HerStory Designer Journal
If you had asked me when I was younger if I liked being a girl I would have responded that I wanted to be a boy. I grew up in Arizona and always associated being a girl with being weak. A common diss was “you kick like a girl” or “stop being such a girl” to girls my age. I despised the color pink because that was the designated “girl color” and dresses which made playing difficult. Now it’s a lot better. There’s a whole Barbie line about famous women throughout history young girls can look up to. But when I was in school all we learned about was the impact white men made on the world. My role models were Lois Lane, Batgirl and Wonder Woman from the comics because I didn’t know women like Hedy Lamarr, Frida Kahlo, or Jane Goodall existed until I was in late high school/early college.
Before the internet was big we only knew what we were taught in school. And those history textbooks were typically written in the male gaze and skimmed over what women contributed. When Charlie from Underdog Games reached out to me saying they were looking for a female to co-design HerStory I knew I had to apply to be a part of the project. I loved the idea of a game about writing books about the amazing women through history. With each chapter card displaying information about the women on the back of the card. I applied and got hired to work on the game with Nick Bentley.
Our goal was to make an accessible game that was quick to teach and easy to play with hidden strategy. I had always loved engine building games since I was introduced to Elizabeth Hargrave’s Wingspan. The idea that every card combination could cause a totally different gaming experience was exciting. That paired with a set collection mechanic made up the bones of the game. I loved coming up with unique powers while being forced to stay within the character limit Nick set for the project.
In interviews I joked Nick was the math guy always balancing out the icons, victory points and powers. While I worked more on the powers, feel and player experience of the game. As people and designers we are very different but we worked well together on the game by balancing each other's strengths and weaknesses. I personally love to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. For instance the library card that lets a player refresh the pool of tokens was a piece of spaghetti that I threw and didn’t stick the first time because a good chunk of the team didn’t like it. But I fought to keep it in the game which was the right move ultimately!
As we worked on the design of the game our amazing artists, graphic designers and content creators worked together to create the cards, boards and tokens. It wasn’t until our final playtests that we combined the art and content with the game mechanics. I was blown away! The likeness of these women were captivating and easily recognizable thanks to Eunice Adeyi and Cristina Arctor. Seeing an almost final product caused something I didn’t expect to feel…disappointment.
I felt disappointed that I maybe knew half of the 120 females picked for the game. When I interviewed with Stacy Tornio, the Content Director, for the job she explained how the women in the game were chosen. They were picked to have representation from around the world, different time periods, cultural backgrounds, ethnicities and achievements. That way we didn’t end up with only writers or poets from the United States. (Even though I still wish Emily Dickinson was in the game.) The content team made sure to find people that were well known and lesser known. Like they chose to not include Rosa Parks, who as a kid was one of the few female heroines I knew about. They instead chose to include another girl named Claudette Colvin. She did exactly what Rosa Parks did but at the age 14 and nine months earlier refusing to give up her seat on the Montgomery, Alabama bus but due to her age the NAACP chose to use Rosa Parks as their figurehead instead.
HerStory is not an educational game. You can choose to play the game and never flip over the cards to learn about the women illustrated on the front. Underdog Games aim is to inspire curiosity. We want players to be curious about what these women achieved. I want them to want to turn over the cards to read more. In my dad’s case as soon as he received his copy of the game he immediately read through all 120 cards.
Once I dealt with the feeling of it being okay I didn’t know all these women’s names and faces all I felt was joy and pride in the game. I’ve loved traveling around demoing it and seeing people play and enjoy the game. I have practiced teaching the game so much that I have it down to about a minute rules teach which is amazing for a game that's more than just cards. I’ve watched players make strategies of catch up mechanics mixed with end game scoring so they lap the board at the end of the game. Or they come up with a narrative about the different women in their book like only collecting pirates and people that would make a good pirate crew. It’s exciting seeing how players are interacting with the game in the real world.
At TantrumCon I was showing Carley, Daryl and another player the game when a man came up to us and expressed his overwhelming joy for the game and what it did for his daughters. I personally have never felt any kind of emotional attachment to a game beyond possibly memories of playing it with family. But it was the theme that moved him to speak to a group of people he didn’t know. It felt incredible. He got even more excited when Daryl pointed out I was a designer for the game.
This year has been amazing hearing people’s stories of how they gifted the game or shared it with their family or friends. Not only are people buying it for their daughters but their sons. I always thought it was important that we not market it as a “girls only” game. Everyone should know what these women did.
In March, we celebrated women’s history month and brought down the price to $19.19 to celebrate the 19th amendment being signed in 1919 and something surprising happened. We were spammed with 1 star ratings on BoardGameGeek. Up until that point we had a rating in the high 7’s but then it dropped to 6.9.
Once again I was disappointed. No one wrote anything to go along with the 1 star ratings so it was clearly an attack on the theme. It still baffles me that the world is made up of around 50% women and still we have our rights constantly attacked and games ridiculed. Just last month I was at a convention showing two other female designers HerStory and a guy had to come up and jokingly ask: “ could you not find any guys to play?” He wouldn’t have said something if only girls were playing a party game or roll & write but because of the theme he felt it worth pointing out.
I haven’t been in the industry long but ever since Wingspan took off more and more women seem to be getting into the hobby and are trying to design. I am on the Board of Unpub and have loved seeing so many more female designers/playtesters come to our convention and mini Cons. We should be encouraging new players and designers to join the hobby. If games like HerStory and Wingspan help that, then we need to promote those games, not spam them with bad ratings. Me personally, the only reason I’m giving a 1 star rating to a game is if it physically harms me. Like the fake guns in Ca$h 'n Guns actually shot me. I’ve never had a bad enough reaction to a game play to give it a 1-3 rating. That includes me playing terrible prototype games!
As HerStory continues to sell and be found by people my hope is that it helps educate everyone about the amazing women that helped our world while introducing new gamers to the hobby with its gameplay. I truly believe that we created a game that new gamers could learn easily and hobby gamers wouldn’t lose interest in while playing. We tried to mimic some of our favorite designers by only giving a player three options: draft a tile, reserve a card or turn in tiles to place a card into your book. Easy choices but the strategy comes from turning in exact matches and interacting with the different card powers. I found through demoing the game in real life that the only way this experience could get messed up is if you don’t fully shuffle the deck of 120 cards. Because intentionally we left many higher point valued cards with no powers in the game so younger players and people that don’t want to play around with powers still had options. But if you don’t shuffle correctly you may only have a game of set collection with no engine building which would ruin the experience. So don’t forget to shuffle and I hope you enjoy the game that I’m easily the most proud of working on!