Play may be universal, but games aren’t.

Not tabletop games, anyway. Just two months ago, the academic journal Analog Game Studies, which examines games played with boards, cards, dice, and other physical means, published some depressing but unsurprising statistics on race and game design. Of the most popular two hundred games at the time on industry bible, white men designed 93.5 percent. 

Some reasons for this disparity are obvious. Games are a leisure activity, and leisure is a product of income, which favors white men. Others are subtler—gaming’s ingrained Eurocentric lore, its elves and dragons and white knights, isn’t exactly a welcome mat for people of color. And tabletop gaming is ultimately a social experience. If a white perspective shapes most of the games, then, of course, white players will dominate the social spaces where games are played.

All of this is just starting to change, though that’s probably too passive a way to put it. Rather, people like Durham’s Omari Akil, whose love of tabletop games and hip-hop music consummates in the forthcoming Rap Godz, are changing it. 

Played with vibrantly illustrated cards on a board that at once suggests a turntable, an astrology chart, and a graffiti-spattered Trivial Pursuit, Rap Godz pits two to four players against one another in a thirty-to-sixty-minute race to smash the charts with platinum plaques. But beyond the finely tuned mechanics of the card play, the metagame is a vessel for spontaneous storytelling, with each player portraying an archetypal rap persona and city. This is to say that the game is hip-hop in function as well as in form. 

By producing Rap Godz independently, with his brother, Hamu Dennis, Akil is making a concerted effort to bring more people of color into the tabletop world. But he’s also just doing what savvy entrepreneurs do—filling a wide-open niche. When he and Dennis, unknown and untested in the world of game design, raised more than $25,000 in a month for Rap Godz on Kickstarter, they knew it had been the right decision for the branding on the box to say Board Game Brothas, not Parker Brothers.

Born in 1986, Akil grew up in suburban Algiers Point, Louisiana, a ferry ride away from New Orleans. The youngest of three children, with his nearest siblings more than twelve years his senior, he lived there until he left for Norfolk State University in Virginia, where he earned a degree in computer science. Then, he was more into video games than board games, though in retrospect, he realizes they were already playing a role in his life.

“I have a cousin from Los Angeles, and every time he came to town, we would have an epic Monopoly game with my dad,” Akil says with an amiable laugh in a dim booth at downtown Durham tabletop haven The Atomic Fern. “Nobody was happy, but we’re doing it anyway, because that’s what Monopoly is.” His mother taught him Solitaire, his sister dominoes. “So all of my family members, I have this connection with each through a different game, and now, I’m making board games with my brother.” 

After college, Akil was on track for a career in video games, and he moved to the Triangle for a job as a programmer at IBM. But eventually, he realized he was less interested in the technical aspects of games than in their ludic, emotional core. He left IBM and spent several years working a variety of jobs, including a long stint as a business systems analyst at UNC. 

He was also, he realized, kind of lonely. He had friends from work and church, but he mostly gamed alone, at home, on the internet. Then he stumbled across TableTop, a web series about tabletop games starring sci-fi icon Wil Wheaton (aka Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation).  

“I was like, ‘This is the greatest thing ever,’” Akil recalls. “The games looked fun, but also the social interaction, cracking jokes on each other.” Akil went to Atomic Empire and bought two of the card-based games he’d seen on the show, Munchkin and Smash Up. Then he realized he had no one to play them with. So he found a welcoming Meetup group at Looking Glass Café, which was near where he lived in Chapel Hill at the time (he’s been back in Durham since 2017). Akil received a crash course in contemporary games—and a social scene—in a few months. But it wasn’t until his brother visited him in the spring of 2016 that his new passion shifted toward a new career. 

Hamu Dennis, fourteen years older than Akil, is a photographer and videographer who still lives in Louisiana.

“He got here and was shocked at the number of games I had,” Akil says. “It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is a thing, and you’re, like, a nerd in this way.’ Then he dropped it on me: ‘Oh yeah, I tried to make a board game a long time ago with my friend.’” 

Indeed, in 2007, Dennis and his friend, the rapper Tim Smooth, had drawn a prototype for a hip-hop trivia game on poster board, but it slipped onto the back burner, and then Smooth passed away.

