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Inclusivity In Board Games

Inclusivity in board games

Feeling like you are included in the world no matter what we was born with, life choices we make or think about, is something that has been a struggle for most in the past years. It is only recently that all round inclusivity is becoming a thing lots of people follow. Is there enough inclusivity in the things we enjoy, such as board games? Well here is a little piece on some games that do involve the inclusivity we are looking for.

My Husband’s Work

Sat down to play the new release, My Father’s Work, I was instructed to choose a miniature I wanted to be and one for my “spouse”. I hadn’t thought much about the language the game used but suddenly was aware of the choice I had. I chose a little plastic representation of myself, a dashingly handsome young man in regency getup, but then realised I could pick another dashingly handsome man to be my “spouse”. I had been so used to heteronormative pairings in board games that I was ready to simply grab a female character to be the wife to my husband and begin playing.

As a gay man, this really made me think about how common this might be in the hobby. I loved that this 2022 game, set in regency England was giving its players the choice as to how their wanted to be represented. There was no mention of gender. Just miniatures in different outfits. Miniatures that could be male, female, trans or non-binary, depending on the players imagination. So what other games were challenging heteronormative pairings?

Woodlands And Wineries

I remember when I first sat down to play the 2018 megahit, Everdell, from Starling Games. My city tableaux was coming along nicely, filled with shops run by hares and a Post Office operated by a pigeon. Then there was the farm. This farm needed a husband, and that husband needed a wife in order to get the most points. Straight away, this caused my husband and myself some discomfort. Not that a beautiful husband and wife existed in the woodland, but that there was no other family unit on show.

Digging around in the Board Game Geek forums I quickly found that I wasn’t the only one with this inclusivity issue. Many players had developed house rules to help offer more inclusive representation in the game. The designers were listening! Last year, Starling Games announced that going forward, every new print of the game would contain a promo pack of alternative characters. This pack would contain masculine and feminine characters as both the hunters and gathers. These would also come with blank titles for players to name their characters however they want. This progressive move has the potential to shake up the industry. It doesn’t take away the heteronormative units, after all this is the majority of players, but it offers everyone who plays, the opportunity to be seen.

Around the same time, Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier games announced that he was revisiting his megahit, Viticulture to “fix” a similar issue. In Viticulture, you originally started the game with pink “mammas” and blue “Pappas” cards that gave you starting resources and workers. Thematically, these represented your parents or family members leaving you a vineyard in their will. Not only did this present a heteronormative viewpoint but also stereotyped the female cards as pink and the male as blue.

This has now been changed to “Red” and “Blue” cards. And both colours will contain a mix of feminine and masculine characters. These are currently part of the new expansion but will also be incorporated into the base game from the next print run. Both these majorly successful games prove that it can be done, easily, and retrospectively, and will hopefully encourage more publishers to do the same.

All The Colours Of The Rainbow

Another change from Stonemaier’s Viticulture was to diversify the ethnicities represented on the cards. 2021’s Paleo caused another industry wide conversation about skin colour when artists Dominik Mayer and Ingram Schell whitewashed the entire game. Set in the Paleolithic era when the ‘white’ skin tone didn’t even exist, every character was designed to look Caucasian. That doesn't seem like much inclusivity, right?

The publishers have since promised to change these designs for the next print run. But should such a new game be allowed to make such a big mistake? Sticking with Stonemaier games, I am in the middle of playing a campaign of Charterstone. It really is refreshing to see such a mix of skin tone, body shape and age all represented in the game.

I also recently picked up a copy of Cartographers Heroes, the much anticipated follow up to the 2019 Flip ‘n’ Draw, Cartographers. And there on the cover I was thrilled to see a female-presenting Knight in shining armour. Not only female, but a black female! The fantasy genre is famously misogynistic with a history of scantily clad, busty females all designed for the male gaze.

Even in newer games like 2017’s runaway hit Fantasy Realms, the women are borderline pornographic in their design. This is something I hope the new Deluxe printing will address. But here in Heroes, all the character designs in the deck are diverse inboth gender and skin type, proving that even in the most problematic of genres, we can do better.

Merrily We Roll Along

Finally, I wanted to address something that seems to be on the cusp of change. Playing 2018’s epic alien dungeon crawler, Nemesis you will notice that one of the characters is wheelchair bound. Before this I don’t think I had ever seen a character in a wheelchair represented in a board game. That is not to say there hasn’t been any, the hobby is enormous, but for such a hugely popular game high in the BGG top 100, I felt that it represented a shift. Not only is this character wheelchair bound, but is a scientist in a game all about action and combat.

2019’s Vast: The Mysterious Manor introduced the Paladin who is an amputee. This year’s follow up to 2020’s time travelling co-op, The Loop, introduced a new young character in a wheelchair and Picture Perfect did the same. While not everyone can be distinctly represented in board games due to its inherently visual medium, there are many different types of body shapes, genders, ages, skin colours, ethnicities and abilities that can and should fill our tabletop.

Let’s make publishers accountable and demand better, because the reality is, the more welcoming and representative out hobby becomes, the bigger it gets and surely, that is the dream, right? We want to feel the inclusivity in whatever we do as someone deemed 'different'.