Becky Ensteness was fed up. She was at a local wargaming convention, where enthusiasts schlep their pewter armies to beige conference halls for a long, meditative weekend of stone cold tactics, and Ensteness couldn't wait to get her orders out. She's been a hobbyist wargamer for decades. In fact, she runs a company with her husband that ships boxes full of miniatures to eager customers all over the world.
Ensteness specializes in the historical sets; no orcs, or elves, or dark magic, just a small cadre of frilly line infantry mirroring the feints and stratagems of vintage Napoleonic campaigns. But despite all of her obvious bona fides, Ensteness is a woman, and none of the men at the convention could quite believe what they were seeing when she turned up with her battalions.
Many of her fellow competitors persistently assumed she was a girlfriend, or a wife, or a daughter of one of the other tabletop generals—dragged along to the battlefront against her wishes. Eventually, Ensteness grew tired of correcting them, so she allowed the men to believe their biases.
"They're all white men, all 50 and older. I'm doing what I think is normal. I'm walking around and checking in on the other games, the same thing that they do when they're not in a game. But when I go to their games, they start saying, 'Oh, are you here to see your dad?'" says Ensteness in an interview with WIRED. "I was with my wargaming group, and they were exhausted from saying, 'No, she's in our gaming group. We play with her every week.' So everyone just started saying, 'Yes, she's my daughter.' I briefly had a whole group of adopted wargaming dads."
"I have to explain who I am," continues Ensteness, now speaking about the culture of wargaming as a whole. "With every single interaction that I have."
The tabletop industry is in the middle of an unprecedented boom, and while there aren't any metrics tracking participation rates along gender lines, it does appear that its core demographic has grown increasingly inclusive as the business expands. One of the most popular board games in the world—2019's Wingspan—was designed by a woman.
There are a bevy of non-men and nonwhite content creators starting up tabletop-themed YouTube channels, and some of the most popular pen-and-paper actual play podcasts, like Critical Role and Friends at the Table, feature a gender inclusive cast. In fact, there is an argument to be made that one of the most influential gamers in the culture remains Felicia Day, the actress of Supernatural fame, who founded the tabletop-centric media company Geek & Sundry in 2012.
But despite all of that progress, for as much as the tabletop sector seems to have shed its reputation as a sanctum of inveterate masculinity, the wargaming space hasn't caught up with the mean. According to the Great Wargaming Survey, a census-like questionnaire conducted by the magazine Wargames, Soldiers, and Strategy every year, the estimated makeup of women in the hobby was between 1.5 and 2 percent as of 2019. That doesn't seem like a stretch. Venture to any game store's dedicated Warhammer night, and you'll most likely witness a loose clique of white dudes crowded around the terrain. It's a stark contrast to the similar events held for Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, which, while still heavily skewing male, have certainly welcomed in a more divergent cast of players in recent years. It begs the question: Why hasn't wargaming experienced the same universal addition as the other kitchen table hobbies? Why are women like Ensteness still the outlier?
Katrina Ostrander works as the creative director of story and setting at the tabletop mega-publisher Fantasy Flight Games, and has authored dozens of different RPG texts and supplements. She's been in a dedicated Warhammer group since 2014, and has been around the industry long enough to witness its many ebbs and flows up close. As such, Ostrander tells me that wargaming is a different beast than board gaming and pen-and-paper hobbies. For one, purchasing a starter army in any miniatures game might cost upwards of $100, and keeping up with the meta and filling out the weak links in your trenches will require several further purchases. (A premiere, top-shelf board game, on the other hand, usually comes in around $60.)
Afterwards, amateur players are staring down an intense rules crunch—understanding the core mechanics of the game, but also the specific nuances and eccentricities of the faction of your choice. "You've got to learn two to three pages of rules per unit," says Ostrander. But that still doesn't account for the person you're playing against, who might have a precise, expert-level counterpunch cued up for your strategy of choice. That dynamic is what makes wargaming fascinating, of course, but it can also be disempowering for a newcomer—especially if that newcomer already feels like an outsider due to their gender identity.
