Trapped at home? GAME ON!

Board games a sooth­ing sur­vival strat­egy amid coron­avirus lock­down

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Arts & Life - ALEXIS SOLOSKI THE NEW YORK TIMES

I am, in the best cir­cum­stances, a poor loser. I’m also a clumsy, fid­gety win­ner.

Yet, I have spent the past month play­ing games — all kinds of games: Twenty Ques­tions, I Spy, match­ing games, mem­ory games and as much hide-and-seek as a three-room apart­ment al­lows. Mostly, I have been play­ing board games with a fix­a­tion I haven’t known since I was nine or 10 and cheat­ing at Candy Land (slip­ping the Queen Fros­tine card just be­low the top of the deck and then say­ing, brightly, to my sis­ter, “You can go first!”).

If you, like me, grew up with a battered box of Sorry and a Bat­tle­ship miss­ing at least two of its boats, you should know that board games have im­proved. With a large num­ber re­leased each year, the va­ri­ety of games and the me­chan­ics that gov­ern them are al­most in­fi­nite.

My li­brary books re­main un­read, a stack of un­touched is­sues of The New Yorker has be­come a house­hold ob­sta­cle, and I can’t make it through a movie, or even a 23-minute sit­com, with­out reach­ing for my phone. So why can I spend a fo­cused hour and a half bar­ter­ing for camels in an In­dian mar­ket­place play­ing Jaipur or sim­u­lat­ing quilt-mak­ing in Patch­work?

While I have slashed most dis­cre­tionary spend­ing, I keep low­balling used chil­dren’s games — Out­foxed!, Ticket to Ride: First Jour­ney, Sushi Go! — and a few adult ones on eBay. The other week, I fell into a Google abyss com­par­ing co-op­er­a­tive puz­zle games. When I fi­nally clawed my way out, I found that I had or­dered Sher­lock Holmes: Con­sult­ing De­tec­tive, from Eng­land. The ship­ping was sur­pris­ingly reasonable.

With so much of life trans­ported on­line, there is huge sat­is­fac­tion in the tac­til­ity of board games, an al­most in­de­cent plea­sure in rolling dice, deal­ing cards, hop­scotch­ing a game piece to a square. And many of them are beau­ti­ful, eye-candy con­fec­tions of colour and shape. But li­brary books, af­ter all, are tac­tile. Some of them are even il­lus­trated. Why games?

I wrote to Joey Lee, who di­rects the Games Re­search Lab at Teach­ers Col­lege at Columbia

Univer­sity, hop­ing he could fig­ure out this one. Table­top games, he said, cre­ate a “magic cir­cle,” an idea bor­rowed, more or less, from cul­tural his­to­rian Jo­han Huizinga.

Lee wrote that the cir­cle, in­side which every­one agrees to abide by the same con­straints and rules, pro­vides “a struc­ture and en­vi­ron­ment that sparks laugh­ter, cre­ativ­ity, joy and other plea­sure-filled mo­ments that come from solv­ing prob­lems suc­cess­fully, op­ti­miz­ing one’s strate­gies, work­ing to­gether or com­pet­ing against other play­ers.”

That sounded like an am­bi­tious way of de­scrib­ing what hap­pens when my three-yearold and I fend off trolls in My First Cas­tle Panic, but sure.

Ni­cholas For­tugno, a games de­signer and lec­turer, ex­plained why play­ing games with my two young chil­dren im­proves on our flus­tered at­tempts at home-school­ing. “Games level dif­fer­ences in age,” he said. “If I’m a 10-yearold play­ing a game with my par­ents, the au­thor­ity struc­ture that nor­mally gov­erns how I be­have is ac­tu­ally kind of re­leased. For the pur­poses of the game, we’re equal.”

When I try to teach place value to my six-year-old, there’s a hi­er­ar­chy at work. When we play Zeus on the Loose, which has her prac­tise ad­di­tion and sub­trac­tion as we lay claim to Mount Olym­pus, we play as equals. Sort of.

I have also been play­ing board games with my hus­band be­cause they are a wel­come change from our other games like, Hey, Have You Looked at the 401(k) Lately? and Why Are You Drink­ing So Much? As long as I had game ex­perts on the line, I asked sev­eral to act as games concierges (“I pre­fer som­me­lier,” For­tugno told me) and rec­om­mend games that wouldn’t push us any closer to di­vorce, or at least de­lay it un­til af­ter lock­down.

