Expansions!: Catan: Cities & Knights

For those of you unfamiliar, the Cities & Knights expansion to Settlers of Catan moves the players beyond the initial settlement of the new land and into the building and development of more established cities (along with the need to defend them). It’s actually a substantial expansion, easily doubling the depth and strategic complexity of the game.

Shows the commodities flipbook, metropolis, barbarian ship, commodity dice, knights, and city walls.
New components!

But does it make any developments on the representation front?

Race

Well, native people still don’t exist, but as we’re moving out of initial colonisation and into the development of existing cities, thematically, this is slightly less of a problematic element than the original game. Slightly.

And we get another person of colour! There are 6 cards (of 47 depicting people) in the merchant deck that feature dark-skinned traders with camels, Middle Eastern dress, and lots of sand. 1 So that’s … something, at least.

There is a ‘Barbarian Ship’ that periodically attacks the settlers. While traditionally a negative, heavily racially coded word, in the game, it’s just a black ship and there’s no art of what the ‘barbarians’ look like. So we’re going to let this one slide.

It’s earned:

1 star

Gender

Interestingly, there are exactly the same number of cards depicting women in this expansion as there are in the base set (4), but there’s nearly double the number of cards depicting people, so the overall representation percentage falls dramatically. The cover art does include 3 women to 2 men, but that’s far outweighed by the fact that in this expansion each player gets 6 playable knights–all men.

Disappointing.

1 star

Sexuality

Well, there’s no longer a little hetero family on the cover, but there are a few wedding cards that offer bonuses. There’s actually not a clear bride and groom in the art, so it’s a stretch, but if you wanted to use this card to get gifts to celebrate your same-sex wedding, technically nothing in the game is stopping you. That bumps us up a star, to the ‘nothing actively preventing you from getting your gay on within one very slim opportunity’’ category.

1 star

Body

We do get a teeeeny bit more variety of bodies in this expansion. A few older people. A little more variation in shapes in heights. Not as much as I would like and still no people with disabilities, but it’s not ‘absolutely no variation from the single beauty mold’ like the base set, so:

1 star

Overall

Overall, some minor improvements in most categories. People who are not white men with the exact same conventionally attractive bodies exist at least, and there’s a very, very minor opportunity to queer the narrative. Still a long way to go, but significant improvements from the original and from the Settlers of America spin-off as well.

Race ★☆☆
Gender ★☆☆
Sexuality ★☆☆
Body ★☆☆
Overall Average 1.00

 

Notes:

  1. How and why they brought camels over the ocean to this tiny island is neither here nor there.

Expansions: Settlers of America

So I already had a follow-up article queued up on the Settlers of Catan expansion, Cities & Knights, but on my PAX panel, I was talking about the morning I dug through all my games for a Twitter rant on whether people who were not straight, white men existed within games I owned. And I was reminded of this gem of a game, which just barely passed this most basic test with a single picture of native woman handing a man blankets.

For those of you unfamiliar, Settlers of America is a spin-off (not an expansion, I guess–it plays standalone) of Catan focused on the westward expansion of colonisation in America:

A map of the board of Settlers of America
‘MURIKA

Similar dynamics of resource management as the original, but without the randomisation of the board. The main mechanism and victory conditions are a bit different–instead of just building your own settlements, you have to build railroads connecting your cities to others’ to deliver them goods; the first to deliver 8 goods wins. It’s… not as good as the original by far, and the problematic elements of the colonial theme are even worse.

But on a second look, I was actually wrong about it passing the representation test based only on that single native woman! I missed that there’s another solo woman pictured on the back of the resource card. My sincere apologies. This changes everything. Ha!

So I’ll make this fast and easy and just show you all of the cards that don’t have only white men on them upfront:

"Native Support" card, showing a Native woman handing blankets to a man.
There are two of these cards in the game, so I guess that counts double?
Shows a scene of people walking down a footpath with a train i nthe background, including 2 children, a man, and a woman.
Back of the progress card. Hark! A lady!

Race/Nationality

Native folk exist! Sort of! Their presence in the west has no impact on game play or your character’s manifest destiny 1, but at least they’ll give you blankets.

1 star, but I can’t even feel good about it

Gender

Two women live in the entire west! Woohoo!

1 star

Sexuality

Those two women are apparently very busy.

0 stars

Body

Pretty much the same thoughts as I had on the original.

0 stars

Overall

Hey, it improved .25 points on the original! That’s sort of progress, right?

Race ★☆☆
Gender ★☆☆
Sexuality ☆☆☆
Body ☆☆☆
Overall Average 0.5

Notes:

  1. This phrase is actually used in the game’s description. Gag.

Billionaire Banshee

The front of the box for Billionaire Banshee says:

Trust me! This game is awesome!

