No, really. I suck at board games. I host monthly board game nights. I am a premium member of Board Game Arena. My Wishlist on Board Game Geek is a mile long. I am writing this guest article for a board game site. It has been at least five years since I was introduced to the-world-beyond-Monopoly-and-Uno, but I cannot tell you the last time I even came close to winning a board game.
And I can’t get enough of it!
If you are wondering how one can go from novice to enthusiast, how it’s possible to go from knowing nothing about board games to training other apathetic newbies in the art of playing for hours on end, I offer up my story as one such path.
Like many, I grew up playing Yahtzee and Sorry. I thought a board game meant a game that had a board, dice, and maybe some Chance cards. It could be learned in under ten minutes, and no strategy was necessary, just luck. I never saw a name other than Milton Bradley on a box. It was a bright day when I could convince one of my siblings to play anything as complicated as Phase 10 or Trivial Pursuit.
But then the magic happened. As wee college freshman, I was stumbled upon what seemed to me mystical community of folks. I began spending time in this big old house next to campus (a necessity as a commuter student) that had brightly painted walls, an espresso machine, couches for napping – and a massive wall of board games I had never seen before.
Farming games. Games you played as a team without speaking to each other. Horror games. Games that seemed more art than object. Construction games. Games with a million tiny bits that took an entire dining room table to play. Games that only require a piece of paper.
And this was not a house where gaming was a pastime – it was integrated so deeply into the community rhythm that to exist in the space was to be baptized in the names of Uwe Rosenburg, Antoine Bauza, and Klaus Teuber. You couldn’t be there an hour without hearing the oft-refrained “Hey does anybody wanna play…?” No matter the experience of the player, all were welcome to explore new puzzles and old favorites alike. Everyone learned and grew together, no one was left behind.
I fell absolutely in love. With losing all these board games!
Well, to be more accurate, I fell in love with the process of losing. Of learning a new thing, and just trying stuff out to see what works. And then trying different stuff out and seeing what works. And doing that ad infinitum. Fortunately, there seems to be no shortage of board games out there for me to come in last place in.
“They” – the pushers of productivity culture – say that if you want to get better at something, you practice it. Malcom Gladwell calls it the 10,000 Hour Rule. Steven Pressfield states that it is the difference between amateurs and professionals. If you want to get better at winning board games, it is like wanting to get better at any other skill – you need to study and practice. You should sign up for a board game arena account, read through the strategy tips, and play as much as possible, building up your XP so you can go head-to-head against more experienced players. You need to learn all the different terminology concerning board games and get better at identifying the underlying mechanics, so that when learning any new board game, you can immediately determine what the most optimal strategy is, and win instantly!
Which I mean, you do you, but that’s not how I play board games. And I play them a lot.
I love the process of learning a new game. Of thumbing through the instructions and seeing all the hard work that went into making an intangible concept appear on the table before you. The artwork, the interaction, the complexity. And don’t even get me started on the immense satisfaction to be found in popping out the cardboard components of a freshly purchased game.
This is where I think productivity gurus and those who are constantly trying to squeeze efficiency in every single moment of their lives miss out. I am all for striving to reach goals, but where does it end?
Why not just try stuff, and see what happens? Why does every hobby need to be optimized and monetized? There is so much pressure in this country to be absolutely perfect at everything, the very first time. In so many areas of our lives, it doesn’t feel like there is any breathing room for mistakes.
Can we not just sit and be together, sitting around a game table with good friends, great laughter, and build something tangible together with pretty blocks?
To me, that is the secret beauty of board games. Here is this beautiful, tangible thing, a work of art spread out in tiny pieces across a table, simultaneously both a logic puzzle to figure out and a very pretty toy. A situation where the stakes are low, learning is fun, and mistakes are encouraged. Where we can rest from the chaos of the world and spend thirty minutes to an hour in a space where the rules are clearly defined and there is a final, definitive outcome.
If you ask me, if you enter into the board game world with the intention of winning as much as possible, then you will be sorely disappointed.
Do I really care about whether Agricola is a worker placement game or a resource game? Maybe as a point of interest, but not for strategy. I’m going to continue to go into every game with a different plan, sometimes just because I like the color blue and want to collect as many blue tiles as possible.
To me, a love of board games is not a love of winning. It’s about loving the process of learning, problem-solving, connection with other humans, and above all, play. There are those in my life who are close to me who will begrudgingly play a round or two before begging off, stating “this is just too complicated for me”, “what’s the best strategy here?”, and my personal favorite “yeah but how do I win??”. They get frustrated when I can’t tell them, because as I stated before, I absolutely suck at board games.
I think this is the secret to introducing the more hesitant among us to the world of board games. If we, the enthusiasts, can talk more about why we love the experience of board games so much. How they enrich our lives.
To me, board games, like much of the life we experience on earth, cannot be articulated by a clearly defined “winning” or “losing” – but by the journey we explored along the way.
“I looked down at the board. ‘The point isn’t to win?’ I asked.
‘The point,’ Bredon said grandly, ‘is to play a beautiful game.’”
– Patrick Rothfuss, Wise Man’s Fear