Is Totems + Taboos problematic?

A board game where players construct a new religion, of course it will be considered problematic.

We received no criticism of the theme during the many, many playtests (which perhaps suggests something about our test players) but as soon as we shared Totems + Taboos online, there were remarks which we want to address here.

Let’s start with the obvious: this game is not a glorification of (any) religion, it’s the opposite. Not just religion actually, but any kind of dogma that is (ab)used to mislead, control, and rile up people.

Players choose the tenets of their doctrine (Life/Death, Love/Fear, Truth/Faith) but the goal is always the same, namely to grow your power and dominate your competitors.

We refrain from calling out specific religions and ideologies, although we’re sure the inspiration shines through, because we’re not critiquing a particular culture or denomination but rather the dogmatism and tribalism that is all too common all over the world, and throughout all of history.

Some people are under the impression that Totems + Taboos is about Native American culture, which we would be appropriating (as a European team) and we understand the association. In the game, players stack their totem blocks into a tower as their power grows.

The title, however, is a reference to Sigmund Freud’s ‘Totem und Tabu’, a series of essays where he attempts to explain the seemingly innate urge for humans to start religions. ‘Totemism’, he claims, is a way for communities to identify themselves by means of a ‘sacred’ symbol (be it animal, plant, or force of nature) and particularly important to deter in-group incest, a major taboo.

It being Freud, of course it’s contested, outdated, and sometimes plain wrong. This game is not an endorsement to take Freud’s work as holy text either.

Maarten's mood board

The geometry of the artwork, which some find evokes Indigenous American art, was actually inspired by ancient art from all over the world (from Celtic to Aboriginal Australian to Aztec to Egyptian etc). Designer Maarten De Schrijver has a fondness for clean lines and bold colors, shared with most of our ancient forebears.

Here is a post about his design process, should you want to read more about it.

Whatever our intentions are, it’s what the audience ultimately makes of it that matters, and we had a difficult time deciding whether or not we should change the game to make it more clear it’s not just about the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. It’s a tricky issue and even after seeking advice from different sources we’re still not 100% sure, but we hope the point and theme of the game will be sufficiently clear to anyone who takes a second look. 

That’s not to say we’re averse to change or input from our audience, on the contrary. We’ve already changed the original terminology after receiving remarks on how it was upsetting in ways we did not intend. We listened to the feedback, reflected on the issue, and decided to change some of the names.

So, did we make an intentionally offensive game?

Well, it depends who’s asking, actually. Totems + Taboos should disturb zealots, yes, religious or otherwise. On the other hand, the goal was never to target historically marginalized people, the target is fanaticism.

At the end of the day, though, we just hope you’ll enjoy the game.