I lose at board games more often than I win. To be fair, I tend to win Agricola most times, I frequently beat friend Taylor at Tzolk’in, and I’m currently doing really well at the Three Sisters solo mode. That said, I came second in both my games of a double-elimination Catan tournament. First Loser we sometimes call that. And I got to the second round of GenCon’s Power Grid tournament because the winner of my game didn’t want to play again. I am extremely bad at social deduction games and my ranking in all the games I play on Board Game Arena plateaus in the mid-100s.
But I love board games so much, it doesn’t matter to me that I don’t win. I love the conversations, the shit-talking, the organic connections, the clacky bits, the puzzling out what makes sense to do next, the deeply perplexing moments when the game makes your brain toss like a salad. I love staring awkwardly into people’s eyes when playing The Mind, wondering how long I need to wait to play my 35. I love setting up an engine in Century and burning through it efficiently. I love discovering a new mechanic like the placement of tiny ceramic tea set pieces on a table in Where am I? or smelling actual essential oils in Aroma. I love the classic brain-burning point salads like 7 Wonders and Agricola. The experience of playing itself is why I keep coming back, not whether I win.
I had a professor in grad school who, when you asked him how he was, just in passing, he’d always say, “Blessed, I’m blessed!” I love the positivity of that and, for a time, I tried to emulate him. But you know he didn’t always feel that, and I sure didn’t. None of us do. We say, “I’m fine” and sometimes we are, but just as often, things are really not fine. In addiction-recovery circles, “fine” means “fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.” Sometimes we say it because it’s polite and we don’t want to share or be questioned further, sometimes we say it because it protects us from feeling our own pain.
Months ago, the New York Times published an article called “There’s a name for the blah you’re feeling: it’s called languishing.” It’s the feeling of being joyless and aimless, not depressed but unmotivated with a touch of grief. Perhaps your pandemic languishing is better these days—I surely hope it is—but this aimless feeling is pervasive, and not something we want to own up to in public. Things are hard, but if we just put a good face on it, keep the stores open, “get back to normal,” answer that we’re blessed any time someone asks, then tings will actually be fine, right? We’ll speak it into being, like when I trash talk while losing—if I say “Do you smell that? It’s the smell of defeat!” to the person crushing me at Dominion, somehow I’ll make a comeback.
The key here is this: I don’t actually think that trash talk will win me a comeback, I’m aware of exactly where I stand. Sometimes, like the very first time I played Catan: Cities and Knights, I absolutely languish: I’d placed well initially, but the dice weren’t in my favor and I took to referring to my corner of the board as a post-apocalyptic wasteland and morosely singing “Let my people go.” Sometimes, like most games of Quacks of Quedlinburg, I’m in the middle of the pack, charmed by the GeekUp bits I bought, challenged by the engine I’m trying to build, but roundly defeated and still smiling. I’m in the middle of the pack and it’s fine.
That experience of being fine, not the insecure, neurotic one or the languishing one, is ok. At the risk of offering a tautology, it’s ok to be ok. Particularly given the alternative of feeling miserable or hopeless, feeling just fine is good. The extreme highs and lows, the binary of winning and losing, don’t speak to me as much these days as does the experience of being present. Being present with my fellow players, to the joy and struggle of the play, of the moment we are collectively in—that’s the juicy center. Though I am competitive, I don’t play games to win. I don’t have friendships or write so I can talk about how great I feel. We don’t need to be the best or the most, whether we’re talking about gaming or our jobs or relationships: sometimes, we’re just ok. And that’s fine.