Votes for Women, one of the year’s best board games, belongs in a museum

Votes for Women, one of the year's best board games, belongs in a museum

Votes for Women is an elegant strategy board game that rewards an understanding of American history with exceptional gameplay. It carries forward the rich, card-driven mechanics of modern classics like Twilight Struggle and Labyrinth: The War on Terror, but in a much more digestible format. Vocal anticipation from the gaming community for Fort Circle Games’ second release has been completely validated. It’s clear that Votes for Women is a template for how historical strategy games should be presented to a modern audience hungry for new experiences at the table.

A card-driven strategy game is a relatively new format in the world of tabletop gaming. The kind rose to prominence with Twilight Struggle, co-designed by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews and first released in 2005. In that game, players took on the role of either the United States or the former Soviet Union and played cards representing historical figures and events. By essentially mixing up things like the Cuban Missile Crisis and the post-war Arab-Israeli conflict in a big top hat, Twilight Struggle gave players fine control over the most subtle levers of political power. That’s how the game came to occupy the top slot on the niche board game message board and aggregator Board Game Geek for so many years (until the coming of Gloomhaventhat is).

Votes for Women pits the suffragists against the opposition in the fight to give women the right to vote. The goal for suffragists is to first cause the United States Congress to propose the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and then to secure its ratification in no less than 36 states. The opposition must either prevent the 19th Amendment from being proposed, or convince at least 13 states to reject it. Play rolls back and forth over six rounds across a Risk-style map of the US, with each side laying down powerful cards based on historical figures and events.

Charming suffragette-shaped meeples are a standout part of the base game.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

The cards each have unique powers. In the early game, a Union victory in the American Civil War can give suffragists some much-needed organizational momentum. Meanwhile, in the later rounds, cards like Red Scare can reduce the group’s political power in multiple states. Throughout the game, powerful historical figures like President Woodrow Wilson or suffragist Ida B. Wells-Barnett provide potent boons in the form of regional support and increased organizational power. The game randomly generates hands of cards for each player, meaning that no two games will ever feature the same mix of people or events.

Votes for Women casually uses the most well-known historical figures and events for its big, swingy moments. But where it truly excels is in weaving smaller, lesser-known figures into the mix alongside even larger political movements. Among them is the temperance movement, which led to the passing of the 18th Amendment and the Prohibition era, but also World War I and the growing power of conservative and religious legislators during the industrial revolution. It also does not shy away from highlighting how the politics of race and class played heavily into the decades-long struggle for the nerd.

The box itself is heavy with the weight of history, irrefutable proof of the deep wounds that mark our political process to this day.
Photo: Charlie Hall/Polygon

But without the context provided by historical advisor and professor Rachel Michelle Gunter, game designer Tory Brown and developer Kevin Bertram’s excellent work would not be nearly as impactful. Gunter’s touch is evident on nearly every component, from the choice quotes and annotations on every single card to the seven-page Historical Supplement & Designer’s Notes booklet that comes with. Fort Circle has even gone so far as to include 14 archival documents inside the box. While these full-size reproductions are not gameplay components per se, I found them to be invaluable in deciphering the more subtle interactions going on in the game.

The box even includes a set of concise, easy-to-digest instructions that fit onto just 11 pages. It’s a far cry from the more traditional games in the card-driven genre, which can look more like a series of US Army PowerPoint slides than a modern board game manual. In yet another node to modernity, it also includes rules for one-on-one competitive play as well as solo and cooperative play against a card-driven bot.

Votes for Women is available now for $75 from the Fort Circle online storefront. Expect to see it mentioned throughout the year and well into the next, as it ranks among the very best new games to come out this year. This isn’t just a game for the home, but one serving of a place in schools, local libraries, and wherever history can be considered and served.

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