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Board Games: Are They Really Shared Experiences?

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There are a number of reasons we play board games; for the intellectual challenge, for the thematic experience, for the chance to get away from a computer screen for a while. One of the bigger reasons we play, or at least claim we play, is for the shared experience with other people.  Gaming on the tabletop is by nature a social experience, with only a few exceptions.

But what exactly is shared during these times? I recently went on a week-long camping trip that left me plenty of time to play games but also think about the nature of the gaming experience. In the time I had there, I stumbled on a thought that exposes, I think, one of the deeper reasons why it is so difficult to grow the hobby gaming culture.

The truth is, our shared experiences are much smaller than we think they are; they are contained in spheres that do not expand, do not draw others in. They are isolated.

I was sitting at the campfire, listening to the discussion that was happening there. It was on books, or movies; probably a bit of both. We talked of the stories we had read recently, what they meant to us, what messages they sent, what it told us of humanity.

The interesting thing about discussing a book is that the discussion often revolves around broader themes; themes that are relevant to society.  At least, when people talk about them, they bring up ideas related to the book that are relevant. Whether we interpret deeper messages or comment on what people believe or the state of humanity, the ideas are often broad enough that an “outsider” – in the sense of someone who hasn’t read the book, can participate. Even if only by listening or asking questions, that person can get engaged in the conversation.  If they haven’t read the book or seen the movie, and they find the discussion interesting, they may be prompted to go experience it for themselves.

How can we talk this way about board games? We can’t. No matter how much theme you pour into a game, there is no game I can think of that lends to a deeper conversation  about meaningful themes or ideas.  It is impossible to expand the discussion of a board game beyond the inner circle of those who have played the game.  Board games do not hinge on moral conundrums. They do not purport ideals or wax philosophical. They are machines designed with function; even the most thematic games, the games that I myself have claimed to have a soul, do not explore ideas. They give you a goal and tools with which to accomplish that goal, and arena to play in.

Board games can only be discussed mechanically, even if in a thematic context. Eurogames are the worst offenders, emphasizing function over form. How can you get into a campfire conversation about the most efficient way to turn your wheat into victory points, unless you’re already in an “inner circle” of hobbyists.  Unfortunately, even heavily thematic games don’t give us much to talk about. I’ve relived plenty of my favorite games of Cosmic Encounter, Twilight Imperium, and Last Night on Earth – but generally only with the same group of people, or retelling an adventure from the last time we played – which comes up during a current game. Our games don’t offer us choices with depth, choices that have consequence; they give us choices of on or off, 1 or 0, left or right, with results that don’t have much weight other than ‘will I win the game?’ and that’s hardly going to draw outsiders in.

I think it is important to understand this idea, because if we want to grow our hobby, to bring more people in, we have to understand what engages people, what interests them. If we cant sit down at the dinner table and say something to the effect of “I read this book recently, this idea was portrayed like this, what do you think of that?” (I suppose it might read “I played this game recently, it presented a choice like this, what do you think of that?” if we could do that), and engage them with a game before they even play it, how can we get them interested?

I don’t know if there is a way to change this fact. I don’t know if it is inherent to gaming, or just something we haven’t managed to reach yet. The way our hobby exists now, our shared experiences exists only within the experiences themselves.

On the plus side, our hobby does differ from reading a book or watching a movie in that the experience itself IS more social. Even in the most multi-player solitaire games, you’re still there with other people in a race to be the best, and what you do affects the outcome for the other players just as much as what they do affects you.

But we have to get players to the table, and that can take a lot of convincing, cajoling, and forcing exposure.  We have to offer a game a dozen times before someone will try it, we have to be gracious and courteous as we teach newbies, and we have to keep bringing our games back over and over again.

My challenge to you? Think of ways to expand this shared social nature of games. I dare you to prove me wrong; to show me that you CAN discuss board games outside of playing the game itself. I dare you to bring up board games in a conversation in a way that draws non-gamers in, and that you engage them with your hobby so that they become interested in trying out the game.  I also challenge you to consider that this will be difficult and it may be impossible.  We need to be aware of this aspect of our hobby so we can compensate by engaging new players in other ways.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion7 Comments

  1. Nis Haller Baggesen

    Nice article. I’m not really sure I agree with you though.

    First of all, a lot of social interactions require shared knowledge and context to be interesting conversational topics. I could care less about you describing a party to me, if I don’t know any of he participants, and (very similar to boardgames) sports are mindbogglingly boring if you don’t know the rules or the teams. Yet I would never claim that parties are not social events, or that sports do not create a sense of community both among players and among the audience. So games can very well be shared experiences, even if the experience often isn’t not _sharable_ outside the community of board gamers. Or at least people who understand that vocabulary.

    That said, you are also wrong that board games do not hinge on moral conundrums or wax philosophical. Brenda Romero’s games – such as her concentration camp game (http://venturebeat.com/2013/05/11/brenda-romero-train-board-game-holocaust/) – are obvious examples. And there are games about the underground railroad and nuclear proliferation, not to mention all the games that cover various historical events. If you want to get closer to something a non-gamer might have experienced, the Monopoly was created as a criticism of capitalism (compare and contrast to other capitalist games, such as the hardworking capitalist in any Mark Wallace game) or you can look at the horribly nominative winning conditions in Game of Life. Even the euros that you knock have a lot to offer, for even though the game decisions themselves may not make for interesting stories, then “Last weeks I was a 16th century subsistence farmer and a polish worker quin in a supermarket”, as just the fact that these dry subjects can be turned into amusing past times can make for a fascinating story.

