Outside the box: Digging deeper into board gaming

Before I met my husband, whenever someone asked, “Do you want to play a board game?” I’d immediately think of classic childhood games like Monopoly or Sorry. I had no idea that board gaming was such a diverse and expansive hobby, and that there were literally hundreds of board games out there with original themes and concepts. 

Movies are my favorite geek thing, but board gaming is my husband’s, and over the six years we’ve been together, I’ve learned a whole lot about this hobby, and we’ve even been to a convention dedicated just to board games called Gen Con in Indianapolis, Indiana. I’ve played games like:

Dinosaur Island, a board game inspired by the Jurassic Park franchise that lets you collect DNA and populate a theme park with dinosaurs. But you have to be careful that none of those dinosaurs escape and threaten your guests… 

T.I.M.E. Stories, an immersive, time-traveling board game that allows you and your friends to play secret agents trying to solve cases in settings like pirate-infested tropical waters or an alternate reality where magic and monsters are real. 

Sheriff of Nottingham, a Robin Hood-themed bluffing game where you have to try to bribe the sheriff to sneak illegal goods through the marketplace. 

Dungeon Fighter, a delightfully silly game of dexterity where you play a dysfunctional team of heroes trying to fight monsters in a dungeon. 

If these sound like fun concepts to you, there’s good news — this is just a taste of the many options available in modern board gaming. Even if you’ve never played anything more complicated than checkers, now it is a great time to get involved in this hobby. 

Why board games and why now?

At first glance, it seems a little unusual that a decades-old pastime like board gaming would be experiencing a renaissance in an era where digital entertainment is exploding in quality and availability. Video game graphics are getting more and more realistic, and you can even have a virtual reality experience in your own home. 

Board games are comparatively low-tech; while some have a digital component, most board games are basically a collection of cardboard and plastic pieces in a box you can play anywhere or anytime, as long as you’ve got a table. 

According to a 2018 article in The Atlantic, the modern board game renaissance can probably be traced back to the creation of Settlers of Catan in 1995 (although the game didn’t get really popular until about a decade later). I’ve found that many people, even non-board gamers, have heard of Settlers of Catan by now. It’s a common “gateway game” into the rest of the hobby.  

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people are being drawn to board games — a hobby that requires in-person social interaction — in an age that is dominated by digital communication and entertainment. 

Now, I definitely don’t want to come across as being dismissive of video games, which I think are also a wonderful storytelling medium. Even though I’m terrible at video games and they aren’t really my thing, it shouldn’t be dismissed as a mindless hobby. Video game designers have been able to create immersive worlds that allow players to experience stories in a really personal way. 

However, as a society overall, we’ve shifted too much to digital communication. With the abundance of emailing, texting, and social media, we sometimes interact with people more online than we do in person. As humans, we need face-to-face interaction as part of a healthy lifestyle, and the COVID-19 quarantine has made this even more apparent, as many of us are struggling with feelings of isolation. 

Board games provide an opportunity for in-person social connection but also take away some of the pressure of a less structured social gathering. If I’m walking into a party where I don’t know anyone at all, I personally am going to feel a little nervous or awkward. But playing a board game is a great way to meet new people, and it’s a fun, low-stress way to interact.

Finally, the rise of board games is probably tied to the rise of geek culture in general. There used to be an unfair stigma against “geeky stuff”; you could be judged or made fun of for being into Star Trek or participating in a role-playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. 

Thankfully, this stigma is going away, and it makes me so happy to see more people getting into sci-fi, superheroes, cosplay, board games, and all the wonderfully geeky things we have available now. 

You can find a board game for pretty much every fandom, whether it’s vikings, knights, pirates, space explorers, etc. There also are plenty of tie-in games for popular franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

More than just a game?

While people primarily play board games simply because they’re fun, board games come with some other positive benefits.

If you’ve spent any time in online communities like Facebook or Twitter, then you know that sometimes conversations turn really ugly, really fast. It’s easier to be mean to another person when you can’t see their face, and I’m afraid that people are learning bad habits from their online communications, such as having conversations without nuance and building echo chambers. 

When you’re playing board games around a table with friends or strangers, you can directly see how people are responding to you. If you’re rude to another player for making a mistake, you have to look right into their eyes and see how you’ve hurt them. Board gaming teaches you how to be a gracious winner (or loser) and how to build a community.

Board games also are a great form of mental exercise. They challenge players to problem-solve and to think in new ways. 

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting a series of blogs on The Story Geeks website covering how to get into the hobby of board gaming, as well as some game recommendations for a variety of experience levels. 

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