I can endorse this perspective. (With some caveats and a few cards tossed in the bin.)

I got this gem of a game after a friend introduced me to it post-PAX last year. 1 So it seems appropriate as I gear up for PAX this weekend (come say hi or see my panels!) to showcase it. It’s sheer silliness and fun.

For those of you unfamiliar, Billionaire Banshee is a party game about finding your perfect partner. I’d put it in a similar category as Cards Against Humanity, but with less of a race-to-the-bottom to see who can be more horrible. It’s really a game of how well you know your friends and expressing outrage and incredulousness when they don’t live up to your expectations, but let’s keep pretending it’s about dating.

So in the standard rules (there are a few variants for added nonsense), everyone has two voting cards: DATE and DENY. There are two stacks of potential-partner cards: PERK and QUIRK. The reader reads one then the other, and together these form the profile of a potential partner for them. For example, the namesake cards:

They are a billionaire / They are a banshee
DATE or DENY?

The reader secretly selects whether they would DATE or DENY this person, placing the corresponding voting card in front of them–is it a big deal that they’re a banshee? If so, does them being a billionaire outweigh it? Everyone else attempts to guess what the reader will answer for this hypothetical future person and also secretly selects a voting card. Then everyone reveals their answers–if you match the reader, you win the round. Except like most party games and also real life, the points pretty much don’t matter at all and no one really pays attention to them.

The Perk card is ostensibly a positive trait about the potential-partner and the quirk is a weird, negative, or just unique-but-not-for-everyone trait. But you’ll quickly see that much like real dating, one person’s Perk is another person’s Quirk, and you’ll spend most of the game fighting it out.

Race

Race is not much of a factor in the game play, and blessedly there are no ‘they are of a different race than you!’ or ‘they are black!’ grossness cards that legitimise the idea that it’s okay to discriminate against people solely for their race when dating, particularly without taking in account any individual facts about the person. 2

Race is an interesting factor in the card art, though. There are a handful of cards with clear white characters on them, a handful of black characters, and a couple that seem to be coded as east Asian. But a majority of cards are some variety of Ambiguously Brown(™).

Before I start an article, I normally count of how many cards showed people of colour and people who were not men (more on that below), and… I couldn’t with this game. I’ve talked before about how it’s inherently problematic to try to racially identify characters when all you have is a single picture of them and no background (and I definitely hate trying to be the arbitrar of ‘is your skin brown enough to make you not-white’), but this game really was an extreme case of that (deliberately, I am pretty sure). But in a positive way, not a ‘everyone is white but one character who is a little tan, do we give you ‘credit’ for it?’ kind of way like we usually see in games.

I know there is debate about how much Ambiguously Brown(™) characters actually increase diversity and it’s an interesting discussion, one that is particularly relevant to TV & movies where someone’s experience as a person of colour in modern society can be explored or ignored. But in this context, of visual art of showing a variety of shades of brown skin as the ‘default’ character? I hands-down loved it.

As the (excellent) article I linked just  above says: “Maybe brownness is ambiguous in part because our hazy shared concepts of what people ‘should’ look like don’t necessarily reflect reality.”

I’m doing it:

3 stars

Gender

Several things that kick total ass:

  • The game is specifically and clearly designed to be gender-neutral and gender-inclusive–there are no assumptions about the gender of the players, the gender of the potential partners, or the gender preferences of any players.
  • There are three pieces of art on the back of the cards: a rainbow unicorn (fantasy Perks/Quirks), a purple bear wearing leather and holding a whip (sex-related Perks/Quirks, and a deliberately-coded androgynous or non-binary person (everyday life Perks/Quirks).
  • On the front of the cards, a vast, vast majority show a gender-ambiguous person (a small number are gender-coded in fairly distinct masculine or feminine ways, but not many).
  • All cards use gender-neutral language to refer to the potential partners.
  • The rules use gender-neutral language to refer to the players.

However, then we get to these two cards:

They have genitals of the opposite sex / They have a voice that sounds like the opposite sex
Sigh.

And of course both are quirk cards. 

I have debated how I feel about these cards and how to talk about them for quite some time now. I actually wrote many paragraphs about it but then a few weeks ago I was at a friend of a friend’s birthday party. It was a significantly younger crowd, a wonderful little enclave of queer/poly/gender diverse late teens/very early 20s folk that made me persistently think, “Yeah, the kids are all right.”

We were playing Billionaire Banshee and one of these cards came out, and they said something that cut through all the bullshit I was internally debating:

Kid 1: “They have genitals of the opposite sex.”
Kid 2: “What?”
Kid 3: “Opposite of what? What does that even mean?”
Kid 4: “Yeah. This card is for the hets. Moving on.”
Everyone simultaneously: “DATE!”

