A Seat at the Table: Inclusivity and Tabletop Games

Cathlena Martin, University of Montevallo

Sara Perry, Game Designer

A Seat at the Table Rules [Download Link]

A Seat at the Table Cards [Download Link]

A Seat at the Table Critical Essay [Download Link]

A Seat at the Table Workshop Guide [Download Link]

A Seat at the Table is a five to ten player card game that utilizes trading and role restrictions to teach players about the barriers to entry marginalized designers face in the tabletop industry. Along with the iterative game design process for A Seat at the Table, this critical essay will discuss the current research on the problem of the lack of inclusivity and diversity in the tabletop games industry, citing both researchers and designers who have been impacted by and written about the homogeneity of the industry. In publishing our card game and critical essay, we hope to broaden awareness for marginalized game designers attempting to break into the professional tabletop field. Our game will help players understand, and hopefully empathize via role-play with, the types of marginalization commonly experienced in the tabletop industry.

Literature Review

Numerous studies have been conducted regarding gender and gaming, race and representation, and queer studies in the game industry. Specific to gender studies, sociologist Erin Calhoun Davis presented research at the 2013 BGG Con after interviewing fifty-seven women boardgamers regarding their personal gaming likes and dislikes, the general gaming community, and opinions on why boardgaming is a “numerically male dominated hobby” (8). A key finding was that almost all of the women interviewed “indicated that it was important to them that they were recognized as a peer in the gaming community. Women want to be respected and seen as equally competent” (Davis 16). However, the women interviewed did not make this plea for themselves alone: “Some women also articulated a desire for a more diverse gaming community that would include not only women, but families, racial minorities, and other less involved individuals and groups” (17). Even though this study was limited in scope, Davis effectively provides first hand perceptions from women boardgamers and shows their marginal status in board gaming culture, particularly regarding how they feel treated in public spaces, such as game stores and gaming conventions. 

The following year, game designer Gil Hova described the modern tabletop gaming culture as being surrounded by “invisible ropes” that keep diverse audiences from approaching games through a series of tiny actions unknowingly performed by privileged industry members. He includes invisible ropes such as “more men than women” in the gaming environment, representation of board game characters, “inadvertently condescending strategy help,” and gendered language along with other barriers (Hova). He came to this realization after conducting a personal case study that recorded the genders of the people he played games with over one year. He concludes by encouraging gamers, particularly privileged members, to notice these barriers and make sure they are not contributing to them. 

While direct interviews and firsthand accounts provide valuable information, we can also learn from the statistics presented through published games and their designers. Inspired by Hova’s article, Erin Ryan conducted a study of the cover art of the top twenty games and then the top one hundred games rated on BoardGameGeek (BGG) from 2009 to 2016. One particular finding puts the lack of women representation in board game illustrations into perspective. Based on her statistical data, Ryan concludes, “You are more likely to see a sheep on the cover of a board game box than you are to see a group of women.” In 2018, game designer and graduate student in Communication and Culture Tanya Pobuda published a study in Analog Game Studies that reflected on the gender and racial disparity in the board game industry by analyzing the top two hundred game designers and illustrators on BGG. Pobuda concluded that, “The board gaming community, like online digital gaming, based on the available data, appears on its surface and in many layers underneath as a white male-dominated space.” 

This lack of representation has even been felt by the toy company behemoth Hasbro, who recently published Ms. Monopoly in 2019. The game’s tagline is “The first game where women make more than men” and is described in marketing material as the following: “This breakout Monopoly game introduces Mr. Monopoly’s niece, a self-made investment guru, here to update a few things! The game celebrates women inventors as players move around the board collecting iconic things that wouldn’t exist without women” (http://shop.hasbro.com). According to journalist and Monopoly scholar Mary Pilon, critics quickly panned the game as superficial, pandering, or too politically correct. But she asserts the worse fault is that Hasbro is still not “admitting that a woman invented Monopoly in the first place,” meaning Lizzie Magie, the original designer and patent owner of The Landlord’s Game, which was the forerunner to Monopoly (Pilon). 

