Fantasy Flight fail: Descent and (the new version of) Civilization the board game

Descent

I know it doesn’t get a lot of space here, but I happen to be a huge lover of board games. The more complicated, the better! The kinds of games I like to play tend to have lots of pieces and moving parts. So it shouldn’t be too surprising, given my previously stated interest in fantasy-themed roleplaying games, that I loves me some Descent.

Descent is a competitive dungeon-crawl board game in which one player plays the Overlord and the other players play heroes. The players are trying to defeat the dungeon while the Overlord is trying to kill them all until they lose. It’s a fantastic game that’s very high-crunch and very finely balanced – no mean feat when you consider all the possible ability permutations that both sides have to work with. Over the past few years, I have played a few hundred hours of Descent, so I think that I can state unequivocally that I’m a huge fan. The dungeon setup is fun, the abilities are fun, the competition is fun – it’s a fun game all around. The only part that isn’t fun is character creation.

See, Descent has pre-made characters that the players choose randomly at the start of a new game. But the odds are pretty overwhelming that when we’re drawing characters, I won’t get to play a female character. (I’ll disclaim at this point that we don’t have all the expansions. We own and use the base game, Well of Darkness, and Road to Legend.) See, out of the 23 possible characters I have to pick from, only seven heroes are women:

It might look ambiguous from the cropping in some of these portraits, so let me assure you that it’s quite clear when looking at the figures that only one of these characters (Tethrys) is wearing pants – and she has a ridiculous belly shirt. And of course we have stupid sexualized poses, like Astara thrusting out her ass while spell-casting and Red Scorpion managing to show off both her strangely pointed tits and ass at the same time. Thankfully, the fact that the figures are paint-able means that it’s possible to fix some of the more egregious aspects of these character designs. When painting our figures, my husband made sure to paint Astarra so that she’s actually wearing pants:

He also made her not white since all of the human heroes are so very, very white. But that’s an entirely different kettle of fail.

So, you know, not surprisingly my only options for female characters are sexualized Barbies in armored lingerie. Aggravating.

Even more aggravating is the fact that the two worst characters out of these 23 are not only female, but the least clothed females in the bunch – Lyssa and Red Scorpion. Even though the rules state that you have to play the hero you select, I’ve house-ruled that I am allowed to mulligan Lyssa and Red Scorpion since not only are they irritating to look at, but they’re also completely broken and useless in play.

Not surprisingly, the male characters enjoy a diversity of depictions that the women don’t get. And of course, the vast majority of them get to wear freaking clothes:

What’s interesting to note here is that there are quite a few non-humans tossed into the mix, which is not the case for the female characters. So apparently only men get to be awesome and bestial looking, or awesome and undead (whatever), because it’s too important that women look sexay to allow them to be anything other than human. Also, every single one of these characters has a great unique ability. Some of them aren’t necessarily my play style, but they’re all sufficiently rewarding that I wouldn’t mulligan any of them.

Now there are a few male characters that are scantily clad as the female heroes, but when you examine them, it becomes clear that you can’t exactly compare them with the unrealistic lingerie ninjas that the female heroes are depicted as:

First off, two of the four heroes are not human. The two non-humans are also pretty clearly not sexualized to the ridiculous extent that the female heroes are. They’re posed in such a way as to emphasize their muscle-y arms, and their poses show them poised on the brink of action. The only thing the female heroes are posed on the brink of is a pole-dancing routine. And while I’ll give Fantasy Flight props for actually depicting nipple on Runemaster Thorn (seriously, people, they exist), I wouldn’t call this a sexualized depiction either.

The only character that I think you could make a half-assed argument for being sexualized would be Nanok, and honestly this pose is way more about making him look tough and badass than it is about making him look sexay. Note that he’s not contorted into anatomically improbably positions, his anatomy is pretty well human normal, and he’s not thrusting his junk at the viewer.

All in all, as far as character design goes, the guys at Fantasy Flight get a big fat F from me for Descent. I know it comes as a shock, but they might want to remember that there are women who actually play this game. It would be appreciated if there could be some female heroes that aren’t ridiculous fantasy cheesecake in the future, rather than me having to choose between playing a character that doesn’t look like me or a character that does look like me, but pornified.

Civilization the board game (the new version)

This is a game I picked up more recently, and actually the reason I was prompted to write this post in the first place. We’d played the Eagle Games Civilization boardgame (not the original that came before that one) and were very disappointed in it. So when the new game came out and was well-reviewed, my husband asked me to pick up a copy at GenCon, which I did.