Overall, there are very few games that put so much effort into rejecting the gendered binary and respecting a wide range of gender diversity, so it’s extra weird to have these cards that just don’t even make sense within that paradigm. Opposite of what? What does that even mean?

These might be good cards to just quietly remove from your set, but they’re more confusing than anything. I am docking half a point and throwing some mild side-eye. These cards are for the hets. Moving on. 

2.5 stars

Sexuality

Similarly to gender, I don’t know any other published games 3 that put so much effort in rejecting heteronormative standards, in art, in language, and game-play mechanics. Whether you’re straight, gay, bi, pan, ace, 4 or robot, this game accommodates your preferences. As mentioned, there’s no assumed gender of players, of partners, or of preferences. Yay!

But there’s some somewhat weird handling of sexuality I thought worth mentioning, particularly given how inclusive the rest of the game is:

  • “They are a virgin” is a Perk. What? Everyone I’ve ever played with finds this super gross. The general consensus is that being a virgin is by no means a deal-breaker and it would be a good Quirk card, but outside of a small number of very specific scenarios (You’re also a virgin and would prefer someone with a similar experience level for your first time?), if you think finding a partner who is a virgin is a perk, you probably have some deeply problematic, sex-negative, and likely misogynistic shit you need to go unpack.
  • There is zero acknowledgement of alternative relationship models. None. In fact, a lot of cards explicitly enforce single-couple monogamy. How hard would it be to have like one card of “They only want to have non-monogamous relationships”? This would spark interesting discussions, surely.
  • Oh, but “They randomly cheat on you” is a card. Which I think is a fine card in general, it just frustrates me in the context of being pretty much the only reference to non-monogamy in this game. And you can’t even be like “meh, I don’t care if they fuck other people” which this card because it explicitly discusses them lying to you about it, which my crowd tends to find more bothersome.
  • “They are asexual” is a card. So we’re back to the voting-about-people’s-identity thing. And the card explicitly says they’re monogamous and want you to be monogamous, which again has been the bigger deal breaker in my crowds. The other day, I got “They are asexual” and “They are a world-class cuddler” together, and I would BE ALL OVER DATING THAT if they weren’t also going to force me to be monogamous.
  • I find this whole area frustrating, because my perfect long-term partner *wouldn’t* enforce monogamy, regardless of any of their other traits. But this game doesn’t allow that as an option.

Still, though, I’m going to stick to my original scale, which awarded bonus points for alternative relationship models but didn’t detract for their lack. Given how this meets and exceed the top standard for sexuality representation–“there are queer-identified characters and/or game play explicitly allows or encourages queer identities and behaviours”–I’m giving it:

3 stars

Body

Like the other categories, there are a lot of things Billionaire Banshee does well in the body department. If you’re just talking body size/shape/lack of adherence to impossible social body norms, it’s a stand-out. If you’re talking about avoiding ableism and representing people with disabilities…. Not so much.

The good stuff first. As mentioned, the only human character on the backs of the cards is a short, chubby adorable enby. On the front of the cards, the default body-shape is a squat, squarish person, with the occasional variation. Some of the variations are tall bodies, some short, some slim, etc. There is only one card that refers to body type at all and it’s “They are Hercules-level muscular”. And it is actually listed as a Quirk, not a Perk. Overall, no real complaints with this part.

But. Then it starts to get grim. There are a few cards that allude to people with disabilities — “they have no feet,” for example. But there are no depictions of people with visible disabilities just casually in the art, which I think is a damn shame. How hard is it to have a few people using mobility aids? Spolier: Not hard, you just have to try. Also, I think it would be cool to have some cards that highlighted people with disabilities in funny ways like the game does with able-bodied people–for example, “Their wheelchair can go car speeds.” Or “Their cane can turn into a hoop snake”. So the fact that they’re in a wheelchair or use a cane is incidental, and we’re voting on a ridiculous perk a la several existing cards.

And then there are these two cards:

Cards reading “They have tourettes” & “They are narcoleptic”
So much gross.

(If you can’t quite make them out, the cards read “They have tourettes.” & “They are narcoleptic.”)

And…. no. Just no. I actually had to get this shot from a friend, because I had thrown mine away the moment I saw them.

Every other card in the game refers to a person’s traits. These are the only two cards that refer to a medical diagnosis. 5  A medical diagnosis that in both cases has a wide, wide range of symptoms and the amount it actually impacts anyone’s life or partner’s life. But instead we’re told to draw on the most extreme pop culture stereotypes you have of these diseases and then vote on that person’s value as a human.

