Abstracts Get Political: Suffragetto

Cigarettes included.

You’ve heard the refrain: abstract games are themeless. That’s what they say. Who’s they? They, man. The forces arrayed against abstract games. Big Cardboard and their flavor text agenda.

Which is why I’m launching a new series about the abstract games that prove them wrong. Abstracts with a point in mind, a statement, a perspective. And they make it without a ten-page backstory, an art budget, or a single line of flavor text. Join the revolution before it sweeps you away.

First up, a game straight out of history. It’s Suffragetto!

"Not at ALL like NOWADAYS," says the strawman manboy, not realizing that hundreds of suffragettes were imprisoned for their activism, and that they were generally so badass that they proved more disruptive to British politics than a number of more "serious" crises.

An orderly demonstration.

Of the games featured in this series, Suffragetto is the oldest and most storied. Not only was it published in 1908 — that’s older than my dad’s dad — but it was also the invention of the Women’s Social and Political Union. Yes, that WSPU, Emmeline Pankhurst’s political movement better known as the suffragettes, who agitated so fiercely for the women’s vote that they became the envy of revolutionaries everywhere. And still, after the arson, property destruction, hunger strikes, and sloganeering, you probably know them best for Robert and Richard Sherman’s pastiche protest anthem from Mary Poppins. Well done, Sister Suffragettes!

As for Suffragetto, its function was twofold, both fundraising and fantasy. In the first case, its sale supplemented the WSPU’s income from donations and periodicals. In the second, it was a fantastical expression of intent, one where the playing field was leveled between agitator and oppressor.

It works like this. Two forces stand opposite one another with all the solemnity of a battle line. The police defend the House of Commons. The suffragettes defend Albert Hall. Not surprisingly, both intend to swarm their foe’s base of operations. At the drop of a pin, both sides spring forward, the police arresting women and women employing martial arts to send the police to the hospital. It isn’t long before those tidy lines aren’t so orderly anymore.

At first glance, the gameplay feels familiar. On your turn, a single piece is allowed to move. That alone would be dull, but here they’re allowed to hop over multiple others in sequence, whether friend or foe. A piece in the back row can make it all the way to the enemy base, and deal some damage along the way, if only the intervening stepping stones are properly aligned. This quickly transforms Suffragetto from simplistic to refreshingly swift. Your goal is never merely to remove enemy pieces, since you win immediately upon fully infiltrating the rival base. But because every piece is given so much flexibility, a single sequence of hops can drive a wedge through the heart of your opponent’s line, leaving them scrambling to fill the gap before you slip through.

Gave 'em hell.

The view from the benches.

Suffragetto has a pair of additional surprises in its petticoat. The first is that pieces come in two sizes. Regular pieces can only disable foes via diagonal jumps, whereas leaders can deliver a beat-down by jumping in any direction. This adds an extra dimension to the placement of your pieces. Sacrificing a pawn isn’t usually a big deal. But the plastic incarnation of Pankhurst herself? That’s far more worrisome. Better, perhaps, to shore up your line and hope another opening presents itself momentarily.

The second surprise is that pieces are disabled, not removed. Hopped suffragettes are locked away in prison, while policemen are sent to the hospital. This serves dual purposes. For one thing, it’s a chewy morsel of loaded commentary, boasting that the suffragettes are free to deal harsher lumps than they receive, even if in game terms it’s a mere difference of terminology. Further, once a dozen pieces have been removed from the field, the police and suffragettes might cut a deal to release a portion of their disabled members, who immediately pour back onto the board — but possibly remain on the sidelines, since only pieces in the contested middle can be captured.

Because of this, it isn’t uncommon to witness a midgame surge of reinforcements, or even pieces creeping along the edges to wriggle into the opposing base from the side. Not that these subtleties completely elevate Suffragetto. It’s still a simple game, perhaps too straightforward for modern tastes. Your decisions often feel burdened by the game’s perfect information, with neither side willing to inch forward for fear of handing over multiple losses at once.

