I’d like to draw your attention to a recent, and pretty splendid, Kotaku article by Quintin Smith. In it, Smith extols the tactile qualities of board games. He argues that ‘play is how we form emotional connections’ and that ‘the purpose of the game-as-object is to make it easiest to foster those connections, allowing everybody to invest in what’s on the table, right down to building it up and breaking it down.’
There’s something in this: poetry, at the very least. A valuable stimulus for thinking about games in a particular way. A beautiful little lie to have us thinking positively about those boxes cluttering the flat, perhaps.
And a lie it may be, if we let it be. Certainly, it’s would be easy to think Smith’s ideas nonsensical. To consider the board game which sits between us as a means to connect better has a certain strangeness to it. If we meet to play a game, inevitably there’s a respect in which less of my attention is on you than it would be if we meet at a cafe with no agenda other than to talk. With a cup of coffee the only device to punctuate possible pauses in conversation, we’re going to have to find something to talk about.
Whether it be a first date, or a weekly get-together with a group of friends, a conversation can, of course, fall flat sometimes. But if an emotional connection is formed in this straightforward situation, it’s probably going to be between those conversing. Make an object part of the interaction, though, and someone is going to become attached to that, and quite possibly to that alone.
At Oxford on Board there are people I see just about every week, about whom I know practically nothing – nothing save, I guess, a broad idea about their respective tastes in games.
I think an uncomfortable truth of board gaming is that many regular players see their opponents as the mechanism, rather than seeing the game in this light. You fill the role of making the other pieces move, of changing the state of play, but that’s it. The excitement for such players is what’s left after you’re done – they’re playing with the choices you’ve left behind, rather than playing with you.
Every week at Oxford on Board I see people pulled into playing games it’s evident they will dislike (and I’m sure this is not exclusive to our club): the owner leaves happy that he or she got to play his or her game, with little or no concern for how his or her opponents may have felt.
I can believe Smith’s approach is different. I can believe the game is the mechanism in his view – a means for players to share experiences. Elsewhere in his article, Smith recounts the story of a recent game of Memoir ’44: Overlord, in which the participants ‘played wearing wobbly helmets and camo trousers of impossible size,’ because ‘when you augment a game’s components to such a ridiculous extent, you can’t help but share something, and remember that game for the rest of your lives.’ It reminded me of the idea of wearing a suit to take charge of the FA Cup final in the computer game Championship Manager / Football Manager – a phenomenon which has a Facebook group with 13,000 members. Both ideas are likeable in a very broad sense.
In each case the game itself appears a bit buried by the experience built on top of it. So what?
The challenging aspect of this way of thinking for those who take board games seriously, be they collectors or critics, designers or other devotees, is that it diminishes the importance of the game itself. Those whose only interaction with board games is to hype up and hold a game of Monopoly or Risk every two to three years – who stage the game as an event, perhaps as part of a party, embracing the disappointment and disputes those games bring as part of the event – are using the game as the platform for an experience, and thereby can probably be said to have a more healthy relationship with the game in question than many of us probably do. The game in these cases is an excuse; a reason to interact with the other players in a particular way – play fights, mock anger, braggadocio. The players bring the fun (in part, of course, because they have to – Monopoly and Risk alike are parsimonious in offering enjoyment themselves).
What’s good and bad in this is that the experience is dependable. The game itself is squeezed out: the player is not so much playing Monopoly, but playing at playing Monopoly – doing all those things you’re meant to do while playing, acting out all the huffs and strops that you’re meant to have while playing. The unpredictability that can be a part of modern board games can be harder to fit with this approach (though Smith’s game of Memoir ’44 demonstrates how a dynamic game can provide a secure foundation for silly fun).
I guess the point I want to applaud is seeing value in interactions and in experiences, rather than items. Playing board games is a hobby which can easily consume time, and anything to which you give large amounts of time shouldn’t be allowed to consume what’s valuable in you. Play with your opponents, not with a string of game states. Play playfully. Play bad games to spend time with good people.