So I played this game Sunday night while visiting a friend out of town. The first moment of the game when I drew my random character and she was a fat queer-coded woman villain, I knew I was going to have to write a post on it stat. When we laid out the first random row of henches and not a single white male appeared, I knew I was going to be pretty happy about its score in said post. (One glaring exception, which we’ll get to at the end). Also I got to have a dinosaur. This is all I’ve ever wanted.
For those of you unfamiliar, Villainy is a…. let’s say worker management?… game where you’re a bit-rate wannabe super-villain trying to put together a team to enact your nefarious EVIIIIIIL PLAAAAAAANS (which are all completely ridiculous). With a perfect mix of frivolity, luck, and strategic complexity, it also has flavour text that had my gaming partner and I choking on laughter the entire game. It is just sheer fun.
It also has the most diverse and well-represented cast of characters of any game I’ve played since I started this adventure of having too many opinions about representation in tabletop gaming. Let’s take a closer look.
There are eight playable characters (the wannabe villains). Zero of the eight playable characters are white men. (Although there are two white women.)
Rex Roofer (seriously this game is great) is a black man; Doctor Loom is brown-skinned but not entirely human. Ms Tikal is a woman of colour–seems to be coded Latina with her name and the artwork. The rest of the playable characters have non-natural skin colours (green, blue, purple, etc).
Many of the henches are not human or even humanoid. There are about 15 that are human-or-close-to-it; only 4 of them are white men. 6 have a non-human skin colour, and there are 4 women and 1 man who are people of colour.
The game also includes naming titles so you can add your own flavour and identity to your characters. We’ll talk about these more below, but there are Spanish words and titles included among these titles (Jefe, Señora, Fuego, and a few more).
Overall, a stand-out game on the representation front and indisputably:
This game is also a stand-out on the gender front. The game uses gender neutral language throughout the rulebook, and only uses gendered language when referring to a specific character — which varies between he/she/them/it (the last for for animals and robots, not people) depending on the character. I also liked that it used the word ‘henches’ instead of ‘henchmen’–I actually had to repeatedly stop myself from saying ‘henchmen’ even when referring to non-male henches. Male-specific language is so entrenched.
Of the playable characters, 4 are male-coded and 4 are female-coded. BUT the dynamic of the naming titles allows you full flexibility to give a character any gender-signifying title or naming you like, regardless of their coding. The naming mechanism has no purpose other than game flavour and developing your character’s identify; this leads me to feel that the ability to queer your character’s gender is explicitly allowed or even encouraged. High-fives all around. Oh, and also:
Okay. So we’ve talked in The Scale about how it’s inherently problematic to try to guess someone’s sexual identity from just a picture of them. But it’s a limitation of the medium, so we’re left we making guesses from their artistic ‘coding’.
There’s also the inherent problem of defining what queer-coding even is. What makes someone ‘look’ gay? Even some of the more obvious ones–queer haircuts, for example, often chosen by queer folk for the explicit purpose of communicating their queerness to others–run afoul when trying to decide if someone just has a cool, punk alternative style or if they are intentionally declaring themselves queer as hell. (Plus you can obviously be queer as hell with a totally mainstream haircut.)
And finally there’s also a long media criticism history calling attention to the problematic queer coding of villains (here’s looking at you, Disney) and you could make an argument that it’s not actually a good thing that there are so many queer-coded characters in a game called Villainy where everyone is an aspiring bad guy.
But but but…. I kind of don’t care. I LOVE that a majority of the women in this game look like women I’d flirt up in coffee shops or expect to see at LBGTQ rallies or have actually dated. 2 of the playable female characters are queer/alternative coded. 3 of the hench-ladies are definitely folks I’d hit on under the right circumstances. 1
It may not be a perfect proxy, but multiple characters who look like me and my queer women and gender-diverse friends? This is good enough for me.
Between this and the ability to queer your playable character’s gender choices, I’m leaning strongly towards:
Finally, I was pretty excited about how well this game does this in category as well. With the playable characters, one of the characters is gloriously fat and thoroughly kickass. The women are all appropriately clad, with slightly different bodies.
Unfortunately, the playable men all have pretty identical (muscular) bodies BUT there’s a huge array of bodies among the henches! Super muscular (not sexy lean muscly) women, chubby men, old women, scrawny people, huge stocky dudes, etc. A good cross-hatch of humanity.
All the playable characters are fully able-bodied appearing, but we have a few signs of physical impairments among the henches–one hench who is missing a leg, a character with an eye patch (okay, it’s the dinosaur), and a few such things hints at a higher level of ableness-diversity than we’ve seen in any other game I’ve looked at.
So! Our first game with 3s across the board. But–unfortunately there’s a but. And it’s a big one. 2
Where this game failed is in the neuro-diversity/mental health area. As per The Scale, there’s not a particular category for this, but I was going to award bonus stars in the body category for games that did it well. Not entirely sure how to handle a game that does it poorly, except I don’t feel comfortable endorsing this game as a complete standout for representation with this bit it in.
Essentially, there’s an element of the game where you can give your characters ‘specialities’ in different categories: Weapons, Science, Loyalty, Deception, etc.
Take a look at the Deception tiles and see if you can spot the problem:
My guard was down because the rest of this game was so delightful and inclusive, so I was extra horrified to draw two Deception tiles and find them to read ‘Crazy’ (cringe) and ‘Bipolar’ (what the actual hell). You seriously couldn’t come up with one more silly descriptor that wasn’t the name of an actual (manageable) mental health issue that millions of people are living with? Was it really necessary to get a dig in against people struggling with mental illness for what, a cheap laugh at their expense? I seriously don’t understand this, but I am pretty disgusted by it. I thought about giving the Body category a fail for overt ableism, but it didn’t quite feel right since this category isn’t usually looking at mental health issues, so I am docking a half-star to the overall score and giving the most serious of serious side eye to the shitty decision to include those two tiles.
SERIOUS SIDE EYE.
(with -.5 for grossness)