A few nights ago, a friend almost had a panic attack because she couldn’t work out if she could trust her husband.
A few years ago, I played a game about undercover robots with a group of people who had recently discovered an old friend had been an undercover cop.
A few decades ago, I spent all my spare moments reading through the rules of a game I could never play. I wanted to know what every dice roll could lead to. I didn’t have the dice, I didn’t have the pieces, I didn’t even have the right rule book, but I read that book from cover to cover.
I’ve been obsessed with boardgames for as long as I can remember, but it feels like it has only recently become a hobby that I actually have.
I want to try and get across some of that passion, because as happy as I am to have a broad group of lovely people to play games with, I feel like I want more. It’s not even just that I want to play more boardgames, it’s that I want more boardgames to be played. I think people are missing out on something genuinely special by not playing boardgames together.
It’s a hard sell, I know. ‘Boardgames’ mean Monopoly to most people. I hate Monopoly. I want some way to scour it from the collective consciousness, so that people stop associating the word boardgame with endless spirals of estate agency capitalism. As I understand it, the game started out as a parody of capitalism. That boredom? That futility? That’s the point. It actually does it’s job fairly well, so I shouldn’t criticise. It is the perfect simulator of economic alienation. But the problem with capitalism is that it’s only fun for one person, and then only if they’re a sociopath.
Cluedo isn’t much better, just a banal logic game with randomised dice friction. I’ve spent days with Risk, but I recognise it’s problems.
I don’t want to talk about these games any more. I want you to stop thinking about them. I want you to think about what games could be. What games actually are.
There’s a lot of them out there. You can do everything from wage interstellar war to building countryside in medieval France. You can be a gladiator or a treasure hunter. You can get eaten by sharks or murdered by Lannisters.
But that’s not the magic bit. The magic bit is that you are doing this with your friends. Sometimes your best friends.
I read a game theory book once, and it talked about the idea of the magic circle. When you start playing a game, you get together with a group of people, and agree to ignore common sense. If golf was really about putting a ball in that hole over there, you’d pick it up and walk over there. But it isn’t, it’s about putting a ball in that hole over there with a grand scheme of arbitrary limitations to make it interesting.
When you play a boardgame, you put aside reality, and you build your own new one for a while. You learn some rules, you work out what you’re trying to do, and then you make it real. You put down pieces of card, and you pick up pieces of plastic, and you turn them into a universe.
Even the most competitive games (and there’s plenty that aren’t competitive) are an act of collaboration. You all agree to not be a dick, whilst agreeing its okay to be a dick. You encourage each other to try and best each other, to try and bear grudges, to lie and betray. All those things you can’t normally do without being horrible? You’re supposed to, and you aren’t even really doing it. You’re doing it with pieces of card and plastic that don’t mean anything apart from all that emotion you’ve invested in them.
The game means nothing. It’s just words and cardboard, bits and pieces. Except it means everything. It’s a world. A world you made, out of someone else’s ideas and rules and art and hard work.
You buy a box, and you can dive into it as often as you can get a group of people together, and the right box, the right game, will have you aching to play again.
I’ve played some gruelling games of Game of Thrones (of thrones), a boardgame that can easily eat a whole day. At the end of each one there’s been a bit of my brain saying ‘I need to do that again, right now’. It’s intense. Superficially, it’s like Risk, a map, some cards and some little plastic pieces representing armies. It isn’t Risk, it’s an engine for betrayal. When you plan your move, you feel like you could know what the best move is, because all the information is right there. The rules and the pieces and the cards. They’re all there in front of you. You could almost forget about the people, trying to make the same calculations as you, second and triple guessing every action. You secretly put down tokens to say what you’re going to do in the turn, and then you all reveal together.
It takes a while to sink in, nothing has happened like you expected, and you might still not notice the knife in your back.
Because you know the game, but you don’t know the people. Even the people you know best.
This weekend we played a game of ‘Avalon’ a follow up/expanded version of a popular game about lying called ‘The Resistance’. Basically, you are going on missions together, choosing who you trust to go, if you pick the wrong people you fail the mission, fail too many missions, and you lose the game. I worried for the health of my friend, as she tried to work out if her husband was being calm in order to reassure her or in order to manipulate her. The game consists largely of talking, there’s a logic puzzle going on, but it’s almost always over-ridden by the more social and more fallible ‘do you trust me’ game. Lies and trust. Look me in the eyes and tell me you’re a good guy. If you’re lying to me, I may never be able to trust you again.
But what happens in boardgame-world stays in boardgame-world. It’s like Vegas, only you’ve got a chance of winning. And you don’t need poppers to have fun.
I love it. I love it so much. I love getting together with real life people, and making something impossible happen, just by following some rules, and bothering to care.
I can spend hours poring over rulebooks, reading reviews and finding out how games work, and I love that too. I love reading about a mechanic and thinking ‘that’s incredible’.
But without people, a clever mechanic is just an unwound clock. Beautiful, intricate, and largely useless.
If I’ve piqued your interest, and you live anywhere near Brighton, give me a shout on twitter. I’ll happily show you into one of the cardboard worlds on the shelf in my living room.
Because as stupid as it may sound, I actually think boardgames are important. I think learning how to play with people could change the world (ever so slowly, ever so slightly). I think it’s a better way of getting to know people than going to the pub and drunkenly shouting. I think it’s infinitely more sociable than going to the cinema.
I think it would make you happier.
Come and play. Or go and play.
Something magic might happen.
Illustration by Emma
I can’t recommend enough watching/reading Shut Up and Sit Down if you want to find out more about games. I have a crush on all of them, and want to be their friends. You can watch them playing Avalon (with the extra bits) or read them talking about Game of Thrones, for example. between them and Rab Florence (now pretending to be a sentient table) at Rock Paper Shotgun, I have been lured whole heartedly into this hobby. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and they’ve taught me a lot about the way games are structured, as well as how emotionally engaging they are. Thanks, them!
The irony of this ramble, is that I came here to write about mechanics, and I talked about people instead. This is okay. I hear there’s time in the future.