    Or you can talk about the dynamics of the games themselves. Even without involving any rules or specific games, non-gamers can easily understand how there is a difference between cooperative and competitive games, or how traitor mechanics can be fascinating exploration of one’s ability to lie.

    I’ve had all these sorts of conversations, and it works fine. It doesn’t necessarily turn people into board gamers, but then why should it. I don’t start painting just because people tell me of an art exhibition they’ve been to, but it can still make for a good story.

  2. You make some interesting points. I agree about sports – when people start talking about that I tend to zone out. Although, arguably, when people discuss the things that sports celebrities tend to get themselves into, that can be interesting.

    Also I’m not saying that board games are totally non-social. I’m saying that their social nature is fairly self contained, unlike other forms of artistic media. I wouldn’t classify a party as media or artistic (unless it is a party-as-an-art-project in which case it certainly could spur discussion in the general populace). Sports, as well, are generally not really a form of “artistic” expression in any sense of the word.

    Your example of the holocaust train board game is certainly an interesting one, but the game doesn’t fall into the mainstream realm even for hobby gamers – it seems more like an art project than a board game, even if it is in board game form. And your other examples may represent certain historical events or moral issues, they don’t really present them in a way that provokes discussion of the topic itself.

    And yes, you can talk about the dynamic of game mechanisms – but you can really only tell people what a game is like. You can’t have an interesting discussion with a non-gamer about that. Your best point is that of the discussion of traitor mechanisms and the topic of lying – within or without a game – which could actually be a fairly interesting topic for gamers or non-gamers.

    to your last point, I would challenge the metaphor. When I discuss a book or a movie, I have no intention to turn anyone into a writer or director, but I would definitely encourage people to watch or read and engage with the things I’ve read or seen. In the same way I would want to get people not to design games but to play and experience them.

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  5. Martin Monterossi Munch

    Quite an interesting read. Here’s my take on it.
    Comparing the discussion of themes and settings in a novel or a film to discussions about board games I feel is not a fair comparison. Board games are not fictional works in themselves and thus playing the games rarely require the gamer to engage philosophically in the game’s theme. The engagement of the player is more often in the metagame.

    I feel that a comparison to sports is much more fair and precise. When discussing a football match or a hockey game, the discussion is rarely about the themes and concepts of the game and the settings and rules that govern it. The main theme of a discussion, from my perspective, is often how players have performed within the constraints of the game; the amazing tactical overview of a midfielder or the physical abilities of an athlete in a specific situation. Likewise when I go into discussions about board game sessions I have partaken in, it is rarely the setting, mechanics or the outcome of the game I point out, but how player A, through careful planning and manipulation of the other players, reached a point in the game I had not anticipated. I tend to focus on my fellow players’ ability to understand the metagame, how their cunning and strategic understanding gave them an edge.

    Thinking of gaming and gamers like mental athletes in a sport that may be unknown to the discussion partners allow them to understand that gaming is not only about the game, it’s about the players, their interaction and their unique perspectives on the possible actions available within the game. Board games are about choices, your choices.

    When introducing new people to my world of board games I very rarely tell them about themes and mechanics, even though as a rules lawyer rules are my favorite thing. I tell them of my friend’s wife and her amazing strategic overview and how we once teamed up to dominate the rest of the table, and how they saw through our scheme and lured us into thinking we’d be successful, only to be beat us inches from the finish line. This story could be from any board game, it could be a soccer match or a tennis double. The important thing is, that people hearing the story often go “Wow! You got all that from a board game? I have to try that!”

    Stories like this often ignite a spark of interest in board games and following up with a story from a different type of game, e.g. a coop game where we won in the last turn, let the non-gamers see a glimpse about the board gaming world outside of Monopoly and Settlers of Catan. A World they thought they knew, but now holds uncovered treasures and experiences.

    This approach has been so successful that today I play more board games with my girlfriend’s friends and families than I do with my old gaming buddies that I’ve played with since my teens. It should be mentioned that I play mainly euro games, though the occasional Dune/Rex game is always popular (and give the best stories!).

  6. I agree with Martin as well. The comparison with sports works better than narrative fiction or non-fiction. Think of it as finding someone who’s never played basketball before and getting them to play with you. You’ll need to tell them what you like about it and how they can join you too.

    Usually to get them to play you need to convince them of how fun it is. With most people who play mainstream games like monopoly and scrabble I go with this: 1-This game gave me an interesting experience because of (Insert game experience here – there are so many different ones). 2-Interesting game mechanics that keep everyone involved. 3-Easy to learn. 4-Doesn’t take 2-4 hours to play (Monopoly or Risk are big offenders here). Trying to introduce a game with complex rules and a playtime of 2 or more hours will likely scare away new gamers.

    Also know the right time to bring up the game conversation. If someone avidly talks about video games or traditional games you have a great in. Usually those types of gamers are interested in other games and are open to here about different experiences. If someone joins a conversation about games, great. Some people don’t have the interest though. I have a few family members like that. It’s hard to understand that position sometimes, but you shouldn’t bother them about it, that never helps.

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