Board Games – The Shared Illusion

The wind was cold and blew harshly down the street.  I had sent Jarek to wait at the kiosk for anything we could trade in the exchange.  I borrowed my neighbour’s baby for the day, Magda would get me to the front of the clothing store line.  I had bundled her securely against the cold, wrapping my mother’s quilt tightly around her.  I alternately pushed my way to the front and cajoled, gesturing to the child in my arms.  I finally made it to the front of the line and stood waiting.  Just a few more minutes and the store would open.  I could snatch what I needed and be home before the morning was through.

“Closed for stock-taking!” my husband called out from the other side of the table.  He played his card on the pile of merchandise at the clothing store.

“Seriously, I just needed one more card to finish off my shopping list.”  I said, throwing my cards.   Our friends around the table crying out in shock or triumph depending on their progress through their shopping lists.

It was a cold day for September.  We had lit a fire to ward off the slight chill in the air and the damp from three days of constant rain.  The board was spread out on the table.  “Meeples”, board game pieces in the shape of people, lined up in orderly rows at the electronics store, the kiosk, the grocery store.  All hoping to collect the merchandise and finish off the shopping list given to them at the beginning.  The game is Queue, it simulates the daily experience in 1980s communist Poland.

While board gaming is not usually this intense, I don’t always name my five game piece children.   I am willing to admit that does happen sometimes.

Psychology Behind Board Games

Usually, we play board games with our friends.  The scene is very like what David Sax describes in his book The Revenge of Analog, “a mix of belly laughs, defeated groans, surprised screams, triumphant shouts, and the click-clack of plastic on cardboard”.  This is a typical Friday night at our house.  Although we might just as well be playing Marrying Mr. Darcy or Ultimate Werewolf.

What makes these games so addictive that we spend our free time researching new options and playing them over sumptuous snacks?

For Wil Wheaton, the founder of the TableTop YouTube show, table top board games are the direct antithesis to video games, “many people make a point to get together with friends to play board games, bringing back the social aspects of gaming”

Sax thinks that they “fulfill a unique social need in our lives”.  He discusses the analog aspect of the games and postulates that they are “an excuse for getting together”.  That would certainly be true for many people I have met in Vienna.  For Sax, playing games changes the way that players relate to each other.

Psychological research bears out Sax’s theories.  In an article titled, “Wanna Play”, author Jay Tietel explores the current research for Psychology Today.   Tietel comments that games take all the “bad-stress” out of social situations by providing a protocol for players to follow.  This means that players do not have to think about how they will interact with each other, the games do all the hard work allowing them to be free to have fun.

Let’s Pretend

For a board game to be fun all players need to be invested in the game.  Not necessarily the outcome or winning but the illusion of the game itself.  You are Elizabeth Bennet and you want to marry Mr. Darcy, instead of being a man in his mid-thirties working in an office, and you are going to do everything you can to make it impossible for Caroline Bingley to marry anyone.

“All players must work together to create the illusion of the game”, Sax writes.  The best games for this are games of social deduction, like Werewolf or Resistance, where there is a core group (villagers) and “others” (werewolves).   Everyone invests in creating the illusion of “us versus them” to find the werewolves hiding amidst the villagers.

Tietel writes that “games can reopen doors into the world of pretending and childhood, reminding us of unadulterated fun, sparking creativity”.  For Sax, the experience ultimately goes further, “we work together to liberate one another from reality”.

For adults, board games are a simple care free way to spend time.  Reality suspends for a moment or an hour.  We laugh with friends, work through complex strategies, and creatively and collaboratively solve puzzles.  As Sax says, “you are basically playing two games: one on the table and one around the table”.

Wanna Play Some Board Games?

Getting into the world of tabletop gaming can be difficult.  There are so many categories of game: card games, dice games, cooperative games, strategy games, social deduction, deck building, and chance.  These are just a few of the categories.

A good resource is Wil Wheaton’s web series TableTop.  He and a group of friends (celebrities) sit down to play a game in every episode.  It will give you a feel for the rules and the gameplay.  It is also a review of the game.  Some of the industry’s best games are reviewed on this show.

When you are out and shopping for games, Board Game Geek is the best website for game rating and reviews.  Most games are listed there, including recently released KickStarter titles.

Always check to see the age levels for games, the playing time, and the number of players.  All this information will be on the side of the box.  Some games require hours of investment and at least four players, which would be counterproductive if you are looking for a quick two player game.

Board game shops are fantastic places to discover new games.  The staff and owners of these local businesses are very knowledgeable about the industry and can recommend games based on skill level, interest, or subject matter.  My favourite game shop in the city is Planet Harry.

Some of the favourites at our house are Ticket to Ride, Marrying Mr. Darcy, Queue, Werewolf One Night Ultimate, Power Grid, Mansions of Madness, and Dead of Winter: The Long Night. 

Call up a bunch of friends, make some snacks, and prepare for an evening of fun!



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About Jennifer Cornick

Freelance journalist and blogger for various publications in Vienna. When I am not writing, I can generally be found with a book (or anything with words on it - even cereal boxes).

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