Part of the randomized setup for the Civ board game is choosing a leader, and I do have to at least acknowledge that the leaders are evenly split male/female. However, there’s a pretty big difference between how the male leaders are depicted and how the female leaders are depicted:

TOP: Cleopatra, Catherine the Great, and Wu Zetian BOTTOM: Caesar, Bismark, and Lincoln

How surprising. All of then are shown as being completely covered while all of them women have their breasts exposed. Yes, they’re at least posed as being strong and confident like their male counterparts and not like strippers like the Descent women, but that’s only a small mercy. All of the male leaders are wearing outfits true to their era, not distorted to emphasize secondary sex characteristics. But the female leaders have had their costumes distorted for the purposes of showing off their breasts.

Now I’ll admit that Wu Zetian is a bit ambiguous. When you look at paintings that purport to depict her, the height of the collar varies wildly. It’s entirely possible that her costume would have displayed that much cleavage. However, as Wu Zetian displays the least amount of breastage, I’m more concerned with Catherine and Cleopatra.

My husband was kind enough to do some digging for me and he discovered that the dress that Catherine is wearing is actually a formal dress version of a regimental uniform. When you look at the dress, it’s pretty clear that the collar is not that low. There’s just no way it would have exposed that much cleavage. Also, if you compare the portrait of Catherine with the photo of the dress, she’s wearing the dress with all of the buttons unbuttoned, which is clearly now how the dress is meant to be worn – not with how closely tailored the jacket is.

Now it’s true that when you look for pictures of Catherine the Great, you do see several that show her wearing very low-cut corsets. But none of them are so low that her breasts are on the verge of popping out of her corset. And anyhow, if they wanted to show Catherine in a cleavage-y corset they should have picked one of the many dresses she wore that showed actual cleavage rather than a regimental uniform that didn’t show any.

Cleopatra is even worse, what with her incredibly distorted anatomy. She’s got a severe case of Chest TARDIS, not to mention Invisible Corset Syndrome. (The only way to get a waist that small is with extreme corseting, only I definitely don’t see a corset…) Also, her boobs are gravity-defying and kind of freaky-looking. They’re round on the inside but not on the outside?

What’s even dumber is that if Fantasy Flight had wanted to depict her as being bare-breasted, they would have had a pretty strong historical record to point to for backup. Instead, they chose to cover her up with a metal bikini tube top, which is historically and culturally inaccurate, not to mention insanely stupid. Now I realize that this being North America, they couldn’t expect to sell a game with a bare-breasted woman as a possible leader. (As a friend of mine pointed out recently, we all know that the nipple is the evil part of the breast.) But they had a perfectly cleavage-y, non-breast-revealing option available to them which they decided to ditch so that they could make her more naked without being TOO naked.

So I guess it would be kind of a relief that the game itself was kind of disappointing, were it not for the game’s hefty price tag. Still, it makes me a little sad that as much as both of these games fail at depicting women, the game that fails less is the game that is less fun to play. Looks like I’ll just have to keep hoping for male characters next time I play Descent.

40 thoughts on “Fantasy Flight fail: Descent and (the new version of) Civilization the board game

  1. It’s kind of sad, but I’m not sure I could come up with an interesting response to the fail!women anymore. They’re disappointing, but just more of the same. =/

    The thing I will say is this: why aren’t there any attractive male options? The choice is basically between “sexy” women with incomprehensible anatomy and ugly and/or freakish men, which seems like a “heads you win tails I lose” situation to me. =P

    • I’m with you on this one. I could be a female and have the hard choice between having a shirt or trousers or I could be a man and be either a mutant or a scowling tank with a jaw you can break a bat over.

  2. About Cleopatra I read somewhere (and I think that somebody from the comments here pointed me there) that women depicted with almost revealed nudity are more sexy to the eye of a ,,standard” male beholder than women depicted with revealed nudity (something about the idea that nudity could happen any second making it more sexy).

    Also from the picture you have shown all I see Tethrys wearing is some long boots, not pants. Could you show me the part where she has pants on?

    • About Cleopatra I read somewhere (and I think that somebody from the comments here pointed me there) that women depicted with almost revealed nudity are more sexy to the eye of a ,,standard” male beholder than women depicted with revealed nudity (something about the idea that nudity could happen any second making it more sexy).

      Yeah, that was probably one of my comments. There’s a page on TV Tropes about it, which refers to it as the “Theiss Titillation Theory.”

      • Not the point, they had a couple of fully covered historically accurate dresses to choose from but instead opted for the sexy dress that is a history fail.

        • Well, they have to get “the sexy” in somehow. No idea why. But considerinng they do it every tiime there must be reason. Either the artist are as horny as thousand goats or this stuff really makes it sell better. Knowing some artist I think the former is more likely to be the reason than the later.

