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Designer Interview: Tory Brown

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

In July of 1848 the Seneca Falls Convention was held in New York and was the beginning of the women's suffrage movement that lasted until the 1920 when Tennessee the 36th state ratified the 19th amendment allowing women to vote. This was not an easy accomplishment it was hard fought and there were detractors trying to stop the movement all along. Designer Tory Brown has designed Votes for Women to have us experience the movement and have an immersive experience into the women's suffrage movement.

Game shown is a pre-production copy. Actual game may vary.

I have read that you are a communications strategist for progressive causes. What brought you into game design? My longtime friend Kevin Bertram, the publisher behind Fort Circle Games and the designer of Shores of Tripoli, invited me to pitch him a game. I had been a casual gamer, enjoying games like Ticket to Ride and Carcassone, but started getting into heavier themes like Watergate and 1960. Playing those games sparked an idea for an area control game based on a theme I was really excited about. What inspired you to create Votes for Women? Votes for Women is my first game and timing played a major factor in its inspiration. In 2019 I realized we were approaching the Centennial of the 19th Amendment and started my research. As a veteran of movement politics, I realized how well a game based on a political movement could play, with big personalities, competing strategies, and the push-pull of historical events big and small. The drive to pass a constitutional amendment through Congress and ratify it in the states spoke to me as a fascinating terrain on which to play through 70 years of American history. Also, the artwork from especially the late Suffrage era is AMAZING and looking through archives made me certain the game would be compelling visually as well. What is your favorite game to play?

It’s probably not cool to say Trivial Pursuit, so I’ll go with 1960 The Making of the President. There are some similarities to my own game, including some ahistoric mechanics and the map of American states. However 1960 uses electoral college votes as scores for each state while Votes for Women uses state legislatures with equal value. Differences aside, 1960 turns a political process that defined a key moment in American history into an exciting battle for players. I hope Votes for Women players enjoy my game just as much!

What was an interesting fact you learned about the suffrage movement while designing this game? How could I pick just one!? I was blown away by how many different causes fed into the Suffrage movement. From Temperance and the Labor movements, to more obscure efforts like the Free Love movement, many women didn’t join the Suffrage movement just to win the vote but to make serious change on other issues they cared about. It’s also clear from studying the Suffrage Movement how many leaders have been forgotten by time and how many more members were never known at all. Successful political movements require thousands of people working together without a spotlight or history noticing. It should be reassuring to folks who are organizing for and participating in the fight for important issues today. What is your favorite mechanic in Votes for Women? I really love how Organizing is a resource (in the physical form of historically inspired buttons) that can be spent a bunch of different ways: to change the focus of Campaigning, to re-roll disappointing die rolls (because a well-organized effort has a better chance to be successful) and to bid on Strategy Cards (with the better organized side having a better shot at achieving their strategy

How did you handle the infighting and racism that occurred during the early days of the suffragette movement within the game? I believe it to be an important subtext to the whole movement, that some believe progress could leave others behind while people like Ida B Wells would not have it. Did you have any issues balancing the important aspects of the movement and the game play?

The divisions in the suffrage movement are an important aspect of our history yet often overlooked in retellings of how the 19th Amendment was won and so this is an important recurring theme for me as the designer in Votes for Women. Major splits over the 15th amendment in the wake of the Civil War and again in the 1910s over militant and racially exclusionary tactics drove a wedge in the movement and between leaders. The game is honest about these riffs and the role white supremacy played on both sides of the campaign. Even though many early suffrage leaders came out of the abolitionist movement, women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton were ardently opposed to giving Black men who were formerly slaves the right to vote before or without enfranchising educated white women like herself. And later leaders like Alice Paul were deferential to racist leaders in DC when she asked Black women, including Ida B Wells, to march at the back of the 1913 Procession. Pro-suffrage organizations in the South explicitly campaigned to give only white women the vote and national leaders also made racist appeals up until the very end of ratification voting. These events and divides are represented throughout the Suffrage and Opposition cards and explained in the small amount of space available for flavor text. When holding these cards, Opposition exploits these divides to build their own power and Suffrage must make tough choices.

I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s a card in the deck titled “Southern Strategy” which should be a familiar concept to political history nerds. Suffrage players are faced with an opportunity to build power in the very states that were most resistant to woman suffrage (and racial equity.) As with Nixon’s own strategy to sway Southern whites away from the Democratic party, there is a cost for choosing this path that only becomes clear later on in the game.

Movement political strategy is beset by tough choices, limited resources, and long odds against victory. It can become easy to lose sight of the values that make victory worthwhile and meaningful. Leaders and movement members today continue to debate the merits of steady incrementalism versus total revolution, of difficult compromises versus total commitment to all objectives. I hope people who play Votes for Women also face tough choices as they play through and consider how they would have plotted the course over 100 years ago, and consider how we still face many of the same strategic challenges now. What did you find was the most difficult part of the design process? It was tough to accept that by giving players agency in when to play - or if to play - certain cards, it meant that the historical narrative during the game will be different than the history we know. It is possible through game play that the Fifteenth Amendment and Reconstruction can occur before - and perhaps even spark - the Civil War. Letting go of our single linear narrative and embracing the chaos made the game a lot more fun, but it’s still hard to accept that my historical game can get ahistorical. What was your favorite part about the design process? I absolutely loved building out the decks for the Suffrage and Opposition sides of the game. The cards tell the story of the movement and the history, they let me engage with the artwork, photography, and preserved documents of the eras. It was a challenge to balance the decks and the mechanics to ensure the game was competitive and not heavily skewed one direction or the other, but having the title, art, mechanic, and flavor text come together through Brigette Indelicato’s awesome graphic design was amazing. Do you have any advice for up and coming designers?

Just like building a movement, building a game requires community. I have been blown away by the support and encouragement from fellow designers and board game enthusiasts. If not for a community of support, we wouldn’t have received such thoughtful and informed feedback during play testing. My advice is to be an active member of the board game community in order to enjoy the benefits of the community as a designer. While the community works to call out bad actors and demand accountability from people who are abusing positions of trust and authority, we all need to be the kind of community member we want to be around. What is the airspeed of an unladen swallow?

It turns out there are 74 distinct species of swallow, so I must ask for clarification: an African or European swallow?



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