Full Disclosure – A copy of HerStory was provided by Underdog Games for review purposes
March is Women’s History Month, and to celebrate both the month, and the 19th Amendment (granting women the right to vote in the USA), Underdog Games is selling their recently released board game HerStory, for $19.19 (US only, sorry fellow non-Americans).
I don’t know if it’s just me, but as soon as a game is billed as educational doubts creep into my mind. I blame the poorly made educational games I played as a kid in the mid 90’s (I have the same gut reaction to movie tie-in games too). HerStory is educational in that all the cards represent real women throughout history, and includes a small paragraph of what makes them notable.
How to Play
HerStory, designed by Nick Bently, Emerson Matsuuchi, and Danielle Reynolds is a 2 – 5 player set collection and card drafting game. In HerStory, players are authors and spend their turns researching, drafting, and completing chapters of a book chronicling the stories of remarkable women of History
On your turn, you take one of the three actions. When you research, you take a token depicting aspects of your research (reading, thinking, interviewing, and searching) from the main board and place it into your supply. When drafting a chapter of your book, you take a chapter card from the main board, and slot it into one of the two open spaces on your desk, reserving it for yourself, and scoring 2 points. The final action in the game is to complete a chapter, where you select a chapter card, either one you reserved previously, or, from the main board, and discard research tokens to fulfill the requirements of the chapter. Then you slot the completed chapter onto it’s space on your board and score the points in the top left corner (and earning 3 bonus points if you managed to fulfill the recipe exactly). Many characters have persistent research tokens that you can now use to finish future chapters.
HerStory ends when someone completes their 8th chapter. Players finish the round, ensuring that all players had an equal number of turns, then the player with the highest score is the winner.
It’s been a long time since a “how to play” section was pretty much a single paragraph. HerStory defies expectations. The box is much larger than necessary, but the cover is striking. My partner was actually the one to receive the package from the courier, and she remarked that she loved HerStory‘s cover. It was the kind of game that if she saw it on a shelf at a store, she would stop in her tracks and pick it up.
The cover depicts 16 of the 120 women featured in the game, with wonderful portrait illustrations by Eunice Adeyi and Cristina Aguirre. Some gold foil on the cover surrounding the title is striking. Opening the box, the first thing I saw was an envelope with some special gifts. Postcards, bookmarks, and stickers to keep these influential women prominent in our lives. The game itself is composed of a monogrammed bag of thick tokens, a large, stitched edge neoprene mat to serve as the main board, 5 chunky pushpin score markers, and 120 large sized cards, each one depicting an illustration of a different woman on one side, and a short blub of who they were and what makes them notable on the back.
No expense was spared in this production. The cards and the rule book have a luxury linen finish, the cardboard chits are very thick and feel sturdy in your fingers. I’m not a fan of the faux leather monogrammed bag, I’ve never liked the way faux leather feels on my fingers, but it’s sized correctly; there isn’t a lot of empty space in that bag. The plastic insert is well-designed, in that it was successful as keeping all the components in their appropriate wells, even when the box is stored on its side, a feat not all game inserts manage to achieve.
I will say the box for HerStory is much bigger than necessary, each of the card wells in the insert has space for hundreds of more cards. I suspect this extra space is so Underdog Games can release expansion packs, highlighting even more women in the future. Assuming they continue to support this game in the future, the box might fill up, but at the time of this writing, it’s a bit bare. Some part of me always wants a game box to be as small as possible, but I can’t deny that HerStory is striking, and part of that comes from the full size box demanding space on the shelf, and showcasing its gorgeous illustrations.
I like the theme of writing a novel about women in history, having each player spend several turns researching to acquire the knowledge to write a chapter feels clever. Taking tokens that represent interviewing, reading, and thinking about each of the figures feels important, in that it’s important to put in the proper research when writing about famous people, especially in a world rife with misinformation. When you finish the game and collect all your chapters together behind the book cover that is on the back of your player aid, you feel like you’re holding something you’ve built. It seems a bit silly in that they’re only the cards you collected, but they represent the effort you spent on researching and learning about each figure. The rulebook suggests that at the end of the game, each player selects one of their cards, and reads the biography to the table.
The core gameplay loop is incredibly simple. You’re either ‘researching’ to take a token, or, spending those tokens to complete a card. There’s not a lot of space for strategic depth here, once you’ve played through a handful of turns, you’ll have tried everything available to you. From that point on, it’s just repeating the same core loop and trying to optimize based on the cards that are available to you. Some cards will offer powers that you can use all game, like persistent research icons, while others give you benefits throughout the game (like Wangari Maathai, who earns you extra points for completing lower valued chapters), and others are simply high valued cards, like the 8 point powerhouse that is Joyce Chen.
Many of the cards have special abilities, but the ones I wish I saw more of were the powers that offer persistent research symbols. In one game I got 2 different persistent benefits cards, then I was able to start completing cards by only spending a single token, leaving my opponents in the dust. My 8 cards to their 5 felt like a momentum that couldn’t be overcome. The variety of the cards is deep, in that there are 120 cards and in a 2 player game you’ll only see around 25 cards per game. I kind of wish that every card offered a single persistent benefit in addition to their text power, as that would help give the feeling of momentum as the game wears on. At the start of the game, spending 3 or 4 turns just getting tokens, then another turn to earn a single card is fine, then at the end of the game being able to complete chapters with a single token felt great, and I wish all players could experience that satisfaction.
Some will be disappointed with HerStory because of just how simple it is to play. But I think its simplicity is a strength, in that HerStory is incredibly accessible. Anyone can play this game, and it’s the kind of game that many people should play. The turns are fast and smooth, downtime is minimal, the components feel nice to hold. More importantly, it’s great for highlighting and teaching about influential women throughout history. Showcasing the great things these women have accomplished despite the barriers of being a woman is inspirational, and the kind of product that I want in my house. Frequently I would complete a chapter, place the card on my player board, then think to myself “Who even is Golda Meir?” I liked having the option to just turn the card over to discover what made her notable (She was the first and, so far, only female Prime Minister of Israel).
In conclusion, I want you to ask yourself, “what is the purpose of this game for me?” If you’re looking for a complex board game with lots of interlocking mechanisms, and a deep strategic well to plumb, HerStory isn’t going to fulfill that need for you. If you’re looking for an attractive, easy to play game full of inspirational figures that will simultaneously provide you with an activity to engage with, and teach you about some of the accomplishments of women throughout history, then I can’t recommend HerStory enough. I want my little girl growing up knowing there’s nothing she can’t do, and exposing her to the stories of strong, female role models is a great way to start.