Interview: Tory Brown and Kevin Bertram talk 2023 Summit Award winner Votes for Women

On Dec. 11, SDHist announced Votes for Women (the second edition is currently available on Kickstarter here) as the recipient of the 2023 Summit Award (for games published in 2022). After that, SDHist founder Harold Buchanan spoke to designer Tory Brown and publisher Kevin Bertram of Fort Circle Games. Here’s that conversation (you can also watch it on YouTube here); read on for a transcript.

Here’s a transcript of that discussion. (Note; this was initially generated by a transcription program. It’s been edited for clarity, but it may not be perfect.)

Harold Buchanan: I’m joined by Tory Brown, the designer of Votes for Women. I’m also joined by Kevin Bertram. So, very exciting news that Votes for Women won the Summit award. And from an SDHist perspective, we couldn’t be more excited. It is a wonderful game, but as I’ve said over and over and over and I will say yet again: it’s the right game by the right designer on the right topic at the right time by the right publisher. The alignment of the stars is extraordinary. The excitement that it’s generating around the historical gaming hobby specifically is wonderful. Tory, I’m going to start by asking you what drove you to design a game on the suffrage movement in the United States, and what’s the linkage?

Tory Brown: Sure. So I’ll say there are lots of reasons, but two really stand out. The first is pretty practical. The idea for this game came to me about a year before the United States celebrated the centennial of the 19th Amendment. I read an article about plans and everything that was going to happen on August 20th, 2020 and I just thought, “What an amazing moment”

It’s been a hundred years. It’s only been a hundred years. And it would be just the right time for a game like this. We’re sort of far enough from the history, but there’s lots of relevance today.

Which is also sort of the other piece that was very practical. And the spark and the timing is also a very personal reason for Votes for Women. I’ve worked in movement politics almost my entire life. I’ve been a part of the labor movement, reproductive justice, and all sorts of different kinds of fights for a better, more just world and to tell this story of a lot of women. And some dudes, too, I’ll give them a little bit of credit, coming together in the kind of mass mobilization way to talk about what it takes to pass a constitutional amendment to talk about the barriers and the sort of fortification that was required for the suffrage movement.

I hope to inspire players to think about movements that exist today and to be a part of something bigger than themselves. And so it was just a really great story to talk about what feels like an important lesson about how we make our country and our world a better, more democratic, more fair place for us all.

HB: You live in DC, and so you’re in the midst of this political wrangling, and have been for a long time. Is that also something that excited you about the topic?

TB: It is. So I live and work in DC, I’ve done a lot at the federal level in Congress, some advocacy around the Supreme Court. Certainly at the executive level. And, you know, that’s a piece of the game. But the real meat and potatoes of Votes for Women is that work campaigning across the country. And also in my work, I’ve done a lot of campaigns that happen out in the states that are governor’s races and what’s happening in state legislatures, where important things happen. In some ways, Votes for Women is like a loud primal scream about the importance of campaigning and organizing in the states. 

HB: Were there challenges in creating a game around such important history?

TB: I mean, we’re talking about 70 years of American history from 1848 to 1920, and there’s been a really great record of this era. Suffragists donated their documents, letters, and scrapbooks to the Library of Congress. Things were kept in pretty great form. It’s this 1848 to 1920 period you’re seeing a lot of proliferation of printing so that flyers can be made and recordkeeping that’s happening. So, wading through all of that history, and not only wading through what felt like a thousand reams of historical documents, but then to winnow into a deck that covers what’s important keeps things kind of interesting. It isn’t just “Then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.”

A professor of mine used to call papers miniskirt length: you have to cover everything that’s important but keep it short enough to be interesting. And in a non-sexist way, I think this game really tried. It was really difficult to pick not just what was important and what’s, let’s say, was covered on the Wikipedia page, but stuff people might not have heard about, stuff that would surprise players. Because it couldn’t just be “Well, Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul got the constitutional amendment.” It really needed to to give this idea of discovery that would make it more interesting than just what you would get reading a textbook.

HB: Is there one repository or source in particular that’s important to the game?

TB: The Library of Congress collection is quite remarkable and it really holds a great amount of the late-era deck, the Alice Paul, once the doldrums have finished in 1910, Washington State enfranchises women in state, and that 10-year period. There’s a ton of information.

