The Personal, Political Art of Board-Game Design

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Amabel Holland, a forty-one-year-old board-game designer from Dearborn, Michigan, believes that a chance discovery at a comic-book store saved her life. In 2010, she wandered into the shop with her wife and a friend, looking for issues of the Marvel series “The New Mutants.” In the basement, she noticed a board game called The Settlers of Catan. It was a 3-D edition, costing more than two hundred dollars. Amabel didn’t particularly want to play the game, but she was surprised by its fanciness. She browsed the store some more and noticed that many games’ boxes prominently displayed the names of their designers, as if they were authors. This wasn’t the familiar childhood terrain of Monopoly, Candy Land, and Sorry! These games were often dauntingly complex, and engaged with topics like history, politics, and the building of industries and empires.

After visiting the store, Amabel and her wife, Mary Holland, played a few board games, and eventually Amabel tried designing one. She’d spent years creating music, comics, and films without attracting much of an audience, and had felt some despair about her artistic work. But Amabel, who is autistic, thinks about the world in terms of systems, and she suspected that in games she might find her voice. You could make a board game about almost anything, and, when you did, its rules could both mirror and analyze the subject on which it was based.

Over the next few years, Amabel designed and published about thirty games through various companies. Then, in 2016, she and Mary created their own publisher, Hollandspiele. It’s since published more than seventy games, roughly half designed by Amabel; she is widely considered one of today’s most innovative game designers. Her work, which is part of a larger turn toward complexity in the industry, often tackles historical and social subjects—death, religion, misinformation—using surprising “mechanics,” or building blocks of game play, to immerse players in an experience. “I’m interested in games’ ability to engage with difficult topics,” she told me. “And I’m interested in the way that mechanics can be used to do that.”

Mechanics can be appealingly simple, as they are in checkers. But games with richer mechanics can offer richer experiences. In Monopoly, which was published in 1935, you can roll dice to move, auction assets, build properties on tiles, and draw special-power cards (“Get Out of Jail Free”). Things escalate from there. “There’s definitely been a lot of innovation in the last twenty years,” Amabel said. A recent encyclopedia of mechanics in tabletop games—a category that includes board games, card games (such as Magic: The Gathering), and party games (such as Codenames)—defines close to two hundred.

“With every game, you build a certain model of the world,” Reiner Knizia, a former mathematician who’s designed more than eight hundred games, told me. Several of his games illustrate market forces: in Modern Art, for instance, you play as auctioneers and buyers, hoping to buy low and sell high. Knizia is a traditional game designer inasmuch as he aims to “bring enjoyment to the people.” But Amabel sometimes aims for the opposite of enjoyment. Her game This Guilty Land, from 2018, is about the struggle to end slavery; The Vote, from 2020, is about women’s suffrage. “They’re meant to evoke frustration,” she said—to demonstrate the difficulty of political progress—“which is not usually what people are looking for in games.”

Lately, Amabel has been trying to combine the heavy with the light. One of her newest games, Kaiju Table Battles, uses carefully calibrated mechanics to tackle the highly personal topic of gender transition in a way that is both uplifting and widely appealing. (Until 2021, she published under the name Tom Russell.) Through colorful, Godzilla-like creatures, it tells the story of how Amabel became Amabel.

The world of board games began to transform in the nineteen-nineties. Catan, which was first published in Germany, in 1995, helped popularize “Euro-style” games over “Ameritrash” titles that often depended on randomness, direct conflict, and dramatic shifts of fortune. (Back to square one!) Eurogames tended to reward planning, and allowed players to interact indirectly—by acquiring coveted building materials, for instance. Since then, the industry has seen a steady increase in complex games. In 2021, researchers analyzed the ten thousand games with the highest rankings on the Web site BoardGameGeek, and found that, between 2000 and 2020, the average number of mechanics in new games had increased from roughly two and a half to four. The 2017 game Gloomhaven, which held the highest rating on the site for years, utilizes nineteen mechanics.

“Designers are becoming more focussed on the experience the players are having, and are using a stronger tool kit to build better games,” Geoff Engelstein, who teaches board-game design at New York University and co-authored the encyclopedia of game mechanics, told me. In older games, he said, such as Risk and Monopoly, the goal was, frequently, to tear everyone else down, but in newer games this is often impossible; in the train game Ticket to Ride, for example, you can’t destroy other players’ tracks. It’s also become less common to lose a turn, which makes players less engaged, and games are increasingly designed to prevent blowouts by winners. Rob Daviau, the co-designer of Pandemic Legacy, the current No. 2 game on BoardGameGeek, is a co-owner of Restoration Games, a company that republishes older games while updating their mechanics. One common shift, he said, is from post-decision luck to pre-decision luck. Instead of striking a monster and then rolling the dice to see if you’ve caused damage, you roll the dice first, then have to get creative about how to use what you’ve rolled.