          • What inertia does not count for a reason anymore?

            Come now there was a comment thread in the previous post that debated the whole copy of a copy of a copy of a ……. copy of a real thing. How is that not inertia?

    • They’re actually pants. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but pretty clear when you have the actual figure. It’s just the way the portrait is cropped.

      • So she gets both a shirt and trousers and only has to expose her midriff? Even her chest is covered by what appears to be a practical and warm cloak. My god, she must have a terrible stat line.

        • Actually she has a pretty nifty unique ability and her stats are pretty decent. Out of the rogue/ranger characters, Tethrys is tied with Grey Kerr (male) for my favorite. So there is that.

  3. Civilization – the Cleopatra pic is a bit silly and distracting, agreed.

    Descent:
    1. Several of the female characters have pointy ears, presumably elves not humans.
    2. Most of the female pics appear sexualised to some extent, yup – Red Scorpion very overtly so. I’d say the marketing is primarily aimed at teenage male players, sales to female gamers not being a major consideration. Andira, Laurel, Lyssa and Tethys pics are not strongly sexualised though, I’d reckon they were aimed either at female players or at male players (like me) who don’t want *all* the female characters looking like strippers.
    3. I’m not familiar with Descent, the whole ‘random hero’ thing seems quite strange!

    • 1. Elves don’t really count, since they’re basically pretty humans with pointy ears. By nonhuman, I meant that there are no minotaurs or lizard-women like you have with the male heroes.

      2. Dude, this game is so not aimed at teenagers. Teenagers just don’t have the cash to pony up for these games. The base game costs seventy dollars, and the expansions weigh in at a hefty fifty each. (At least that’s what they cost here in Canada.) Since the expansions make the base game significantly more fun, for optimal play you’re going to pick up at least one, probably two. With that kind of price tag, Fantasy Flight is going after adult gamers with discretionary income – not teenagers. Also, board gaming is not an inherently male activity anyway. Out of my friends who are board game nerds like me, fully half of them are female. Considering what an expensive hobby board gaming can be, insulting half of your potential customers is pretty stupid.

      3. It’s quite enjoyable, actually. It means the replayability is almost endless since the combinations of characters and random abilities are different every time.

  4. “The only character that I think you could make a half-assed argument for being sexualized would be Nanok, and honestly this pose is way more about making him look tough and badass than it is about making him look sexay. Note that he’s not contorted into anatomically improbably positions, his anatomy is pretty well human normal, and he’s not thrusting his junk at the viewer.”

    Romance novel covers are aimed at a female readership, the standard sexualised male-character depiction is not ‘thrusting his junk at the viewer’ – that’s not what the female readers want (who would? Gay men?) – instead bare male shoulders are ubiquitous and emphasised, as with the Nanok pic. The difference is that in the romance novel cover the bare-shouldered male is looking at the female protagonist, often embracing her.

    • I think trying to use romance novels covers as a comparison is problematic, because they’re generally rather gender-normative despite selling hot guys. A quick Google Image Search gives me a lot of romance covers with women who are just as, if not more, sexualized as the men they’re sharing a cover with, and the Barbarian archetype is close enough to the male version that we get Fabio posing for the cover of a videogame (and a whole bunch of “highly submissive woman fawns all over barbarian hero,” ick).

      There’s obviously not going to be a lot of “thrusting his junk at the reader” out there in general, because I would imagine it takes a lifetime of exposure to make those poses not seem horrifically-unnatural, and that’s just not there for male depictions. That those absurd poses have become associated with women just makes it even harder to transfer over to guys, because society says that guys who do girly things = hilariously embarrassing, which doesn’t really transfer over into attraction very well. In general, though, bare shoulders aren’t used as a replacement; often, female-targeted sexy guy art has characters wearing unbuttoned shirts/jackets that cover the shoulders completely. The attention seems to be focused lower than that — on the guy’s chest, his stomach, and as far down as the artist can feasibly show while still covering the necessary bits. I’m not sure what to call those lines that follow the line of the groin, but those show up a lot. I’ve seen shoulderblades and back used to good effect too (here’s an example), but that’s not really what’s going on in that Nanok image since he’s so hunched over (and honestly kind of lumpy looking).

      The less anatomically-distorting aspects of the female depictions do show up sometimes on fandom depictions of guys, too — pursed lips, sultry eyes, “available” body language, that sort of thing.

      A final consideration is this — the guy’s face. Generally speaking, ugly faces seem to be a turn-off, so if a male depiction doesn’t have an attractive face, it’s much less likely for him to be sexualized regardless of his amount of clothing.