Even with all of these examples of lack of inclusion, diversity came to the forefront of conversation in the board gaming community, along with the rest of the world, in light of systemic racism and the murder of George Floyd while we were in the process of finalizing this essay for publication. Game companies and communities came out with statements, including BGG’s commitment to doing better posted by BGG Admin and co-creator Scott Alden, which stated, “Black Lives Matter. We need to do better, and that includes us here at BoardGameGeek. We are committed to grow the BGG team to include more diverse voices and perspectives. We can only meaningfully say we show solidarity with those who struggle for equality and justice when we demonstrate that through our actions.” Immediately, treads popped up on BGG on the topic, such as “How do we encourage diversity in our hobby?” and geeklists were assembled, such as “Black board game and RPG designers and artists.” We hope these conversations continue at both the local gaming table and on a national front. Even though tabletop games are considerably older, video games studies also provide a theoretical lens for studying gender, race, and identity. From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, provides an early seminal collection on women and video games, and Lisa Nakamura’s monograph Cybertypes explores race. While Nakamura delves into the general realm of the internet, one chapter focuses on computer games, specifically via avatars, where she uses the term “identity tourism” to explain a player appropriating another racial identity online “without any of the risks associated with being a racial minority in real life” (Nakamura 40). On the flip side of identity tourism is “queergaming,” a coin termed by Edmond Y. Chang as “a refusal of the idea that digital games and gaming communities are the sole provenance of adolescent, straight, white, cisgender, masculine, able, male, and ‘hardcore’ bodies and desires” (15). One goal while designing A Seat at the Table was to keep it from falling into the baggage of identity tourism, which we accomplish because risk and penalty must be squarely faced by the players via the game roles. We also wanted to support and uphold queergaming, both by being women designers and by supporting representation in the gaming industry via our game.

Game Overview

A Seat at the Table is mechanically modeled after the Hasbro game Pit. In Pit, the objective is to collect nine matching commodities faster than the other players. Current versions of Pit have seventy-four cards with eight different commodity sets of nine cards each, and one bull and one bear card, although only the advanced version calls for playing with the bull and bear cards. Once all cards have been evenly dealt, players simultaneously trade up to a maximum of four of the same commodities at will. A player calls out how many commodity cards they are willing to trade, for example, “trade two.” Once they find a person willing to trade that number of commodities, they exchange cards. This gameplay continues until one player corners the market and has all nine of the same commodity cards. Since Pit is a well-established game, originally published by Parker Brothers in 1903-04, and so many players are familiar with it, it makes a nice segue into an educational experience. We recommend the basic variant as described in the rules of A Seat at the Table be played once or twice prior to moving into using role cards so players understand the base game. Doing so ensures that everyone is playing by the same rules in an equitable fashion when role cards are included.

A Seat at the Table consists of ten suits of nine component cards each and ten total role cards. The suits are all tabletop game pieces: dice, cards, tokens, coins, timers, meeples, minis, bags, resources, and hexes. The different types of roles are: Marginalized Disabled, Marginalized LGBTQ+, Marginalized Minority, Marginalized Woman, Privileged Harasser, Privileged 1, Privileged 2, Publisher 1, Publisher 2, and Publisher 3. Gamers playing Privileged 1, Privileged 2, and Publisher 3 have no restrictions or modifications to their abilities, and thus play by the standard win condition where if they get all nine cards of the same suit they win. 

Other roles restrict player abilities attempting to mimic both frustrations that marginalized people face and biases that they may encounter when attempting to enter the professional design field. For example, most players can trade up to four cards at a time, but a person playing the Marginalized Woman role may only trade a maximum of two cards at a time. The Publisher roles 1 and 2 can trade up to a maximum of four cards, but face restrictions on whom they can trade with. For example, Publisher 1 cannot trade cards with the players that have the Marginalized Minority or LGBTQ+ roles. In general, when a player gets nine cards of the same suit, they win. However, some roles modify the win condition. For example, Publisher 1 can win normally by collecting nine cards of the same suit, or they may also win if the person that collects nine cards of the same suit first is not the player in the Marginalized Minority or LGBTQ+ roles.

For a classroom exercise or a workshop used in conjunction with this game, we recommend having a roundtable discussion with the participants after at least two playthroughs of anything beyond the basic variant. Then, in the roundtable, players can discuss the impact of their status in addition to a general debriefing. We have provided a workshop facilitation guide to aid a more complete workshop, including workshop steps, broad processing questions, and facilitator tips (appendix A).

The Iterative Process

Initial Playtesting 

Our initial playtesting session included undergraduate students in our university’s Game Studies and Design program. We had at least one of the following of each of these groups represented in the playtesting session: female, male, non-binary (they), Caucasian, African-American, and a person with a physical disability. With the goal of building empathy and awareness, we played multiple rounds with players embodying a variety of roles and then had a roundtable discussion afterwards. We found it was difficult to start a conversation on this sensitive subject, but once the first person broke the ice, the comments flowed. 

