Justice, Not Favors
I wish I could say Tory Brown’s Votes for Women didn’t feel so timely, coming over a century after the passage of the 19th Amendment, but here we are. Back around the turn of the new year, an acquaintance mentioned offhandedly his belief that the country might be better off today had the amendment not been ratified in 1920. My surprise had less to do with that he held such an opinion — people’s heads are stuffed full of silly notions — than that he was willing to state it so baldly. What can we agree upon, if not the idea that everyone should be guaranteed that most basic expression of political will, the vote?
Then again, that’s a large part of what makes Votes for Women so valuable. It returns us to a time when the rights we take for granted were anything but secured.
There’s one question I keep getting asked about Votes for Women. To be honest, it always strikes me as somewhat ill-considered, despite being an entirely natural thing to ask. “How does Tory Brown’s Votes for Women compare to Amabel Holland’s The Vote?” Like I said, it’s a natural question. Both center the struggle for women’s suffrage. Both are clear-eyed about the uphill battle that’s required every time a group of people attempts to secure their rights. Both are connected to the centennial of the 19th Amendment.
But it rankles, I suspect, because there seems to be an unspoken judgment beneath the question, one that says, “Do we really need two games on this topic? Isn’t one enough? And since there can only be one, which is better?”
I get it. Really, I do. It’s only human to sort objects into categories, to figure we’ve already seen all that a topic has to offer. I wonder, though, why we don’t ask the same thing about medieval games, or trading-in-the-Mediterranean games, or games with zombies in them. Maybe it’s the density of the topic. The impact. After all, even ostensibly historical board games are often nothing of the sort. They’re fantasy games with a historical veneer. Mythologies that happen to take place on a map of southern Europe. Women’s suffrage is a difficult topic to confront precisely because it doesn’t feel settled. Because when we lay out the event cards that obstructed the vote, we see an all too clear reflection of our own day’s obstructions. We discover the same arguments, perhaps wrapped in fresh paper but stale all the same. The same hand-wringing over the collapse of the social order, the same faux-concerned paternalism, the same stone age tribalism. We find ourselves.
Maybe it doesn’t help our urge for comparison that Votes for Women and The Vote both exhibit such careful craftsmanship. They’re surprisingly different, both tonally and in terms of gameplay, not to mention inhabiting entirely separate spheres of complexity. Brown’s game is the more streamlined of the two, less openly polemical, better suited for those who haven’t been immersed in heftier card-driven games, and more willing to meet its audience halfway. But they’re alike in their admiration and regard for their subject matter, their heroines and allies, while still exhibiting a degree of caution and accuracy that comes from knowing your subject matter may be enthusiastically combed for error. As befits a Fort Circle production, Votes for Women is lavish in its production. This extends to a stack of facsimiles: Abigail Adams’ letter to her husband urging him to remember the women of the United States, Susan B. Anthony’s indictment for illegal voting, a telegram exhibiting the growing rift over race between factions in the suffragist movement, a guano magnate’s complaint about Emmaline Pankhurst’s visit to the US, and a full-fold composite of the New York Times on August 19, 1920, among half a dozen others. It’s a tour in brief of a century and a half of women’s struggle for the vote in America, at turns impressive and sobering. It’s also a firm display of credentials, as though Brown is daring her players to learn more.
Despite its robust documentation, Votes for Women is committed to playability. So committed, in fact, that it barely requires any setup. Both sides, Suffragist and Opposition, shuffle their decks into three strata for different periods in the struggle, and that’s it. The particulars that would normally send players scurrying to the rulebook are all deployed via the first few plays. Various quantities of influence cubes arranged on certain states, campaigners ready to spread their arguments, currency-like buttons sporting pro- or anti-suffrage slogans — these spring into existence thanks to a pair of starting cards. Brown slashes the fuss of setup to a minimum, plunging you into the conflict with all the forthrightness of entering a half-frozen lake via direct plunge rather than taking it one toe at a time.
As for the card system, it will prove familiar to anyone who’s played one of these historical card-driven games before, including Fort Circle’s own The Shores of Tripoli. For those who haven’t, rarely has the system been so simply expressed. Cards mostly exist to trigger historical events, including some that deliver pendulum-weighted swings. Otherwise they can be spent for special actions like organizing (to grab more of those currency buttons), campaigning (to deploy more influence cubes), or lobbying (to begin the process of actually voting on the 19th Amendment). Unlike similar games, these actions are always identical; there are no action points to fret over, keeping the focus squarely on the historical events and your faction’s momentum.
And momentum is the name of the game. Votes for Women takes place on a map of the United States, its one hitch being a familiarity with postal codes after their update in 1969. Best of luck if you aren’t sure whether Mississippi or Missouri is MS or MI. Apart from that it’s a crisp map, neatly divided into six regions with their own developing perspectives on how much influence a woman should have on political matters. The Northeast proves an early bastion for the Suffragists, and it will surprise no one that the South puts up a sustained resistance until the very end. Other regions, however, touch upon history that often goes overlooked, such as the influence of Black activists in the Midwest and Appalachia, the vibrancy of pioneer women demanding the vote out West, and the sheer contingency of the public’s willingness to accept female suffrage. Good luck getting anyone to pay attention to the plight of women during the Civil War, for instance. On the other hand, the intrusion of the Great War proves an eventual boon for women as they prove themselves essential to the country in wartime. This isn’t only a tale of fortitude, but also of circumstance.
