When I watched episode 4.03 of Tabletop, I teared up.
I haven’t been a board gamer for very long, but gaming has always felt like a male-dominated hobby, even as more and more game designers increase the level of female representation in the worlds of their products. Granted, the exclusion of women is not at the same level as video game and comics communities – to my knowledge, there aren’t nearly as many board gamers that go around protesting feminism, but there are still pockets, whether it be at cons or public events, where I feel anxious meeting other gamers for the first time.
So imagine my delight when Wil Wheaton showcased Monarch on the latest season of Tabletop – a game designed by a woman (Mary Flanagan), with art by a woman (Kate Adams), featuring all female characters. And with a medieval-fantasy theme to boot!
Wil’s praise of the game echoed my feelings exactly: “It is the only game I have ever played where all the characters are women, which I think is pretty awesome in a male-dominated hobby.” But my delight went further than just gratefulness for representation. As a medievalist, I’m always interested in pop culture that makes use of medievalism. Much of it tends to be very masculinist – the thrill of the Middle Ages in pop culture is in all the barbarism. Killing and pillaging are encouraged, as we see in Game of Thrones and even Champions of Midgard, a board game featured on Tabletop just before Monarch. I’m not disparaging violence in any kind of fiction, but there is a tendency for fantasy set in the faux-Middle Ages to focus entirely on that violence and derive a kind of pleasure in it that is discouraged in real-life or even more modern-set media.
Monarch is not about fighting. There is competition, but there isn’t a moment where one player has to combat or kill another player (or even a NPC in the game). While other board games are nonviolent, there’s something delightful about the way Monarch is working that can not only revise our ideas about women in gaming, but also our ideas about the Middle Ages (however fantastical they may be portrayed). In this blog post, I’ll first analyze the gameplay of Monarch to show how the combination of all-female characters and nonviolence pushes back against more masculine norms in board gaming, especially when examined as an alternative to games where colonialism or militarism is the main objective. Next, I’ll talk about how the premise and gameplay has the capacity to revise pop culture’s misconceptions about the Middle Ages and fantastical elements we associate with the “medieval” to shape more complex and feminist views of the past.
Feminism in Gaming
In the past, I’ve discussed the trouble of false dichotomies, especially concerning gender. It’s not necessarily accurate to say “male media looks like this, so female media is the opposite of that.” Women can be angry, aggressive, sneaky, dominant, even violent – all things typically associated with male characters across various forms of fiction (I lump board gaming in with this general umbrella: a large portion of board games these days feature loose storylines or premises, though gaming by no means works the same way as a book or movie).
Even so, gameplay can mirror stereotypically masculine behavior, even if the character or player is not male. Games such as Risk, Settlers of Catan, and King of Tokyo express masculinity via militarism and/or colonialism. Literary and historical studies have shown the tendency for military strength and colonial power to be described in terms of masculinity, using the language of dominance to figure the superior force as male. In his monumental book Orientalism, Edward Said examines the West’s cultural perceptions of the East and implicitly creates a dynamic, as Lufti Hamadi describes, in which the Orient is “fictionally depicted… as an irrational, psychologically weak, and feminized, non-European Other, which is negatively contrasted with the rational, psychologically strong, and masculine West” (p. 40-41). Elleke Boehmer, in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, sees this dynamic play out in literature such as Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, in which “masculinity characterized colonialist action,” while Mrinalini Sinha shows how political language creates the figures of the “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the West during the 19th century. While board games are not texts (and thus can’t be read as such) and they sometimes set characters in a fictional or fantastical world (not necessarily one from our historical past), I would still argue that the colonial and military gameplay engages with masculine attitudes. Competition is encouraged via colonialism with little to no regard for the colonized peoples within the game (they are often non-existent, but some games, like Small World, can have inhabitants that need to be crushed), thereby blocking empathy and asking players to be the emotionless victor that so often characterizes soldiers and otherwise violent heroes in our media. I don’t mean to suggest that playing games with elements of colonization makes players non-empathetic nor that we should ignore issues of race when we talk about colonialism in gaming, only that the basis of many games relies on a winner-loser model that mirrors the dynamic between the masculine conqueror and the feminized conquered (whether the conquered is the inhabitants of a particular territory or the other players who are also vying for the same resources). Zero-sum games in particular force players to take away resources or territories from others in order to win, thereby associating success with others’ loss (significantly, some antifeminist arguments treat gender equality in similar terms, with the gain of women’s rights being seen as the loss of men’s rights). This is not to say that anyone who plays these types of games are bad people – only that many games rely on traditionally masculine models of success to establish victory.