One playtester appreciated how a game provided a safe space for discussion. They said, “it went well discussing darker topics but kept it light” because of the nature of it being a game. All playtesters strongly agreed or agreed that “the workshop environment felt safe.” Another playtester was interested in a version that had role cards that were more detailed and reflected “specific ways marginalized identities are impacted in the game community.” While the game is directly targeting the tabletop industry, our playtesters initiated a discussion regarding the video game industry and how it displays similar issues in regards to representation and identity. 

Overall, all playtesters strongly agreed or agreed that the gameplay and discussion was engaging, and seven of the eight playtesters strongly agreed or agreed that it was useful. One playtester summed it up nicely by saying, “I enjoyed the subject matter and how engaging it was. The deck being stacked against minorities reflected the reality of the industry well.” We hope this positive reaction empowers our players to better navigate and notice the “invisible ropes” in order to help cut them down.

Alpha Playtesting

Alpha playtesting was also conducted with undergraduate students in game design courses but at a different university. After alpha playtesting, we received the most actionable feedback on rules, roles, aesthetics, and narrative. Based on this feedback, we made several substantial revisions to the rules, roles, and cards, and we created ancillary materials for a workshop to be used in conjunction with the game. 

With regards to the rules, playtesters were confused regarding whether or not the roles should be private or public and how secret roles were to be carried out. This was cited by playtesters as the most confusing aspect. In order to address the confusion regarding the roles, we added a variant section to the rules. What we call the regular version is how the rules are written, where players are dealt Industry Roles but those roles are public knowledge. Playing this version familiarizes players with the role restrictions while everything is open information. Then, we added a difficult variant where the roles were hidden, which is only recommended for advanced players after they are comfortable with the regular version. Yet even with the initial confusion, “players quickly picked up the game once trading started” during alpha playtesting.

In addition to the rules feedback, we emphatically agreed with the playtesters that various identities are impacted differently in the industry, thus we implemented different limitations for each of the marginalized roles. Previously, in both the initial and the alpha version, the role restriction was uniform for all Marginalized roles where they could only trade a maximum of two cards at a time. In order to help express that different groups experience marginalization in unique ways, each Marginalized role now has their own restriction. We wanted to keep them broad to symbolize restrictions we see in general, as well as limitations in being heard, networking, and resources. These are meant to be broadly representative, not exacting to any one group’s specific experience. The Marginalized Woman role kept the original rule and can only trade a maximum of two cards at a time. The Marginalized Disabled role represents a direct silencing many marginalized people face. This role is now limited verbally and cannot speak during the game. They may use fingers to indicate the number of cards to trade and other gestures, but may not talk during the game. The Marginalized LGBTQ+ role takes another interpretation of silencing as this role cannot instigate any trades. They have to wait until someone offers them cards in order to trade. The Marginalized Minority role does not have trade or action restrictions, but rather an additional win condition restriction based on materials. They cannot win with three of the ten suits: tokens, resources, or dice. We hope the additional types of restrictions highlights differences in marginalization in a broad but still representative way. 

The playtesters also felt there was a missing story once you got past the roles. While the roles introduced a clear message, they thought the overarching narrative was not as established. Therefore, in the beta version, we added a brief narrative to the rules as a preface to the game. Now the premise is that you play as a tabletop publisher or designer trying to get a game published first. In order to publish first, you must be the first one to collect all of one game piece or component. This has not diminished the roles and the overall message, but helped couch that message further within the tabletop publishing industry. 

This narrative change necessitated changing our cards from genres to components. In our alpha version, the suits were mechanics or genres of games: deck-building, press your luck, set collection, roll and write, auction, worker placement, area control, drafting, role-playing game, and social deduction. We selected these to represent different genres within the game industry and types of games that are published. With the narrative revision, since players are trying to corner the components in order to make and publish their game, in the beta version we used the suits to represent game pieces: dice, cards, tokens, tiles, boards, meeples, miniatures, draw bags, resources, and hexes. 

