Games of Games

I played Rhodes for the second round of 7 Wonders.  (I was very worried for that seagull…)

Yesterday I spent part of the day playing board games with friends.  The game we played, 7 Wonders, plays to my love of history, as each player controls one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, which he or she must “complete” over three rounds of play. This is accomplished by passing around cards that include resources (such as clay, stone, or glass), and things that can be built with these resources (including buildings, military forces, scientific developments, or trade).  Each of the seven wonders have slightly different goals and focuses that tend to point the player towards different strategies for winning.  I was rather surprised to find that I had won both rounds we played yesterday, and that got me thinking about the somewhat complicated relationship I have with board games.

As many who are reading this are probably aware, board games are a Thing. Since the advent of a number of pioneering games (such as Settlers of Catan) over a decade ago, board games have made a roaring comeback into the lives of many adults as well as for kids.  There are now boardgame cafes and stores everywhere, and new games are constantly being released (including as Kickstarters).   There are all kinds of games –card-collecting games, cooperative games, games involving puzzles or wordplay, games involving roleplay, dice-based games, and world-building games. All kinds of genres are represented–history, fantasy, science fiction, literature, humour, trivia, or just problem-solving.  Many of these games are gorgeously-designed, with custom artwork and playing pieces.  Some are simple and can be played in 15 minutes; others take hours.  The social appeal is undeniable–these are not video games played alone (even when playing on groups online), but ones that require interacting face-to-face. And that’s where it has been complicated for me.

When I was a kid, some of my prime game-playing years were in stretches where I did not have a lot of friends, and as an only child whose parents really weren’t into board games, I had few alternatives.  I owned a number of board games as a kid that were never played–I think the only ones I can remember playing with much regularity were Monopoly, Mastermind, and a silly game called Which Witch. Oddly enough, what I did learn and enjoyed were card games. My father taught me basic poker when I was five years old (I remember very much the first time he told me to “cut the cards” and I went to get the scissors.)  I remember liking Set and Uno, and learned Hearts, Spades, and Euchre in high school.  High school also brought Trivial Pursuit, which I loved and excelled at–it was less a game and more a way to show off my smarts.

Unlike a lot of my friends, however, I never got into roleplaying games.  While I was definitely a nerd, my nerdery was focused on academics, music, arts, and theatre.  And as a result I did not transition into playing games as an adult, even card games.  They were simply not part of my vocabulary.  My years at university and then grad school were focused either on academic-related pursuits or cultural ones.  My last couple of years at Ohio State, I sang in choirs, took dance lessons, and along with a group of close friends attended more or less any concert we could find on campus for both music and dance, including everything from student recitals to performances by Les Ballets Trockadero and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.  I can’t recall playing a single game. Not even card games.

After I moved on to graduate school, I did play a few games of Civilization (the original Avalon Hill game),  but  I really didn’t enjoy it.  The issue?  It went back to my lack of game exposure as a kid.  I saw games as a competition rather than a social activity.  I also hated being in situations where I had to interact with other people while not knowing what I was doing.  Somewhere, deep down, my first reaction in these cases was defensive. I didn’t believe I had any kind of social acumen, so my instinct in social situations was that I had to be “the smart one” if I wanted people to respect me.  And that meant I had to win (or at least finish second), and if I didn’t, I got frustrated and emotional.  So yeah, your basic eight-year-old behaviour, which was probably about  where I was from a game-playing development standpoint.  I’m sure I was fun to play with, and soon, I usually found ways to beg off of game-playing situations.

So, fast-forward to now. I am married to a board game addict.  We have an entire room plus full of them, and he’d been going to any gaming night or weekend he can find now for awhile. I’d been along on a few of these, and sat in a corner sewing or something where I could hear the fun the people playing the games were having and that I was missing.  And some of those games looked really, really cool and not all that difficult.  Silly games like Cards Against Humanity and Codenames started to draw me in — games based on wordplay and humour, where I didn’t have to learn a lot of rules, where I could have fun regardless of whether or not I won.  That broke the ice for me, and I’ve been slowly learning to play other types of games.   Some of them are incredibly complex, but I’m finding I’m able to catch on relatively quickly once I finally take the plunge.  I’m also finding that I’m usually not the only person who’s learning, and that really helps.  But most important is that gradually I’m learning to relax.  Yes, it’s a “competition” (unless it’s a cooperative game, but there are no consequences–positive or negative–for winning or losing. It’s not the Olympics.  I still really have problems trusting even close friends, but I am realizing that someone dinging you in a game doesn’t mean they hate you. I had someone drop one of the moons of Mars on me in my first game of Terraforming Mars, and it was actually pretty hilarious.  (I still ended up winning, thanks to a lot of initial help from my husband.)

I’m still not to the point where I can game all day–that’s going to take awhile, and I would still often rather be working on an art or sewing project or doing research or writing.  But that’s changing. I still hate the period where I’m still learning (and in my mind, vulnerable), but once I get past that hurdle, I am finding I quite like playing board games with friends.  I can’t lie and say it’s not fun to win–that certainly helps.  But both times yesterday, I didn’t stress about it–just did the best I could with the cards I got, and it turned out I did quite well, playing two different strategies (winning with a concentration on science and building while playing Halikarnassos, and with military and commerce while playing Rhodes).  And it would have been fine even if I had finished last, because I’m starting to see the humour in the twists of fate and luck in games.  No one makes fun of you for losing–because everyone loses at some point. It’s not elementary school.  So hey!  Take that risk!  It’s safe to do it with literally nothing but glory that lasts maybe five minutes at stake–and sometimes the blaze of glory actually falls upon the person who fails spectacularly but valiantly.  I’m definitely starting to see the appeal.

Who could have predicted that board games, of all things, would have me starting to feel more like an adult?