Board games have a rich culture, and one of the most positive aspects of a board game is that it has never been traditionally gendered. While many toys and games are marketed as being “for girls” or “for boys,” board games have always staunchly occupied the “for everyone” category, branding themselves as a family activity.
Some might think that board games would gone out of vogue with the rise of the Internet, but the exact opposite is true. Since the 1990s, board games have entered a “Golden Age” of popularity, with the Internet allowing gaming enthusiasts to find new games and engage with the board game community through online hubs such as BoardGameGeek.com.
What’s more, the Internet has made it so that games can be crowd-funded and play-tested, meaning that more indie games have a shot at publication. Once published, awards shine the spotlight on games that might not have previously gotten as much recognition, and since the advent of the Internet, board gaming awards have seen a huge growth in community engagement, especially internationally.
With all this growth, there’s a pretty big blind spot in board games, and that’s in its diversity. Gaming designers tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. An article by Tanya Pobuda highlights this by pointing to the 2018 BGG list of 200 Top Board Games. Of 200 games, 193 had a male designer; this translates to 96.5% of games.
This brings me to Elizabeth Hargrave. The name is probably familiar to you if you’re a board game geek, because she’s the designer of the hit engine-building game Wingspan. Hailed as beautifully rendered, smooth strategy game, Wingspan won no less than 8 of the 16 categories in the Golden Geek Awards (hosted by the BGG), and it was the first game to win both the Kennerspiel des Jahres (basically, the Oscars of board games) and Deutscher Spielepreis (an award based on public voting) since 2012. It got rave reviews, and it shone a spotlight on a woman designer who had made, arguably, a massively popular “feminine” game, one that features pasted-colored pieces, a bucolic game board, and cards centered around the natural beauty of birds.
Elizabeth Hargrave isn’t a one-hit wonder; she’s published other card games that are just as fanciful, including one of my personal favorites, Tussie-Mussie, a game that involves trading and collecting cards with flowers on them.
Wingspan wasn’t just a good game. It was a reminder that games are fundamentally ungendered, and that seemingly “feminine” board games are not to be overlooked, as, ultimately, the strategy and gameplay of a board games can be enjoyed by all, regardless of the branding.
Incidentally, Elizabeth Hargrave is not a singularity. In fact, women have been designing and publishing board games for a long time. Candy Land was created by Eleanor Abbot in 1948, and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Philips designed The Landlord’s Game in 1905. You’ve definitely played both, though you may not realize it, because although The Landlord’s Game was patented, Charles Darrow stole it and rebranded it as Monopoly in 1935, selling it to the Parker Brothers for millions in royalties. (Lizzie did end up getting a single payment of $500 from the Parker Brothers.)
I have a lot of friends who are board game fanatics, and many of them expressed enthusiastic surprise at Elizabeth Hargrave’s success. One of them said to me he was glad that she was getting noticed, since “there are so few women designing boardgames.”
It turns out this sentiment is both common and completely wrong. In fact, it’s so common and so wrong that Elizabeth Hargrave herself ended up compiling a list of over 200 active, published boardgames designers who are women (or non-binary), along with a guide to promote diversity within the gaming community. She went on to publish a list titled “Black Voices in Board Gaming,” which began as a Twitter thread but is now compiled on her website for easy viewing.
If you’re a fan of board games, then I encourage you to give Elizabeth Hargrave’s list a look. Diversity within the community of game designers lends itself to diversity within the available library of board games; The broader the representation among designers, the broader the types of games we’ll see published and played. There’s still work to be done, but we’re getting there. And arguably, the increase in diversity among game designers is one of the unsung contributing factors to the board game “Golden Age” in which we find ourselves.