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Women and Non-Binary Folks of Board Game Design

September 13, 2021

Written by: Vanessa Hennessey

Family board game night has become more popular over the past decade – the global board games market was worth $7.2 billion USD in 2017 and is forecast to reach a value of $12 billion USD by 2023. The internet has made board game content, strategy, and entertainment more accessible. Board games can teach valuable life skills, including reflective thinking, planning, problem solving, logical thinking, emotional intelligence, cooperation, and more; and they can inspire mathematical thinking, such as multi-step problem-solving, spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, resource management and much more.

While board games are made by a variety of people, women and non-binary board game designers are coming into the forefront, despite very few women and non-binary designers making their way into the top 100 of board games, such as the much-respected list created by Board Game Geek. Much like video game and other digital design, games created by women or non-binary people are important, as board games tell stories and often include characters and artwork. It's in everyone's interest to have more perspectives in game design, and these images and perspectives of women designers and other underrepresented designers are critical to reflecting everyone's worldview and experience. In order to raise awareness of this, I’ve compiled a list of designers who are not cisgender men – essentially, designers who were not assigned male at birth - so that we can have a little more diversity on the table top.

Source: Meeple Mountain

Designer: Elizabeth Hargrave

Game(s): Wingspan, Tussie-Mussie,  Mariposas

Elizabeth Hargrave has been a board game lover for a long time, but at some point, became disenchanted with the fact that so many board games involved castles, medieval villages, trains, or trading economies in “vaguely Mediterranean locales.” Being a bird enthusiast, she turned to this passion to create a new game called Wingspan. In 2020, as the pandemic forced families to stay in their homes much more than before, the game outsold every other game its publisher makes combined. Slate.com describes how Wingspan works best: “In Wingspan, you, the player, control a small wildlife refuge, a little patch of ground with some forest, some grassland, a marsh. Your job is to populate the preserve with a flourishing array of birds.” (Check out their article for an in-depth look at Hargrave as a designer and how Wingspan works.) Women have responded overwhelmingly positively to Wingspan – while it’s unclear how many women or non-binary individuals have purchased the game, the game’s official Facebook group is made up of 40% women. Not only is Wingspan colourful, fun, and challenging, it is also an easy entry into the activity of bird watching. Hargrave’s other games can also teach us about history and the natural world: Tussie-Mussie  is based on a Victorian fad that assigned meanings to the flowers that friends and lovers exchanged, and Mariposas “is a game of movement and set collection” that lets players be part of the “amazing journey” that monarch butterflies take when they leave Mexico to spread across North America. Find more information about Elizabeth Hargrave at her website.

Source: WashingCon

Designer: Susan McKinley Ross

Game(s): Qwirkle, Color Stix, Cirplexed, and more

Susan McKinley Ross started her design company, Idea Duck, in 2002, and her husband (a former video game designer) joined in 2008 to work full time with Idea Duck. McKinley Ross’ most popular game is Qwirkle, which was first published in 2006 and has sold more than 2 million copies across the world and won multiple awards. In Qwirkle, players use wooden tiles to make lines that are either all one color or all one shape. There can’t be duplicate tiles in a line. When you finish a line of six tiles, it’s called a Qwirkle and you score bonus points. According to the Idea Duck website, “It’s simple enough for 6 year olds to play, and strategic enough for adults to enjoy.” And, Qwirkle was actually created after McKinley Ross had a dream where she saw something similar to a finished board of Qwirkle! Visit the Qwirkle website for more information on the awards the game has won, where the game is sold around the world, and reviews. The other games designed by McKinley Ross and Idea Duck also help develop skills of speed, visual thinking, and strategy.

