Just under a year ago, my life fell apart. After a decade and a half of marriage, my wife unceremoniously announced that it was over. I wasn’t faultless; I had failed my wife in a number of ways. And so I can’t really say her announcement came as a complete surprise. But it came as a complete surprise.
I was devastated by the news. Over the last year, I have struggled to come to grips with what I now refer to as “the new normal.” Of course, thousands of families fall apart every year. What may be unique about my experience is the role that board gaming has played in my ability to process, cope, and, to a degree, recover from this destabilizing event.
As some readers may know, I am one of the hosts, producers, and creators of a podcast focused on board games and relationships: Blue Peg, Pink Peg. At its conception, Blue Peg, Pink Peg’s central conceit was a discussion between two married couples about their board gaming experiences. While my marriage was marred by several issues that led to its dissolution, two things that always seemed to work were board gaming and podcasting. These interrelated passions unified and strengthened the bond between us. We enjoyed the distraction and pleasure provided by the former and the community and sense of shared purpose provided by the other.
In the wake of the initial split I was entirely at sea, unsure of many of the things that I had taken for granted for so many years. Relying upon the advice of innumerable books and internet “sages,” I threw myself into my hobbies, seeking both a focus and a distraction. Enter board games. Enter board games, big time.
During the first few weeks, I stayed with friends who pulled out a game to play almost every night. I could figure out the tumult in my life later. Meanwhile, I got to trade in the Mediterranean, fend off alien invaders, or run a power plant. For a few hours each night I could put the real out of my mind and bend my thoughts toward the imagined.
When the break happened, and it became incumbent for me to make the development known to the Blue Peg, Pink Peg listeners, I discovered how special the board game community is. My Board Game Geek inbox was flooded with messages of understanding and support.
Board games also served as a bridge for me and my children. Gaming reinstituted normalcy into our lives. It was during this time that my son discovered Magic: The Gathering, and he uses his hobby in much the same way I do, as an escape, a bonding experience, and a confidence-builder.
Finally, board games provided a template through which I was able to make sense of some of the emotions flooding through me and get my arms around some of the challenges with which I was being confronted. One thing I noticed in the months after my separation was that I was taking board games more seriously than I used to. I was starting to get upset when I lost games. Winning began to really matter, I realized, because I was starting to define myself through my game play. I was forced to acknowledge that I viewed myself as a failure. But this admission was necessary. It forced me to confront the many ways that I had failed myself, my former spouse, and my children, and set a course toward correcting the most pressing of my deficiencies. It also opened the door for me to forgive myself for my past failures and start to let go of the hurts that I still harbored.
Likewise, game play has helped me develop an ability to spot an obstacle and think through the various ways I might overcome it. In games, these challenges are always concrete. If you need to terraform the swamp space to desert before the neighboring dwarves terraform it to mountains, you can break down the various steps needed to reach that goal and the events that are likely to complicate your effort. While not every in-game challenge can be overcome, they can always be understood. In real life, this isn’t always the case. The greatest emotional challenge I faced after the separation was letting go of the hope that my spouse and I might reconcile. For months, I simply could not laid to rest that hope. Yet, after months of struggle, one night after a few great games of Concordia, I decided to sit down and quietly and methodically dissect my feelings.
During the gameplay earlier in the night, I was struck by how the game was, like many games, a web of interrelated choices. Some choices force you to abandon others. Sometimes your choices become limited or your opponent’s actions may profoundly frustrate your plans. However, a keen player is able to identify choices that open up more opportunities than they close.
For example, in Concordia players can choose to pursue what are referred to as “Minerva” cards. These cards pay off substantial benefits at the end of the game, provided the player is able to establish dominance in the regions that produce the good affiliated with a specific “Minerva” card. During that night’s game, a friend of mine often choose to select the linen “Minerva” card as soon as it became available, since this is the most valuable of these cards. However, after he claimed the linen card, the other players and I took actions that made it very difficult for him to establish a presence in the linen regions. Frustrated by our efforts, my friend eventually had to forgo his preferred tactic and pursue a different one.
In contrast, early in the same game, another one of my friends spent his energy diversifying his holdings, so that he was able to focus on the most productive routes to victory later in the game. Notably, he was able to make choices that gave him the freedom to adjust his tactics regardless of the board state on his turn.
During that game I realized, I had gone all-in on the linen “Minerva” card. I had framed my happiness through the lens of my marriage. All of my choices were directed toward one end, namely obtaining my former spouse’s love and approval. Everything I did was directed toward what I imagined to be her response. As I played, I realized that I needed to adopt more “routes to victory.”
After the game, I spent much of the remaining night laying out a list of things that would enrich my life and the steps that I could take to make those objectives possible. As a result, I was able to make the divorce less central to my life. This is not to say that I have successfully shifted my focus or exorcised the hope of reconciliation. As I said, viewing things through stark and concrete terms is only a starting point, but at least it was a starting point. And while I might have come to this conclusion on my own, my game playing experience served as a spark that helped me conceive of this challenge in concrete terms.
As alluded to earlier in this article, my journey is not over. Not even close. I still struggle every day with difficulties, some large, some small, some new, some old. While I draw upon various resources to get through those challenges, board games and the gaming community remain a resource upon which I can rely to make the hard times a little bit easier.