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Thanks for the Memories: Nostalgia and Board Games

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For those of us who grew up with board games, there’s often a strong nostalgia attached to the hobby. Maybe we fondly recall playing with our family at the holidays, or marathon late nights with friends in college. For me, the memories center around both. As an only child, I didn’t always have the option to play board games. No built-in sibling opponents! I was fortunate, though, that my parents liked to play games. They always made time to play with me, and I realize now how mind-numbing it must have been to play that 1,000th game of Candy Land. (Thanks, mom and dad!)

I also remember playing with other kids in the neighborhood and at school. Most of what we had at our houses were mass market games, but we played the heck out of them. Bonkers, PayDay, LIFE, The Love Boat Game (it was the 70’s, and 80’s after all), Trivial Pursuit… It was all there in all its mass market glory. We’d play all night at sleepovers, or all day on rainy Saturdays. In the words of The Goldbergs, “It was 1980-something, and it was awesome!”

(Memory break… My parents had the flooring redone in the house about ten years after I moved out. When the flooring crew pulled up the old carpet, they found a couple of blue and pink child pegs from LIFE stuck under one of the vents. While my mom wondered how they got there, I knew. One night at a sleepover, we got the idea to put all the pegs on the spinner and let it rip. We laughed our adolescent heads off, then spent the rest of the evening picking pegs out of the carpet, furniture, and plants. Obviously we didn’t get them all.)

This little story leads me to the point of this piece. When Winning Moves Games re-published the original version of LIFE (not some crappy movie tie-in version, or “improved” version with credit cards), I actually bought it. This despite not having kids who might enjoy it. My husband had never played it and I dreamed of introducing him to the fun. (You can probably see the trouble on the horizon already.)

We set it up and started to play. We’d barely selected our careers, gotten married and popped out our first pink and blue pegs before he looked at me and said, “I’m kind of bored. Does it get better?” I was having doubts, but we persevered. The game ended and he said, “I guess not,” in reference to it not getting better. 

I hated to do it, but I had to concede that he was right. Where was all the fun I remembered? The laughter that used to bring me and my friends to tears? The hilarity at screaming, “Do over!” whenever someone got a less than desirable career? I didn’t even feel an urge to spin the pegs across the room for the dog to chase. I was bummed and started second guessing my youth. Had we ever really had fun with this game? The poor experience with my husband threatened to tarnish my good memories. 

After we boxed it up I realized the problem: The game was still exactly the same. I was not. Plus, I was playing with a different person in a different time, not those adolescent friends during a carefree summer. The fun belonged to a specific moment in time, and a specific group of people who no longer existed in their adolescent forms. As Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” It’s as true for gaming as it is for family life or small town nostalgia. 

I saw this same phenomenon play out when Restoration Games re-published Fireball Island, and when a couple of friends tracked down old copies of HeroQuest. When the games arrived, the excitement level was through the roof. But after playing? Letdown city. It’s exactly this that kept me from buying the reprint of Star Wars: Escape from the Death Star when I saw it in Target this week. It was an awesome game in 1977 when I was a child and the movie was new. Now? I’m pretty sure it would do nothing but disappoint me. I dodged that bullet, despite losing my mind and hollering with glee when I saw it on the shelf.

These experiences made me think. It’s often not the games themselves that bring joy and create a wistful sense of nostalgia. It’s the friends we played with, and the specific “golden” moment in time that those games represent. Sure, some games will stand the test of time and be great whether you play them now or twenty years from now, with your current friends or with friends you meet later. But sometimes even the best/most loved games don’t hold up for you over time. It’s not the fault of the game. It’s just that gaming is such a social experience that it’s hard to recapture the fun when people and gaming situations change.

Aside from the games we remember from our youth, there may even be modern games we played with family that aren’t as “fun” once those family members pass away. Or games we played with one group of friends don’t click with a new group when we switch towns. This happened to us with a game called Huggermugger. We played with another couple when we were all young and first married. They moved away and we never had the same fun with any other couples. I still get nostalgic for that game until I realize: It isn’t the game I’m longing for, it’s that couple and that time in our lives.

Much of the fun of board games is built around things like inside jokes, catching up on the week’s trials and tribulations, ribbing “that guy” who always wins (or loses), retelling the stories created by prior games, and just remembering the shared history of the game. That sort of thing often doesn’t translate to a new group. It’s not that the game is no longer fun, it’s that you’ve lost the shared history. 

Sometimes we just have to accept that a game had a certain place in our life at a certain time and once that time has passed, the game must necessarily pass with it. If you’re a fan of Marie Kondo, you will actually thank the game for its role in your life and then pass it on to another.

Trying too hard to recapture the fun can actually ruin the good memories you have. When you see all the flaws in a game, or fail to have fun with a new group, you may start questioning your sanity. Was the game ever fun, or were you just deluded? Yes, it was fun. You aren’t crazy. It’s just that time marches on and tastes, friends, and circumstances all change, and that means that what we love about games changes, as well. 

(This is what drives me batty when I see people bashing on mass market games. Yes, by our modern “game snob” standards they aren’t that great. But a lot of people manage to have fun with them in spite of that. Why? Because they’re having fun with people. Even if they move on to “real” games, they may never recreate those moments of pure fun. If the group isn’t into it, or you end up playing with strangers, you may better appreciate the games themselves, but those moments of pure relaxing fun may never materialize. Even playing award-winning games that top the hotness list may not bring as much pure fun to the table if the group dynamics aren’t right. As long as you’re having fun with people and making memories, play what you want.)

There’s nothing wrong with moving on. Growing up happens to all of us. The good news is that you will always have the memories of those games you loved and, more importantly, the people you played them with. You don’t lose those just because a game is no longer fun for you, or because some jerk tells you that you can’t possibly have had fun playing “mass market trash.” You absolutely did have fun, so treasure those memories. 

What we have to learn is that trying to recapture those golden moments is likely doomed to failure. Even if you get the exact same group together twenty years down the road and play your old favorite game, you probably won’t have the same experience. You’re all different now, with different responsibilities, interests, and likes. At best, you’ll reminisce about how much fun this used to be, and then move on to talk about your lives as they are now. At worst, you’ll tarnish those fond memories with “forced fun” and decide you really must have been dreaming to think you ever had a good time with that old game. 

I don’t write this to be a bummer, or to tell you to never chase down a nostalgic game (although I don’t advise it). I’m writing this to tell you that “gaming nostalgia” often can’t be satisfied by buying a game from your childhood and playing it today. What you can do is remember those moments you had and focus on making new moments with the friends you have today. Play games that let you interact or be silly. Play games that tell stories or are bound to end in laughter and jokes. Don’t worry about the outcome of the game, or spend the whole game mentally spreadsheeting the mechanisms. 

Instead, enjoy the people you’re with and the time together. That’s where true nostalgia comes from. Our games are simply an ever-changing backdrop against which friendships, relationships, and golden moments of time play out. You may never be able to recreate the fun of your youth, but the conversation that begins with, “Remember when…?” is usually better than any game.

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Jennifer,

    Thank you for this wonderful article, so poignantly written. As a child of the 70s and 80s, I too hearken back to the great games of yesteryear, but in reality it was, in fact, the friends with whom I shared tge experience.

    Cheers,
    Joe

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