Source: Board Game Geek

Designer: Rachel Simmons

Game(s): The Guns of Gettysburg, Napoleon’s Triumph, Bonaparte at Marengo

Rachel Simmons is a game designer who also happens to be a trans woman. Her games are all about history and wargaming, simulating their respective time periods. The games don’t feature dice, and “chance comes solely in the form of what the players do and what they think their opponents are doing…essentially, in the worst cases, being fooled, being foolish, or fooling yourself.” A full review of the games can be found at The Boardgaming Life. Rachel describes in this interview that she had tried tinkering with game design as a kid, making her own expansions to existing games or entire games from scratch. She claims that wargame publishing is not done to become rich; “you do it because you love it and you hope to be able to get enough compensation for it that you will be able to continue doing it.” She also says that, “Innovation cannot be a goal in and of itself. If you set out to create an innovative game as your goal, you're steering towards nowhere and everywhere. What I did was decide what kind of game experience I wanted to provide and let that drive the design decisions.” Rachel has twice been a finalist for the James F. Dunnigan Award for outstanding achievement in historical wargames.

Source: Board Game Workshop

Designer: Fertessa Allyse Scott

Game(s): Book of Villainy, Wicked & Wise, Mansplaining

Fertessa Allyse Scott became known on the board game scene via Board Game Workshop’s design contest in 2018, combining a renaissance artist’s eye, a love of mechanics, and a pinch of impishness to create fun, accessible games. In this interview with Girls' Game Shelf, she says she had always played mass produced games growing up, but only in the last few years discovered games such as Settlers of Catan, Sushi Go, and Betrayal on a Hill. She is best known for her game Book of Villainy, described as, "a tile-hopping strategy game for two to four villains. Players race around the grid, trying to claim the most points for their evil deeds. Play as one of six villains, each with a unique power, and sabotage your way to victory" on theboardgameworkshop.com. In the previously mentioned interview, she mentions that if she could improve anything about the board game industry, she would like to see more tolerance for "casual" games such as Monopoly, as well as tolerance online and offline in general. She says that 90% of the time, she feels welcome in the industry and community, but is constantly surrounded by men who are not people of colour, and it can feel isolating, as she is often one of the only women in a given space, and usually, the only woman of colour. Fertessa Allyse - and other women, whether women of colour or not - absolutely deserve a seat at the board game table, and you don't want to miss checking out her website.

Source: Girls' Game Shelf

Designer: Nikki Valens

Game(s): Quirky Circuits, Mansions of Madness 2e, Legacy of Dragonholt, and more

Nikki Valens (they/them) was raised on board games. When they were very young, they became interested in Magic the Gathering, roleplaying games, and Warhammer, and were an in house designer for Fantasy Flight Games for just over 5 years. In various interviews, Nikki has expressed that they love tabletop gaming for the connection to others, as well as the supportive board game community and industry, saying, “I’m amazed and inspired everyday by the community’s love for boardgames. I’ve received many lovely comments and direct messages about how my games have touched players’ hearts and lives.” But they’ve also mentioned that, “Between starting my career with Fantasy Flight and me being non-binary, I feel that I’ve been insulated in some ways from the challenges others have faced. It’s immediately obvious that this industry is dominated my men (and white men at that). There is certainly an undeniable ingrained misogyny that permeates the industry. I think women in the boardgame industry face many similar challenges to those of women in any male dominated industry.” When it comes to game design, Nikki has “tons of game ideas,” and many start with a game mechanic that they want to build around, and the worlds they create don’t carry the same ingrained bias that our real world often does, which is a real breath of fresh air. To find out more about Nikki and their games, visit their Twitter.

Lastly, we have to plug the card game that WWEST was involved in creating with AMBL (Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory) at the University of British Columbia. Phylo is a trading card game that makes use of the wonderful, complex, and inspiring things that inform the notion of biodiversity. It is an exercise in crowd sourcing, open access, and open game development that has grown to broach elements of game based science education, ecological literacy, and hackathon mechanics within the teaching community. You can find out more information about the game here and see examples of the beautiful artwork that was created for the card deck.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of women and non-binary board game designers. Elizabeth Hargrave (creator of Wingspan) has put together a huge list of women and non-binary people who design games, as well as Black board game designers. Check it out over at her website!

Tell us what your favourite board games are over on our Twitter or Facebook
Have you checked out our Phylo card game? Let us know at the links above, too!