Talking about a symptom and asking you to evaluate a very specific trait outside the context of identity is very different to me than asking you to pass a referendum on a person based on your own or others’ stereotypes about that identity and legitimises discrimination against people in that category. If it was instead “They shout random curse words at strangers” then explained in the description that it’s a verbal tic, it wouldn’t be much of a problem. But “they have tourrette’s”? No. So much no. (Spoiler: many people with tourette’s don’t have this as a tic and those who do can sometimes control it or minimise it with good medical care.)

For this amount of problematic grossness, I’m docking a half-star and throwing even more side-eye.

1.5 stars

Overall

I guess a single game can’t be everything to everyone. But this one sure tried. Remove those two gross cards about people’s medical diagnoses and, soften up the MONOGAMY ONLY vibe, stop speculating on other people’s genitals, and increase representation of people with disabilities in the art, and you’d have me saying it succeeded. 

Race ★★★
Gender ★★★-.5
Sexuality ★★★
Body ★★☆-.5
Overall Average 2.5

 

Notes:

  1. Uh, okay, actually, his copy is actually now my copy after I borrowed it and someone spilled a glass of wine all over it at my table and thus my brand new clean copy is now his copy. If we’re being technical. #oops
  2. Well, I guess there are a couple cards that boil down to ‘they are a non-human race’. I am sure the centaurs are upset at legitimising their discrimination, but I think centaur rights are outside the scope of my discussion. But if any centaurs would like me reconsider my position on this, let me know.
  3. CRUCIBLE IS COMING, THOUGH.
  4. There are cards that explicitly refer to sex or the partner wanting sex or specific kinds of sex, BUT they’re clearly labelled on the back, with the intent that you can sort them out from the game entirely if you don’t want to play with sexual considerations or just skip drawing them yourself. Also, you can always draw them anyway and DENY them if they want something you’re not offering.
  5. Some cards refer to a specific symptom of a probable medical problem–”They have random mid-sleep diarrhea”, for example–but not the name of a medical problem. And that one has mostly been a deal-breaker for people because part of the card description says they refuse to wear any incontinence aids. And to me “they have this specific symptom” AND “they refuse to take any practical steps to minimize its impact on your shared life” is a completely different situation than “they have X medical condition, please draw your own stereotypes”.

Marrying Mr Darcy

Ima be frank. As a queer poly feminist fairly critical of the legacy of the institution of marriage and its role is the historical oppression of women–who on top of this pretty much can’t stand Jane Austen–this game is, uh, not my favorite in theme. But it’s kind of cute in game play and a lot of folks like it, so I thought we’d take a look. It performs about exactly as I would have guessed on the representation front.

For those of you unfamiliar, Marrying Mr Darcy is a card-based role game, where you try to increase your character’s stats (Wit, Beauty, Reputation, Friendliness, and Cunning) to try to snag the best husband possible. Sigh. 

Two cards from the game, one showing a Character and the other a Suitor

Race/Nationality

This is an example of a game that does not showcase any racially diverse characters, but where it arguably makes sense within the theme. All the characters in the game are the same as the characters in the source material; all of those characters are white. Now, if we could just get an equivalent number of games published in the industry based on works featuring people of all sorts of races, ethnicities, and cultures, this individual game wouldn’t be an issue at all.

But still:

0 stars

Gender

A rarity in the games world, every single playable character is female! 1

In addition to the 8 playable female characters, there are 5 male Suitors (essentially victory cards sought by players).

The backs of the Character cards feature a silhouette of a woman & and the Event cards show a silhouette of a man and woman together. When people are pictured on the fronts of the even cards, overwhelming the pictures are of women. Of the 31 Event cards with people on them, less than 10% showed only men. About 42% showed only women and 48% showed men and women together.

This is awesome! No depictions of gender-diverse folks; however. Still, a stand-out and impressive:

2 stars

Sexuality

This game is pretty much Heteronormativity(TM), The Board Game. Really not much else to say here.

The entire game is about seeking relationships, but only socially-sanctioned straight ones (regardless of your character’s actual wishes). The only option to not be forced into a straight marriage is to become an Old Maid, whereupon your chance of winning becomes pretty much luck-based:

A card showing the outcomes for the dice roll for being the Old Maid.
LIFE GOALS

0 stars

Body

There’s some mix of different body shapes-curvy/not curvy, slight height differences, etc. but not huge. No folks with visible impairments.

1 star

Overall

Overall, a lot of the lack of diversity in this game can be blamed on the source material. This might be why it doesn’t make me feel quite as gross as some other games. (Or maybe it’s that the whole theme already makes me feel gross, so a bit more isn’t very noticeable.) But it is cool to see a game showcasing so many women! More of this!

