Some of you may know I left the 1Player Guild (meaning more time to dedicate to Solitaire Times!), and in the end, that's all about a silly box cover. But clearly it's an important topic to me, and since I could not defend myself on BoardGameGeek (because it's BGG), I asked the bosses for their permission to express myself freely here and here I am.
So, let's start with some basics. Women's representation in Fantasy is an important topic, or at the very least, one that I find interesting to discuss. I just care about that, out of nerdy interest perhaps, and also for a bunch of personal reasons that are mostly accidental and innocuous - and certainly not political. And I think one may need to strike a delicate balance here, as several concerns come into play and they don't necessarily call for the same kind of response. Let's say there are two main ones: a) objectification; b) role. You don't want women characters just to be there as eye pleasers, and you don't want women to only be given secondary roles.
What counts as objectification? Well, some games make your task easy in this regard. Take Xibalba for instance. Here, the left character has been made to show prominently her breasts in a way that I would deem both silly and tasteless. There is no consistent reason for this character to be depicted like this, but to appeal to a given audience.
Let's pick something more subtle: the recent cover of Divinity: Original Sin: The Board Game.
The two women on the cover seem to be competent fighters and that's great but a) it's still a man in the front row, directly engaging with the monsters; b) there are several details that, again, have no consistent explanation but to tickle some instincts. To me, this has all the hallmarks of a sexist Fantasy board game cover. Another reason why I am glad not to have backed it.
Now I must make a point absolutely clear. If you enjoy that, if it appeals to you, I am perfectly fine with that. I believe in the forces of life, in the value of desire, and in sexual freedom, in the lineage of French so-called libertinage (even though my own moral principles are way more austere. But these are my own; not the social norms I want to see prevailing). Yet I also believe in fostering efforts for a better representation of women in society, and if Fantasy board games aren't a good place to fight, what is? That's the place I'm hanging around anyway.
Let's keep going with what has become a canonical case study: Tiny Epic Dungeons.
On the right, the original cover. On the left, the new cover.
Image collage from TechRaptor.
This story is, to me, a piling up of ridiculous stances. First, Gamelyn wanted to publish their game with the cover on the right. Spotlight on the cleavage, hmm, that was bound not to be well-received. Elizabeth Hargrave, the famous designer of Wingspan, made her call against it. She had one pretty good point. The Tiny Epic line targets a wide family-like audience. So, do we want to make a game for the whole family where what is highlighted in women are their physical attributes, while men are shown as mighty and fierce fighters? Or do we want to be more welcoming and tell our daughters and nieces and friends that they could be cool fighters as well, that they are not just here to be pretty? I said above it was a bit of a ridiculous stance as well because she insisted that the creature lurking in the background was depicted as peeping into the thief's cleavage, but, I mean, this is very much in the eye of the beholder.
Then Gamelyn Games made a questionable fix: they turned down the spotlight, added a little piece of cloth here and there, and called it a day. Personally, I find it laughable. And I think we get here to one of the key parts of my argumentation. Women's body is not problematic as such. You may hide it and show it, it doesn't really matter. What matters is representation. And this is just not really better.
In the same vein as Hargrave's point comes the cover for Karak II.
I can imagine many people looking at that cover and seeing no issue whatsoever. Women are brave and courageous - although they are all on the second line. But they are all depicted as somehow sexy, as if this were a necessary trait. And since the game is targeted at children and families, I think it's a wrong idea for young girls to internalize. So when someone raised that concern, I was certainly sympathetic to it.
Okay. That was the first half of my point. Let's get to Gates of Niflheim - the cover that stirred so much trouble. The heart of the issue. The focal point of this post.
One thing I like about that cover is that it's impactful. It pops up. I will soon write a post about aesthetics in Fantasy and this is an example of what I will call the Wil aesthetic. Something savage, paroxystic, out of proportions. You feel the brutality of the fight, the blood, and the dirt. It's great.
But there is this woman character that some have deemed problematic. Now, to begin with, I do get their point. I wouldn't want this game cover as a poster in my living room. But is it fitting for a game about Vikings slashing zombies? I would be inclined to say so. Let's come back to the character though. And to her attire, because that's the crux of the matter. And from the very start, I feel sad and disappointed. Why so? Because, instead of discussing her fight stance, or anything, we are discussing her body, her clothes. And again, this makes the woman's body problematic from the get-go. This attitude concerns me a lot. Maybe it's because I'm French and I see US puritanism with a very defiant eye. But it's also because, in the end, it implies that women are inappropriate, that they need to cover, to hide.
I am also very much aware that there is a thin line here. This is not a real woman fighting on the battlefield. This is a drawn character, made by a male artist. So surely he added things to appeal to the dreaded "man-gaze". And therefore it's not a woman that we see, but an object of desire, a sexualized representation of a woman warrior. At least that's the idea of those who criticize it. Personally, I feel in awe and borderline afraid of that savage fighter, I'm not thinking about peeping at her breasts. But I would say, that's a fair concern.
