Professor develops board game for social change

by Sara McGahan | 3/2/15 5:02am

Monarch — a soon-to-be produced board game created by film and media studies professor Mary Flanagan — transports its players into a pan-cultural fantasy world where sisters, all heirs to the throne, vie to become queen. A strategy game for both gamers and families, Monarch features strong female characters, a feature typically uncharacteristic of board games.

“It shouldn’t be a shock, in this day in age, to play as a female character, but in fact, I have had some pushback on that — from board game publishers, for example,” Flanagan said.

This project has been in progress for at least four years, Flanagan said. According to the Kickstarter page, the game is set to come out in August, although Flanagan said that she is currently focused on simply getting the game manufactured and seeing how people like playing it. Funding for this project will come in part from a Kickstarter campaign, a popular crowdfunding website for independent creative projects.

One of the reasons Fla nagan created a Kickstarter was to “prove big board game publishers wrong” and demonstrate that there is a market for a board game with strong female characters. As of press time, over 65 percent of the $15,000 goal has been pledged from 188 backers, with 11 days left until the deadline. While Flanagan has been creating board games for the last five years, this is the first experience employing Kickstarter to generate funding.

Monarch is set in a fantasy world that spans cultures and time periods. For example, the game’s characters and architecture appear to be influenced by Western and Eastern traditions, Flanagan said. Although competitors onlyplay as female characters, male characters are represented in the game in other ways.

Flanagan is also the director of Tiltfactor, a Dartmouth-based game design laboratory that makes games for social change that address real world problems. Monarch is a project independent from Tiltfactor, though Flanagan and her team conducted a similar research-based approach when formulating and fine-tuning this new board game.

One aspect of the game that Flanagan and her team have researched [and considered was the question of when to reveal that competitors’ play as sisters in the game. While the fact that competitors play as females is highlighted on Monarch’s Kickstarter page, Flanagan and her team decided not to print this feature this on the game’s box. The longer they wait to reveal this fact, the more both female and male competitors get into their characters, Flanagan said.

Flanagan and her team garnered feedback in a variety of ways. She took Monarch to gaming conventions, such as Gen Con, Meaningful Play and the Boston Festival of Indie Games, but also collected feedback from comments posted on online. Reviews from players, whether “hardcore” gamers or those who have never played a strategy game before, are very helpful, Flanagan said.

Max Seidman ’12, a Tiltfactor game designer responsible for Monarch’s mechanics, user testing and production, said that they also took the game to an all boys school, and found that the game combats perceptions of gender roles in boys.

After working on a game for a while, Seidman said he tends to lose perspective and reach a point where he asks himself, “Is this actually still fun?” Taking Monarch to the public and seeing how players loved playing the game reignited his interest, he said.

Kate Adams, a 2012 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, illustrated the board game using scratchboard art. Adams scratched lines into a board, initially covered by black material, to form black and white images.Color is added later to the images in Photoshop.

Monarch’s five biggest supporters — who each pledged $399 or more on Kickstarter — get to choose someone to become part of the board game as an “unwanted guests,” which are character cards that, when drawn, hurt a player’s chance of winning the game.

Economics professor Jonathan Skinner, who contributed to the game financially, said that he did so because he likes to support the tremendous amount of creativity at the College.

Although he has never played Monarch, he expressed confidence in the game because of Flanagan’s track record, Skinner said.

Flanagan’s other work includes creating games such as Awkward Moments, a card game where players are forced to react to awkward situations, and Buffalo the Name Dropping Game, a 20-minute party game where players show off knowledge of pop culture, literature and everyday life.

Skinner later added that Monarch is going to be under his nieces and nephews’ Christmas trees at the end of the year.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!