“The idea sat and sat for all that time,” Dennis says. “Then, playing games with my brother one weekend, I realized his knowledge of games, and I had always wanted to play this game in my head so bad.” 

That weekend, Akil gave Dennis his own crash course in modern tabletop games, and they settled on two ideas that remain central to Rap Godz: the three kinds of currency (money, rap skills, and street cred) and the idea of storytelling progression. 

“My brother is hardcore when it comes to new projects, and he went home and basically started making it,” Akil says. “He sent me a picture of the board he made a couple of weeks later. I was like, ‘Well, OK, I guess we have to make a game now.’ To this day, I call this his baby, because it came from an idea he had ten years ago.”

Dennis also recalls playing board games with their family fondly, but there was always something missing for him.

“I wanted to be a rapper in a game, and I didn’t want to fight him, I didn’t want him to shoot people,” he says. “Rap lyrics are the lifestyles of the rappers, so I wanted to live all of that, all the elements of their lives we don’t get to see. But nobody had ever made that.” 

“Rap lyrics are the lifestyles of the rappers, so I wanted to live all of that, all the elements of their lives we don’t get to see. But nobody had ever made that.”

There are ways in which making a tabletop game is like making software: iterate, playtest, iterate, playtest. 

“First, we built a spreadsheet, like, ‘OK, what happens to rappers?’” Akil says. “We probably put six hundred items in there, and then we had to narrow those down and sort them into the story. Buying a limousine—what category does that fit into in a rapper’s career?”

In Rap Godz, you have fifteen turns in which to play cards from random draws, and you might confront an unusual dilemma: Do I want to win or play the game? When you begin, you choose a character—say, “She’s a G,” the gangster rapper persona. The decision that’s truest to your character may not always earn you the most points. 

“When you finish the game and look at the cards you played, it feels like that character,” Akil says. “That’s totally optional: You can play however you want. But when I see a card being played that fits with the character, I get super excited, like, it works.”

There’s also a “beef” mechanic that illustrates the unique challenges of creating game systems, where making a single change has an exponential effect. Because players are mostly developing their own stories with their cards, Akil wanted to add a way for them to interact with one another directly. Initially, beefing was an extra turn that could confer benefits or backfire, which is to say, it was realistic. (Just ask Drake.)

“Logistically, it was difficult to make that work,” Akil says. “If you have something outside of the norm, there’s so many more rules you have to introduce to prevent someone from using it in a way we don’t intend. You have this opportunity cost, and you have to incentivize it in some way.”

So beef became a core mechanic rather than an auxiliary one. 

“We made it work like every other turn, except you roll dice,” Akil says. “We’ve watched the game played a million times, and so many people are into the storytelling part that it doesn’t need to be so perfectly fair, perfectly balanced. I was at a convention in Los Angeles, and one woman was like, ‘I have these two cards I could play. One fits my character, and one gets me more points.’ She played the one that fit her character, because she was all in on the story.”

You can get a nice prototype of your game manufactured for less than $150, but traveling to conventions is the biggest cost for the first-time game designer.  

“The popular thing for developing games right now is Kickstarter, but if you want it to be successful, you have to be really physical before,” Akil says. By the fall of 2017, he and Dennis had a handmade version of Rap Godz they felt good about and started booking tables at game conventions. One of them, PAX Unplugged, in Philadelphia, has a module called Unpub for unpublished tabletop designers. Akil remembers demoing the game for upward of eight hours at a time. After building support at conventions, Akil and Dennis felt confident enough to start sinking more money into Rap Godz. Initially, they wanted to find a publisher to handle manufacturing, distribution, and marketing.

But then they changed their minds and decided to publish the game themselves.  

“[A traditional publisher] was less scary,” Akil says. “You make a good game and hand it off. The turning point was when we decided we want to do more than make games. You want to be an example and enabler for other people who want to make games, especially in the black community.” 

Twenty-five grand is a lot for first-time game designers to raise in a month, which speaks to both the brothers’ charisma and Rap Godz’s unique appeal.