But I think what was most important was the centennial commission that gave money to state historical foundations. If anybody watching right now is interested in suffrage history in their state, look at your state historical society. There surely would have been an exhibit created and some curation of materials around the centennial. That gave the game a lot of texture and important movement across those states. I think the commission funding individual state historical societies made this game much more interesting than it would have been if I had tried to make it in 2010.

HB: So the response to the game has been tremendous. Do you have any stories or anecdotes on people’s impression of the game and how they were moved?

TB: Well, first I’ll say that Kevin and I, and you spoke about how the stars had sort of aligned for this game at a certain point, working on it for two and a half years, it felt like it was like going at an astronomical pace. And then it takes a very long time to get a very short distance. So I think we talked in this period about reactions and reviews, and you know, Kevin kept assuring me that people would really like the game, but that also there would be negative reviews. He spent a lot of time, [with me] as a first-time designer, preparing me for negative reviews.

And there have been some. Some of them are really funny. Some of them are like, “Oh, you just don’t understand the game.” And some of them are heartfelt and earnest and thoughtful in that this is a game that doesn’t meet with them. So it’s just sort of interesting. All of that has happened.

But I was prepared for the negative reviews. I was not prepared for just how it’s connected with people, and just how people have learned and been so enthusiastic and shared. And it’s hard to pick out just one.

I think hearing from folks that they never realized women had opposed suffrage. The real basic fact of backlash, and of what we assume people’s interests are, and what they perceive their interests to be. I think being able to expose people to ‘It wasn’t just these old crusty men in back rooms that were like, “I don’t want ladies to vote.”

“And the deck is full of those men. Those men existed. But it’s the breadth of opposition, and what that looked like, and what that meant. I think learning about people’s surprise and being able to sort of open up this door to them.

Hopefully it means that they’ll think that people will oppose things today, and that not because they’re monsters, it’s just because they think about things differently. But together, in a multi-racial democratic society we should be able to come to a consensus that your feelings don’t trump my rights and what is just.

So it’s been really interesting to watch that conversation, and how emotional or visceral playing Opposition has been for people. I was not prepared for people straight out saying “I won’t play Opposition.” I mean, the Oppo deck exists so people can play and don’t have to play Opposition. But, people have been very outspoken about how uncomfortable it is to play as Opposition.

HB: Are there any other stories or anything else you’d like to let us know about Votes for Women and how it came about?

I think there’s one really cool thing that has happened: Labyrinth is the friendly local game store in Washington, DC. I think it is the best friendly local game store. Kathleen Donahue, the owner, was a huge help as a playtester and has been a great advocate for the game. She helped organize an event on August 20th, Women’s Equality Day and invited some park rangers from a National Park Service site dedicated to the suffrage movement and to women’s history. And so I’ve got a chance to meet these super cool park rangers. And I just saw them recently at a different event.

And it turns out that the site had been under repair, and they opened late August or early September. But they didn’t have their their archive set up, they didn’t have cases that could handle these original documents that they have in their collection. So they are using the reproductions from in the box of Votes for Women on the walls of this National Parks Service site. Labeled as reproductions, but for my game to be just a small part of the the Belmont-Paul House on Capitol Hill, former headquarters of the National Women’s Party, Mecca, if you will, of American feminist history.

To be a small part of that and to have the game be a part of that, it’s like the nerd cred is so high. It is so intense to be a part of that and to have the game be a part of American history. It’s super cool. If I make a game about, I don’t know, mice and fighting pirates or whatever, it’s probably not going to get in the Belmont-Paul House. But you make a suffrage game, bingo, bango, there you go. That’s so, so cool.

HB: Well, congratulations again, and congratulations on the Summit Award.

TB: I’m so appreciative to the San Diego HistCon community from the jump. And I know that Kevin was able to go last year and playtest it. So these were like some really early acolytes for the game on Twitter, and now on Bluesky. I’m trying to stay away from Twitter, although it’s very hard. The SDHist folks have been supportive, they’ve been encouraging, it has been wonderful.

And it’s, like I said, a community. It is not just a conference, it is not just a Discord server, it’s not just a conversation happening on social media. These people are really aligned in values. I think, you know, there’s lots of difference and lots of, you know, discussion, we’ll call it nicely, that happens inside the community. But by and large, folks have just been so wonderful. I am super grateful for this award and to be associated with San Diego HistCon in this way, because it’s just been nothing but warm, welcoming and supportive. I’m just super grateful for the Summit Award.

