Trapped at home? GAME ON!
Board games a soothing survival strategy amid coronavirus lockdown
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.
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.
With so much of life transported online, there is huge satisfaction in the tactility of board games.