What is that thing about playing a board game that makes it magical?
There is a psychological state called “Flow“. Athletes and computer programmers sometimes call it “being in the zone”. It is a mental state where you feel 100% of your attention focused on one problem. The problem is broken into a sequence of decisions to be made, and actions are carried out after every decision. The actions carry consequences though, they’ve changed the environment – new data emerges, and the problem changes slightly. But in flow, you feel like you’ve got this under control, you can zig the zag. The the mind iterates through it all again. There is a euphoria in it, and a certain madness. A loss of ego, a break from your usual existence; to turn the phrase, your whole being is in another zone. The immediate feedback, the feeling of being entirely in the present, without a thought for past or future, is like the brain’s own (heavily diluted) morphine drip.
But playing board games does not put you in an enduring flow state. You take breaks. Those breaks involve speaking, listening, fidgeting with your cards and pieces, admiring the art and design on the board, creative moments imagining what a smirk or a grimace may indicate about your opponent’s plan, When you are having the most fun playing at board games, all of these things are positive experiences, and every moment knits together into a colourful ribbon of merriment. Flow is the thread at the center, persistently re-emerging in the pattern, providing the addictive kick, the out-of-body euphoria, but every bargain, every joke, every knowing pause, every gesture, every clatter of the dice is a stitch that makes the pattern whole.
Not every stitch is hued of brilliance though. Garments have utilitarian, ugly, thinned threads here and there, and board games have chores, warped cardboard, monotonous arithmetic, ambiguous materiel, confusing, unfair, or sometimes contradictory rules. There are some who encounter a worn-through pocket or a popped button, despair, and throw out the whole piece to buy new clothes. But others of us see this as the meta-game. The mending or otherwise improving the games we love brings us more fully into the experience, and provides our friends with an improved, more personally connected experience too. Compare buying a pizza for your friends to making one for them. (Phew! He’s finally switched away from the textile metaphors)
Gaming is important. Getting together with friends, experiencing flow together, trading, conversing, joking, discussing strategy, helping each other learn, putting ourselves in positions where we need to prove our grace and honour, even being in a safe environment to play with deceit and betrayal, all of these things are what make us human. We, as social animals strive for these experiences, but the circumstances of our daily lives rarely provide a wide range of these social interactions. Playing board games, you can look your friend in the eye, slowly reveal a card from your hand, and summon a grateful smile or a desperate wail, and at the end you shake each others’ hands or clink your glasses in a promise of future contests. In an evening we can behold the extremes of social interaction, charity and ferocity, wit and brute numerical force. We inhale it deeply and exhale it in a satisfied sigh and are made better for the breathing.
For myself, I have identified a couple dull threads, experiences that could be tightened up when playing the games of Catan and Dominion. Annoyance with messy game environments is a distraction from the enjoyment. Distractions mean people stop having fun. They leave flow and leave even those other moments of delightful interaction. Their attention shifts to things that don’t bring people together in the important way the game is supposed to. Channelling my inner inventor and artist, I’ve tried to build solutions that eliminate some of that annoyance and also exhibit some delighting designs. But I’m not alone. There are people out there crafting boards, carrying cases, coming up with new rules and expansions to games. Those people inspire me, and I hope I sometimes return the favour.
Of course, this is all my take on it. I’d like to hear your stories. What have you improved, or what do you dream of improving in your favourite games? Why is it important to you? Email me or post a comment here.