We all know Harold Buchanan and his fantastic designs, including Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection from GMT Games and Campaigns of 1777 in Strategy & Tactics Magazine #316 from Decision Games as well as the upcoming Flashpoint: South China Sea from GMT Games, but he is also known for his podcast called Harold on Games and his efforts in creating and running San Diego Historical Games Convention every year. But Harold has a lot of help in putting on this annual event from the gaming community in various designers and publishers chipping in to give aid where needed. One such participant and board member is Chris Bennett, who you might have heard of from his recently announced game In the Shadows: French Resistance 1943-1944 from GMT Games. Recently, the SD Historicon was held online from May 21st to May 23rd and was a rounding success. Chris Bennett contacted me as he wanted to share his experience with our readers and we were glad to have the piece.

In Spring 2021, we were still gaming mostly virtually, so I was excited to be invited as a board member for the second online iteration of the popular SD Historicon. At its inception, the intent of this convention was to create a viable gaming space dedicated to the playing and exploration of historically-based conflict simulations (often referred to as “wargames”), but our mission has since evolved and expanded to one where we seek to create a diverse and supportive gaming community dedicated to historically-based simulations more broadly.

Jason Matthews, co-designer of Twilight Struggle and Imperial Struggle: 

“San Diego Historicon — its events and attendees — has become a premier event for highlighting the dynamism and innovation in modern wargaming.  The convention serves as a platform for designers and hobbyists to explore the next exciting phase of conflict and historical simulation.“

And more recently we have seen an influx of board games that are historically-based but wouldn’t necessarily be called “wargames”.

Twilight Struggle by GMT Games is one of the most popular board games in history, but there is a continuing debate as to whether it is really a “wargame”, and thus worthy of our attention as wargamers. 

Conversations like this are precisely why we are challenging the assumptions that historical games need to be either “light” Eurogames with pasted on themes, or more hardcore wargames as we’ve played and enjoyed for the past 50 years. Clearly the past 10-15 years of game design has shown us that we should be expanding our expectations of what our hobby is about.

We wanted to invite more voices to the table, but the question was raised how to do so at a game convention that was forced once again to be virtual?

I am also a mentor and reviewer for The Zenobia Award (https://zenobiaaward.org), which notes that “historical board games are enjoyed by people from all walks of life, but their designers are predominately white men. The Zenobia Award hopes to change this by encouraging game submissions by people from marginalized groups.” 

I’ve been so impressed at the passion and lived experiences that prospective Zenobia Award designers have been bringing to the table. Zenobia teams all contain a majority of designers who come from historically marginalized groups. We have designers from all around the world who are bringing their own lived experiences and curiosities to their game designs.

After speaking to Zenobia Award board members Volko Ruhnke and Harold Buchanan, we decided to have a Friday event at the con to showcase five designers who are trying to make their mark on the hobby. I interviewed these two leaders back in November to get their thoughts on the challenges and possibilities of the Zenobia Award.

(image of Tindaya via Chris Bennett)

Far beyond the “obvious” choices of wargames like The Battle of the Bulge or D-Day, we saw diverse presentations about games involving Machu Picchu, the First Palestinian Intifada, and the Taíno Rebellion of 1511 among others.

This event had very positive reactions from hosts…

(image of Wiñay Kawsay via Chris Bennett)

Alison Collins, Zenobia participant and designer of the upcoming game Wiñay Kawsay: “From the get-go, everyone in the community, and especially the organising staff of SD HistCon, were so friendly and welcoming. Especially at the Zenobia Award panel I was involved in, all participants were so encouraging, respectful and genuinely interested in the work of myself and my fellow Zenobia Award contestants. Given my game is not a wargame nor traditional by any means, I wasn’t too sure how my work would be perceived. But participants seemed so excited by the diversity of ideas and topics that the Zenobia Award is bringing to the board gaming table, and the feedback from these discussions has been incredibly positive. 

…as well as Zenobia organizers.

Volko Ruhnke, board member of The Zenobia Award and creator of the COIN Series of games: “What occurs to me is that the excited reaction of players, fellow designers, and producers to the Zenobia designers and their game presentations at SDHistCon demonstrated that the historical gaming community is far from reluctant to embrace diversity. On the contrary, the hunger on the part of attendees for new designers, new design ideas, and new historical settings was palpable. The prospects are bright for a rapid broadening of our hobby!”

In addition, Liz Davidson of Beyond Solitaire (http://www.beyondsolitaire.net) ran a Saturday event on ‘Games with Difficult Topics: A Panel Discussion’. Liz describing her event: “Historical games cover a wide variety of difficult topics, some of which can strike very close to home. Join the panelists for a discussion about how to approach sensitive topics in historical game design, how to research them, and ultimately how to present them through board games.”