Race ☆☆☆
Gender ★★☆
Sexuality ☆☆☆
Body ★☆☆
Overall Average 0.75

 

Notes:

  1. It would be infinitely nicer to see this in game without such a loaded “female” theme of trying to snag a husband, however.

Entropy

I’m still riding the wave of feeling accomplished and pleasant after a week of serious acrobatics, so let’s focus on a gorgeous little game today that makes me quite happy: Entropy!

For those of you unfamiliar, Entropy is a secret action game themed around the collision of 5 parallel worlds. You have to navigate actions around other characters to find fragments of your reality to rebuild your little corner of existence. It’s fairly fast, easy to pick up, but with a fair amount of subtle strategic complexity. I like it quite a lot.

Plus the artwork is just GORGEOUS.  It makes me happy to just look at it. Plus it’s made by Australian designers, and I always enjoy supporting the local gaming community. 

Here’s a picture of the six playable characters (including The Ronin, which I think is technically an expansion, but I believe they came with all of the original Kickstarter releases?) At a glance, we can already see it does pretty great on the representation front. Winning all around!

Entropy Playable Characters

But let’s unpack it a little more.

Race/Nationality

Of the six playable characters, two are white and one is a robot/cyborg/machine-bodied. The other three are coded as people of colour. This is awesome!

But the action cards lose this casual and delightful mix of different kinds of people–of the 5 action cards in each player’s set that depict people, all 5 of the people pictured are white. Not sure what happened there.

But we weight playable characters higher in general and either way, this is a solid:

2 stars

Gender

Two of the characters are pretty clearly male-coded. One is fairly clearly female-coded. The cyborg has a traditionally female name (Mary) but no visual gender coders. Only The Ronin’s eyes are visible–their gender like most of their identity is concealed. 1 Advaranau is coded quite genderqueer to me.

It’s worth noting that within the theme, these characters are all from parallel worlds, and I enjoy the idea the art invokes that the gender and gender-presentation of characters may be different because the societal lenses of their home world could be different.

I’d say ‘I’m unable to sort characters into a strict societally-induced gender binary’ to be a pretty solid top score for diverse gender representation.

3 stars

Also, you’ll never convince me that the Anchor isn’t a Georgia O’Keefe-esque definitely-not-vaginal-art-what-are-you-talking-about wonder: 

A picture of The Anchor. Which definitely doesn't look like a shiny vagina. (I lie. It totally does.)

Sexuality

There aren’t any mechanics that allow choices that imply sexuality, but both Advaranau and Jessup read queer to me. As they’re both playable characters, this also earns top marks:

3 stars

Body

We actually don’t have heaps to go on here. Of the humans pictured on the action cards, most are only partial views of bodies, swathed in clothes, etc., but the art is very evocative of actual humans with realistic proportions and a few different fairly average body shapes.

The playable characters are only heads and tops of the chests. They too all have a very ‘actual human proportions’ feel to them, with a bit of variety in face shapes and such.

Also, one of the only games we’ve seen featuring people with physical impairments! It’s unclear to me whether this is a subtle part of the world-building I am not aware of, but many of the characters have something going on with their left eye. The Ronin, who has been in the Nexus (place where the fractured realities intersect) the longest, appears to be completely blind in this eye. Advaranau has a clear biomechanical implant in place of their eye. Jessup possibly does as well. Cenec appears to have his biological eye intact, but injured. Only Kintriel appears to have both eyes healthy and unimpaired, but she has a facial tattoo around this eye. (Mary–the cyborg–has no visible eyes at all.)

I am very curious about the reasons behind this, but also pleased to see people with a physical impairment featured so heavily in the playable characters (particularly in a way that seems subtle, interesting, and intriguing–a double bah to the bullshit crowd that says any depiction of people with disabilities or impairments in game art is always ‘forced’ or anachronistic).

3 stars

Overall

Our highest scoring game to date! (If you recall, Villainy got close but was docked points for grossness. No grossness here.) 

I love a lot about this game, but the subtle and natural weaving in of a whole variety of people is definitely a wonderful part of it.

And seriously, the artwork, whoa. Just go look at it.

Overall,

Race ★★☆
Gender ★★★
Sexuality ★★★
Body ★★★
Overall Average 2.75

Notes:

  1. I realised just as I was about to publish that the rulebook explicitly refers to The Ronin with male pronouns, but this doesn’t really change any of my overall thoughts here.

Citadels

A quick post on a quick game today: Citadels!