A few games have introduced entirely new mechanics. Dominion, from 2008, popularized deck-building, in which players curate a collection of cards that grant points or powers. (The same mechanic is used in Magic: The Gathering.) Risk Legacy, another game co-designed by Daviau, inaugurated legacy games, in which “game states”—changes to the board, characters, or rules—carry over from session to session. (Daviau, who once worked for Hasbro, came up with the concept while talking about Clue at a brainstorming session. “I don’t know why these people keep coming over to dinner!” he said.)

Amabel’s game Kaiju Table Battles uses a legacy system: in the course of multiple sessions, players unseal envelopes containing new content. While working on it, she watched most of the Godzilla and Gamera movies; she also created her own monsters, commissioned art, and built a prototype. When I visited her, she was in the mechanics phase—“the nitty gritty of figuring out, What exactly does this monster do?” she explained. In the movies, monsters like Godzilla represent big, intangible fears, such as the atomic bomb. But Amabel identified more with the strange beasts than with the people trying to kill them; she wanted to make a game in which the monsters developed and grew. One of her characters, a plant monster, would obey unique mechanics: it would be fragile and push other monsters away. “So it’s very lonely and isolated,” Amabel said. “But then it will evolve and go from being this kind of weird, viny, weedy plant to a flowering plant and come into its power. It’s going to be stronger, and actually help other monsters work better, and have more sense of community, because it’s actually acting as itself.”

Amabel describes herself as a “shitposter”—someone who is wrong on purpose in a funny, adversarial way that can still get at the truth. On social media, where she writes about game design and her dating life—she and Mary separated, in 2021—she explains that, although many of her games are historical, they are not “ ‘balanced’ works of history” but “political art” and “queer rage & shitposting all the way down.” Recently, she has published games about Dracula, the tobacco industry (her father died of lung cancer), and the Shackleton expedition. The latter game, called Endurance, has no “victory condition”; your only hope is to limit your losses as crew members die. In reality, all of Ernest Shackleton’s men survived their failed attempt to reach the South Pole—but the game models the circumstances, not the outcome, and expresses deeper ideas about adversity. On a podcast hosted by the game reviewer Daniel Thurot, Amabel explained that she could not have made Endurance before her gender transition. “It was kind of living through my own misery and my own miracle that made me think about the odds,” she said. “Because the odds of me figuring out my shit were, like, so long.” She found time to think about her gender only because she’d left an office job to work on games full time; she undertook her transition with the help of a trans woman, Erin Escobedo, who’d created a game published by Hollandspiele; Escobedo, in turn, had learned about the company only because it had previously published a title by a big-time designer named Cole Wehrle, who knew Amabel because of Amabel’s first game, Northern Pacific. “If all those things didn’t happen, I don’t know if I would be here today talking to you,” she told Thurot. Endurance is a game in which anything can, and usually does, go wrong.

The recent explosion in the popularity of board games—the industry’s annual revenue is expected to increase from around a billion dollars in 2017 to nearly five billion in 2026—has vastly expanded the number and variety of games that can be published. Crowdfunding, online communities, and on-demand printing have also contributed. Independent designers can now find dedicated audiences. The Zenobia Award celebrates designers from marginalized groups who are creating historical games; recent winning games have centered on subjects including caste in India under colonialism, the functions of Machu Picchu, and an economic system used by Cherokee people in the sixteenth century. In 2019, Elizabeth Hargrave released Wingspan, a beautifully illustrated Euro-style game about birds; nearly two million copies are in print. Historically, she told me, most players and designers and publishers of games have been men; the industry is slowly escaping their grip. “Not everybody enjoys killing monsters in dungeons,” said Isaac Childres, the designer of Gloomhaven, which is about killing monsters in dungeons.

John du Bois, a game designer whom Hollandspiele has published, met me and Amabel at the apartment of Amabel’s girlfriend, Samhain Bones. (Bones, who named herself Samhain after the Halloween-adjacent pagan holiday when she transitioned a few years ago, had on a pink tank top that said “BE GAY DO CRIME!” and skeletal wrist warmers.) This gave us a foursome for sampling some modern games. We started with Amabel’s Northern Pacific. The board shows a network of potential paths connecting cities. Players must build train tracks connecting Minneapolis to Seattle; on each turn, they can either place a cube on a city and hope that a train comes there, or place a train on a track segment. One tactic is to see where an opponent might direct her trains and place your own cubes to reap the rewards. “It’s about leaving your opponents with the most bad choices,” du Bois said.