Liz was joined in her panel by game designers Volko Ruhnke and David Thompson. And the conversation online was so thought-provoking that there was an entire second conversation going on in the Discord chat channel. Pro as she is, Liz incorporated some of the questions and comments from the chat channel back into the video panel. 

Volko Ruhnke noted that one vigorously discussed topic was who should tell the stories of a given culture or social group? Should white US or European designers make games about non-European people? And if so, who needs to be involved in such a design?

These questions are not easy ones, and we can disagree on how to solve them. But I did see how many people were interested and invested in talking about them and working through the issues. All with the goals of better representation and more great games for us all to play.

I came away very impressed with what I heard, and the hunger for such conversations was obvious based on our post-con feedback from attendees.

Akar Bharadvaj, Zenobia participant and designer of the upcoming Tyranny of Blood: The Indian Caste System Under British Colonialism: “My highlight from the con was Liz Davidson’s moderated panel discussion on Games with Difficult Subjects. It made me thankful to enjoy a hobby that goes beyond merely being fun to one that truly produces art that educates players and builds empathy, and comes with such analytical rigor. The conversation reminded me that historical games require a more nuanced conversation than other media because they are participatory; for a short time, they grant players a temporary set of incentives and encourage them to make decisions that may be difficult or uncomfortable. I am currently designing a game about a difficult topic, so the panel discussion reminded me of steps I should take to ensure my design is respectful, such as giving agency to the oppressed, not oversimplifying historical events, and thinking carefully about the incentives that each faction would have had in the historical model.”

Clio’s Board Games, which muses about history, board games and history in board games: “This is a crucial discussion to be had – especially in wargaming, where the subjects depicted are typically a shade darker than in a Eurogame or “Amerigame”, and which typically take their history much more seriously than just using it as an evocative theme. David and Volko presented different stances on what they would or would not design, but all agreed that respect and research are key. There was also tremendous audience participation – the text chat was constantly overflowing with questions and contributions, including from designers such as Morgane Gouyon-Rety or Darin Leviloff.”

And what do more diverse game design voices bring to the table? Several things; we get to see subjects dealt with from a different vantage point, but we also see game designs that perhaps we have never encountered before. Games that can be played and studied to expand our own horizons.

One look at the game proposals that have made it through the first round of the Zenobia Award and we see game designs including:

  • Liberation-Haiti, by Damon Stone, which explores enslaved Africans and Maroons fighting for abolition and equality against the French colonial government, slave owners’ militia forces, foreign armies, and even the environment of the island itself.
  • Turmoil of Tiananmen, by Naomi Shi, Catherine Dillman, and Julliette Gage, which explores the protest that culminated in the June 4, 1989 Massacre, either as a student protestor or a government official.
  • Nuremberg Trials, by Grecia Miramontes Gaytan, reenacting the principle Nuremberg trial carried out by the International Military Tribunal, playing as the defense or the prosecution.

None of these would immediately be considered as a “wargame”, but they are certainly “historical board games”, and I would love to play all of them.

David Thompson, designer of Soldiers in Postmen’s Uniforms: “I was inspired by SD Hist Con’s goal of increasing diversity at the convention. The panels on the Zenobia award, difficult topics in gaming, and others supported this goal. It is inspiring to see conventions like SD Hist Con take on the challenge of increasing diversity in our hobby.”

In my own work at the Game Design Thinking research group at Stanford, we have proposed The Innovation Equation, which asks which components are necessary for a group of collaborators to encourage truly innovative thinking?

The Innovation Equation: Innovation = Friction + Inclusion + Trust (FIT)

  • Friction: In a process meeting, we need to get on the same page and reach a consensus. To have truly innovative ideas, though, we need to disagree. Do we have processes in place so the group can disagree and debate in a meaningful and respectful way?
  • Inclusion: Do we have different voices in the room? Are those voices truly being heard, acknowledged, and valued? Inclusion is the deliberate act of welcoming diversity and creating an environment where all different kinds of people can both succeed and thrive. Diversity is what you have in the room, but Inclusion is what you do with your voices.
  • Trust: Do we feel comfortable enough with this group to put our best work forward? Are we willing to take a chance of failing? Do we have the support of our collaborators? People take chances when they feel their collaborators have their back.

Let’s think of this in terms of our board game hobby. There is plenty of conversational friction if we read threads about board games on BGG or other forums, but it isn’t always of the productive kind. What we are talking about here is the more useful and respectful friction of discussing and debating ideas. From that process comes stronger ideas. And not only are we doing this with The Zenobia Award, but also with SD Historicon. We want to be a marketplace of ideas, to openly discuss them, support them and make them stronger.

Part of our commitment is to start reaching out to and inviting different voices to be a part of SD Historicon planning, and this is something that is ongoing. Watch out for more news here.