HB: Thanks for saying that. And Tory, you and Kevin are members of the team now, so please act as such. You’ve been enlisted. We have taught you the secret handshake. I’m going go to Kevin. Kevin, you’ve known Tory for a while prior to her development so you recognize some brilliance, and probably were friends, but also recognized her ability to pull things together and tell a great story.

Kevin Bertram:  Tory and I were debate partners for a semester in college when I was a 29-year-old returning student and she was a 17-year-old first-year student. So we were sort of The Odd Couple of College debate for a semester. But our friendship stayed for quite a long time. And I don’t want to be too effusive, but obviously I’m just very impressed with her intelligence and her appreciation of detail and all of the different skills that really make for a good board game designer.

So working on this, especially because it was mostly done during the pandemic, was a really great thing for us to work on. It was really just fantastic. It’s nice when you get to work with your friends. Now, of course, we included a much wider group of people. There were graphic designers, Brigette Indelicato did an amazing job, then when she went on maternity leave, Marc Rodrigue finished up on that. We had a number of playtesters, well, hundreds of playtesters, and then Jason Matthews was one of our senior play testers who put a little bit of his input on the game too. So yeah, it was just a super joy working with Tory. And now I get to bask in the glow of her success which is kind of nice for me. So, how can I complain?

HB: What a great story. What school?

KB: George Mason University. Go Patriots! 

HB: So a lot of time passed—not a lot of time, I don’t want to label us as old—but time passed between the time you were partners on the debate team to the point in time where you formed this game company which I think now is officially the coolest game company. I don’t know if you’re aware, we haven’t made that official award yet public. I think that Fort Circle may be the coolest game company now. And you’ve had a lot of success, not just not just Votes for Women. But what’s the magic, Kevin? What are you doing right?

KB: Well, you know, that’s very kind of you to say, but we’ve only published two games. But I think that we’ve taken this time to really get it right. Like, “What are the things that make a game a superior product without driving up the cost too much?” It’s even little things like the thickness of the box and the thickness of the board and the attention to the historical documents. And, you know, I’d like to think that we’re just doing some things a little bit different and and I hope you know other companies start doing the very same thing.

You got me a little flustered by saying such nice things to me, I’m not used to that. I think what we have shown, though, is that there is a market for attractive-looking, intelligent-yet-accessible games about history. And we certainly are not the only company doing that: I look at Wehrlegig Games who puts out some amazing stuff, obviously GMT has been putting out a large volume of games every year, some of which I love. So I think that if we can occupy a spot particularly in looking at topics that are undergamed in history, I think that offers us kind of a unique spot to be in. And if that’s cool, great. I think that’s cool too.  

HB: You mentioned the documents that are in the game. The historical documents are a unique touch, and I think they’re very special. When I sat down with Tory for the first time, she was teaching it to two other people, but I was looking through the box. I spent, I don’t know, maybe 30 minutes reading the documents that you added that weren’t just printed in the rules. They were separate, and they were curated with some care. What was your idea there, and what happens next? What’s the next game going to include?

KB: Well, so we took a little flier with our first game The Shores of Tripoli. And we included a letter that Thomas Jefferson had sent to the Pasha Karamanli that was written in that beautiful early 1800s language, that was actually extremely threatening, but of course sounded all flowery and nice. That was a big hit. And because we want people to be excited about history and excited about education, you know, there’s nothing better than primary documents. So facsimiles of them.”

And I asked Tory to put together a list of documents and she came up with a bunch. She always tells the story that I only wanted three. In fairness, that was my wife who only wanted three, because she didn’t think people would want that many. I always wanted more also. And there’s one piece in there, the letter from the guano magnate was actually my insistence, because we’re releasing a game about the guano trade probably in 2025.

It increases the cost of production by a little bit. But I think it’s more than worth it in that it brings the history alive to you in the way that just having an essay or just having a historical booklet does it. We include them for The Halls of Montezuma, we actually have two essays. We have lots of documents.

And I think that that mix of the two is really helpful for bringing the history alive to people. And hopefully it spurs them to want to learn more. Whether it’s about movement politics, or the Mexican-American War, or the history of the Supreme Court, or whichever game of ours that they pick up. 

