After more than a decade of unprecedented growth, the audience for tabletop games keeps getting more diverse. So too is the subject matter of popular games, which increasingly include environmental and even social themes. But absent a few notable exceptions, historical games — that is, games inspired by real-world historical events — have lagged somewhat behind, with designers seemingly satisfied to simulate the same conflicts over and over and over again in miniature. In 2021, a blue-ribbon panel of industry experts decided to do what they could to change that. As a result, the Zenobia Award was born.
Open to anyone from an underrepresented (non-white, non-male) group, “including women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people,” three winners received a cash award for their mechanical marvels based on novel historical themes. But the real gift was the promise of mentorship from those same judges. Now one of the most outstanding and daring board game pitches made during the event will be brought to life soon thanks to a successful BackerKit crowdfunding campaign. Polygon recently sat down with the team behind Molly House, a hidden-role game set among the queer community in 18th-century England, to learn more.
Molly houses were a dazzling feature of 18th-century England, a cross between a tavern and a French salon where the queer community of the day would gather to socialize and celebrate. But thanks to the bigoted court system of that time period, the owners of the molly houses and their patrons were demonized and, ultimately, prosecuted in court.
“There [are] some newspaper clipping and weird tabloid-esque articles telling us all about people who went into the molly houses and experienced it firsthand, and talking about all of these amazing parties they were putting on,” said Jo Kelly, the game’s creator. “They had christening ceremonies where mollies would get splashed in the face with gin, and they would get a maiden name — which is the name that they would use inside the molly house. So you have characters like Princess Seraphina, Miss Kitten, Garter Mary. [...] Some of them were using the name outside the molly house as well, which I think is where we see a lot of parallels with trans people and trans identities today.”
An organized backlash in the form of a kind of proto-police force known as the Society of the Reformation of Manners eventually organized a series of litigious interventions that drove molly houses deep underground, eventually eliminating them from Britain entirely. As a result, much of the mollies’ culture was lost. It’s a subject with which designer Cole Wehrle (Pax Pamir, John Company, Oath: Chronicles of Empire & Exile) has become fascinated.
“Queer history is subject to routine obliteration,” Wehrle said. “It is something that is constantly erased, trampled over, built over, hidden, encoded.” But that’s not entirely true of the molly houses, whose right to exist was openly fought over in British courts.
“One of the weird quirks of this history is the fact that these people were being persecuted so vociferously,” said Kelly, “that this is all preserved in the records of the Old Bailey — the central court in London.” Ironically, Kelly went on, the rigor of that prosecution is now “one of the main reasons that we have all of this history preserved.”
The existence of those historical records is also due to the method by which the mollies were brought down, which was through informants drawn from inside the queer community — many of whom were blackmailed because of their association. It’s that historical anecdote that Kelly and Wehrle eventually settled on as the core mechanic in the game.
“For a long time we weren’t sure if it should even be in the game,” Wehrle said. “Which is a funny thing, because I think at various points it was probably my favorite thing about the whole project.”
During a game of Molly House, players will regularly be accosted by constables from the Society of the Reformation of Manners. If caught, players must draw tokens, called guilt tokens, from a bag.
“They’re worth negative joy points at the end of the game,” Kelly said. “But some of those tokens are informer tokens, and you can choose, if you want to, [...] to reveal all the informers you’ve got and put them back in the bag. Or you can choose to keep one. If you keep one, you become an informer against the molly house.” From that point forward, without saying a word to the other players, your new goal becomes the destruction of the molly house, and the reduction of all the other queer joy at the table.
“I really like hidden-role games,” Wehrle said. “But I also think hidden-role games fall into this problem because there’s too much certainty. When you’re playing a game of Werewolf, you know how many werewolves there are going to be in the town as a function of the player count. That just seems wrong.”
So, at the same time that Kelly’s design models the draconian legal framework being used against the historical mollies, it is also expanding and enhancing the traditional hidden-role mechanic found in Werewolf, Unfathomable (Battlestar Galactica), and other similar games.
“It’s had so many different iterations with so many different mechanics,” Kelly said, including a two-player head-to-head version that had one player taking on the role of the Society for the Reformation of Manners all by themselves.
“That didn’t really work,” Kelly said. “The story has always been the important part to me, and trying to find the right way to frame the tension between the joy on the one hand and the risk on the other hand, and the betrayal that can come out of those dynamics. That’s kind of been the driving force of the game.”
“These were not people who did this on a lark,” Wehrle said, speaking of the informants named in the historical record. “They were coerced, and I think it allows players to have a conversation about the different kinds of compromises that were presented to people in these positions. And that can be hard. Frankly, [it’s] sometimes maybe too difficult of a conversation for every game table. But we wanted it to be there for the ones that wanted to have that conversation.”
That conversation, the developers tell Polygon, is expanding for those who do want to have it even as the already successful crowdfunding campaign gains momentum on BackerKit. The next step? A kind of online book club digging even deeper into the topic, hosted in part by Wehrle as well as Katrina Marchant, the latter of whom holds a doctorate in early modern literature and culture during the Reformation period. That discussion airs on Twitch beginning Nov. 7.
The crowdfunding campaign for Molly House runs now through Nov. 10.