Not that it’s all sunflowers and come-togetherness. In The Vote, Holland railed against the placid fence-sitters who stood in the way of progress. Brown’s treatment deals less with the compromising middle than with the fractious nature of the Suffragist movement itself. The Opposition is represented by a single unified color, a halting red, while the Suffragists have two, yellow and purple. Many cards allow the Suffragist player to parcel these colors out as she sees fit. At first this might seem like unnecessary ornamentation. Before long, however, these contrasting colors become one of the game’s most poignant observations. Historically, the American women’s suffrage movement was riven by factional differences, especially when it came to the Negro Question. Frederick Douglass was an early supporter of women’s suffrage, but the movement wavered and eventually split over whether to support the right of Black men to vote or to push for women’s suffrage first and foremost. The passage of the 15th Amendment stoked resentments but somewhat put the matter to rest until later, when an ugly streak of nativism took hold among some suffragists. Votes for Women formalizes these rifts in certain of its cards, wiping out entire bases of support in one fell swoop. Whether these decimations arrive in the form of objections to the 15th Amendment, the presence of socialists in the movement during the Red Scare, gerrymandering, or plain old xenophobia, the message is clear: it behooves marginalized communities to stand up for one another, because there is nothing power loves more than to arrange its servants against one another.
This is only one of many moments of self-reflection that mark Votes for Women as an unusually perceptive plaything. Even the details I don’t harbor much love for are apt in their own right. Like The Shores of Tripoli, Votes for Women makes liberal use of dice. Certain events require rolls, as do campaigning and lobbying actions. Lobbying is an especially tough nut to crack. It isn’t enough to swing the public to the side of suffrage; you must also garner enough support in Congress. This requires a roll for sixes — a crapshoot that’s both frustrating and appropriate. Only after Congress passes the amendment will the states have the opportunity to ratify or reject it. Now all those check marks and X’s begin to appear. And that’s before the final vote.
I despise the final vote. Basically, it’s an extended roll-off that occurs when the game lasts longer than six turns — which is every game, in my experience. Both sides roll a die and add any support to their total. In many cases, the strength of your dice — either d6 or d8 depending on which events you’ve played — obscure the impact of the influence you spent the last hour building.
On the one hand, this roll-off feels a bit like it’s intended to keep the game’s length down. On the other, it speaks to the peculiar thing that is American democracy. As infuriating as they can be, unexpected swings are part of our political game, and it was Tennessee’s narrow ratification that wrote the 19th Amendment into law. Also, it does keep the proceedings pacey, an imperative in a game that’s trying to be approachable to as wide an audience as possible. As much as it pains me to see my hard work come down to fifteen rolls of the dice, final voting turns the game’s conclusion into a crescendo rather than a foregone conclusion.
When Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the newspaper The Revolution as the mouthpiece for the National Woman Suffrage Association, its motto was “Justice, not Favors — Men, their Rights and Nothing More; Women, their Rights and Nothing Less.” It stated a radical position even among suffragists, insisting that women should be more than voters, but equal members of society.
Tory Brown’s Votes for Women does justice to its long and turbulent history. More even than that, it does it serious favors. Historical games are often woolly and inscrutable, reveling in particulars over insights. Brown has gone the other direction. Votes for Women is entirely welcoming. It is playable in the extreme, drawing its players by the hand into an important struggle that continues in kind to this day. At the same time, it is uncompromising in its willingness to examine the obstacles faced by women’s suffrage, including, at times, segments of the movement. This is the new wave of historical board gaming. May it live up to its namesake and break every boundary.
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A complimentary copy was provided.
Posted on February 14, 2023, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Fort Circle Games, The Fruits of Kickstarter, Votes for Women. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.
MI is Michigan. 😛
I’m pretty sure MI is Montana… or is that MO?
MO is Missouri — state abbreviations with Ms are annoying
I somehow manage to keep them straight when they’re on the map! It’s only once they’re divorced from the geography that I start to fumble.
“why we don’t ask the same thing about medieval games, or trading-in-the-Mediterranean games, or games with zombies in them.”
I do, constantly. xD
Not as broad as “medieval”, but the other two, and for many other focal points. It’s where specificity meets limited collection size and chance of tabling. Right now I’m uncomfortable about owning three ostensibly-very-different-yet-all-can-be-categorized-as-“dungeon delving”-in-theme games. I continue to try to convince myself that I can own both Here I Stand and Virgin Queen by telling myself the latter is “more of a sequel, an /expansion/, really…”, nevermind that I still have tabled neither.
But that’s because you are a gentleman of unusual discernment and taste, Nick!
Or maybe I’m just having an identity crisis and I’m taking it out on cardboard
What a lovely way to act out an identity crisis!
I read the review and bought a copy to play with my wife. I think she will like it. Thanks for the insights you always bring to your write ups.
Thanks for the kind words, Patricio, and I hope Votes for Women works well for you and your wife!
I guess I have the same problem with this as with A Distant Plain… was there ever any chance for the losing side to win? Conservatives in American politics famously play the Washington General role – “merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition”.
Even in wargames where there was a historical winner, they usually model a conflict in which the loser had a chance if a few factors had changed- “for want of a nail” and all that. Which “riders” had to be lost for this battle to have played out differently?