Columbus returned to Spain for the first time from Hispaniola, he brought back with him 25 Arawak Indians as slaves. The trinkets they wore and the gold jewelry on their bodies caused a stir in Spain. Columbus was sent back with a small army to capture more gold.
ACTION: Your Arawak slaves have caused quite a stir in Spain. The Kingdom sends you back with 5 additional soldier units.

INFO: Initially Columbus had a good outlook on the Arawaks, calling them an impressive people. His view changed later when he tried to sell them as slaves to Isabella, calling them stupid and brutish. For her part, Isabella would eventually side against the enslavement of American Indians. She and Las Casas would work together to make laws against selling American Indians as slaves. Unfortunately, other European powers saw profit in slavery and followed suit from Columbus. Columbus probably sent more slaves across the ocean than any other person in the history of the world: 5,000.
ACTION: American Indian slavery wasn’t always banned in Spain. You sell Arawaks as slaves for 10 gold.

INFO: The flow of crops between the newly connected continents was enormous. For their part, the Americas introduced such things as maize (corn), peppers, peanuts, cocoa, potatoes, and some kinds of beans to Europe and Africa. This is just to name a few. The introduction of potatoes in Europe caused a population boom in Europe and strengthened Europe’s economic standing and gave them the ability to send raiding parties to the Americas. The introduction of maize to Africa also caused a population boom there. This helped fuel the African slave trade to the Americas. This also caused the collapse of great Islamic Empires that Europe had been competing against.
It is estimated that anywhere from half to 3/5ths of the worlds current plants in cultivation originated in the Americas.
ACTION: The introduction of new crops brings you 2 soldier units for your ships and 5 gold.

INFO: Although there were many diseases that swept across the Americas after the arrival of Columbus that crippled American Indian societies and killed off entire peoples, the disease of Syphilis may have originated in the Americas and then traveled to Europe from Columbus’s crew.
ACTION: 5 of your soldier units die and others get sick from syphilis. You must pay 15 gold to treat the sick units.

INFO: Columbus’s re-finding of the Americas helped along the rise of capitalism. Because there was now so much gold and silver available to European powers, from the Americas, this became the replacement for land as the basis of wealth. This was undermining to the Islamic nations that had once dominated and rivaled Europe. It also caused Africa to only have one thing to trade that Europe desired: slaves.
ACTION: You brought back large quantities of gold from the Americas and made large quantities of gold from bringing slaves to the West Indies from Africa. You make 15 gold.

INFO: Isabella was the Queen of the newly unified Spain in 1492 and financed Columbus’s expeditions. Eventually, when Columbus continued to bring slaves back to Spain from the Americas, she would work with Las Casas to ban the slavery of American Indians in Spain.
ACTION: Queen Isabella supplies you with a ship to help colonize and conquer the “West Indies”. But you lose 15 gold from not being able to sell as many slaves.

INFO: During the time of Columbus’s expeditions to the Americas, starting in 1492, Europe was more organized than it had ever been before due to bureaucracy. Columbus had possibly learned about uncharted lands to the west from his visits to the Scandinavia area. The Vikings, who had originated from Scandinavia, had visited the Americas hundreds of years before – probably around 1000 AD. The Vikings had long interactions with the Americas, failing to establish settlements (due to heavy American Indian populations), but continued to export large amounts of wood from the continent for over 300 years. It is also possible that Africans, the Irish, and maybe even the Chinese had visited the Americas before Columbus.
Columbus’s arrival to the Americas was much more important in Europe during his time, though, because of the way Europe responded. Columbus also had the benefit of constant wars in Europe, causing an unprecedented arms race in the region. This gave him the benefit of large weapons unmatched by other parts of the world.
ACTION: You receive 4 soldier units.

INFO: Columbus convinced the King and Queen of Spain that he was searching for a route to India, although the place he was really searching for is uncertain. He also changed the distances his ships traveled in his captain’s logs in order to confuse European sailors that might try to follow in his steps. This way, he would be the only one with the knowledge of how to reach the “West Indies.” Columbus eventually died a very wealthy man.
ACTION: You are the only one who has knowledge of how to reach the “West Indies,” you make 10 gold on your monopoly of knowledge.


Entry filed under: Anti-Oppression and Free Schools, Learning, Related To Free Schooling, Teaching. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Slow-Posting This Week North Star Is A Place For Liberated Learners

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