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Meeting of Minds – Joseph Kelly

One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.

I’m jealous of the shirt

At The Giant Brain we’ve been fans of the Zenobia Award ever since they were announced in 2021. Designed to encourage people to enter the world of historical game design who wouldn’t normally think to do so, the awards have seen games with diverse themes tackle a range of historical events.

Joseph Kelly was one of the designers who made it to the finals of the Zenobia Awards. Their game Molly House looks at a particular period of LGBTQ+ history in the United Kingdom where the community had to hide their meeting places and be ever fearful of the authorities. 

I jumped at the chance to interview Jospeh about their experience in getting into game design, the Zenobia Awards, and of course their first game Molly House

You are fairly new to the world of game design. What made you want to take that step from playing games into designing them? 

I’ve pretty much always been playing games. I have vivid memories of playing classics like Monopoly and Cluedo with my family, and I even used to make my own versions of them – just little simple roll and move games. I kind of fell out of doing it at some point, and got more into music, which pretty much took over for a while. As I was getting back into modern board games several years ago, I started looking into the people who made them and how they did it, and I found myself remembering these little board games I used to make, and wanting to give it a go again.

I’ve not played much in the ‘historical’ genre of tabletop games. How did you come to be interested in designing a game in that space? Can you give us a bit of historical background about your game ‘Molly House’?

Honestly, it wasn’t a genre I had much experience in until a couple of years ago. Most of the historical games I was aware of were wargames, simulating historical conflicts, which is generally not my area of interest. I liked Twilight Struggle and had just started getting into Pax Pamir when the announcement of the Zenobia Award came out, and the concept of expanding the ideas and topics that historical games were covering really appealed to me.

Molly House is set in 1720s London. Molly houses were meeting places for queer people in coffee houses, back rooms of pubs, and private residences, and they offered a safe space to build communities, explore intimate relationships, and express identity through dressing up and putting on performances and parties. They were also one of the targets of the Society for the Restoration of Manners, a group of moralising men who sought to stamp out sin and vice with their own police force, and several molly houses were placed under surveillance and ultimately raided.

What was it like participating in the Zenobia Awards?

It was an amazing experience. All participants were offered mentorship, and working with my mentor really helped me to think about how to represent the history and shape the game. I’ve had the chance to talk with a lot of the other participants, and we’ve built a great network of designers who are working on some of the most interesting games in the space at the moment. I don’t think I would have even conceived of the game without the Zenobia Award, and the support I received while working on it has been fundamental in having the confidence and tools to create it. I’m incredibly grateful to have been involved, and would encourage anyone who is interested to get involved in the future.

Molly house prototype

Molly House tackles a difficult piece of LGBTQ history. How did you go about approaching the attitude of society towards ‘Mollies’ within the confines of a game? 

A lot of the initial reading I did was about how to even do queer history in the first place. It’s a relatively new field, and it’s one that’s hard to research or talk about accurately. It’s often used as a verb – ‘queering history’ – because it requires you to read between the lines of what’s presented. Queerness is almost always suppressed and talked about in different ways to how it is now. Terms like gay, trans and queer were not in use in the 18th century, and most of the primary sources you’re looking at are records of sodomy trials in the Old Bailey records and newspaper reports that are pretty hostile to queer and trans people. You have to piece together an idea of what this community was like from these fragments. How was it similar to, and how did it differ from, the LGBTQ+ community today?

What I want to represent in the game is the mollies and the molly houses, as they were, as best I can. The game itself puts each player in the position of a molly and depicts the relationships between mollies, the festivities they organised, the ways they met each other – which includes cruising – in the pursuit of joy and esteem, which are the game’s victory points. The policing of the mollies is represented by the changing risks in the actions you take. There is a system that translates those risks into outcomes, which could mean prison or the death sentence for your molly. This was the sad truth for a lot of people at the time, and I felt it was important to depict both the joy and the oppression of mollies in the game.

Do you feel that LGBTQ representation is getting better in the tabletop world, in terms of theme, setting, players, designers, and the myriad other factors that make up our community?

I do think it’s slowly improving. I’d say tabletop RPGs are way ahead of board games, with LGBTQ+ designers bringing queer experiences into games as optional or, increasingly, core aspects of the gameplay, as in games like Dream Askew and Sleepaway. Board games are making progress, though, from character options in games like Dead of Winter and the new edition of Atlantis Rising, to explicitly queer upcoming games like Taylor Shuss’s Stonewall Uprising, Taylor’s co-design with Joe Schmidt, The Sacred Band, about queer love and fighting in Ancient Greece, Amabel Holland’s ludicrously rad-sounding “dystopian sci-fi poly trans femme vehicle racing game” Gridlock – and, of course, Molly House.

What’s the next step for ‘Molly House’? 

Molly House is currently in development with a publisher who I’m very excited to be working with. If all goes well, it will hopefully be announced soon!

What was it like working on a game for Bez’s Wibbel Deck? How did you find the confines of an existing set of components helped or hindered your design process?

Honestly, it was a dream. After working on a heavier game with a heavier theme, it was a bit of a relief to work on a themeless word game. Working within the constraints of the deck really narrowed my focus and I designed several games for the ELL deck within a week! It’s such a brilliant tool for designing games because the letters, numbers and suits of the cards give you the perfect amount of stuff to play with and inspiration to work from. The link between the numbers and letters on the cards led to the game Dwindell, which is all about making words with uncommon letters to get rid of your cards. Ever since I started, I kind of can’t stop thinking of game ideas for the ELL deck, I just love it.

What game, that you aren’t designing, are you most excited about right now?

Hmm… will you let me have two?

I’m really excited about Taylor Shuss’s game Stonewall Uprising, another game about queer history, which is coming to crowdfunding soon. It depicts the history in a really clever way and is a great, innovative two-player deckbuilding game in its own right.

I also got the chance to demo The Old King’s Crown at the UK Games Expo recently and I really loved it. It has incredible art and an interesting asymmetrical take on a bidding game, which work together so well to evoke a collapsing empire with different factions vying for control.

Joseph Kelly’s Twitter

Molly House BGG Page

Meeting of Minds Series

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