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Zenobia Award

O Updated
(Logo courtesy of Zenobia Award)
There Will Be Games

I think something that many of us in the hobby feel very bad about, are the many board games that are set against historic events, but that make no attempt to respectfully represent what happened and often sweep under the carpet the atrocities that were committed during the time that the games are set. So it's very refreshing to see people come together to create an award that tries to redress the situation and encourages the creation of historical games designed by people from marginalized groups. The hope is that these games will be much more representative, respectful and diverse. That's the Zenobia Award.

The name of this relatively new award is based on a "third-century queen of Palmyra who made a bid for supreme rule in the Eastern Roman Empire", as it says on the award's website. The website describes Zenobia by saying that she "demonstrated remarkable strength and daring, while proving to be a wise and enlightened ruler." It's clear that the award was named after a very strong person whose achievements were remarkable for their time. Zenobia is a fitting symbol for an award that tries to create a shift in historical board games away from the traditionally white-male-dominated design space towards games that are just as exciting and engrossing, but at the same time represent a more diverse history that's recreated by people whose culture and background is currently not much represented in our hobby.

The award's name is basically also its mission statement and it is very brave indeed to try and fulfil this mission in an industry that's still very slow to change and still very resistant to diverse voices entering the hobby or games being made that might force you to face tough issues and question who you are as a person.

As you look at the list of the Zenobia Award board members, you do see a lot of white people and the pronoun "he" in the bios is also very prominent. However, there are also women, people of colour and other under-represented groups. Yet, what is most important to me when I read through the bios is that the board and the other people in the Zenobia Award are all working towards the same goal: moving the board game industry forward towards more diversity and inclusivity.

There are names in the list that you will recognize, who have influence in the industry and who are able to actually make a difference. Look at the Who We Are page and you will see that these people want to make this work and want our hobby to become a better place for a wider range of people, because it is clear that the road ahead is still long.

Just look at the games that made it into the finals, it quickly becomes clear that there are still a lot of historic conflicts and struggles that have not had a voice in our hobby. The descriptions of these games, that made it all the way from proposal to final, talk about Indonesia's struggle for independence, the liberation of Haiti, working together as gender-defying queers in London, the function of Machu Picchu or preparing a Cherokee village for winter. There are settings and themes here that I don't think anyone in the hobby has ever thought about, let alone played a game about.

Of course, other games do touch on areas that other games have also dealt with, but they come from a different angle: the Orange resistance against the German occupation of the Netherlands, the Indian caste system under British Colonialism or the French intervention in Veracruz.

But the Zenobia Award does more than just look at and judge board games by designers from an underrepresented group, including women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people. Not only does it promote the award itself, which is something you'd expect to happen naturally, but the winners receive cash prizes to further their career and possibly more importantly, all contestants receive mentorship, including help to pitch their designs to publishers and how to deal with the publication process overall. It's concrete advice from people who have been through this process themselves, which is invaluable for any board game designer, let alone one from an underrepresented group.

The award also has a number of publishers as partners, who have promised that they are ready for the contestants' pitches. There are many big names on that list that you will recognize if you've ever played or at least heard about war games or other historic games. Of course, we will never know how many contestants pitched to how many publishers on that list, but the will is there and my hope is that it's only going to be a matter of time before we see a Zenobia Award winner being published by one of the companies on that list.

That's not where the story ends, though. After all, no publisher will consider publishing a game unless they think it's commercially viable. That's the way of this world, unfortunately. Sure, some of the designers who entered their game into the Zenobia Award might go on and run a crowdfunding campaign to make it a reality. That's quite possible for the cash prize winners. However, that's not really what this award is about. These games are supposed to make it into the mainstream of our hobby.

So it's up to us, as people who buy board games, to show that we're interested and that we're happy to pay hard cash for them. This article is my attempt to bring attention to the award and say that I want to play many of the games I've seen on the website. They all look very interesting to me and I hope you will also take a look at them, because they're not all war games. There is a really good range of settings and one of them might appeal to you.

If you see a game on the list and think one of your favourite publishers would be a great candidate to turn it into a commercial product, then contact that publisher and tell them. Maybe even ask the designer to send you some more information that you can pass onto the publisher. If enough of us ask for these games, the more likely they are to come into our hobby, so that we have a wider selection of games to choose from.

The Zenobia Award has laid the foundations, the publishers are lined up, but now it's up to us to demand that these games are made and put in stores for people to buy. That's when the award will be able to not only fulfil its mission, but go beyond and make a real change in our industry.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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jur's Avatar
jur replied the topic: #328817 16 Dec 2021 04:35
Thanks for bringing the Awards under a wider audience. The good news is that one of the finalists has already successfully converted via Kickstarter. Dutch Resistance: Orange Shall Overcome! found almost 700 backers.

Then again, this is one of the most conventional games in the list. I hope the other games see daylight as well. I would appreciate if TWBG kept us up to date on developments that they get to know of.
Virabhadra's Avatar
Virabhadra replied the topic: #328830 16 Dec 2021 12:21
I wasn't sure where else to mention it, so here goes: I heard about the Zenobia Awards about a week after I stumbled across the Kickstarter for Where Is Home, Truly. It was intended to be a game highlighting Southeast Asian refugee crises that seems to have been axed by an NGO right out of the gate. Just seemed weird, as otherwise it sounded like it could have been a Zenobia contender.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #328977 21 Dec 2021 09:48

An update from a contestant, but not winner.

Some of these may land at education publishers, which I'm of multiple minds about.
sornars's Avatar
sornars replied the topic: #328980 21 Dec 2021 10:42

Gary Sax wrote: Some of these may land at education publishers, which I'm of multiple minds about.

I'm curious to hear your concerns on this front. Are you unsure about the utility of games as a pedagogical device?

I'm not a heavy historical gamer but I have learned things superficially via exposure to historical games. Even basic stuff like the title of events in CDGs have lead me to google things and the games themselves have been useful in evoking a feeling or highlighting the tradeoffs between different factions but I've never walked away thinking that I've played through a proper run through of history that would replace a good book. I see games as useful for adding an emotional layer to history that's otherwise harder to convey through text alone but with emotion (and well, history) comes the problem of bias and context.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #328982 21 Dec 2021 12:59
I guess it depends what we mean by educational games. I think educational games have a long history of being much less interested in the game than heavy handedly focusing on "teaching," which is usually not mechanical but just words on cards, rulebooks, etc. I find games very educational when they teach using the mechanics.

But I don't know anything about this publisher. Could be fine!
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #332571 26 Apr 2022 15:52

Just wanted to bring to everyone's attention that GMT is P500ing a coop game on indigenous resistance that was in the Zenobia contest---Borikén