Back in 1993, an unassuming game about the American Revolution called We the People launched a revolution in historical board games. By adding a deck of cards that mimicked historical events and putting political control on par with military occupation it merged politics and warfare into one neat package. Its more recent predecessors have eschewed the war board game aspect to focus on the politics, and the latest in this line is Votes for Women, in which you’ll refight the struggle for women’s suffrage in America with cards and dice.
What’s in the Box
Votes for Women packs a lot into its slim bookcase box. There’s a sturdy board featuring a map of America with the states picked out using two-letter codes, which may confuse non-US players. There are also several thick decks of cards, one for the suffrage player, one for the opposition and one for solo play, along with some smaller decks. All are illustrated with photos and political cartoons from the era which do a great job of setting the tone.
There’s also half a tree’s worth of wood in the form of dozens of little wooden cubes in purple, yellow and red along with some male and female campaigner figurines in matching colors. Unusually, Votes for Women gives you plenty of spares in this regard, including offering a choice of figure poses so you can use which ones you like best. There are also wooden checkmarks and crosses to indicate states which have passed or rejected the suffrage amendment, a lovely touch which looks awesome on the board. A few wooden cylinders, variously-shaped dice and cardboard chits round out the play components.
As is common for historically-oriented games there’s a booklet of designer’s notes alongside the rules, explaining how the designer, Tory Brown, feels the mechanics of her game tie into the history. What’s far less common but potentially far more interesting is a sheaf of facsimile historical documents, from a replica of a New York Times front page to a sample ballot from Chicago. If you’re interested in the history of this era, they’re a delight.
Rules and How It Plays
As card-driven games go, Votes for Women is pretty straightforward. You get a hand of event cards and can bid “buttons” – an abstract resource approximating campaign funding and momentum – to get a bonus strategy card from a face-up selection. Then the suffrage player and the opposition take turns playing cards from their hands. After six of these, the round is over and after six rounds the game ends in a sudden-death victory where players roll off to see which side wins any undecided states.
Most cards will be played for their events and most events allow you to add or remove cubes from states on the map. If you don’t want to play a card for its event then you can use it to campaign, which involves rolling a die for each campaigner on the map and allocating that many cubes to their surrounding area, or you can move them to a new one by paying a button. You can also play cards to get more buttons or to influence Congress to allow Americans a vote on suffrage: if Congress hasn’t done this by the time the game ends, the opposition player wins automatically.
Once Congress has passed that amendment then getting four of your cubes in a state “wins” it for you with a cross or a tick. The opposition player has fewer campaigners and cubes but only needs 13 states to reject suffrage in order to win. The suffrage player, meanwhile, is hampered by having to use two cube colors, reflecting the reality of racist factionalism within the movement. Prior to that, getting four cubes in certain critical states can win you an extra card associated with that state which you can play to advance your campaign.
If you assess Votes for Women purely from a mechanical standpoint, it uses a shocking amount of dice for a modern board game. Many event cards give you random amounts of cubes, as does campaigning. Committing cards to influence Congress, which is often what swings it over the line, requires rolling a six. The roll-off is particularly problematic: you get to add the number of cubes you have in the state but it’s still very prone to huge swings of fate and can often determine the winner on a single die roll. You might imagine that would make the game feel like a glorified crapshoot, yet it rarely does.
There are manifold reasons for this. A key one is the sheer amount of dice you roll over the course of the game, so your luck evens out. The fact the whole thing wraps in about 90 minutes helps, too. Another important aspect is the fact you can spend buttons to reroll, which makes fishing for sixes a bit less of a blunt instrument and gives you some control over other risk-against-reward decisions. It’s often so exciting to shake, with so much riding on the outcome, that you forget to worry about whether you’re making meaningful choices and roll with the drama as well as the dice.
This immersion is thanks largely to the game’s theme. While we happily play military simulations that slaughter thousands with a single card play, Votes for Women has such an astonishingly personal feel about it that it features excellent solo and cooperative versions for those who don’t want to play the opposition to suffrage. And it’s true: an opposition win feels thoroughly icky, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end. The root cause of this is that the game models systemic oppression rather than individual violence, and that the lingering effects of that systemic oppression are still being felt today.
For those who want to marshal their resources against that oppression, the game has plenty of tools to aid you. While there aren’t as many effects that link together as there perhaps might be, there are enough that experience with the deck will improve your game. Learning when to shepherd your buttons and when to spend them is critical, especially in the thrill of bidding for those powerful strategy cards. Knowing when to push the track for Congress over the tipping point proves a surprising double-edged sword for both sides and demands good judgement, as does when and where to campaign.
Votes for Women is based loosely on an older card-driven strategy board game called 1960: The Making of the President. This used the same state-wide board on which players added or removed cubes to each state but there was no geographical strategy, cubes just came and went like a tally and it felt like a missed opportunity. Votes for Women improves on its predecessor in almost every way but, despite the brief early importance of capturing particular states for special cards, it still has this nagging lack of spatial meaning and it still feels like a missed opportunity.
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