I also men­tioned that I’m the kind of mon­ster who takes games very se­ri­ously.

“Board games are one of the few out­lets in life where that is kind of a so­cially ac­cept­able thing,” said a re­as­sur­ing Erik Ar­ne­son, who writes books on table­top games, “as long as you don’t get an­gry and flip the ta­ble over if you lose.” I told him that I wouldn’t. Our ta­ble is very heavy.

He rec­om­mended Patch­work, “a lovely lit­tle two-player game that’s about mak­ing quilts.” Co­in­ci­den­tally, my hus­band had bought a sale copy of Patch­work. (An ex­cep­tion to my “games are beau­ti­ful now” claim, its colour scheme com­bines a sickly beige and a clin­i­cally de­pressed green.) Ar­ne­son had warned that I would some­times re­sent my hus­band for snatch­ing a piece I needed. And I did. But that par­tic­u­lar re­sent­ment, un­like my feel­ings about the dis­tri­bu­tion of emo­tional labour, say, was dis­crete and lo­cal.

Still, I sug­gested a move to­ward co-op­er­a­tive games. The best co-op­er­a­tive game, sev­eral ex­perts agreed, is Pan­demic, which seemed just a lit­tle on the nose. In­stead, we have spent a few com­pan­ion­able evenings

play­ing that Sher­lock Holmes game and sam­pling es­cape-room games. These, too, are a lit­tle on the nose, in that fam­ily life dur­ing a pan­demic does have the feel of a locked room, but in the game, at least, es­cape is pos­si­ble.

Two nights ago, we broke out of a sin­is­ter mu­seum and felt — against all real-world ev­i­dence — like we had re­ally ac­com­plished some­thing.

We could have played any of these games in the past sev­eral years, but we didn’t. I was out at the the­atre most nights. The chil­dren sleep fit­fully. No pre­vi­ous pan­demic ma­rooned us in­doors.

“A lot of games,” For­tugno said, “were in­vented be­cause groups of peo­ple had to be around each other and were bored.” That’s most fam­i­lies. But it doesn’t quite ex­plain why games — even Patch­work — feel so specif­i­cally sooth­ing right now.

In two months or six months or when­ever lock­down re­laxes, I can’t imag­ine we’ll play to­gether as much. The chil­dren will spend most of the day in school; Broad­way has to re­open some­time. We’ll pass some board games on to friends and do­nate oth­ers to the Brook­lyn Li­brary’s lend­ing col­lec­tion.

But un­til then, we’ll open the box, un­fold the board and shuf­fle the cards just so.

Deal me in.

FAM­ILY GAMES

An­i­mal Upon An­i­mal: It’s like Jenga, but bet­ter. This dex­ter­ity game asks play­ers to stack sturdy wooden pieces (an al­li­ga­tor, hedge­hogs, pen­guins, some weird lit­tle guys who might be lizards).

Out­foxed: A co-op­er­a­tive game for kids, it asks you to play as chick­ens in­ves­ti­gat­ing a fox who stole a pot pie. The fox hasn’t beaten us yet — even when I don’t let the kids cheat.

Scary Bingo: The me­chan­ics of this game are sim­ple and fa­mil­iar: a caller se­lects ran­dom to­kens; play­ers cover the rel­e­vant squares. But the de­sign is witty and the mon­sters ex­u­ber­antly weird.

FOR TWO ADULTS

Exit: These es­cape-room games have frus­trat­ing as­pects; you have to be very pre­cise in how you ma­nip­u­late the pieces, and you de­stroy some el­e­ments dur­ing play, so you can’t pass a game on. But the puz­zles are de­li­cious and solv­able if you peek at the pre­lim­i­nary hints.

Patch­work: The es­thet­ics are ap­palling, and the setup may seem overly sim­ple. Just how com­pli­cated can a game about quilt­ing get? Very. The de­sign en­cour­ages you to think sev­eral moves ahead. Sher­lock Holmes: Con­sult­ing

De­tec­tive: This co-op­er­a­tive game, if you can track down a copy, is metic­u­lously con­structed and ma­ni­a­cally en­gag­ing. You and yours play Baker Street Ir­reg­u­lars solv­ing a Holme­sian mys­tery.

PETERANDMA­RIAHOEYTHE­NEWYORKTIM­ES

DREAMSTIME

With so much of life trans­ported on­line, there is huge sat­is­fac­tion in the tac­til­ity of board games.

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