“A lot of people supporting us are people who met me or my brother and were like, ‘You guys are passionate about what you’re doing, but also, we need more games like this,’” Akil says. “There’s very few hip-hop games. There’s very few music games. It’s a lot easier to get into designing games now, but until this point, the path was paved primarily with only white males. But I think it’s changing. At my first PAX Unplugged, I felt like I was the only black designer in the room, but when I went back the next year, there were three black designers in the room at the same time.”

One of the games Akil saw that day is revealing of the kind of perspective designers of color can uniquely bring to the space. In Check Your Privilege, you draw a selection of cards describing your profession and race and then debate, say, who would be most likely to be harassed by police in a certain scenario.

Akil says he saw people of different genders and races playing Check Your Privilege and having a blast, but the question hovers: Should white people play Rap Godz? Akil admits he’s encountered skittishness from some white gamers—perhaps because the subject matter is unusual for a board game, perhaps because of fears of cultural appropriation, perhaps because of racism, and probably for a nebulous combination them all. 

“I’m sure some of it is that they’re uncomfortable putting themselves in this position,” Akil says. “We’ve definitely had conversations about the stereotypes that exist, and we have some of those concepts in the game, but we balance it with all the positive things about hip-hop that people don’t see. But yeah, we have African-American-vernacular English that you have to read out loud. If I was a fly on the wall watching four white people playing this game, what would it look like?”

Indeed, it’s easy to imagine a racially mixed group of friends playing Rap Godz together, but to imagine four white people playing it alone is to cringe. It’s a fundamentally black game, in the same way that Settlers of Catan is fundamentally a white one—anyone is welcome to play, but some will find the cultural touchstones more familiar than others. Until game design demographics are more balanced, it will feel off-kilter, if collegial, to play in each other’s worlds.

None of this is to say that Akil isn’t grateful to the traditional game and design scene that nurtured him in the Triangle. In particular, he says, video and board game designer Brian Sowers has been a mentor since they met at Akil’s first Looking Glass meet-up. But he’s also reaching beyond the traditional gaming sphere, taking Rap Godz to places like Durham hip-hop festival Beats n Bars, where it earned cosigns from local luminaries like G Yamazawa and Defacto Thezpian. 

Board Game Brothas incorporated at the beginning of 2018, with Akil as lead game designer and Dennis, who drew Rap Godz’s copious character artwork, as art director. The game is currently available for preorder for $40 on Kickstarter or—but only until the end of this month. It’s scheduled to ship in August. Akil anticipates ending up with about fifteen hundred copies. 

As he prepares to see his first big game through production, he’s playing in the game night at Atomic Fern every Monday from 7:30 p.m. to midnight. He and Dennis are also working on a new game, Graffiti Knights, a fast, party-style card game where you crew up and tag spots around the city. 

Dennis, meanwhile, is hosting a Rap Godz game night with his friends every Friday night. 

“Grown men show up like poker night and play this game on a pro level,” he says, laughing. “It’s ridiculous. I can’t win. But I’m already winning, with the feeling that I get from watching people play and have a good time. This is a game that I am in, you know?”

Contact managing arts and culture editor Brian Howe by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972 ext. 142, or on Twitter @brian_gray_howe. 

Corrections: Akil is the youngest of three children, not four, and he is playing in the game night at Atomic Fern, not hosting it.

10 replies on “Nine Out of Ten Tabletop Games Are Made by White Men. With Rap Godz, Durham’s Omari Akil Is Working to Change That.”

  1. When I see a game on a shelf or website and it looks interesting, I start researching it. I don’t care who made it (I recognize some names, but that’s about it), as long as the game is solid.

    The fact that you made a “black game” is only going to create a diversity problem you claim exists already; trust me, it doesn’t. Nobody will look weird at a group of black people playing Catan (even though “Settlers of Catan is fundamentally a white one” according to you), but people will look weird at 4 white guys playing your game, because you probably put in some words that are unacceptable if said by white guys.

    Board gaming is the most inclusive hobby around. I’ve seen people in all ages, all sexes, all economical layers, all political directions, play together for hours on end, because they share the same interest: board games. You creating this “black game” (your words, btw), is creating a diversity this hobby doesn’t need.