While we made several revisions to the alpha version based on playtester feedback, playtesting also revealed that some aspects of the game were solid, including theme, mechanics, and impact with a clear takeaway. Positively, the playtesters comprehended the interrelationship between theme and mechanics. They also gleaned our intended message, and felt it was educating, but requested an outlet for reflection. To provide more structured reflection and educational opportunity, we added a workshop guide to help support facilitators leading group discussions (appendix A). The players “seemed to enjoy the fast-paced nature of trades and trying to accumulate cards. Students even started shouting different roles at each other: for example, in one game the Privileged Harasser used their special power and multiple other players shouted ‘HARASSER!’ in response.” This vocalization against repression is a wonderful instance for a facilitator to unpack afterwards in discussion and is exactly the kind of teaching moment we hoped our game would create. 

Beta Playtesting and the Final Version

With all of the changes we implemented after the alpha playtesting, beta playtesting reports came back favorable. Yet, there were still aspects to revise in order to put the final touches on the game, primarily visual changes. While we updated the card types for the beta version, we wanted to present a final product that was more aesthetically pleasing so Sara Perry created original graphic design for the final version using a majority of the cards present in the beta game. While adding original art and polishing the graphic design of the card layout, a few component names were changed for ease of identification in the final version. For example, we changed tiles to coins. We already had hex tiles in the component list under hexes and did not want any confusion by having both tiles and hexes. Other name changes were for simplification. For example, we changed miniatures to minis and draw bags to bags. A sample visual representation of these iterative design changes can be found in appendix C, which shows a card progression for two cards, one role and one component.  

The last card addition was the creation of card backs. We found if playtesters used normal printer paper for our print-and-play version that a player might be able to see through the card. Even if they were not intentionally cheating, this possess a problem. In order to fix that, we added card backs for roles and components. The visual detailing on them should be enough to obscure any see-thru aspects of plain printer paper. Now the front and the back can be easily inserted into a card sleeve for an easy make-at-home deck. Defense cards are meant to be public and are thus just double sided with the same information front and back.

Future Iterations

In the beta version, we added different limitations for each marginalized group, which was well received by playtesters. In the future, we are interested in adding a variation or a rule change of the game so that minority groups can provide support for each other. This would be implemented by changing the role restrictions so that all marginalized roles can trade an extra one or two cards with other marginalized roles. In this way one version of the game could represent the barriers faced by current marginalized groups, and another version could mirror the support networks already existing within the marginalized design community. 

In a similar vein, we would like to explore intersectionality within roles more in a future iteration with a variant or rule change. Coiner of the term intersectionality, Kimerlé Crenshaw provides an example where two marginalized identities merge, arguing, “Because of their intersectional identity as both women and of color within discourses that are shaped to respond to one or the other, women of color are marginalized within both” (1244).  Currently, each individual role had a unique limitation, but expanding the game could include pairing roles to create even more realistic scenarios of discrimination.

While these changes are in the future, for now we believe we have a solid game with strong mechanics that aptly illustrates marginalization commonly experienced in the tabletop industry. And that our game not only illustrates it, but creates a forum for discussion around the topic and allows players a safe space to understand, and hopefully empathize via role-play with, being marginalized.

Works Cited

Alden, Scott. “A Statement from BoardGameGeek.” BGG, 1 June 2020, boardgamegeek.com/thread/2439979/statement-boardgamegeek. Accessed 5 June 2020.

“Black board game and RPG designers and artists.” BGG, 3 June 2020, boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/273487/black-board-game-and-rpg-designers-and-artists. Accessed 5 June 2020.

Cassell, Justine and Henry Jenkins, editors. From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. MIT, 2000. 

Chang, Edmond Y. “Queergaming.” Queer Game Studies, edited by Bonnie Ruberg and 

Adrienne Show, Minnesota UP, 2017, pp. 15-23. 

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241–1299. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1229039. Accessed 16 Aug. 2020.

Davis, Erin Calhoun. “Women and Gaming Preliminary Research Report.” 2013, docs.google.com/file/d/0BxMj6fVK-hglOGtrMFR5c1dVdFk/edit. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020. 

Hova, Gil. “Women in Gaming vs. Invisible Ropes.” Formal Ferret Games, 27 Oct. 2014, gil.hova.net/2014/10/27/women-in-gaming-vs-invisible-ropes/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020. 

“How do we encourage diversity in our hobby?” BGG. boardgamegeek.com/thread/2440662/how-do-we-encourage-diversity-our-hobby. Accessed 5 June 2020.