"You have to trust in your opponent’s honesty and sportsmanship to graciously explain the rule without patronizing you," says Ostrander. "When you aren’t from the dominant group in a space, you’re extra worried about fitting in, so admitting that you don’t know something can be uncomfortable, and it can feel especially awkward to try to challenge or even correct your opponent who is from the dominant group about a rule. These confrontations are especially painful if your local meta includes highly competitive power gamers."
Ostrander tells me that she too has navigated the same skepticism that Ensteness reported. She too has been brushed off as "just someone's girlfriend," or has found her Warhammer knowledge slyly tested by dubious men who felt the need to vet their non-male adversary. Certainly, the same barriers exist in the other tabletop fields, but Ostrander notes that she's felt a higher degree of gatekeeping in wargaming than she's endured in board games or RPGs. Perhaps board games are simply more equipped to be approached casually—heavyweights in the tradition, like Pandemic, are cooperative, and a character-sheet adventure like Pathfinder is much more about the journey than the destination. A similar soft landing simply does not exist in the realm of painted minis and measuring tape. This is a scene that favors the grognards first, and grognards tend to be suspicious and fearful of any perceived outsiders.
"If you’ve only recently started playing or if you are still familiarizing yourself with all the different factions and their abilities, you’re going to feel left out of conversations that revolve around anything you’re unfamiliar with," continues Ostrander. "I find that more minis gamers use their encyclopedic knowledge to put down those without the same level of expertise than do board and RPG gamers."
Ensteness holds out hope that if more young people get acquainted with her corner of historical wargaming, its demographic will slowly widen to include different faces. Board gamers, she says, all tend to be millennials or Gen Xers, while the armchair commanders she throws down with on the weekends tend to be boomers who have traditionally understood the hobby as something you did away from your family. That thought is echoed by Teri Litiorco, another woman wargamer who writes about the industry. She has a daughter who's been playing with minis since she left the womb, which has revealed how important a loving, nonjudgemental environment can be when bringing someone fresh into the scene. There is nothing more beautiful and fragile than a nascent love of gaming.
"I have literally watched my daughter grow into wargames. She's 12 now, and played in a Warhammer tournament three years ago," says Litiorco. "It made me keenly aware of all the pieces it takes to make a wargamer. And if she didn't have that support structure, would have this been attractive to her? Would it even be on her radar? I don't know. It takes someone to introduce you into the hobby and break down those barriers."
That should be extra motivation for the arbiters of this hobby—Games Workshop, Fantasy Flight, Privateer Press—to start creating an ecosystem that can support curious kids like Litiorco's daughter. The dearth of women in wargaming isn't innate. We absolutely could one day inherit a world where every corner of the tabletop community, even the lands of the grimacing minis, could be truly egalitarian. The issues at play here obviously transcend the constraints of a game store—there is a long tradition of discrimination that has pushed women away from geekdom—but that doesn't mean that these publishers couldn't start chipping away at the issues.
"One of the stepping stones that I saw helping more women feel comfortable in gaming spaces was the creation of groups that were explicitly safe spaces. This sometimes meant women-only or gender minority-only groups, or certain game nights that were aimed at beginners," says Ostrander. "The purpose of these groups was to give newcomers to the hobby a chance to explore and make mistakes without having to worry about fitting in or earning a place. By reducing their exposure to the competitiveness or gatekeeping that could push them out of the hobby, women could gain the confidence to belong in those spaces and rebuff those who suggested otherwise."
So let's hope that those firms get to work, and slowly but surely bring wargaming up to speed with the rest of the beautiful, inventive, collaborative tabletop universe. Everyone deserves a chance to storm the breach with their space marines. In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war, and nobody around the table will assume that you're someone's girlfriend.