The Vote Isn’t Interested in Compromises
It isn’t possible to discuss Tom Russell’s The Vote without invoking her earlier design This Guilty Land. In part because they both make use of the same game system, a masterclass of functionality that demands periodic trips back to the rulebook, though in fairness this year’s outing putters along more smoothly, less opaquely, and buoyed by a tighter narrative arc.
If only the similarities stopped there. Instead, the lion’s share are more thematic, and by extension more somber. This Guilty Land was designed to evoke frustration. With its systems, yes, but also with the injustices permitted by those systems — and worse, enabled by them. Features rather than bugs. In Russell’s hands, the gridlock that prevented emancipation is the same gridlock that prevented women’s suffrage. Which is a long way of saying that The Vote is a streamlined and more playable version of its former self. But as a metatextual continuation of This Guilty Land, it’s far more than that.
As I wrote in my review of This Guilty Land, it’s easiest to think of The Vote — and Russell’s entire model of American politics — as being about political dysfunction in action. The details may have changed, the struggle may have moved from one issue to another, but the dysfunction is as stubborn as ever.
This time around, players are tasked with controlling either Supremacy or Equality. The goal is to swing hearts and minds from the first view to the second. The adherents of these perspectives are represented by symbols, the hoary old star for those who believe things are fine as they are, and the blooming sunflower, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s pen-name and the eventual symbol for the entire National American Woman Suffrage Association, standing in for Equality. As in Russell’s previous outing, there’s a third faction to consider. The complacent middle, leaning toward one side or another but still unlikely to contribute to anything other than the status quo. It’s Equality’s task to swing voters to their way of thinking, pass local laws to get their foot in the door of Congress, and ultimately pass Constitutional Amendments that will permit women to vote forevermore.
Meanwhile, Supremacy’s goal is to dither.
The improvements over This Guilty Land are significant. The most obvious is that populations are represented by smaller numbers of tokens, which swaps the previous game’s sprawl for greater legibility. Change previously came as clusters of tokens swapped for other clusters, the slow pace of change only apparent in fragments. Let no one say that crisp design and comprehensible integers aren’t worth the effort. In The Vote, the most populous region, the Midwest, starts with only eight tokens. The smallest, only five. When a card sways public opinion, the transformation is consequential in a way that previously evaded Russell.
This legibility informs the entire design. As the populations of America’s six regions vacillate between extremes, both sides are more readily able to evaluate their needs. Where they are momentarily secure, which region requires additional pressure, when a vote might be managed or voter suppression leveraged to halt it. There are too many subtleties to name them all, but two stand out. First, every action incites one’s opposition. Political will is expended to take actions, but in turn awards political will to the opposing side, creating a two-way economy that thrives on conflict. A few editorials swing voters to Equality’s way of thinking, only for them to backslide when Supremacy reminds the country of the necessity of a woman’s career. A career in the kitchen and the bedroom, in case it wasn’t obvious. Equality will eventually manage to secure enough voters to allow for the passing of a law. Municipal elections, perhaps, or direct election of senators — only for gerrymandering and other dirty tricks to suppress their chances of passing, at least for the moment. Two steps forward, one and a half steps back. Progress, but one that’s now mired in a sucking mud that drags at the heels.
This slow shuffle can be accelerated in small ways. This second subtlety is perhaps the game’s most interesting, those moments of alignment when the right cards are on offer, enough political will has accumulated, and particular actions can be taken in rapid succession. Voters are swayed, rivals are demoralized, and a law is passed, all at once! Such moments are worthy of celebration, even if Supremacy retains the ability to have the Supreme Court strike down anything that hasn’t been writ into the nation’s holy book. Two steps forward, three steps back.
The irony of this process isn’t that it’s a trudge through cold molasses. That’s to be expected, both from The Vote’s ancestry and its agitprop heritage. The system it asks you to engage with is deliberately frustrating. There are little rules aplenty, and actions that don’t make much immediate sense, and some avenues that don’t seem worth traveling even once their value has become clear. I suspect, given the game’s authorship, that such things are On Purpose, or at least so entangled with those that weren’t on purpose that the difference between deliberate design decisions and missteps proves difficult to hack apart. To give one example, region cards are inflexible enough that they often serve only to jam up one’s card display. When a game is meant to be deeply unpleasant, even frustrating, is it a fair complaint that its systems grind against one another?
But again, that isn’t the principal irony. Rather, it’s that all the dynamism, all the excitement, even, to use a swear word, all the fun, is reserved for Equality. Even when suffrage is staggering imperfectly toward the dawn, backsliding and getting stuck and being subjected to any number of delays, at least something is happening. A destination is being approached. Something is in the process of being birthed into the world.
By contrast, Supremacy is simply dull. Where Equality is about swimming for distant shores, Supremacy treads water. Its function is never to gain anything, merely to block, to hamper, to undo. And even then, to undo imperfectly. Once bloomed to their sunflower side, the tokens on the board are effectively untouchable. There’s no retracting the blossom to the planted seed, let alone scooping it from the soil and returning it to the store. At best, Supremacy hopes to earn a particular quantity of points before Equality passes the 17th and 19th Amendments and earns the necessary points of their own. This often demands that Supremacy effectively pass their turns to enact federal laws, doing nothing with their political will except earning trickles of points. As with the game’s other elements, it’s hard to gauge whether this is also On Purpose. Even This Guilty Land gave its antagonists some bearing on the country’s legislative future beyond mere obstruction.
Then again, it seems appropriate that the opponents to suffrage are given less to do. Their task, after all, is a dour one. They have no aims of their own. Only the fear that permitting someone else to blossom into a truer self will somehow steal something from them, that reality is as zero-sum as the exchange of red tokens for blue, stars for sunflowers. Tom Russell recently came out as a trans woman, and I can’t help but wonder if her emergence is imprinted on The Vote, as all acts of creation must be stamped by their creators. That this is a shout of rage, that one must be trapped in the process of becoming, never wholly arriving, in part because of systems and individuals who must be joyless and barren, for their acts are acts of deprivation only, not acts of growing into oneself.
Whether this is a deliberate statement or one I’ve read into the game, I can’t decide. Either way, it’s the reason I advocate participants try their hands at both sides, no matter how distasteful. For all the exasperation it piles onto the side of Equality, this burden pales in comparison to the impotence it assigns to Supremacy. As a plaything, it suffers from such a profound imbalance of things to do. As a statement, as metatext on the static nature of oppression and the dynamism of activism, as despair, as hope, The Vote is stronger for it.
A complimentary copy was provided.