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The Zenobia Award: Improving Diversity in Historical Board Game Designs

Candice Harris
United States
Los Angeles
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Board Game: Freedom: The Underground Railroad
A little less than a year after I got into the hobby, I stumbled upon Brian Mayer's Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games, probably as a result of randomly rummaging through "Top 10 Co-operative Board Game" videos on YouTube. I was shocked by the bold idea of someone creating a board game focused on slavery in the United States, but then I was delighted and impressed after I bought it, played it, and discovered firsthand how tastefully it was designed for covering such a sensitive topic. Not only is it an excellent game, but it has a unique theme and it's educational and packed with historical facts.

Several months later, I picked up Joel Toppen's Comanchería: The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire from GMT Games when looking for a challenging solo game. I loved the idea of playing a game from a Native American tribe's point of view. It was a topic I knew little about, and it made me curious and excited to understand it better.

Board Game: Comanchería: The Rise and Fall of the Comanche Empire
Freedom and Comanchería really kick-started my love and appreciation of historical board games. This naturally led me down the wargaming path, which I've unexpectedly grown to absolutely love. If you asked me two years ago, I honestly could not have seen myself in a million years being so into historical board games, and here I am now with a game shelf full of them.

In early October 2020, Volko Ruhnke (creator of the COIN series and designer of Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001 – ?) noticed my enthusiasm for historical games and contacted me to tell about the Zenobia Award — a game design award and mentorship program targeted at designers from underrepresented groups and game designs focused on underrepresented historical topics.

Shortly after geeking out from the fact that Volko Ruhnke (one of my newest favorite game designers) PM'ed me on Twitter, I hopped on a Zoom with Volko and Harold Buchanan (designer of Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection) to further discuss the Zenobia Award. I was instantly on board with its mission and goals, and I knew I wanted to be involved.

The Zenobia Award was officially launched on November 22, 2020 with the following press release from volunteer, Dan Thurot (Space-Biff!):
The Zenobia Award
Underrepresented Designers, Underrepresented Topics

From gallery of candidrum

History is big. So big that it belongs to everybody. Every individual, no matter their background or identity, connects to history in unique and important ways.

So why do historical board game designers seem to fit into the same mold? You know the type. White, male, straight, usually academic, often a part-time dabbler in spurious facial hair.

We've wondered the same thing. Which is why we're pleased to announce the Zenobia Award, a board game design contest for underrepresented groups.

That could mean you! Whether you're a woman, person of color, LGBTQ+, or otherwise underrepresented, the Zenobia Award is all about helping you break into the tabletop game industry. That can mean boards, cards, dice, tiles, miniatures — whatever your game requires, if it's about a historical setting, we want to help your voice be heard.

How will we do that? Good question. The Zenobia Award is more than a fancy name. It's a mentorship, intended to pair you with industry veterans who will help develop your game into its best form. It's an entry point, with partner publishers standing by to discover the most interesting titles and help bring them to print. And it's a contest, complete with a cash prize, public celebration, and genuine wooden trophy analog — that's right, a plaque!

Is there a hitch? Nope. There's no cost of entry, no obligation to list your mentor as a co-designer, and you keep the rights to your game — unless you sign a contract with a publisher, of course. That's entirely up to you. Being a game designer, you know the importance of the little rules. So take a look at the fine print over at, and welcome to the Zenobia Award.
I'm really excited and grateful that the Zenobia Award has launched, and even more thrilled to be involved as a volunteer. It's a great starting effort for improving diversity in the historical board games. Plus, I'm really looking forward to seeing the results of having more different perspectives and varied historical topics developed into awesome new board games for us all to explore, enjoy, and learn from in the future.

If you're interested in learning more about the Zenobia Award, you can check out all the details on the official web site. Also, Liz Davidson from Beyond Solitaire hosted an excellent roundtable discussion with some of her fellow board members that further expresses the purpose and passion behind the Zenobia Award.

[Editor's note: The logo for the Zenobia Award will be changing in the near future as board member Geoff Engelstein notes in this tweet: —WEM]
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