 

For those of you unfamiliar, Citadels is a little role selection & building game, where each player leads a small city and is trying to build new ‘districts’ to increase the prosperity of the city. A nice thing about this game is that it plays 2-8 players and plays pretty well at each size. (Although 7-8 players gets a bit long for the depth, in my opinion.)

Strategic but light, it’s also unfortunately extremely light on the representation front.

Race/Nationality

Every single human pictured in the artwork of this game is white. There’s really not much more to say about that.

Location is unspecified, but vaguely ‘generic medieval European’.

Yeah.

I’m giving it:

0 stars

Gender

30 district cards have artwork picturing people. Abolutely zero of these show any women.

That’s right: It’s so much of a man’s world that women don’t even exist in this city.

What the actual fuck.

There are a few women on the cover art on the box. But none of them show back up in any of the playable cards.

I have the released version, which comes with 9 bonus/expansion characters in addition to the 9 base characters. Of these 18 merchants and artists and assassins and thieves, there are precisely two women: a (fat, disgruntled) Queen that can only be played in an 8-player game and an expansion card of a Witch.

This would begrudgingly score one star, but the rulebook used only male pronouns because fuck the rest of us, I guess. So that’s a full negative star for that, bringing us to:

0 stars

Sexuality

As I said when about Puerto Rico, in a land where only men exist, presumably some of them have to be boning. But the game has no queer-identified characters and no queerable mechanism (but it does have a Queen who takes her power from her involvement with the King, so we do get a smidgen of hetero up in here), so that puts us at:

0 stars

Body

There is a bit of body diversity–a few different body types, various heights, a few fat characters. Not really implemented in a way that felt body pos (the Queen in particular is fat and presented very poorly), but better than nothing, I guess?

1 star

Overall

Overall, grim. So grim. This game was shockingly disappointing. (NOT A SINGLE WOMAN IN THE ENTIRE CITY WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK.)

Anyway.

Race ☆☆☆
Gender ☆☆☆
Sexuality ☆☆☆
Body ★☆☆
Overall Average 0.25

The Red Dragon Inn

Like Villainy, this is another game that is just sheer fun. More random/luck-based and less strategy than Villainy, but equally fun in flavour. (This is another game JimmyTheGeek introduced me to; he’s all about the awesome flavour text. If you want more fun games (specifically unique RPGs), check out his and Bea Bravo ‘s new podcast, Have You Roleplayed.)

For those of you unfamiliar, this game is about the adventure after the adventure. You’re a band of DnD-style adventurers–you’ve got a wizard, a warrior, a rogue, and a cleric. The adventure is over for the day, presumably successfully, and now you’re at the pub unwinding by drinking to excess, gambling away your earning, and giving your teammates shit (real-world drinking and gambling not required; talking shit heavily encouraged). The aim of the game is simple: be the last person standing after all of your friends have been kicked out of the pub for being too drunk or out of gold. 

This is the first in a series of five variants; we’re only looking at the original today.

Also: POOKIE! Hands-down, my favourite part of this game is Pookie, my drunk rabbit. Well, okay, technically he belongs to the character I always play and not to me, personally, but a girl can dream.

Picture of the box of Red Dragon In, showing the five characters discussed below

I genuinely love this game. It’s not at all heavy or particularly strategic, but I always have a riot playing. I’ve left this game *feeling* drunk on nonsense and laughter, having not touched a drop of actual booze myself. It’s…. got a few problems, though. (Content note: references to date-rape drugs.)

Race/Nationality

But first, let’s look at its race-related problems. All of the playable characters are white, but the serving wench is a woman of colour. (She is the only non-playable character in the artwork; she has multiple cards that refer to her, playable by all of the other characters.)

So it meets the “people of colour exist!” test… but not in a way I feel very good about. I am glad she is in the game at all, but if a non-playable servant is the only non-white character in your entire game, ima side-eye you a little bit.

I’m giving it:

1 star

Gender

This is the category this game does reasonably well in. 2 of the 4 playable characters are women; 2 are men. Plus the only NPC, the serving wench, is a woman. No evidence of gender-diverse characters, however.

Fiona the Volatile is pretty badass. It’s nice to have the warrior character be female, and she takes zero shit.

The rulebook uses gender neutral pronouns throughout, except when giving examples of play. Then it uses the character’s gender, which is obviously fine.

Overall:

2 stars

Sexuality

There’s a wee bit of innuendo in cards that can be played against other characters/players of any gender;  I guess you could argue that this is a mechanism that allows choices that implicitly identify sexuality and nothing prevents a player from queering those choices?