Next was Turncoats, from another publisher, Milda Matilda Games. A map contains eleven adjacent regions and a smattering of stones in three colors. Each player receives eight stones to hide in her hand; she can either place them on the map or take actions to alter their distribution in her hand or on the map. At the end of the game, the player who holds in her hand the color that has dominated the most regions on the map is the winner. The trick is to guide the board toward a certain color without depleting that color from your hand, or telegraphing your goals. It’s a game centered on indirection.

Finally, we tried Between Two Cities, published by Automa Factory. Each player collaboratively builds cities with the players to her right and left, using tiles that represent factories, houses, parks, taverns, and offices. Cities score points based on the number and positioning of certain kinds of tiles. If your lowest-scoring city has more points than everyone else’s lowest-scoring city, you win. Bones said that she likes the game because, even though it’s competitive, every interaction is coöperative.

Du Bois went home. We had just spent two hours building a rail network, conquering territories, and designing cities. Why did I find it fun? Why do we find anything fun? Scholars propose that play is for practice: human beings and other animals play in order to improve at physical coördination, problem-solving, and social interaction. So “fun” might not be the best word for the feeling evoked by play. Play can also be a way to explore ideas, test boundaries, and form bonds. “I love the interpretation that children playing—that is their work,” Thurot told me. (One of his daughters builds complex edifices out of magnetic blocks, he said, then smashes them, learning basic principles of physics.) In 2004, researchers at M.I.T. and Northwestern enumerated eight aesthetic considerations in games, including sensation, fantasy, challenge, discovery, expression, and fellowship. “Saying that all games should be fun should sound as weird to us as saying that all movies should be sad,” the game designer Elizabeth Sampat told me. “There’s such a wider palette of emotional experiences that we can be working with.” Some people tell Sampat that systems can’t evoke emotional responses. To them, she suggests thinking about what it feels like to sit at a particularly long red light.

Although they’ve separated, Amabel and Mary still live and work together; the next morning, I met them at the house they share. Mary greeted me at the door and offered to take my coat. “Oh, that’s how that works,” Amabel said. They run Hollandspiele in their living room, sitting in side chairs with small tables in front of them. A cat tree occupies a prominent position on the burgundy carpet; the room’s shelves are overloaded with mail, pill bottles, figurines, stuffed animals, DVDs, and games. They met at a library in 1999, when Mary was forty-two and Amabel was seventeen; they eventually bonded over movies, started dating in 2003, and married in 2004. Amabel worked at the library until 2012, when she went looking for a higher-paying job to cover medical expenses for Mary, who had a thyroid problem. For a time, Amabel evaluated foreclosed homes for a default-management company—a role that involved looking at endless photos of mold, dead animals, and bathtubs filled with human waste. She hated it, but, needing money, Mary joined the company, too. After they launched Hollandspiele, in 2016, the success of An Infamous Traffic, a game by Cole Wehrle about the opium trade in China, allowed them both to go full time.

Roughly once a year, Hollandspiele puts out a “prestige” game—a title with a message, like The Vote or This Guilty Land. The games are rarely simple. When Bones and I played This Guilty Land, it took Amabel half an hour to explain the rules. The board represents six regions of the U.S., from New England to the Southwest, each with spots for pieces representing Justice or Oppression; other areas track support in Congress for various laws. Cards allow actions concerning Public Opinion, Organization, Violence, and Law; these cost political will, and supply one’s opponent with the same. Every rule has exceptions. “The whole thing can grind to a halt very quickly,” Amabel said. And yet the game is an argument against moral compromise.

Amabel did not invent the wonky genre of game-as-argument. In 1904, a designer named Lizzie Magie patented the Landlord’s Game—“a practical demonstration of the present system of land-grabbing with all its usual outcomes and consequences”—which was later adapted, without credit for Magie, into Monopoly. In “Persuasive Games,” published in 2007, the video-game designer and professor Ian Bogost coined the term “procedural rhetoric” to describe the use of mechanics for persuasion, which he’d seen in video games going back to the nineteen-seventies. At the other end of the spectrum, Amabel is also not the only designer to make highly personal games. Du Bois’s Heading Forward, a one-person card game about recovering from a head injury, is inspired by his experience after a car crash in 2015. (The goal is to regain your skills before your insurance runs out.)

In her book, “Empathy Engines: Design Games That Are Personal, Political, and Profound,” Elizabeth Sampat argues that the distinction between personal and educational games is illusory; even intellectual games can feel personal, because they put you in the middle of things. Thurot told me that, although he has a Ph.D. in history, certain historical episodes didn’t “click” for him until he played games about them. Some of Hollandspiele’s titles, he went on, are particularly notable for how they “push you into a tight box” with other players, increasing conflict.