“Ms. Monopoly Board Game.” Hasbroshop.hasbro.com/en-us/product/ms-monopoly-board-game-first-game-where-women-make-more-than-men-features-inventions-by-women-game-for-families-and-kids-ages-8-and-up:BBD8D076-1FE0-4369-8887-12AEC7321C25. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020. 

Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Routledge, 2002. 

Pilon, Mary. “The Misplaced Feminism of Ms. Monopoly.” The New Yorker, 11 Sept. 2019,  www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-misplaced-feminism-of-ms-monopoly. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020. 

Pobuda, Tanya. “Assessing Gender and Racial Representation in the Board Game Industry.” Analog Game Studies, vol. 5, no. 4, Dec. 2018, analoggamestudies.org/2018/12/assessing-gender-and-racial-representation-in-top-rated-boardgamegeek-games/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020. 

Ryan, Erin. “Gender Representation in Board Game Cover Art.” The Cardboard Republic, 29 June 2016, www.cardboardrepublic.com/articles/extra-pieces/gender-representation-in-board-game-cover-art. Accessed 30 Jan. 2020.

Appendix A: Workshop Facilitation Guide

A Seat at the Table Workshop Facilitation Guide 

Overview

A Seat at the Table is an edutainment card game that utilizes trading and role restrictions to teach players about the barriers to entry marginalized designers face in the tabletop industry. The game is best used in a workshop setting as a tool to facilitate discussion in an interactive environment. It is recommended that participants have at least a working knowledge of the tabletop industry before beginning the workshop. 

Player count: 5-10 players (recommended 8 players minimum) 

Materials: Game rulebook, game cards (110 total), card backs (110 total) name tags (optional), card sleeves (optional) 

Estimated time: 60-90 minutes (approximately 20 minutes per game, 30 minutes for discussion)

Workshop Steps 

The workshop consists of two components: gameplay and discussion. Participants should play three games (one of each variant) before continuing to the discussion. Comments and questions not related to game rules should be held until the discussion. 

  1. Play one game of the Basic Variant. This game will not include the Industry Role cards, and is intended to get familiarize players with the basic game rules. Make sure that all players understand the rules before advancing.
  1. Play one game of the Regular Version as the rules are written. This will introduce the Industry Role cards, and they are public knowledge to all players. This version is intended to familiarize players with the different win conditions and trade restrictions. Make sure all players understand the roles before advancing.
  1. Play one game of the Difficult Variant. This variant is played with the Industry Roles hidden. Players will need to converse with each other during the game to discover each other’s Industry Roles.
  1. Discuss the game and player questions/observations. The discussion should be used to debrief the game experience, and make connections to larger industry practices and behaviors. 

Processing the Game

These questions are broad sample questions that can be used to jumpstart the conversation. Workshop facilitators are encouraged to come up with their own questions tailored to the participants’ in-game behaviors and group direction. 

What did we just do? What roles did you have, and how did they affect your gameplay/interactions? What roles were frustrating to play, and why? How did each of the Marginalized players feel? How did each of the Privileged players feel? 

How did each of the Publisher players feel? How did you feel having your Industry Role displayed during the Advanced Variant? How did the hidden roles change how you interacted with other players during the Difficult Variant? How do the Industry Roles relate to today’s tabletop industry? What nuances do the Industry Roles not address or represent? 

Workshop Facilitation Tips

  • Take notes on what happens while participants are playing the game. Offhand comments, questions, or player behaviors can be great points of discussion.
  • Have everyone sit in a circle during the discussion. If everyone is able to see each other’s eyes, they’re more likely to fully engage and listen when someone is talking. 
  • Don’t be afraid to sit in silence during the discussion. People can often be hesitant to enter into sincere discussions when facing sensitive or controversial topics. If no one answers your questions right away, sitting in an awkward silence for a few moments can often prompt people to talk. 
  •  Ask open-ended questions to deepen the discussion, and avoid “yes or no” questions. If you ask a “yes or no” question or someone gives a short answer, ask them “Why?” or “Can you elaborate on that?”
  • After someone answers your question, wait a few moments before moving on to the next question. People often need a few minutes to gather their thoughts before answering or responding to another participant, and moving on too quickly may prevent people from participating. 
  • You can stack the deck for your players. If you’re familiar with your participants and know that the gameplay/discussion will benefit from certain players having specific Industry Roles, you can make that happen. However, make sure you do not make someone feel targeted. 

Appendix B: Alpha Rules

Appendix C: Card Progression Example