      • Those lines on the lower abdomen are called the Adonis or Apollo’s belt (or more sciency as the illiac furrow, wikipedia ftw :D). It’s a part of the male body that I think is generally seen as sexy, yet rarely makes an appearance on male characters, even shirtless ones. I think if game companies wanted to create a counterpart to the boobular sexy woman, having a man with an exaggerated (cause lets face it, boobs are almost always exaggerated in games) Adonis belt and abs would be a good start.

        • Wow, even the name screams “this is meant to be sexy.” 😄

          It does seem like it could be a convenient way to describe why a particular shirtless guy isn’t being portrayed in the same way as the women usually are if that should be visible and isn’t (though that’s obviously not all of it). I’m not quite sure how it could be overly-exaggerated the way that boobs are, though.

          • I think we don’t see it a lot because of design decisions: a lot of the shirtless characters either have high waist pants/skirts (like Kratos who is definitely buff enough to have a serious furrow goin on), they’re not quite buff enough to have one, or the furrow is there, its just very understated. As a comparison see this gentleman, Adonis himself, and the male Castanic from Tera, which are supposed to be super sexy (only a few of their armor sets show this much of the furrow the rest of their pants sit higher up, I think that says something).

            It’s probably because of that whole manly man game developers dont want actually sexual male characters in their game, preferring instead to just have super strong and heavily muscled characters and call them sexy and equivalent to boobular female characters. I think much like breasts, the furrow could become easily exaggerated to enhance the sexay, even beyond normal human or physically possible proportions: makin the indention deeper, the ridge more pronounced, the line going higher up the abdomen, and of course pairing it with clothes that go so low as to juuuust barely conceal the goods.

  5. I am just dropping by saying that I like this blog you’ve got. Keep up the good work🙂

    On the subject of sexualized female characters; what do you think of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn? I think the female characters are all awesome, and the only one who has a sexualized pose is lesbian; and not the kind of “barsexual” character either. The most sexualized character overall in Fire Emblem 9/10 overall is probably Volug, who is male, and basically just created to be eye candy to the female players… so yeah, I’d like to hear your thoughts on them🙂

    • I haven’t actually played Fire Emblem, so I’m afraid I can’t offer much intelligent comment. Though I have heard other people mention it as having good female characters.

      • Okay, well, I strongly recommend them🙂 The female cast is just as diverse, colourful and strong as the male cast.

  6. Regarding Cleopatra, of course we can’t have a topless woman who is also in charge, authoritative and confident. That would mean Cleopatra’s body is free from men’s control, and we can’t have that.

  7. One bizzare sidenote, Catherine the Great’s cleavage stops midway up her chest. It looks really weird, like her breasts are somehow fused together. Does the artist even know what breasts look like? Just another example of the absurdity. Probably more a result of lazy artists than anything.

    Also, if they had drawn Lincoln thrusting his junk out, I would buy this game today. If we’re gonna have ridiculous sexualized depictions, let’s make it equal and have some fun with it!

  8. I remember when I first saw Strong Female Characters on Hark! A Vagrant I thought “Oh shit, it’s Red Scorpion.” What. A. Pose.

  9. To give FF a bit of credit, the women characters in Arkham Horror are numerous, have some great abilities, and aren’t ridiculously sexualized. A few characters – the Actress, as I notably recall – show some skin, but it’s in-character for them to do so. The Scientist, the Researcher, the Writer, and a bunch of others, are all really reasonably depicted.

    Which, of course, makes Descent that much more maddening, for its insistence on thrusting the sexay-babe thing in our faces. Come on, FFG, FFS! You can do SO MUCH BETTER.

  10. Quite possible; it isn’t perfect, certainly. But it shows a much better attention to the concept in general than Descent. I’d be happy to scan the various characters, if you wanted to do a look at it – my artistic skills in figure drawing wouldn’t suffice. I have all the expansions with characters in them.

    There’s still a pretty bad racism thing going on among the women: the Martial Artist is East Asian, and the Athlete is a Black woman. I’m sure the defence would be that it’s supposed to depict the 20s, but I don’t think that’s good enough: it’s the 20s with otherworldly monsters and real alien gods, I think we could reach a little further towards a non-white-male audience.

  11. Hey, what a coincidence, there’s someone else that enjoys board games along with video ones. I don’t find too many people like that. (which is why I haven’t been able to play a decent game of Twilight Imperium for a year now)

    “Instead, they chose to cover her up with a metal bikini tube top, which is historically and culturally inaccurate, not to mention insanely stupid.”