And there is possibly more to it. Let's have a look at Last Bastion.
A very appropriate cover, that one. The woman cleric is depicted in a full armor attire that correctly covers all of her body. Very modest, very good. The berzerker dwarf jumping in the front row (because you wouldn't expose a woman in the front row, right?), on the other hand, is bare-chested, which is fine, because it's a man, and the man's body is not problematic.
And this is "where I come from". Niflheim's cover is the exact opposite of that. It features a woman in the front row - with men fighting behind her! Although, true, there is another berzerk that is technically even more engaged with enemies, still, the representation features her in the very heart of the fight, where usually, only men belong. Honestly, I couldn't find many board game covers taking this stance - that of featuring in the spotlight a leading woman's fighter. And she is depicted as a berzerker. This is important. She occupies a role that is commonplace in Viking-inspired fantasy, mostly universally reserved to men, and yet she has all the hallmarks of it: bare-chested, savage, fierce, deadly. This is, in a sense, daring.
Now, I got criticized for that thought, as well. Why keep going with Fantasy tropes? Well, why do they suddenly become problematic when we want women to occupy these tropes? Take the latest Dungeons & Dragons movie for instance. Did they drop the Fantasy tropes when people started to ask whether women could be it? No. They offered us a party whose leading melee fighter is a woman.
And the berzerker role is not any role. Berzerkers are mostly depicted as wearing a boar or a wolf fur, diving into the fights, and disdainful of the fear of being hurt, as their bare chest is meant to highlight. This is not a very woman-like role, right? Well, but why not? Why do we keep putting barriers? Saying "these tropes are not appropriate" when the possibility arises for women to claim them, in the end, amounts to saying that it is inappropriate for women to claim such roles. Here again, it's trying to belittle women by only accepting representations that are "fit". Where they are armored, sheltered, protected.
Now, would have I suggested the artist to make the piece of fur a bit bigger? Yes, probably. But why do we need it? For modesty? Again, a feeling of uneasiness creeps in. I see both sides here, being right to some extent. It's a male artist and you feel that he may objectify her character. On the other hand, this character is very much NOT posing as a passive object. It's a character depicted in a position of power, which is the focal point of the image, and whose main feature is her strength and fighting aptitude. She is not alluringly posing in the background while men do the dirty job.
The way she is depicted is consistent with the brutality and fierceness she is supposed to convey. She doesn't wear a "battle bikini". She wears as little as she can because she is posing as a berzerk, whose bare chest shows her disdain for wounds and suffering. There is both aesthetic and thematic consistency here. Even her little patch of cloth is thematically consistent and not added to safeguard us from her nudity, but because it's arguably more convenient for moving fast. So, is there a deep reason to condemn it besides the old and worn-out "women should be modest"? Now, if we need to address this for inclusivity, for women players to feel more comfortable with this depiction of a berzerker, that's a different story altogether. If these are your thoughts, please chime in the comments, I am very willing to listen and revise my views on that matter.
As I said, I was also happy to see it breaking the mold of classical "toned-down" Fantasy art à la Legends of Andor, where all women are appropriately dressed and safely depicted as protected by the strong shoulders of fighting men (it's all a greater pity that the art exists for female fighters within the game). Can we imagine the same cover, but with the roles reversed?
To conclude, I will leave you with a very awesome picture of my favorite character ever from my favorite movie ever. Board game Fantasy covers have still a long way to go to be that cool.
To give it more context, I will add to my post a small gallery so that you'll see I did my homework. Let's begin with the "men fighting in front, women behind" trope, which by far is the most prevalent category in Fantasy board game covers.
Well, it's interesting to see a pattern being so faithfully repeated here.
Now we have the category "woman fighter in front, but with inconsistent highlighting of their sexual features", in which "battle bikinis" are not a rare sight:
I hope you can see by now how Gates of Niflheim is different from this category. If you argue that no, it isn't, then here lies our disagreement and you didn't get my arguments of features saliency, thematic consistency, trope subverting, and aesthetic focus.
Next, we have the category where the representation seems pretty good, but at the expense of any men's presence, as if women could only get to the frontline when men are away.
To be clear, I think both games are perfectly fine, and while I love the art direction of Forgotten Depths, I think One Deck Dungeon looks a bit crappy. I don't mind it though, and I certainly don't care about it being an all-woman cast.
Finally, we have games where women are given the spotlight (and they may be or may not be fighters):
Some might object to the latter for modesty issues, but it's thematically consistent: you can imagine you may need some leeway in your clothes to shoot with an arc, and this is very much what the picture seems to indicate. Although the character is an archer and the melee fighter is a man, the perspective and the threatening skeleton are such that she is still depicted in the heat of the fight, not away, and as the spotlight hero, not as an auxiliary.
In my mind, Gates of Niflheim belongs to that last category: women being represented as leading characters, in a position of power, in a way that reflects their strength and capabilities as fighters first and foremost. And I value that.