When the May event happened, we didn’t honestly know if a bunch of “wargamers” would invite new designers to the table. So we took things slowly, with just two new events and keeping an eye out for great hosts for other events.

But by my non-scientific count, we seem to have increased the number of event hosts coming from historically marginalized groups from four last November 2020 to 13 in May 2021. And more importantly from my view, we were able to bring some new game design voices to the table. Not only with Zenobia, but also with Liz’s excellent panel.

Harold Buchanan, founder of SD Historicon, board member of The Zenobia Award, and designer of Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection: “The SD Hist Con Zenobia event is the first time we have mixed core gamers and Zenobia Award contestants. The result was a resounding success; great experiences for the Zenobia designers and great experiences for the SD Hist Con attendees. Without a doubt the most discussed and commended event at the convention. As for me I could not be more excited about the prospects for the Zenobia Award and the interest my fellow hobbyists share in making it successful.”

This gives us all a big incentive to keep inviting in new people who want to share and to learn. Not only from Zenobia but from other areas of our hobby.

What do we get by adding different voices in the room? Research has found that it’s not enough to add more diversity to a group (or a hobby); those people need to be seen, heard, and understood. When diverse voices are truly heard and respected, we can get closer to a sense of inclusion, which is being a part of the group instead of speaking from “outside”. 

And as Jeff Dreher has noted, by adding different voices we will get completely new and novel takes on what a “conflict simulation” is. For example, with Alison Collins’ game Wiñay Kawsay, there is a conflict of competing historical narratives, which is immediately compelling to me. 

We are also seeing more games simulating historical social and economic conflict emerging as well, such as The Vote which is discussed below. Some of these games invite the player to engage with typically under-examined dynamics such as frank investigations of colonialism in the past and present.

(image via Fort Circle Games)

This year we are seeing games about the American womens’ suffrage movement; namely The Vote: Suffrage and Suppression in America by Amabel Holland and Hollandspiele, and Votes For Women by Tory Brown and Fort Circle Games. The latter had a thoughtful article on The Players’ Aid, and both games are celebrating the 100th anniversary of suffrage in America.

But Deeds! by Vinca is a Zenobia Award game design that takes this a step in a different direction and lets players fight for women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom as the NUWSS, WSPU, or WFL organization. Which is a part of history I’ve never studied and was instantly interested in playing.

Which brings us to trust. No one puts their best foot forward if they fear it’s going to get cut off. We need a place where new voices feel confident. And not just confident enough to succeed, but also confident enough to fail. Because failures, both large and small, are what allows us to learn and grow as game designers. And new voices need to know we will support them and hold them up when they falter. 

Liz Davidson, host of Beyond Solitaire channel of board game interviews and tutorials: “It was great to see the Zenobia Award represented at SDHistCon because historical games are for everyone. We should all want to see a wide range of historical topics and viewpoints represented. Games give us a unique opportunity not only to think about the past, but to actively participate in it. Everyone should be able to interact with the past in ways that resonate with them and that allow them to explore meaningful parts of history. We can’t do that without having a diverse hobby full of many different voices.”

So we have really spent a lot of effort making SD Historicon a welcoming place, and it is starting to show based on feedback from our participants.

Meeple Lady, rulebook editor and prolific board game writer: “For those interested in wargaming and don’t know where to start, the San Diego Historical Con makes it really easy to participate. As soon as you log into the Discord lobby, you’re greeted by friendly staff who work tirelessly to make the online convention more inviting and accessible to all gamers. There are so many different events — from demos, designer interviews, photography and videography seminars, and even scheduled games — that there’s bound to be something for everyone.”

Check out her write-up of the November con here

And we have so much more work to do here, but these are positive first steps. And we invite you to take those next steps forward with us. There are many wonderful people to meet and new games to play. Do you know new designers who feel that their voices aren’t heard? Do you know game publishers who are hungry for compelling new content? Do you know any (online or offline) gaming venues that would love more diverse participation but don’t know how to attract it? Let us know.

We are already starting to plan more virtual (and finally in-person) events over the next year and we welcome you to join us!


Author Bio: Chris Bennett is a longtime video game veteran (The Sims, Diner Dash, EA Sports) who is moving into tabletop with the upcoming GMT Games release In The Shadows: French Resistance 1943-44 with co-designers Joe Schmidt and Dan Bullock. Chris also lectures at Stanford University and blogs on his research page here: https://gdt.stanford.edu

I want to thank Chris for his efforts in putting this piece together to share with us the mission and happenings of SD Historicon as well as The Zenobia Award. I for one am all for more inclusion in wargaming and for expanding our focus on all types of historical conflicts around the world. These new looks at unknown topics will bring more education, more understanding and invariably a better gaming world as we will be learning and playing new conflicts from this rising generation of aspiring designers. I look forward to participating in future gatherings and learning.