As an act of propaganda, it’s both more significant and more interesting. Consider how a modern game — say, the COIN Series — might attempt to portray this struggle. The police would be numerous, entrenched, well-funded, and functionally invulnerable to lasting harm. The suffragettes would be required to juggle funding, public opinion, the morale and captivity of their members, and the eventual escalation of their activism from demonstration to destruction. Put another way, the police would start with all the cards in hand, and it would be the suffragettes’ task to steal them from under the table. Oh, and rather than triumph, the game would conclude with the onset of the Great War and the fizzling of the movement, its aims achieved instead by women’s contributions to the war effort.

They send one of yours to jail? You send one of theirs to the CRIPPLE WARD.

Police batons, meet jiu-jitsu.

Suffragetto’s formulation is far more heartening. Its unnamed designer avoided the temptation to give her sister suffragettes a cheap win; instead, she gave them any possibility of victory at all. The playing field has been leveled. The entrenchment of the old guard is erased. The prisons are built of rubber. The indignity suffered by an agitator in lockup is temporary displacement, not a tube down her throat.

In other words, it’s politics by way of fantasy. All that remains is a final do-or-die push, mano a womano, yours to seize or let slip through your fingers. Suffragetto sells an insurgent’s dream scenario. As an artifact of militant feminism from the opening of the 20th century, it excels in that regard, a paean that lionizes confrontation while weaponizing its own omissions. Here is a struggle with the dirty spots scraped clean. Here is a struggle that can be won. Excellent fundraising and marketing rolled into one.

By contrast, next time we’ll be looking at a conflict that’s presented as anything but winnable.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on July 11, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Thank you for shining a light on a game I didn’t realize existed otherwise. I look forward to more write ups in this series.

    The designer’s point of view you highlighted is something I would have missed. A very keen insight.

  2. Just imagine a new edition of this on Kickstarter with the inevitable minis. Suffragettes armed with umbrellas, purses and protest signs versus police batons. And somehow it’s the police who end up in the hospital.

    • There’s some backstory there. The suffragettes undertook hunger strikes while in prison, requiring the prisons to force-feed them. This engendered sufficient public outcry that in 1913 Parliament passed what came to be known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Basically, as soon as an imprisoned suffragette was close to malnourishment, they would release her — only to recapture her as soon as her health improved.

      In response, the suffragettes formed a unit called The Bodyguard. These women trained in jiu-jitsu and became the most directly violent wing of the WSPU. They helped ex-prisoners escape police surveillance, brawled with police, and were known for carrying clubs and even barbed wire to form defensive barricades around Emmeline Pankhurst when she spoke in public.

      Imagine that in miniatures form!

      • Hailing from the old world, I have to confess that I’ve never heard of The Bodyguard before. Now I really need those minis. Ladies with clubs hidden in their long dresses unleashing jiu-jitsu moves on THE MAN just sounds too awesome.

  3. Well, most of what I know about the suffragettes is from the movie “Suffragette” starring Carey Mulligan.

    How did you learn about this game, I wonder?

    While I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about the possible intent behind the game design decisions, I rather doubt it’s how it came to be. Given that the game was designed in 1908, it’s more likely just a product of its time, i.e. a chess/checkers variant symmetric abstract game with perfect information.

    I have no idea when truly asymmetric games, or games featuring faction-specific abilities, started to make an appearance, but I believe they came much later.

    • Asymmetric games weren’t unheard of, even in 1907. Chess and checkers are obvious favorites, but any formulation in which they were the zeitgeist of the early 1900s is shaving off a few centuries of their popularity. Those two have long legs.

      My point, though, isn’t really that Suffragetto could have been a COIN game. It’s that its conflict is pitched in a particular way — as a battle between two equivalent forces, and furthermore as a battle in which the opposition will always take worse lumps than the agitators. The suffragettes may wind up in prison, but the police will be hospitalized. Now that’s a statement!

      However, you’re certainly right that it might have been an accidental statement. Often those are even more illuminating than intentional statements.

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