Monarch, by contrast, asks players to compete for victory in an altogether different manner. In the story that establishes the premise of the game, players are told, “The time has come for you to demonstrate your leadership. You must choose the strategies that will bring prosperity to your land and glory to your court.” The focus on strategy and leadership can easily be mapped onto other games with more masculinist attitudes, but in Monarch, “glory” is brought about without the aid of violence or colonialism. Players build up their court via set-collecting, and sets are acquired via the “purchase” of cards rather than rolling dice for combat, as in Champions of Midgard. Furthermore, players also have the option to purchase land improvements – rather than invading and subduing a territory, players purchase upgrades that will lead to its prosperity (install more irrigation, build centers of learning). These actions lead to increased output of resources for all players, not just one, which encourages the association between success and communal benefit. Thus, colonialism is exchanged for land improvement while the amassing of military strength is exchanged for amassing of court qualities, including Bounty, Culture, Wisdom, and Balance (players can also amass Might, but I would argue this quality doesn’t encourage violence since none of the cards can actually be used against other players).
While Monarch is by no means the only board game to use nonviolent gameplay, the less-commonplace tactic on improving land without colonizing it opposes the fairly commonplace tactic of subduing land. That all the characters are female and has primarily female creators reinforces the game’s rejection of violent masculinity and colonialism as mechanisms of gameplay in the board game world at large. This is not to say that “female gaming” is entirely rooted in non-violence and is community-oriented, nor do I wish to imply that women (and men) can’t enjoy games like Risk. Rather, games like Monarch challenge masculinity as the driving force behind competition and victory in board gaming.
Monarch is not set in the historical Middle Ages, but it does employ medievalisms such as monarchies, courts, bannermen, armor, dragons, standing stones, mappamundi, and bards in addition to its more modern elements, such as cannons and marketplaces.
Gameplay in itself has the potential to alter the default assumption that “medieval” is inherently barbaric and violent. On every turn, players may either Harvest the land to collect apples (the player receives one apple for each tile on the board that contains a farm) or Tax the land by paying apples to the in exchange for gold (the player must give one apple to each village on the board in order to receive one gold from that village). Both apples and gold can be used to buy cards that either improve the land or enhance the player’s court. Rather than raiding or committing violence in order to gain resources (as one might expect a medieval game to do), players must rely on peaceful exchange. Harvesting and Taxing mirrors feudalism, but without the military service: the instructions suggest that the land belongs to the nobles/players (“improve your land”) and the presumed villagers and farmers that live on it owe the nobleperson a share of their crop when a player chooses to Harvest. Likewise, in order to receive taxes, the nobleperson must offer something in return – though instead of military protection, the villagers are given food. By eliminating military services and protection from the feudalism model, Monarch weakens the knee-jerk association between “the medieval” and violence.
Moreover, the lack of male characters places power solely in the hands of women and eradicates the misogyny that tends to be the default for “historical accuracy” in a lot of medieval-set works of fiction. As female characters, none of the players are asked to use sexuality to advance their objectives, nor are they in any danger from in-game rape and assault. Instead, players perform actions that are typically associated with high-ranking men in the Middle Ages, thereby encouraging players to see women as powerful in their own right. That the characters also have to play as women, regardless of the player’s actual gender, also decreases the potential for toxic masculinity – male players must play as female characters, thereby forcing men (even on a small level) to empathize with powerful, agentive women. Male players no longer have the option of choosing only male characters for fear of seeming “weak,” and because both men and women must channel their own desires for power through female characters, players can learn to see the past (especially women from the past) more complexly.
Of course, much of this post’s content might be my high hopes for the power of board games. I recognize that players have the option to play games blindly and reflect not at all on the social and historical implications of Monarch. It’s silly to insist that the game is making revolutionary strides in these regards, and I’ve only compared the game to those which rely on colonialism or militarism as their main objectives (so I’ve not even begun to take into account how Euro-Style games function). However, even the productive disruption it causes in the gaming world is significant – as one of the few games with a female creator and artist, and as (possibly) the only board game with all-female characters, it acts as a point of comparison for other games that follow a more “traditional” model. Board game studies, to my knowledge, are not currently a thing in academia beyond tools for testing psychology. But if Monarch is, as I’ve claimed, reevaluating norms in the board game world and have the potential for illuminating attitudes in the way that fiction, movies, and video games do, then they’re worth studying, especially as their popularity continues to grow.