Boardgame Bulletin 23-7: No suffering with Votes for Women (designer Tory Brown, Fort Circle Games, 2023)

First off, a big thanks to Kevin Bertram, the owner of Fort Circle Games who sent me a complimentary copy of Votes for Women designed by Tory Brown. Looking at the ad copy for Votes for Women, this is a game I admit I didn’t consider ordering:

From a small gathering in Seneca Falls, New York to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the Women’s Suffrage Movement waged a seventy year battle to secure the most fundamental right of citizenship for half of the American population. While the 19th Amendment by no means guaranteed every woman access to the ballot, it stands as a testament to the power of movements and the brilliant determination of its members. The story of how suffragists won Votes for Women has never been more relevant given the resurgent movement politics of today. 

Votes for Women captures and celebrates the struggle by inviting players to join the suffrage movement, organize support, and campaign for victory across the 48 states that were called to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1919-1920. The card-driven game can be played cooperatively, competitively, or in solitaire mode, and in each version players must navigate the historic events, movement schisms, and political challenges of the era to win. The board is simple to set up and the artwork is inspired by the classic designs used by suffragists themselves.

The deck of over 100 stunning cards feature period art, portraiture, and historic documents and include event instructions that can either be played or discarded to campaign or organize their side of the issue. Campaigners move across the premium mounted map to distribute political capital with a roll of the included dice that will determine whether each state votes to ratify the amendment or opposes the Vote after three eras of play. Dig deeper into the history and maneuver through the critical choices that suffragists faced for a chance to guarantee equal franchise for all and win Votes For Women!

Publisher’s Blurb for Votes for Women

“It’s too political,” I told myself. “It’s just another ‘cubes as influence game’,” I said. Kevin, however, very obviously believes this game is a winner and will appeal to a broad audience—even to an aging Grognard like me.

Given Kevin’s kindness, it was only right I try to play Votes for Women at least once. So I read the rules (relatively short and easy to understand), set up the game (fast and easy), and played solo against the Oppobot (few rules changes; very manageable). I played…

Taking on the OppoBot

…and lost. So I played again. And again.

In what shouldn’t have been a surprise, I was happily surprised to learn a few things. I learned that I have severely underestimated the play value of card-driven “cubes as influence” games and, more importantly, I was taken by just how much I learned about the history of Woman’s Suffrage from the game Votes for Women.

Women of Influence

Designer Tory Brown is very up-front about the messaging behind Votes for Women. So up-front that there are some game critics out there who see the discussions of Votes for Women and talk of wokism running amok and “infecting” the hobby boardgame industry. All I will say in response is we need more designers like Tory Brown creating titles similar to Votes for Women that tear away political blinders (conscious or unconscious) and allow us to engage with history through games.

Let’s take that wokism charge by the horns and get it out of the way first. While Tory Brown is very open about the personal agenda behind designing Votes for Women, she should be commended for designing a game that presents both sides fairly. While we know the Opposition is on the “wrong side of history,” the game doesn’t portray it as a one-dimensional trope or barbarous, stereotypical evil monster. Rather, the Event Cards for both sides show many of the people involved and bring a very personal aspect of the entire movement (and anti-movement) to light. Tory goes out of her way in the Designer’s Notes to comment how she tried very hard to find the right events to build both a historically accurate and balanced asymmetric foe in the Opposition and OppoBot card decks. Achievement unlocked!

Putting politics aside, there is much for aspiring designers to learn from Tory Brown and the design of Votes for Women. All of us should study how the Event Cards are built and the way they communicate both game effects and history. One criticism I sometimes have of card-driven games is that, on too many occasions, there is a disconnect between historical text on the cards and their game effects. Sometimes the designer just needs another “remove influence” card for play balance. So you get another card that has the effect, but the historical text is maybe related…and maybe not. Not so in Votes for Women. After playing the game I went back and looked through all the Event Cards, be it for the Suffragists, the Opposition, or the OppoBot. I have never seen Event Cards that so closely relate the history and game effect of the card like Votes for Women does. In some ways this slows down play because I find myself not only reading the game effect on the Event Cards, but also reading the historical flavor text. Why? Because they are so well related and tell a compelling story.

Votes for Women is a game about a political movement framed within a political process. I deeply appreciate how Tory Brown frames the movement in this boardgame with a “first act” of building influence (“Campaigning” and “Lobbying”) and then a “second act” of bringing the 19th Amendment to a vote (“Voting”). Some might say this oversimplifies the entire political movement and doesn’t acknowledge the real history of the struggle. I say it creates a playable narrative frame that the players fill out by playing Events, campaigning, lobbying, and ultimately have put to a vote.

The story one discovers recreates in this two-act game of Votes for Women admittedly has frightful elements. Votes for Women doesn’t pull punches. While the issue overtly at hand may be the passage of the 19th Amendment and a women’s right to vote, it is just one of many problematic issues like racism and myths of the Confederacy that are also shown. I can see how some might be uncomfortable playing the Opposition side, which makes the offer of solo or cooperative play against the OppoBot that much more an enticement to play. But even if one plays the Opposition, they will discover a human face to that side and likely wonder not only why some opposed the 19th Amendment, but more importantly what role the media and business and political groups played then. If playing Votes for Women teaches you about the past and yet makes you wonder about politics today, the game has done its job.

While Votes for Women doesn’t necessarily bring new game mechanisms to this genre of games, it is by far the most clean playing and polished title I have personally experienced. Why is that important? Because the smooth play of Votes for Women allows players to better engage with the narrative it creates in play. The cards in Votes for Women really do tell the story of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, and the gameplay enables players to engage with that story.

The designers at Fort Circle are very fortunate to have Kevin as their publisher. Digging into his own pocket and sending copies far and wide is a true expression of how much he believes in their games. Kevin, your unshakeable faith in Tory Brown and the game Votes for Women is well-placed. It is through you that I experienced this incredible game that I wouldn’t have done so otherwise. Not only has the game given me additional insight into history, the presentation in an easy-to-learn, easy-to-teach, not-too-long-to-play boardgame means this title can come out a neighborhood game night.

I sincerely hope that others can put aside whatever biases they may have, be it political or dislike of a gaming genre, and sit down and play Votes for Women.

Thank, Kevin, you for taking a chance on me. In turn, I encourage, in the strongest possible manner, that others take a chance on Votes for Women. You won’t be disappointed.

Feature image courtesy RMN © 2007-2023 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

1 thought on “Boardgame Bulletin 23-7: No suffering with Votes for Women (designer Tory Brown, Fort Circle Games, 2023)

  1. The game just arrived here a few days ago… and now I’m ever more resolved to get it to the table this weekend!

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