    Seriously, the diversity problem you are describing here, is stupid and non-existent, until you started developing a “black game”. Stop feeling so sorry for yourself and just enjoy this inclusive hobby. Play the good games, make good games and enjoy each other’s company. That’s it, nothing more, nothing less.

  2. Sad that people are still dividing into white or black or hispanic groups or whatever. Racism will exist as long as there is this division, and if you insist on black this or black that (IE history month/etc) then racism just goes on and on. How about we call people by their first names instead of their skin color or take their opinions based upon them being a member of the human race instead of their skin color. We can all agree to disagree and that’s fine. But if you want real social change the time for calling people black or white needs to end. It really is that simple but people are tribal and group oriented hence they will be defensive and insist on their “rights” etc.

  3. As a tabletop gamer, let me make this clear: I don’t CARE about what colour the developer’s skin is. It is irrelevant. It is only how well the game plays that matters to me.

    The second you start going ‘MUH DIVERSITY’, that will only guarantee that I will pass your game straight. You are using idiotic marketing tactics aimed towards SJWs who will NOT buy your games. And that particular opinion comes from somebody who isn’t just black, but also a girl.

    Seriously, sod off with that nonsense. If you want to promote a game, fine. Don’t go on this NONSENSE rant about how ‘the majority of game designers are white.’

  4. This could have been a nice story about a game designer making a unique game. Instead it is judeo masonic propaganda about how white people are bad… disgusting.

  5. Thank you for promoting such a wonderful game and important game designers. Gaming continually ostracizes and shuns its PoC and marginalized designers and I’m delighted to see you doing the work to create space and visibility for incredible people like Omari! Keep up the fab work! You’re making a difference! You can tell by all the racist bullshit in the comments.

  6. If there are more “white” game designers it just means more white people are interested in games… why… who the fuck knows and who cares. If i play boardgames or buy boardgames, i don’t spend time wondering if the designer was black, white, yellow, orange or green. It the game is good it will be bought and played….that’s it. And a game with the name “rap godz” will not get alot of attention because it’s a lame theme for a boardgame. Music and games just don’t mix unless you have designed something like guitar hero

  7. This is cultural appropriation if you ask me. Seriously tho this is really dumb stop calling people black or white and racism is solved l- Morgan Freeman

  8. Hi Brian, your next article is going to be about Jewish over-representation in the US congress, the UK parliament, the courts, the Supreme Court, the banks, the news media, elite universities, the entertainment industry, and positions of privilege, power, and control across corporate America right… right!

    I know you know that this just ain’t right — you said so in your article!

  9. You won’t post my comment? Let’s try it again…
    Thank you, BlackSombrero, I was trying to say the same thing last night on a Face Book group, Tabletop Backer Party, and I was booted off. These admins say they don’t want politics but game talk only and then they post this tripe and that is not political? As if there was a conspiracy preventing non-whites from designing games. The gaming scene is changing everywhere. It’s not just German Euros anymore but games coming from Spanish, French, Greek and Polish designers and I think that’s great. So what, you’re telling me that Germans prevented these other countries from putting out games? I was just thinking the other day that I can’t wait to see what comes out of Africa and other countries. The left’s diversity for the sake of diversity is an open door to anything, including, what can be detrimental to society. There is a diversity of organs in my body. Can I introduce poison into my system and hope it will just get along with everything? I couldn’t care less whether a woman or a man designs a game. I’ll judge it by its quality and interest to me, however, I draw the line when a game is disguised as liberal propaganda. And Kickstarter has no qualms letting people know their stance when they give their, “We love this project” stamp of approval on just such games. (I look at the spirit behind a creation. There can be an agenda being pushed against what I may have convictions for.) As far as this guy’s game based on Rap, I hate Rap and do not consider it music so I won’t look at it twice. It has nothing to do with the race of the designer. It could’ve been a white designer making a game about Eminem and I would still hate it. There is no need to push women or minorities to design games as if something is blocking them. It’s called inspiration. Like a cat, you can’t force it to come to you, you have to let it come when it wants to.

Comments are closed.