But it ultimately doesn’t matter because I am giving this game an automatic fail and some Serious Side-Eye in the Sexuality category because of the following card, which is in Gerki The Sneak’s deck:

A Gerki The Sneak's card reading "Slip a Mickey"

I prefer my board games without jokes about dosing people with date-rape drugs, thanks. 1

0 stars

Body

All the women all have pretty identical body types–slender with a few curves and nice breasts; the dudes get a little more diversity with a scrawny, short, buck-toothed thief and a tall, old wizard. (Plus a cute chubby bunny!) So a little but not a lot.

Also, while the women aren’t particularly scantily clad in most of the cards, there is an absurd over-focus on all of their boobs and more than a little gratuitous boob art. Now I like boobs as much as the next person really into ladies, but this over-sexualisation of these characters was pretty unnecessary, felt pretty out of place with the rest of the game, and made me a bit uncomfortable.

Three cards showing the gratuitous boob art. Also my fingernails, which are painted blue with purple spots.
I didn’t fully crop my hand out of this picture because my silly nail art game was on point last week.

1 star

Overall

Overall, a fun game in the ‘somewhat problematic fav’ category. I want to check out some of the future games in the series and see if they capture the same vibe without some of the grossness. 

Race ★☆☆
Gender ★★☆
Sexuality ☆☆☆
Body ★☆☆
Overall Average 1

Notes:

  1. There is an argument to be made that historically, ‘slip a mickey’ meant to drug someone for the purpose of robbing them, not assaulting them, but that’s no longer the common usage and it’s pretty gross and unnecessary regardless.

Villainy

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.

Villiany playor tableau, showing the Villain and three henches: a disreputable doctor, a dinosaur wit han eye-patch, and a golden alien.
My villain and her henches, about halfway through the game.

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.

Race/Nationality

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:

3 stars

Gender

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:

3 stars

Sexuality

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:

3 stars

Body

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.

3 stars

Overall

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:

Eight 'Deception' titles reading Got Plans, Good Liar, Smooth, Crazy, Hypnotist, Seductress, Tricky, and Bipolar.
…seriously?

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.

Overall,

Race ★★★
Gender ★★★
Sexuality ★★★
Body ★★★
Overall Average
(with -.5 for grossness)
2.5

Notes:

  1. Full disclosure, *my* hair is queer as hell in large part so I get read as queer by ladies I’d like to flirt with. So definitely showing my bias here.
  2. Heh, heh, a big butt. #mature

…and then we held hands

So. This is a completely abstract, non-verbal 2-player collaborative game about feelings.

Image of the '...and then we held hands' game box.

I’ll let anyone who knows me well guess how I feel about it overall and refrain from rambling too much about my opinions of it as a game (subjecting you only to my opinions of it on the representation front, which are strong enough), because I know people who are not me who are better at feelings and shit in general who quite enjoy it.

For those of you unfamiliar, the theme of the game is that you’re in a relationship dealing with a difficult situation (it’s not specified what the situation is); you have to work smoothly with your partner to move through the situation by coordinating your efforts, predicting their behaviour, and acting in consideration of both them and yourself–all without talking or communicating in any way other than through your game place.

As mentioned, the actual game play is an abstract puzzle, matching emotion-themed coloured cards to coloured dots on a board to progress around and into the middle of several concentric circles, all while staying in ’emotional balance’ and not harming/blocking your partner. It has a few interesting mechanics–the way the cards swap orientation, being able to play with your own or your partner’s cards, etc.–but that’s about it. 1

This was one of the games named explicitly in early discussions by some of my friends as an example of why representation issues are basically a non-issue in many tabletop games, due to their completely abstract nature. And as you’ll see in the article, this game is actually a good example of why that thinking is a fallacy in many cases. We can see this specifically with…

Race/Nationality

Exhibit A. At a first glance, it may seem this game is too abstract for race to play a role at all.  The player tokens are just red & blue circles. There isn’t anything indicating what your player looks like or where they’re from or what their background is. There’s no explicit setting (although I would argue it’s implied modern times and probably also implied western developed world). You essentially play yourself, against your co-player who plays themselves-as-your-partner.

These are the circumstances where we might rate a N/A, where a game might truly be too abstract to look at issues of race/nationality.

EXCEPT–the emotion cards feature a lot of different artwork. 16 of which feature depictions of people (mostly children). Who are all white. 2

Sigh.

The only way issues of representation and diversity are a non-issue in this game is if you don’t actually think games frequently and consistently showcasing only people who are white is a problem.

I’m giving it:

0 stars

Gender

Here we do a bit better. Of the 16 cards featuring people, 9 depict female-presenting people and 7 present male-presenting people. This might be the first game I’ve written about where women/girls outnumber the men/boys, and the rulebook is written in gender-neutral language (more on that below). However, there are no indications of gender-diverse, trans, or non-gender-conforming characters.