    Out of everything that’s documented on this blog, this stuff is by far the most stupid. If they’re going to sex something up, is it too much trouble to at least put some actual sexuality into it? God, you can even see how much of a last minute addition that bikini is. It clashes with the rest of the image so much. It’s just the tackiest thing. Even if you account for censors, I don’t think children even want to buy board games in the first place. Completely idiotic from every angle.

    The oddest thing about the sexist presentation is that Wu Zetian is clearly there to improve the balance of women to men, (Seriously, her Civ5 Civlopedia entry is basically “She was great because she ruled China while being a woman.” Compare to people like Catherine the Great, Queen Elizabeth, or any other female ruler that actually did things worth remembering) so it’s obvious that the series is at least somewhat attempting to correct for gender-bias, just failing really badly. It’s strangely hilarious. Like watching your drunk friend trying to ride a unicycle.

  12. Many of those characters in Descent are also in other FF games. I remember opening up the Runebound box and facepalming at the Red Scorpion character card and miniature. It’s embarassingly bad, period. Keep in mind that I’m male and I object to a lot of the blatant cheesecake art in my games because it makes it harder for gamers to be taken seriously overall.

  13. Well, when the artists are predominantly straight males (and i’m just assuming), I guess it’s difficult for them to decide what’s sexy in a man. Maybe they think what they draw is sexy, I dunno *shrugs*

    I suppose it’s harder to sexualize men. If you take Red Scorpion’s pose and compare it to http://www.girlsandgaming.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/05/kratos.jpg it doesn’t really have the same affect.

    The only real sexualization of male characters comes in fan art form. Usually things like http://fc09.deviantart.net/fs45/i/2009/105/0/3/Dante_Devil_May_Cry_by_Isthar_art.jpg I do wonder what the world would be like if all male characters were modestly fit with low, unbuttoned pants….

    • I suppose it’s harder to sexualize men. If you take Red Scorpion’s pose and compare it to [Kratos link] it doesn’t really have the same affect.

      I’m not sure this is a fair assessment, because the intent behind Kratos and Red Scorpion is clearly different. Kratos is, first and foremost, a competent fighter. Red Scorpion is contorted in ways that make no sense for a fighter. They’re not really comparable.

      The only real sexualization of male characters comes in fan art form. Usually things like [Dante fanart link] I do wonder what the world would be like if all male characters were modestly fit with low, unbuttoned pants….

      Well, there is Square-Enix (or at least the Square part of it), which at the very least seems unafraid to create mostly-naked and model-perfect guys. Unsurprisingly, they tend to draw in a significant female audience. 😄

      • That’s true. A lot of Square Enix’s male characters are pretty boys. I had a leetle crush on Squall when I was a kid….

        “Kratos is, first and foremost, a competent fighter. Red Scorpion is contorted in ways that make no sense for a fighter.”

        Oh well yeah. If Red Scorpion’s leg wasn’t twisted up behind her back like that, the 2 poses would be similar. The difference is that Red’s is more sexualized cos it’s a decent boobie angle.

        • That’s true. A lot of Square Enix’s male characters are pretty boys. I had a leetle crush on Squall when I was a kid….

          And they’re not just pretty — they’re clearly designed with women in mind, too. They actually get “hey, look at me!” moments instead of just being generally nice-looking because they follow a male ideal (Square-Enix is probably the only company in gaming who would have an NPC comment on how much she would like to see their most iconic villain stripped to his waist).

          Oh well yeah. If Red Scorpion’s leg wasn’t twisted up behind her back like that, the 2 poses would be similar. The difference is that Red’s is more sexualized cos it’s a decent boobie angle.

          I don’t think the poses are all that similar, apart from both characters bending over, and even then, Kratos bends in a much more normal way than Red Scorpion does. Kratos’ pose is very strong — he has a good base from which to attack, he can probably move if necessary, and his blade in front of him, so he’d be in a good position if he was attacked (he’d probably be better if his sword-thing was pointed off at the enemy rather than to the side, but I’d still think twice about attacking him). Red Scorpion has no base at all — one leg is twisted behind her, and it doesn’t feel like she counterbalances properly on the other one. Her pose is supposed to make her look flexible, but it massively reduces the amount of movement options she has — if someone attacks from her left side (which is where she’s looking and therefore likely where her enemy would be), there’s no way she could move to intercept it, and if someone grabs her illogically-extended weaponless front hand, it’d be terribly easy to for them pull her over and onto their own blade. Plus, the angles of Kratos’ head, shoulders, waist and hips are feasible for someone with a spine, whereas Red Scorpion appears to have no torso whatsoever.

      • I remember being shocked when I saw the Vagrant Story lead character in semi-assless chaps. That’s the kind of male costume you don’t see everyday in the gaming world outside of Square, that’s for sure!

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