March is Women’s History Month here in the USA.
Bite-sized facts from the Women’s History Month website:
- Women’s History Month started in 1981, with the week beginning March 7, 1982 called “Women’s History Week.”
- In 1987, Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 which designated the month of March 1987 as “Women’s History Month.”
- Between 1988 and 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions requesting and authorizing the President to proclaim March of each year as Women’s History Month.
- Since 1995, presidents have issued a series of annual proclamations designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month.”
International Women’s Day is also celebrated in March, and the theme this year is to #EmbraceEquity, including elevating visibility of women creatives, which makes a lot of sense to me as a topic for a tabletop gaming blog!
Women in Tabletop
There aren’t anywhere near as many women as men in this industry. That’s just a fact. There’s an immense amount of analysis required to identify all the reasons, but the obvious ones are that many women are mothers, and mothers generally shoulder most of the load of child-raising, leaving them less time to play games, let alone to design, illustrate, or participate in any of the many other aspects of tabletop game design. Added to that is the gender imbalance within the community – all the studies (for example, this) show that the the majority of board gamers are men.
Women and people of other genders (including non-binary, trans, genderqueer, and all other gender identities) are also less visible in the tabletop industry. As we all know from watching what happens to any woman who has an opinion about games on the internet, there is definitely a resistance to opening up gaming to non-cis-males in general – almost every cis or trans woman I know has experienced this in one way or another, and of course, the less “mainstream” your presentation, the harder it is to be taken seriously, or even heard – let alone feel safe enough to participate.
Board games are an ancient occupation – humans have played games far longer than they have had a written history, probably far longer than they have even had writing, so it’s strange that it has only recently become considered the sole domain of straight white men – and yet, if you ask a great many men who consider themselves tabletop gamers, they consider it an invasion of “their” space when people of other genders attempt to participate. Luckily, there are a growing number of exceptions, and there are some strong women leading the way to help make room for the rest of us.
With that in mind, I want to dedicate this blog to pointing you towards some women and gender-diverse creators who operate in the world of tabletop gaming, and encourage you to continue to expand that list.
For many modern gamers, Elizabeth Hargrave is the first, and sometimes the only, female game designer that comes to mind. She created the incredibly popular Wingspan series, games that, despite their “nature” theme, are not the usual lightweight fillers that we see for that kind of theme. As well as Wingspan and its expansions, Elizabeth has also made Tussie Mussie, Mariposas, and has an upcoming game called The Fox Experiment.
What I personally love about Elizabeth’s designs is that she takes a topic I find really interesting and makes a satifyingly complex game about it.
I have had so many discussions in gaming groups about how hard it is to find a weighty game that doesn’t have a “traditionally male” theme (and I will expand on that sometime) and/or mechanics.
Knowing your target audience obviously means that you design games with a weight and a topic that will appeal to them – which is why so many games have themes involving war, high fantasy, military history, economics, trains, and so forth – the predominantly male audience of “heavy” games particularly enjoys that type of theme.
What I love about Elizabeth’s games is that she chose a target audience of people like herself who enjoy “hiking, birding, or collecting mushrooms“, as she puts it herself, and that’s a really huge group of people! Games like Wingspan opened the door to designs that focus on the natural world, whether they are about animals in the wild, like Cascadia, or plants, like Herbaceous, Verdant, Planted, Arboretum, Photosynthesis, and all the other games at all levels of complexity that are filling the shelves at the local FLGS these days.
Why does this matter to me so much, personally? Well, first of all, I am one of those people who felt unrepresented in my choice of game theme – the scales are condescendingly weighted towards lighter games when the theme is something considered “light”. As I mentioned above, a large number of women who want to play games are also much time-poorer than their male counterparts because they have childcare duties – this also means that they end up playing games that are more suitable for their children to see and play, so again, for absolutely practical reasons, “women’s games” are often light, quick, and child-friendly.
I am not one of those women – we don’t have children, so I can buy and play any weight and any theme that appeals to me without worrying about whether the kids can play it – or whether the kids will destroy it. The trick is finding a time to play that fits into our lifestyle, as we have not, unfortunately, won a major lottery (yet, haha).
Opening the themes of games up to appeal to a larger sector of the public has also brought board games for adults further into the mainstream, which can only be a good thing for us as designers. So for me, personally, it makes a huge difference to see medium and big box games with themes that grab my attention on the shelves of my local Target, and I credit Wingspan for being a big part of that.
I was very excited to have Elizabeth on Meeple Syrup. At the time, I had just joined up as a co-host, and Sen-Foong Lim offered me the choice of anyone as my “Christmas present” guest – I asked for Elizabeth, having no idea if she would accept, and I am still really humbled and glad that I got to speak to her and learn about her mushroom game.
Another thing that I really love about Elizabeth is her constant work to lift up the voices and work of women, non-binary designers, black voices in board games, and other minorities through her Twitter page. Like many others, she is looking at leaving the bird app, unfortunately, but I hope she will find a new platform with a similar reach.
Another woman who comes immediately to mind for me is Fertessa, and not just because she is one of our co-panellists on the Meeple Syrup monthly panels. When I heard Fertessa speak at the Tabletop Network conference in 2022, I was surprised at how similar our paths to design were – we both played games when we were young, designed a lot of entertainments for others as we grew up, then had a hiatus of a few years before we rediscovered tabletop via the “modern” board games like (Settlers of) Catan and Ticket to Ride.