HB: That’s an interesting snapshot into what might be coming after Votes for Women. There’s an important story to tell, and one that gamers don’t know very well. Most of us gamers are not familiar. So that creates challenges for you as a publisher.

KB: I think it’s actually been very good for us as a publisher because it has shown that we’re willing to look at topics that aren’t traditional. And that’s garnered a lot of interest not only from the public but from designers who might want to try designing something a little bit different. So we’re a tiny bit experimental, even though our games are fairly straightforward. I mean they’re not outside of the ordinary, the mechanisms.

But there’s a little pushback. You know, I’ve gotten the “Why don’t you just stick to making wargames?” emails. But that doesn’t phase me very much. I find myself very defensive for Tory, even though she can take care of herself. She’s a big girl. But I find myself, because I’m just like an older brother, a little deeper, but I’m like “Say whatever junk you want to me.”

So it hasn’t bothered me that much, really not at all. I think overall it’s been a real plus, except for the occasional random review on Amazon or BoardGameGeek. Other than that, who cares. So I think it’s actually been a real positive for us.

And we’re going to be publishing a game by David Thompson and Liz Davidson on the Night Witches [female Soviet pilots in World War II.] And I don’t know that we would be publishing that game if we hadn’t published Votes for Women. That’s a game that I think will win awards, just like Votes for Women has. So I think it’s been great for us. 

HB: Two designers with the reputations of Liz and David, it’s not that publishers pick them, they pick the publishers. So I think that’s a wonderful vote of confidence, not just based on the history of what you’ve done but also you know your history of the treatment of people, And so I think that’s all wonderful, wonderful feedback for America’s coolest game company. What about what’s next for Fort Circle Games?

KB: We’re releasing the Halls of Montezuma and the second printing of Votes for Women in Q1. I wish they would have been here for Christmas, but alas. Then we have the next three set of games we have. One is First Monday in October which is by a new designer, Talia Rosen, on the history of the Supreme Court. It’s an outstanding game. It’s taking us a little longer to get the art right, but we’re working with the Supreme Court Historical Society, which has been very gratifying. And that’s going to be a fantastic game and overall product when it’s released.

We have a game, Night Witches, which is of course about the Soviet female pilots during World War II. Then we have a game that kind of flew under the radar, I didn’t think would be very good, but Maurice Suckling and his team demoed it for me at our convention. It’s called Peace 1905 and it’s about the Russo-Japanese peace treaty that came out, because Teddy Roosevelt had put them together, and he ended up getting the Nobel Peace Prize for that. That game is amazing. And when they first pitched me on it, I was like “Yeah, I’ll take a look at it,” but I wasn’t really all that excited about it. And now I think this game is amazing.

That’s kind of our next group of games. And then we have Jason Matthews who has been working on a game on the treason trial of Aaron Burr for years now, we’ll see if he ever gets it done. My wife and I have a co-design on the guano trade of the 1800s that is actually, I think, going to be a fantastic game. I use the phrase fantastic a lot, but that’s how I feel about our games. I’m just excited about them.

Then we have several more coming down the pike. It’s really “Can we publish four games a year?” I mean, that’s biting off a lot. But I think we can and still keep the high quality of the product. So yeah, I’m very excited about what we have coming down the pipe for everybody. 

HB: Looking forward to many of those. And there’s one other that you didn’t mention that I’m not going to mention, I’m very very interested in as well. I’m not going to mention it if you don’t mention it. That’s not my place.

KB: So the reason why I actually don’t think about that is because we’re not going to be running a Kickstarter for that game. So the game is Shakespeare’s First Folio, and it is sort of a on-commission project for the Folger Shakespeare Library which is the museum here in Washington DC that actually has the largest number of Shakespeare’s first folios in the world. More than they have in all of England. And it’s announced. It’s like a super fun game. It’s a little lower on the complexity scale than most of our games, because it’s meant for a wider audience. But because they’ve pre-ordered a bunch of them like it’s not going to go through the normal Kickstarter process, so that’s why I kind of sometimes leave it out.

I’m very excited about that game and I think that that game might be the one that has the best chance of really getting wide release because both its complexity level is very low. Not too low, but low. And yet it’s still a meaningful decision. And it’s Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is still cool now. They haven’t killed him off yet in the academy.

HB: For fans of The Bard it’s going to be a high priority. I think you know your location there in DC just gives you access to so much cool history and thought process. I think that is really going to give you, you know, the high ground for some time.

