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Game Overview: HerStory, or Assembling Valuable History

by W. Eric Martin

Aside from hosting game days at my house and attending conventions, I try to game with “regular” people, too, whether my extended family, people I’ve just met, or Meetup groups. I’m fascinated by the different way that people approach games, both in the actual playing of them and the way they absorb or reflect upon the subject matter.

My mother-in-law, for example, was thwarted by Fuji Flush because she couldn’t understand why she’d want to play one card over another; the rules were simple, yes, but the gameplay was so abstract that she had no throughline to direct her toward a goal. She froze staring at the numbered cards, not wanting to make a wrong play and having no idea what would be right.

By contrast, HerStory from Danielle Reynolds, Emerson Matsuuchi, Nick Bentley, and Underdog Games has a straightforward goal that players can latch on to immediately: Create a “book” containing the stories of various women throughout history. Ideally you’ll score more points in the process than others and win, but if nothing else, you will have a book to hold as something you created, similar to how players get jazzed about creating a farm in Agricola despite less than 1% of them being jazzed about creating a farm in real life.

Every action in HerStory drives you toward that goal. On a turn, you:

• Draft a resource token from the central board and place it on your desk,

• Reserve a person card, taking them from the central board, placing them on your desk, and scoring 2 points, or

• Spend resources to move a person card from the draft area of your desk or from the central board into your book, scoring the points indicated on the card.

That’s it! When someone has placed an eighth card in their book, you complete the round, then tally points to see who wins. (As for the “book”, each person card has a biography on its back, so you can flip over all the cards you’ve played to read about all the women you’ve profiled.)

Gameplay feels modeled on Splendor and Century: Spice Road, which was a solo design from Matsuuchi. You get stuff to pay for things, then you pay for things, with some of those things providing bonuses.

In HerStory, the stuff you get is research, with the four icons representing interviews you’ve conducted, material you’ve read, and so on. If you pay for a card exactly, that is, if you spend only the exact resources required with no research wasted while completing your profile, you earn 3 bonus points.

In my experience over six games, some on a review copy from Underdog Games, the dangling promise of extra points sends a lot of players chasing after a fleeing dog. The thinking, of course, is that you’re going to spend tokens anyway, so why not spend the right combination of tokens to get extra points? If I take a token I don’t need, I can spend it on something else later, right?

But the tokens always depict 2-3 icons — sometimes with a matching pair but never with three of a kind — so putting together the precise cost with nothing extra can be challenging. Twice during the game you can clear the tokens and lay out new ones, and that’s another dangling promise that can (possibly) harm you more than simply overpaying and getting on with things.

Person cards have a point value from 0-10, with most of them having a power. The image above shows the eight I had in a winning game, and they’re a good sampling of what you’ll find on the game’s 120 cards:

• Harriet Jacobs and Susan La Flesche Picotte function akin to the cards in Splendor, giving you research icons to spend on all future cards, while being worth 0 points on their own.

• Wu Zetian is worth only 2 points, but she effectively pumps up every card worth fewer than 6 points (including herself!) by 2, so I earned a bonus 14 points with her in this game.

• Those bonus points and low-value cards helped with other powers that I had, with Cleopatra giving me 1 point each turn that I started in last place and Barbara McClintock letting me keep one spent research token if I were in last. (Other cards have a bonus power that triggers if you’re not in the lead.)

• Shirley Chisholm also tied into this “lead from behind” approach by being worth 6 extra points at game’s end if I weren’t in the lead.

• Caroline Herschel didn’t do much for me since I had only one card without a power, but that’s on me, not her.

• As for Lorraine Hansberry, she’s straight up 8 points.

The face value of these eight cards is only 19 points, with endgame bonuses of 22 points — which is only 41 of the 68 points I scored. If you reserve a card, you earn 2 points, presumably for calling dibs and committing to someone, so at most I scored 16 points for reservations, which makes 57 points…which means Cleopatra scored me at least 11 points…unless I earned bonus points for exact payments, and I don’t recall at this point whether that happened.

The HerStory design is clean in terms of the goal and what you can do on a turn, then the details can muddy the waters. Are 0-point cards like Harriet Jacobs worth the cost? Maybe! Depends on when you get them and what other cards you have and which cards opponents want to collect. Some cards give a bonus based on the number of icons in your collection, for example. Barbara McClintock is worth only 1 point, but she (potentially) lets you keep six tokens for future use, which means you’d save six turns — and what’s the value of a turn?

The 2-point drafting bonus suggests that a turn is worth 2 points since you’re spending a turn to do nothing but reserve a card that you might otherwise acquire directly from the market in the future, but I haven’t tracked the number of a turns taken in a game, so I don’t know for sure. If nothing else, I think the 2-point drafting bonus exists so that you can do something meaningful on the final turn (or turns) of the game if someone else is finishing their eighth card.

Sometimes, though, gameplay is straightforward, and a “dumb” strategy is the path to victory. In the image above, I started by drafting Frida Kahlo, who gives bonus points when you write a chapter, that is, put a card in your book, with seven or eight symbols — and those chapters are often powerless cards that are worth a lot of points — so I wrote about Frida Kahlo, then concentrated on high-value cards with at least seven symbols. Boom, that’s all I needed.

Well, sort of. I also needed other players not to take those cards, and before that I needed those cards to show up in the market. In a game with four or five players, the market is changing regularly, so if you want a specific card, you should probably draft it; if you care less and need only a powerless card or a card with icons or a low-value card, you can probably avoid the draft and buy directly.

When I played a two-player game, however, the market felt like it was barely budging. You could wipe the board of tokens, sure, but the cards were in place until one of you took them — and if neither of you cared for a card, that space was locked until game’s end. The two-player game felt less satisfying because of this, but I think that’s partly because I didn’t anticipate this lack of flow, so I made poor choices at the start of the game.

I played HerStory three times at home with gamers and three times at a game group with a wider range of players. The gamers (who were all men) thought the puzzle of being efficient was fine, if familiar, whereas the group players (who were mostly women) were more engaged with who was on the cards they acquired, sometimes reading them during play instead of waiting for the game to finish.

For more thoughts on the game and more examples of card powers, check out this overview video:

Youtube Video

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