What I particularly liked about Fertessa’s story was that she just jumped right in and went for it – and she is now, after a meteoric rise, a well-respected voice in the community and a game producer at Funko Games, as well as the designer of Wicked and Wise, amongst others. I mention her here because not only is she a game designer, but she is also a voice in gaming that I am stoked to hear – young enough to shake up the establishment, old enough to demand the respect she has earnt, and present in so many places where her presence alone is a victory. So I wanted to take a moment here to celebrate her and her work in the industry.
After having her on the show, I mentioned Sarah just recently in my blog as one of the leading authorities on the theory of game design, particularly from a thematic perspective, when I was looking at thematic design and the way in which I approach it. Her post about that topic is now live, by the way, too.
Sarah and I both share an academic bent and a background in theatre – but while I spent my late teens and early 20s working as a freelance theatre lighting and sound technician, Sarah has actually studied theatre as well as being a professional theatre tech, and uses her deep knowledge of how a stage performance fits together to inform her analysis of game design. If you enjoy thinking deep thoughts about how narrative works, or integrating theme into your design, or pretty much anything about the theory of game design, you should definitely check out her blog.
As well as writing about design, Sarah designs games herself, and participates in other aspects of the tabletop community, such as running game jams with Unpub, or being a judge for the Cardboard Edison Awards.
Keep an eye out for her upcoming spot on the Meeple Syrup Show, too – there’s something very cool to announce!
The first three people I have mentioned are all people I have met in person and/or on the Meeple Syrup show. Beth doesn’t enjoy being interviewed, or I would have featured her on there in a flash – because in my opinion, she is one of the most influential board game illustrators in recent years. If you’re not immediately familiar with her name, you will almost certainly recognise her style – her portfolio includes many very successful games, including Wingspan, Verdant, Calico, Cascadia, Wicked and Wise… She really is very impressive. Beth has the knack of capturing the vibe of a game and portraying it in a way that makes it both soothing and attractive without being offputtingly cutesy – even her cutest illustrations make it clear that this is not a children’s game.
My opinion, as an illustrator myself, is that Beth has done such a good job of capturing the current need for comforting games in her art that it is a huge part of their success – I know that I automatically back any game with her art in it, and that many of my favourite games are my favourites because of the experience her artwork adds to the gameplay.
Bez is another important voice in game design whom I have not actually met in person, although I really enjoy her very different perspective on game design, and her quirky and engaging illustrations. Probably best known as the designer of Yogi, Bez is fairly prolific, regularly producing more games, and streaming regularly as Stuff by Bez.
While many designers and illustrators strive for the most expensive and fancy-looking game packages, myself included, Bez focuses on getting the games done and out there as affordably for everyone, and her reminder that games and play in general should be accessible, not the luxury item they have become (especially hobby games) is something that has often made me stop and reflect, like her post about transparency, which had me challenging and inspecting my preconceptions about how to run a Kickstarter campaign.
Another thing I love about how Bez does things is that she makes sure to include the option for community-funded copies of her games to give to people who couldn’t otherwise afford them, and that attitude has rubbed off on at least one other campaign. I know it’s something I would love to be able to include in my crowd-funding efforts someday, too.
My friend and co-designer, Emily Willix, is another influential woman in the world of tabletop. I have actually met Emily in person, long after we first met and started developing Wordy Laundry together online, and we tested a version of the game together at BGG in 2022.
Emily is a big fan of small games, at least partly because she lives most of the year on a sailboat, which means that game boxes with a lot of air in them are simply out of the question. She also has a strong ethical reason to aim for small boxes, short runs, and sustainable components, which we have in common: she believes that we, as game designers, should be taking into account all the stages of our game’s production, from the components and their manufacture, to the carbon footprint involved in their shipping, to their end-of-life impact on the planet. For that reason, her company, Small Furry Games, and the Facebook group she helps run, Small Batch Game Publishers, promote sharing knowledge, resources, and finding ways to add meaningful games to the world without doing more harm than we must to the planet.
I could definitely go on and on – there have been so many incredible women and non-binary people featured on the Meeple Syrup show alone that I could spend hours and hours listing them here, and then there are all the people I know personally, whose contributions to the industry deserve a mention. I have barely scratched the surface in this post, which is a wonderful feeling, even when I realise at the same time that we all kind of know each other – there should be so many of us that our paths never cross.
Here’s to women and non-binary people becoming so plentiful in tabletop that there is never a need to highlight them, because gender equity has been achieved. It’s a beautiful dream that won’t come true in my lifetime, but I hope one day we can reach that level of social maturity.
In the meantime, please check out this Geeklist of games by women and people of marginalised genders.
PS: here’s a quick toast to all the women who went before, like those who got us the vote, those who got us better access to healthcare, those who fought and died so that women today had access to more than women yesterday. Here’s to my grandmothers, my mother, my sister, my nieces and my trans nephew, cousins, friends, teachers, mentors – all of you out there fighting every day to be accepted and recognised as who you are. You are valid, you matter, you are seen. Thank you for your mahi. Kia kaha, Wāhine Toa!
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