Still,  a solid:

2 stars

Sexuality

This is the one area where this game does well, specifically in its presentation of game dynamics to be queer-inclusive. As noted, the entire premise of this game is based around a relationship dynamic. The rules and all game text uses clear gender-neutral language, making no assumptions about the gender of the players or the gender of the people they choose to partner with.

This is appreciated and well-deserving of full marks according to our scale.

3 stars

Body

All the human art features slender, nearly identical able-bodied children. If this game is abstract and the features of the people in the art don’t matter, don’t have any historical or game-play relevance… why can’t we get a diversity of bodies up in here?

0 stars

Overall

Sometimes people argue that all the characters HAVE to be white or HAVE to be men or HAVE to be able-bodied because Setting or History or Theme. So in an ‘abstract’ game absent a setting, absent a historical time period, and very light on theme… why do we still not see any diversity in representation of the people who are depicted in the game art? It’s extremely disappointing. (But explicitly allowing queer relationship dynamics is appreciated!)

Race ☆☆☆
Gender ★★☆
Sexuality ★★★
Body ☆☆☆
Overall Average 1.25

Notes:

  1. I personally found the ’emotional balance’ mechanism so thematically fucked that it broke the entire game for me. But footnoting this because I said I’d spare you my grumping.
  2. I guess brown kids are too abstract to even make it into this game?

Cold War: CIA vs KGB

This was a game that pleasantly surprised me.

For those of you unfamiliar, Cold War: CIA vs KGB is a two-player ‘Secret Unit Deployment’ card game, where one player plays the CIA and one plays the KGB. Players send ‘undercover agents’ to influence the outcomes of events in different regions of the world via the manipulation of various groups (represented by ‘group cards’). It’s quite light and a little more luck-based than I like, but I enjoy it on occasion.

I guess because so much…everything, really… surrounding the Cold War seems to forget that the conflict involved or impacted anyone other than (white, male) politicians, I opened this game up expecting it to fare poorly on my initial “Do non-white men exist?” test. But lo and behold, the creators seem to have made a deliberate effort to include depictions of historical people of different races and genders, including 3 of the 12 playable characters. High-fives.

Race

This is the category I was most impressed about. In the group cards (all which showed images of people), 36% depicted people of colour. There’s also a playable black character (on the US side) which I was not expecting but definitely appreciate in a game about Cold War era spies. (More of this!) The group cards depict events/groups of people throughout the world & 12 of the 21 objective (country or event) cards depict African, Asian, Latin American, or Middle Eastern countries, which is a good nod to how the Cold War affected places that were not just the US and USSR–it also depicts people of various countries and ethnicities in a variety of different roles, not just negative or stereotypical ones.

If you add the total number of cards-depicting-people together (group cards and all characters), we come in just under 30%. But 57% of geography card depict non-European or North American countries. All told, I feel positively about the creators’ efforts to depict a wide range of people and cultures in a game about history’s most famous decades-long White Dudes’ Dick Measuring Contest.

I’m giving it:

2 stars

Gender

There are two playable female characters, one for the CIA and one for the KGB. And in the group cards, 25% depict women.

Image of the USSR Assassin card, who is a woman.

This is better than I expected, but short of the two-star threshold. Given the subject matter and time period being depicted, I was tempted to round up for effort not usually seen around the topic BUT… there were absolutely zero depictions of women of colour. Yup–every one of the 10 group cards depicting people of colour depicted men only. AND the rulebook uses male pronouns, which is generally the loss of a full star. So I’m ditching the possible rounding for that and calling it:

1 star

Sexuality

There are no queer-coded characters or references to queer people that I could find in group or character cards. There are no mechanisms that could indicate a character’s sexuality, queer or otherwise.

Given how suspected homosexuals were persecuted as supposed ‘communists’ in the United States during the Cold War (not that the situation was any better in the USSR), it’s not like LGBT history is completely irrelevant to the Cold War. But it is to my casual observation, queer people are completely missing from Cold War: CIA v KGB. (I’d love to be proven wrong, though, if someone recognises a queer-related historical scene in the group cards I missed, let me know.)

0 stars

Body

The group cards all use actual historical photographs and show a diversity of real people and real bodies, sans photoshop and strict adherence to modern beauty standards. There are no depictions of people with disabilities I could find, which is disappointing, but there are muscular, fit soldiers and fat politicians and scrawny bankers and old wrinkled women and thin people and average-sized people and more.

2 stars

Overall

Overall, outperformed expectations given the theme, although obviously a few areas where representations of diversity could be improved.

Race ★★☆
Gender ★☆☆
Sexuality ☆☆☆
Body ★★☆
Overall Average 1.25