KB: You see it in in the technology industry, right. Silicon Valley is of course the best known, Austin. Here in Washington D.C., AOL had been a big company. And then everybody leaves and they start their companies and there’s this ecosystem that gets created.

And for historical board games there’s no real location that has that. Except now I kind of think Washington DC does. We have a fantastic local game store. We have all of these designers: Tory and Volko [Ruhnke] and Jason and 15 others. We happen to be in the right spot to be able to work with all these people. And then all of the Smithsonian Institutes are here. And all kinds, you know, the Supreme Court Historical Society is here. The League of Women Voters, who we worked with on Votes for Women on is here. So this is a great place to be if you’re interested in history and making amazing games. I’m very very glad that I live in my 1925 house, which gets a little cold in the winter sometimes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love living here in DC.

HB: Yes, it’s awesome. And you didn’t even mention the professional wargamers that are centered there around the DC hub. And you know many of them are hobbyists at a minimum and designers to some extent as well.

KB: I forgot to mention not only all those professional designers, but Sebastian Bae teaches a course at Georgetown, and the US Naval Academy has a course where a lot of us designers go and judge students’ designs. Some of them aren’t very good, but some of them have some really great ideas. They’re rough, but they’re interesting.

And we can’t help but benefit from having being able to look at these young starting-off designers, who might not really be game designers, they’re just taking a class or they’re Foreign Service, or they’re going to be naval officers. But it’s great. And Quantico does great things, and the US Naval Academy’s library or museum does great things. So yeah, it’s just a hotbed of activity.

HB: I would be remiss if I didn’t give you a chance to talk a little bit about your April convention, which I hope to make this year.

KB: Circle DC is the name of the convention. We had our first one last year in 2023. We had it in a rather unique location that everybody who was there the first year will just know what I’m talking about. It was fantastic. So I made an effort to model it on SDHistCon, which I think of as, you know, it’s a smallish intimate convention with lots of designers and a few publishers to really just kind of get together with you know an extended group of friends to play games and go to dinner.

Because we are here in DC, the we had a tour of the Pentagon, which was pretty great. And this year we’re looking at a tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library, a tour of the Supreme Court, the Belmont-Paul house. So we’re fitting all of those kind of activities in with what is also of course the primary reason people are here: to game, and see publishers, and you know the normal things that happen in conventions. We don’t push it too much, because we don’t want it to be too big but I think we’re hoping that about 200 people this year would be the perfect size for us. So I’ll be launching news about it in January and letting people register. We’re very excited about it and we would love to see you come out. If you’re a fan of good food, I do know a couple restaurants here in DC.

HB: It was a real pleasure to talk to you both and to enjoy the stories about Votes for Women and Fort Circle Games, the coolest game company in America. Now, you could lose that title, I’m happy to take it away from you if you trip up. So we’ll be watching closely. But we have high expectations, Kevin and Tory. We didn’t even have time to talk about what’s next, but we’ll save that for a future discussion because I’m very interested in where you’re going. Thank you both again for taking the time to talk.

KB: My pleasure.

TB: Thank you. Thank you for the award, but mostly for the community. It takes effort to create a community, to sustain, to set norms. It doesn’t just happen on its own. And I really appreciate it.

Especially given the vast vagaries of the gaming community, I appreciate spaces that are welcoming, that care about bringing new voices and new perspectives and just new players into the room rather than sort of like you know vanguarding, or rearguarding, a lot of the activities. It was a lovely time in San Diego at the con this year, even the Spring Deployment online was a lot of fun. I’ve just been really happy to be a part of this and really grateful for the support and the award.

HB: Thank you both and I look forward to doing this again soon.

Interviewer Harold Buchanan is the founder of SDHist. Harold is an award-winning designer whose designs include Liberty or Death (2016), Campaigns of 1777 (2019), and Flashpoint: South China Sea (2022). He has been a historical gamer since 1979. Harold is an Adjunct Professor of Finance at The University of California San Diego. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Tory Brown is the designer of Votes for Women. You can follow her on Bluesky here or on Twitter here.

Kevin Bertram is the founder and publisher of Fort Circle GamesYou can follow Fort Circle on Bluesky here or on Twitter here.

Header image from Kevin Bertram on Board Game Geek.