Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Simple Pleasures of Board Games

Over the past 3-4 years or so, I have rekindled my interest in playing board games after a fairly long hiatus away from the hobby. While my love of fantasy sports and miniature wargaming kept me afloat fun-wise for many years, I suddenly got the itch to incorporate some simpler games into my extracurricular activities.

By "simpler", I mean games that don't involve the extremely deep level of immersion that's part and parcel to being involved in a competitive fantasy baseball league or becoming a diehard miniatures wargame player.

Anyone who has played fantasy baseball in a serious league knows that it's something you play every day for about 7 months; prepping for the annual draft, reading daily box scores, watching games and SportsCenter highlights, and making trades and roster moves. In rotisserie baseball, there are tremendous highs and awful lows. The euphoria of winning a game that took 6 months to play is not matched in tabletop games. I cannot tell you the number of times that I've played such & such a board game or how many times I won or lost, but I can remember every single fantasy sports championship I've won in baseball, football, and hockey. Of course, the melancholy moments and frustration of limping through a bad season can also really take it's toll on you mentally. You then get 3-4 months off, only to see things start up all over again once the Super Bowl has ended. I've been doing this for 22 straight years now and it has become part of my life, just like showering, eating, and making the bed every morning.

Miniature wargaming is often a LIFE-LONG hobby. Buying and collecting miniatures, modelling terrain and painting your toy soldiers, collecting and studying wargame rules, playing games, and going to conventions is something hobbyists typically do over countless years. It's not a quick-fix hobby by any stretch of the imagination. It's like a fine wine; your love and appreciation of miniature gaming continually ferments and ripens over time. It's artsy fartsy and beautiful. It's educational, deep, and challenging. It's highly social. It's madly obsessive and fun. But it ain't fast and it ain't cheap.

So that brings me back to boardgames. I'm not exactly sure why I suddenly got the urge to play these games again. Perhaps it was turning 40 years old that did it. There's a time in everyone's life when they suddenly look back at what they've done and chew on it a bit. This often happens around mid-life for most people, so I suppose that I'm no different than the majority of folks. When figuring out where you want to go in life, sometimes it's good to take a fresh look at where you have been. You ponder what your career and relationships have been like. And so in terms of doing "fun stuff", I examined what I used to do for fun. For me, at least as a youth, that primarily consisted of playing sports, playing board games, and playing D&D.

At 44 years old, I'm too old and out-of-shape to play sports anymore. I'm not one of those older guys who thinks "yeah, I can get back into shape and hang with the young guys again and prove my great athleticism". I'll never run as fast as I did when I was 20, and I'll never recapture my earlier agility. Those days are long gone. And you know, I'm entirely cool with that. Acceptance is a freeing thing.

I also don't have the free time to play D&D anymore. Gone are those long summer days when I could create maps, NPCs, worlds, house-rules, and story arcs for my gaming group -- I was the Dungeon Master in those wonderful days. I've already got other immersive hobbies that eat up my time and money. So D&D, it was nice knowing you and you'll always have a fond place in my heart. But I have found another lover, and her name is board games.

There are several great things about board games. For starters, there are so darn many types of board games that there is literally something for everyone. There are fast-playing games and long-playing games. There are games with simple, easy-to-learn rules, and games with thick rulebooks that are tricky to learn but very rewarding to play. There are adventure games, wargames, sports games, abstracts, strategy games, dexterity games, card games, and games with miniatures. It's pretty hard not to bump into at least a few games that fit your particular interests.

Another fantastic thing about board games is the face-to-face social interaction they generate. When I was growing up, "playing a game" meant sitting down at the table with your friends or family and sharing a live, face-to-face experience together. But then the personal computer revolution came and everything changed. We became a more isolated society where gaming was done on a computer, often solo. It was just you and the machine. Face-to-face gaming began to shrink into the background, a vestige of the 1960's and 70's and a bygone era. But eventually, as always seems to happen, things that have gone out of fashion return to the forefront. Computer gaming expanded to include multi-player games played over the internet, and slowly, the social aspect of gaming returned. And then in the first-half of the 1990's, two games were released which re-ignited the tabletop gaming scene: Magic the Gathering, and The Settlers of Catan. People started to sit down again and play games together. Face-to-face gaming and the social aspect of gaming was reborn. And that growth hasn't stopped. That's a fantastic thing because in my opinion, there's nothing better than engaging in a few hours of chit-chat, friendly competition, and laughs with your close friends and family.

But perhaps the greatest thing that board games have going for them is their simplicity. And by that, I don't mean a lack of challenge or simplistic rules. What I mean is that compared to other types of gaming (such as fantasy sports, miniature wargaming, and video gaming), board games take much less time to play and generally cost less money.

With a board game, you plunk down your $25 to $50 to buy the game. You open the box, maybe punch out some cardboard counters, and spend a little time learning the rules. When the time to play rolls around, you open the box, take out the board and components, setup the game, cover the basic rules for those 1st-time players, and then spend 30 minutes to 3 hours playing the game until a winner is declared. And you can play that game over and over again, squeezing many hours of entertainment value out of something that didn't cost all that much to start with.

Contrast board games with miniature wargaming. With miniature gaming, you can easily spend hundreds (sometimes thousands) of dollars buying models and terrain. The costs run quite high if you buy professionally painted figures and fancy terrain. To save money, you can paint the models yourself. Many hobbyists really enjoy the "arts & crafts" aspects of miniatures gaming. But the trade-off in saving money is the big increase in time that you'll spend painting your tiny tin troops. And then of course, you'll need paints, brushes, glue, flock, and other assorted materials. Plus, miniature wargames are generally much more complex than most board games. It's not unusual for miniature wargame rulebooks to run for 60, 100, or even 200+ pages. It takes time to learn the rules. About the only thing that's not really expensive are the rulebooks themselves (most fall in the $20 to $40 range). Miniature wargaming is not just about playing games, it's about the entire HOBBY of researching, collecting, painting, learning, and gaming.

And what about video games? They're fairly cheap after all. Yes, but actually finishing a game can take many hours, spread over days, weeks, and even months. Heck, I have many adventure games that I've played but never finished. Such is the life of an adult with lots of things going on at once.

So I look at board games as a simple pleasure -- something I can pull out and play for a few hours, and then put back on my closet shelf until the next game session rolls around. I'm not under any time pressure to play by a certain deadline. I don't need to keep up with the day-to-day news of the world around me in order to win a game. I don't need to spend thousands of dollars to maintain my hobby addiction. There's very little pre-game prep required. And it's something that I can do with both casual gamers and more serious enthusiasts. It's a win-win on so many levels.

Sometimes, simple is good.

1 comment:

meeplemania said...

Hi, this is a great article. I can absolutely relate on so many levels. From being 44 and OK with the loss of athleticism to the bygone days of board games. I have a website and would love to reference your blog. www.meeplemania.com - let me know if that's ok, thanks! Great job!!!