Women, Their Rights, and Nothing Less – A Votes for Women Review

“The young women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price. It is for them to show their gratitude by helping onward the reforms of their own times, by spreading the light of freedom and of truth still wider. The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future” – Abigail Scott Duniway

Tory Brown’s Votes for Women is a spectacular game. It pits two players in conflict, one taking the role of the American women’s suffragist movement, and another the villainous opposition. It’s a political confrontation that is steeped in history, both in subject matter and in design methodology. It’s also a game that can be downright demoralizing and insufferable. This is why it’s so powerful.

Votes for Women has a timeless quality to it. There is a clear and strong lineage to the card driven wargame genre – classic games like 1960: The Making of a President, Twilight Struggle, and Labyrinth: The War on Terror. But it also is crafted in the tradition of the Academy Games approachable historical titles such as 1812: The Invasion of Canada and Freedom: The Underground Railroad.

It is indeed a lighter and more streamlined design in this genre, and it sits comfortably with a heritage that resides on the outskirts of the wargame category. Like others of this ilk, you play cards of historical significance to place cubes in different areas of the board, ultimately vying for control in a general sense. Here, you’re seeking to assuage voters and push them towards or away from supporting the 19th Amendment and women’s inherent right to vote.

It’s an asymmetric struggle with the suffragists exerting more impactful agency and the opposition seeking to stymie their efforts. There is a neat dual front of sorts where a side battle is being pursued in order to lobby for congress to push the bill through to the house. This is one of the more interesting strategic aspects of the design as you can either focus on this seemingly inevitable task, or completely forego it as the opposition and instead get down into the weeds with grass roots campaigning.

The design here is nearly impeccable, with one criticism marring its reputation. Votes for Women stands up to repeated play, but there is a sense of repetition in the arc of the game, one established through the specific events and their prescribed order. Each deck is separated into early, mid, and late eras to establish that sense of historicity. But this means you will always see the most impactful and dramatic events played in roughly the same established chunks of the experience. Knowing these momentous shifts can augment the strategic scope, but it also diminishes the unpredictable nature. I would have liked to see additional events included with a portion randomly removed from each era. This could cause some balancing problems of course, particularly because some cards interact with others in the deck, but that could have been skirted by addressing the wider implications.

Overall, this is not a complex endeavor, but it is masterful in presenting its themes through interesting systems in addition to offering several vectors of strategic and tactical play. While I relish this type of pursuit – crafting games with an unorthodox and previously ignored motif – the mechanistic components here stand on their own. This is a fine game in its own right, albeit one that is certainly elevated by its important subject matter.

The attribute of timelessness extends beyond the mechanical sphere. Of greater significance is the relevance of women’s rights. It’s difficult to play Votes for Women and not contemplate the ills of society and our fractured culture. It can be a painful thing, looking in a mirror and finding ugliness.

When I’m playing Votes for Women I’m reflecting on the history we’re re-enacting, manipulating, and embodying. But I’m also ruminating on Roe v. Wade and Trans Rights. That is to say, this is a game concerned with morality, not just of the past but of the present, and of the future. The process we are simulating is just as admissible in its context of the late 1800s as it is of 2023.

As I said, it’s a design whose political and mechanical assemblage could have just as likely been conceived decades ago as it was in the 2020s.

This enduring force dovetails into the most striking element, in that it’s an emotional experience. That may not be felt as a simple exercise of thought, but sitting down and actually playing as the opposition is different entirely. I first heard this point brought up by Mark Bigney of the So Very Wrong About Games podcast, and while I could naturally intuit the impact he described, I did not feel the full brunt of it until the first time I played the “White Supremacy” and “Xenophobia” cards as the opposition.

It feels downright gruesome to be the agent of these movements.

I am thankful I haven’t won yet playing as the counterforce, as I can imagine the vacuous sense of moral bankruptcy that must engender. It’s also strikingly unpleasant to fail as the suffragist. There’s an inherent sense of judgment placed upon each of your moves as if an invisible arbiter of moral philosophy is looming over the table. This critique is internal, but its powerful that the game can inspire such inward assessment.

This leads to a burning question that’s lingered in my thoughts: why does it feel so shameful to play as the opposition in Votes for Women?

I can happily field a platoon of German soldiers in a World War Two game. I even derive pleasure in commanding the various fetishized equipment of the Wehrmacht, as I can easily identify the difference between a Tiger, Panther, and Panzer IV tank. I can tell you the caliber of the German Mauser Kar 98k rifle. I know that the STG-44 was the precursor the modern AK. I know so much more about the militant arm of the Third Reich. Typing this out is troubling as beams of light catch the mirror.

But the actual atrocities of that regime feel distant and divorced from play. In a game like Memoir 44 or Combat Commander I’m not passionately battling so that another trainload of Jews can be shuttled to Auschwitz. Wargames are given this buffer, despite the fact that we are indeed simulating horrific acts of violence. The bloodshed, the obsession with military equipment and dress, the sheer masculinity of dramatized combat – it’s an entirely different category to the political ideologies fueling the conflict. It’s too easy to push the politics aside.

You can’t do that in Votes for Women. The conflict cannot be divorced from the ideology because there is no hardware to worship, no primal behavior or visceral physical competition to latch onto. There’s no buffer to the overriding issues of moral justice. We are forced to confront these matters and to think about them. The only game I can recall that accomplishes something similar is the relatively unknown Die Atombombe. As difficult as that game is to embrace, playing as the opponent to the suffragists is even more reprehensible.

Thankfully, for those finding the proposition of controlling the opposition too daunting, there is a rather robust card driven A.I. system. This allows one or two players to play as the suffragists against a faceless opponent and experience the game without the accompanying dread. This was a very intelligent move and I’m quite pleased to see it executed successfully.

Beyond the darkness, there is an element that is absolutely joyful here. It’s one of the most positive sources of education in gaming I’ve seen. In addition to the educational aspects found in the experience of play, the box includes printed newspaper articles, reproduced voting cards, and even a replica of the famous Abigail Adams’ letter to her husband. This is best in class supplemental material. It extends beyond the historical designer notes found in GMT’s playbooks and establishes a new bar in the industry.

There is a sense of purpose here that is unmistakable. I can’t help but look forward to the day that I can play this with my nine-year-old daughter. I hope to share this experience and find inspiration in the twilight. Tory Brown and Fort Circle Games should be proud of their accomplishments, for this is a design with cultural impact that supports the claim of classifying games as artistic works.


A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

If you enjoy what I’m doing and want to support my efforts, please consider dropping off a tip at my Ko-Fi or supporting me on Patreon.

  5 comments for “Women, Their Rights, and Nothing Less – A Votes for Women Review

  1. April 3, 2023 at 7:54 am

    Thanks for this thoughtful review!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Marc
    April 3, 2023 at 11:33 pm

    ““White Supremacy” and “Xenophobia” cards”

    Those are actually card names?

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 4, 2023 at 7:08 am

      The full name of the first is “White Supremacy in the South” I believe, but yes.


      • Marc
        April 4, 2023 at 11:52 pm


        They may as well have named one side “Bad” and all their ops cards “Badness”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: