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Friday 23 February 2024

Friday Faction: What Board Games Mean to Me

We are lucky. We live in a time when the hobbies we pursue and the things that we like are the norm. Not just the norm, but accepted. Science Fiction, fantasy, superheroes, playing games, all the sorts of stuff that would have been derided in our childhoods and got us labelled as nerds. Board games are part of that trend, a trend which has seen them grow from being seen as childish pursuits to being just a hobby, but is that all they are? Just one more nerdy hobby amongst many others? This is something that What Board Games Mean to Me: Tales from the Tabletop sets out to explore in a series of essays from designers and publishers, players and scholars, journalists and librarians. Published by Aconyte Books, it is part of the publisher’s ‘Play to Win’ line, which includes James Wallis’ examination of the Spiel des Jahres winners, Everybody Wins: Four Decades of Greatest Board Games Ever Made, this is a collection of reminiscences and thoughts about board games—occasionally collectible card games and roleplaying games—but mostly board games, that will take the reader around the world and to some interesting places and ideas and to experiences familiar and unfamiliar, before coming back again, to his own collection of board games on the shelf and to the table where he plays them with friends and family.

The familiar follows two strands. The first being of playing with family—siblings, parents, and grandparents—of family classics such as Monopoly, Scrabble, Whist, Draughts, and how that got the essayist into playing games and understanding not just the mechanics of play, but the social dynamics of play. Games thus became a way to facilitate interaction with the rules of the game and the rules of game play. This is followed by the second, the discovery of a wider variety of board games, opening the essayist up to different themes and styles of play, co-operative games being a notable common discovery. For gamers of a certain age, such as John Kovalic, Gav Thorpe, Jervis Johnson, and Sir Ian Livingstone. This would have been with titles such as Escape from Colditz, Diplomacy, and The Warlord, an experience which British gaming hobbyists would recognise and which such figures would use as springboard into careers in the gaming industry. Others would discover a similar path through modern classics such as Carcassonne and CATAN or collectible card games such as Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh!.

The unfamiliar at first takes the reader to Nigeria with ‘Picture a Scene’. This charts KC Obbuagu’s first encounter with board games with an African classic, Mancala, and then following a revelatory moment in which he saw his board game design played, his steps into the board game industry where there was none. This was in Nigeria, and creating his first games led to the setting up of the games company, NIBCARD Games, the first tabletop café in Nigeria, and AB Con, the first board games convention in sub-Saharan Africa. All of which would result in NIBCARD Games being awarded the Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming in 2021. This is a fascinating story, shining a light on the spread of the hobby in unexpected directions far beyond its origins in the English-speaking world. Also, an unfamiliar area—at least for board games—is that of the library. Jenn Bartlett describes in ‘Ticket to Read’, how she, as a librarian, created a board game programme at her library, working with publishers and local games shops, to support local business and develop a library-using habit in the attendees of the games events that she ran. There is an uncomfortable moment when she encounters misogyny as a player, but she draws parallels between what the hobby does at its best and what a library does, which is to welcome people in and letting them explore what each of them offers without judgement.

Both Lynn Potyen and Edoardo Albert bring a personal touch when they explore a fascinating effect of playing board games. In ‘Brain Games’, Lynn Potyen reveals how playing board games can help with learning disabilities and dementia, whilst Edoardo Alberto shows us in ‘Learning the Rules’ how the rules and etiquette learned in playing games can be applied to ordinary life, not in neurotypical learners, but in himself as well. What is interesting to note here is that when board games are used as tools in this fashion, they achieve something that the eighteenth and nineteenth century designers of board games failed to do, and that is to create a board game that works as an effective educational tool. That though was to teach the young players to be good Christians and the values of the British Empire, but even the board games of today designed to help players learn are not necessarily good teaching devices. Both Lynn Potyen and Edoardo Albert suggest that modern boardgames work better because they are designed for play rather than learning first, rather than the other way around. All of the entries in What Board Games Mean to Me are very personal, but none more so than ‘Brain Games’ and ‘Learning the Rules’.

Other entries in What Board Games Mean to Me include ‘Playing by Design’ an interview with the prolific board games designer, Reiner Knizia, the only entry to differ from personal essays that make up the rest of the book, and two scholarly explorations of board games and play. In the first of these, ‘The Magic Circle’, Matt Coward-Gibbs explores the phenomenon of the space which we all enter when we play from a theoretical standpoint, whilst in the second, ‘Connections’, Holly Nielsen looks at the connections made in that space when playing. One of the points she makes is that after discovering games designed to highlight the causes of women against unequal treatment and misogyny, the examples given pointing the feminism movement of the sixties and seventies and the Suffragette movement of the early twentieth century, she came to realise that despite the rallying cry of “Keep politics out of games!”, there had always been politics in games. There is scope here for an essay of all its own, but Nielson is also interested in the other aspect of games that the contributors to What Board Games Mean to Me return to again and again, and that is making connections via game play. Both entries talk about board games in a way that the casual player might necessarily consider, but do so in an engaging fashion.

What Board Games Mean to Me is similar to a pair of books published by Green Ronin Publishing, Hobby Games: The 100 Best and Family Games: The 100 Best, which together presented a series of essays on what the authors thought were the best and most enjoyable games of previous one hundred years. A handful of the contributors to What Board Games Mean to Mee also wrote entries in those earlier books, but where Hobby Games: The 100 Best and Family Games: The 100 Best looked back, What Board Games Mean to Me looks forward as well as back. This can be seen in KC Obbuagu’s essay highlighting the spread of board games as a hobby into unexpected markets and in the essays by Lynn Potyen and Edoardo Albert that point to board games as means of therapy and socialisation. In this way, it enhances the respectability that playing board games as a hobby has achieved in the past few decades.

Physically, What Board Games Mean to Me is a very lightly illustrated, but very readable paperback. None of the essays are longer than a few pages long and each is accompanied by a biography of its author.

What Board Games Mean to Me explores a variety of experiences in how the contributors came to play board games and how they came to discover and explore the wider hobby, and in doing so, tell stories that, for the most part, we can relate to because we had similar experiences. Yet wherever these stories take us, they always come back to the fact that playing board games is a social activity, a space where when we play, we do so using a set of rules that enable safe interaction and socialisation, even as we compete and battle against each other. Overall, What Board Games Mean to Me: Tales from the Tabletop is an enjoyable essay collection whose entries are in turn not only highly personal and immensely interesting, but will also will make the reader consider their own experiences with board games, whether they are new to the hobby or have been playing for decades.

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