Board gamers dig archaeology. Board Game Geek lists over 140 games with an archaeology or paleontology theme, and seven of them have 10,000 or more ratings. That’s even more impressive if we consider that archaeology is not exactly a ubiquitous human activity (unlike other popular themes like commerce, construction, or warfare). Why is archaeology so popular? – I think the main draw is that it’s perceived as an exciting activity which combines physical and mental challenges. Let’s have a look at the three main roles archaeologists fulfil in board games – that of an adventurer, of an excavator, and of a scholar.
Archaeology field work can be adventurous. Sure, the Acropolis is right in the middle of Athens and just a leisurely stroll away from any urban amenity you might imagine, but other excavation sites are far from modern civilization… and might still need to be discovered in an environment less-than-friendly to human life. This aspect of the archeologist exploring the wilderness and discovering dig sites is a common trope in archeology-themed board games: Tikal (Michael Kiesling/Wolfgang Kramer, Ravensburger) has its players start at the edge of the Mesoamerican jungle and then advance ever deeper into it in search of forgotten Maya temples. Even a highly abstracted, thinly themed game like Lost Cities (Reiner Knizia, KOSMOS) sees demanding environments as an essential part of archaeological expeditions: Egypt, despite its desert, is the most hospitable of them, with the others set in a jungle, atop the Himalaya, on a lost volcano, and even in Atlantis.
Other aspects of the archaeologist-as-adventurer have less grounding in the reality of the discipline: Archaeology is commonly shown in games as a high-risk, high-reward profession of treasure hunting in the face of danger. In Lost Ruins of Arnak (Elwen/Mín, Czech Games Edition), players regularly have to defeat monsters in order to gain resources. Incan Gold (Bruno Faidutti/Alan R. Moon, Schmidt Spiele) takes the aforementioned high-risk, high-reward aspect as its basic push-your-luck mechanism: Players attempt to haul more and more treasure out of a mine, but if they are too greedy, they might have to flee empty-handed as the mine collapses. Generally, not much stock is placed in the structural soundness of the archaeologist’s surroundings: Escape: The Curse of the Temple (Kristian Amundsen Østby, Queen Games) is based on a similar premise of treasure-hunting and near-escape. This trope as well as the artwork of the games points to them being inspired by the most famous archaeologist in popular culture, the indomitable adventurer Indiana Jones. Count how many Indiana Jones hats you can find in the board game covers below!
Even more pervasive in the popular imagination is the archaeologist-as-excavator. Unearthing the remains of old civilizations with shovel and brush is what sets archaeologists apart from other academics. (Incidentally, the activity of digging seems to be what unites archaeologists and paleontologists so that they share a “family” of board games on Board Game Geek.) The excavations themselves can take different forms: Tikal simply has the players uncover more and more layers of the pyramidal temples – the first layer, of course, yielding fewer victory points than each following one. Troia (Thomas Fackler, Amigo) goes into detail about the layers of Troy that players will unearth and aims to convey the actual research findings made there.
Finally, Amphipolis (Reiner Knizia, Desyllas Games) portrays the excavation as a race against time: Landslides are about to destroy the dig site. While real-life archaeologists would probably not risk their lives for the chance to uncover a few more artifacts, archaeology can still be a race against time – sometimes for the profane reason of the archaeologists having to return to their other academic duties, and sometimes for more dramatic ones (think of the excavations being done in Syria and Iraq in the last years).
If excavating is what sets archaeologists apart from other scholars, they still remain just that – scholars. The largest part of any archaeologist’s professional life is not spent digging, but rather writing papers and books, holding lectures and seminars, cataloguing findings, organizing exhibitions, attending conferences, and, of course, taking care of all the tedious bureaucratic obligations like applying for research grants, providing class documentation, or convincing their institution of the continued relevance of the discipline.
The most common form in which this aspect of the archaeologist-as-scholar is represented in board games might have been inspired by the institutions which make archaeology most visible to the general public – or, maybe, once more by Indiana Jones: “That belongs in a museum!” Museums can act as point multipliers (as in Mykerinos (Nicolas Oury, Ystari Games)) or even as the sole source of income/points when the hard-won artifacts are sold to them (Archaeology: The New Expedition (Phil Walker-Harding, Z-Man Games)).
Other games reverse that perspective: Instead of the excavators in the field interacting with the curators at the museum, the latter are the protagonists. Museum (Eric Dubus/Oliver Melison, Holy Grail Games) and Curators (Tove Jomer/Pablo Jomer/Jacob Westerlund, Worldshapers) feature archaeology as a way to acquire new objects for the exhibitions of the players’ museums.
Finally, there are even a few games that hint at the full scientific process around an excavation: Pergamon (Stefan Dorra/Ralf zur Linde, eggertspiele) has the players compete for research grants before they go on an expedition – while a higher demand might net the player more funding, a lower one would get them to the expedition site sooner. The artifacts then uncovered will be placed in museum exhibitions for victory points (or, in the game’s language, glory – would that there were glory for archaeologists!). Thebes (Peter Prinz, Queen Games) probably features the most complete depiction of the process: Excavations need to be prepared both materially (equipment) and intellectually (knowledge). The artifacts can then be used both in exhibitions at museums and at scholarly conferences.
Overall, the games featuring predominantly the archaeologist-as-adventurer are at the more popular end of the spectrum. The archaeologist-as-scholar games tend to be more niche. And the archaeologist-as-excavator is the dominant incarnation in the public imagination, featuring in almost every game.
What’s your favorite game with archaeologists? Let me know in the comments!
For the depiction of archaeology in board games, see Falke, Anna Klara: Archäologie in Brettspielen. Zwischen Abenteuer, Grabräuberei und Wissenschaft, Boardgame Historian 2021, online here (in German).
On Indiana Jones as the pop culture archetype of the (white, male, adventurous) archaeologist, see Baxter, Jane Eva: Popular Images and Popular Stereotypes. Images of Archaeologists in Popular and Documentary Film, in: The SAA Archaeological Record 2, no. 4, September 2002, p. 16—17 and 40, online here.
For a highly entertaining (albeit clearly dated) introduction to archaeology, whose dramatic tales of discovery have influenced public perceptions of the discipline, see Ceram, C.W.: Gods, Graves, and Scholars, Gollancz, London 1971.