Is Votes for Women a Wargame?
But first... let me roll my eyes a thousand times.
If you are looking for a topic for discussion on the Internet that is guaranteed to generate quite a bit of heat but not much light, ask if a particular board game is a wargame. Is Twilight Struggle a wargame? Are COIN games wargames? Is Root a wargame? Is Risk a wargame? My response has always been “who cares” because the definition never really mattered to me. Much to my chagrin, that has changed. Why? The answer deserves a separate paragraph.
Votes for Women was nominated by BoardGameGeek users for a Golden Geek Award in two categories - “Best Thematic Game” and “Best Wargame.” After the final round of voting, Votes for Women took second runner-up in the Wargame category, behind Undaunted: Stalingrad and Resist! - so you could say it won the Golden Geek for Best Wargame Not Co-designed by David Thompson. But, naturally, there has been some pushback that Votes for Women is not a wargame. The discussion has been remarkably restrained for BoardGameGeek, but it has been a major point of discussion in the Winners' Thread and there is even a separate thread in the Votes for Women Forums. So, against my better judgment, here we go…..
If a wargame is a game about war, let’s define war first. Google gives us a few definitions. The first definition - “a state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state” - covers the most common definition. World War I and World War II, the American Civil War, the Punic Wars all fit this definition. But I should note that these wars were not just military in nature, but also political, diplomatic, economic and even environmental. Does that mean the Cold War fits this definition? Maybe? The second definition - “a particular armed conflict” - is just a more succinct version of the first definition. The third definition - “a state of competition, conflict, or hostility between different people or groups” - seems much broader. It includes not just conflict between individuals like the example given, but also broader non-military conflicts. The Cola Wars between Pepsi and Coca-Cola, the Cod Wars between the United Kingdom and Iceland, the “Civil War” between the Oregon and Oregon State college football teams all fit this definition. The final definition - “a sustained effort to deal with or end a particular unpleasant or undesirable situation or condition” seems to also cover a broad range of activities - the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Terror.
But what is the definition of a wargame? I am going to make a distinction here between professional wargaming and hobbyist wargaming. Professional wargaming is sort of a cross between Model UN and Live Action Role Playing, where government agencies, think tanks, businesses and non-profits game out scenarios on subjects like the invasion of one country by another country, a post-election dispute in a major democracy, or the effects of widespread nuclear proliferation or climate change. These wargaming exercises obviously cover both military and non-military subjects but are outside of our scope of consideration.
When it comes to hobbyist wargaming, I am also going to focus on board wargaming. There is a flourishing miniatures wargaming hobby but that is not the space that Fort Circle occupies. But what is board wargaming?
James Perkins Mastromarino of National Public Radio laid out the public’s understanding of a (board) wargame. This description, unflattering as it is, has some degree of accuracy to it. Wargames model some kind of conflict and historical wargames model some kind of historical conflict. This seems to make sense. Our local game store, Labyrinth Games & Puzzles, hosts a monthly “Wargame Wednesday” where designers have discussed a wide array of games, including The Shores of Tripoli, Twilight Struggle: Red Sea, Land & Freedom, Almoravid, Charioteer, The British Way and, yes, Votes for Women. These games are all historical conflicts and seem to fit under the broad concept of a wargame.
In Christopher John Eggett’s review of Votes for Women in Tabletop Gaming he seems to hit upon another aspect of defining a wargame - the mechanics. He writes earlier in his review, “Votes for Women is a cube-shuffling war game that swaps the usual ‘kill the cubes, control the area’ for a metaphor of influencing each US state house to ratify the 19th Amendment” and then further describes the mechanics, including the card-driven nature of the game which draws a lineage to 1960: The Making of the President to Twilight Struggle to Here I Stand to the original We the People.
Adam Richards echoes this in his review in Punchboard. Just like in The Shores of Tripoli and just like in COIN games, in Votes for Women the players are using mechanics deeply rooted in military wargames and using them in a political wargame. But all of these games are wargames of some type.
Indeed, if we check Google’s definition of wargame, the focus is more on the mechanics used to simulate the conflict, not the actual topic of the conflict. The truth is that “wargame” is just a catchier way of saying “conflict simulation” - and “Wargame Wednesday” sounds better than “Conflict Simulation Saturday.” Perhaps we should use a different term like “historical gaming.” But, for now, we are stuck with the terms “wargame” and “wargaming” - so what is the verdict?
My conclusion: Votes for Women uses the mechanics of the wargaming tradition to refight the battle to ratify the 19th Amendment. The fight to ratify the 19th Amendment was a bitter conflict that saw battles and campaigns, casualties and losses, and ultimately victory. Votes for Women is a wargame.
While the reviews of Votes for Women have been mostly positive, the game has provoked a strong negative reaction in some quarters. I think part of that reaction comes from what Matt Thrower hit upon in his IGN review - “the game models systemic oppression rather than individual violence” and that does not sit well with some folks politically. The ugliest comments came in the Comments Section of Matt’s review which served as nice reminder to me that not everyone on the Internet is kind.
This unhinged response is probably my favorite. In a YouTube video, Cody Carlson ranked his top thirty games of 2022 and he ranked Votes for Women fifth. I made a joking riff on the old sports commentator’s line - “#99 in your program, but #1 in your hearts” to say Votes for Women was #5 in Cody’s list but #1 in your hearts. This response was… wild to say the least.
This unverified purchase Amazon review is also pretty stellar. Who knew that a game about voting rights would have “political crap” in it. I am pretty sure this was written by the same person that emailed me, “As a Publisher, perhaps you should stick to War games. This game is garbage.”
This article in Washingtonian magazine by Mac Carey might be on to a reason the negative responses have been so visceral. Wargaming has traditionally been a space for men with games designed by men on topics of interest to men. Votes for Women upsets the apple cart - it is a game designed by a woman that centers women in a conflict about women’s rights. This is a topic that should, in theory, appeal to both men and women. But some people are not fond of change.
I understand that some wargamers keep to a narrow definition of wargames as being only military wargames, and thus, Votes for Women is not a wargame. That is a perspective. It is not one that I share. Even when a war is specifically a military conflict, those conflicts have a number of dimensions - military, political, diplomatic, economic and so on. But the word “war” has a number of definitions and any game that simulates conflict - whether an economic wargame, a political wargame, a diplomatic wargame, an election wargame - is a wargame in my book. And, of course, some of the best wargames combine multiple dimensions of a conflict into one game.
I will close with Dan Thurot’s conclusion in his review of Votes for Women. I agree that Votes for Women is part of the “new wave” of what he calls “historical board gaming.” Perhaps it does “break every boundary.” Good.
(Note: I was slightly misquoted in the Washingtonian article. I said that I was not aware of “many” games on women’s suffrage. I am aware of, and own, both Amabel Holland’s The Vote and Ulrik Wemmenhed’s Suffrage. But the gist of the quote is correct.)