Someday, Amabel said, she’d like to make a game that brings players inside the experience of gender dysphoria. One idea excites her, although she’s not yet sure how to make it work: she wants to design a game of solitaire that can be won only by breaking the rules. “I was raised in such a way where I was taught to be a boy, and I did very badly,” she told me. “The rules I was given did not make sense to me.” In the game, she said, “the idea would be that, as you’re playing, there are little hints at the corners that, if you break specific rules in specific ways, the game’s gonna open up.”

At Amabel and Mary’s house, the conversation dug up raw emotions about Amabel’s transition. “I’m definitely of the opinion that, if I hadn’t figured it out when I did, I don’t think I would have lasted the rest of that year,” Amabel said. Silence filled the room. “I’m better now,” she went on. “I get to actually be a full person. And I like to think I’m less frustrating to live with.”

“No comment,” Mary said, with a laugh.

“I think I’m less guarded and less scared than I used to be,” Amabel added.

Amabel recalled how, in her previous life, she often wore suspenders. “I was trying to embrace a certain kind of masculine presentation,” she said. She turned to Mary. “Do you remember the lawnmower that I got? I got a nonelectric, non-gas push mower. I had to be very manly and mow the lawn, and I hated it. I hated it so much. There was also a period of time when I started barbecuing, because I wanted to be the guy with the grill.”

Before I left, their cat walked into the room, and Amabel knelt to pet it. “Monster,” Mary said. “She’s our official spokescat.”

At Bones’s place, where parts of a Kaiju Table Battles prototype were arrayed on a dining-room table, I asked Amabel to walk me through her design process. On a sheet of paper, she’d drawn out a four-by-five grid, with spaces occupied by cardboard cubes representing buildings, water, and power lines. There were a few cardboard figures, featuring drawings of monsters. Twelve dice littered the table—six for each player—along with some index cards, each denoting a special power on which the monsters could draw.

In a notebook, Amabel was mapping out the differences between the characters. The cat monster, included at Mary’s request, would be able to climb buildings and attack from higher ground. “I’m thinking that the armadillo will have some kind of shielding ability,” Amabel said, along with “a ranged attack with some kind of seismic flavoring—a ground stomp or something.” She was considering having dice determine not the strength of the attack but the range. “I kind of try to talk it through and think about what will be interesting synergies for different monsters,” Amabel told me.

Game designers “playtest” their designs. As it happened, I’d been trying my hand at game design, and I’d brought a mockup of my game to playtest with Amabel and Bones. The game, I thought, would be called Passage, because it involves players passing one another on a map—maybe a moon base. In the first phase of the game, players take turns creating a map by laying out tiles. Then, once the map is constructed, they place their characters and are randomly assigned two special abilities. On each turn, everyone draws and displays a passage card, which defines what happens when they overlap with someone on the map. A player rolls a die, and everyone privately writes down a sequence of that number of moves, dictating a combination of steps to the north, south, east, or west. Then the group reveals their moves and enacts them together, using their special abilities to move through walls or rotate nearby tiles. If two pieces land on the same spot, the passage cards dictate who gets points. When someone gets ten, they win.

I had certain general principles in mind when designing Passage, drawn from various disciplines. The game has what philosophers call a veil of ignorance: players construct the board without knowing whom it will advantage. There’s a version of what economists describe as a Pareto frontier—the range of abilities is distributed so that no one is the absolute strongest. I was interested in what’s known in psychology as theory of mind: you have to try to predict how other players will move, and how they’ll think you’ll move, and so on. There’s a combination of competition and coöperation. And, finally, the ability to change the map also makes each player a bit of a game designer.

As the playtest proceeded, it became clear that the board had too many tiles for three players; we didn’t cross paths often enough. Amabel suggested adding another way to earn points, which might motivate people to get in one another’s way. Bones thought it could be good to insert a location on the map that mattered; she also had the idea of incorporating both short- and long-term passage cards, which could encourage planning beyond the current turn. “The key to map design is incentive design,” Amabel said.

The game was already complicated, but I asked if rolling two dice instead of one, allowing up to twelve moves, would be too much. Amabel thought it wouldn’t be. “It feels like something that should be a little loosey-goosey,” she said. “It should be kind of, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, do you remember that time when I tried to run away from you, and I kept running into you, and then the other person came and hit me?’ You want those moments.”

We played again, this time with two dice and a smaller map. We tried designating a special tile that gave players points. We ended up dancing around one another, trying to ambush other players as they made a run for that spot. I won. “There’s a cool route here,” Bones said, gesturing to the board. She thought I might be onto something. I was in the development phase—the hard part, when you have to fine-tune your rules. But that’s the game of game design—and, maybe, of life. You play by changing the rules, in search of freedom, joy, surprise, insight, argument, and fellowship. You win when you find rules that work. ♦


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