28 Sep Some Games I love, and why they are a bit like improv
Without me even really noticing, board games have always just been a part of my life. First Backgammon with my grandad, a pirate game called Buccaneer with my family, then later all-night Risk games with some school friends. And as an adult, Lords of Waterdeep with an ex and Dominion with an old flatmate. Without joining the dots, I would get obsessed with a single game for a while, know it backwards and then move on as that person moved away, that relationship became less important or, in my grandad’s case, alzheimers meant he was no longer able to hold the rules in his head.
A few years ago, I joined the dots, started Googling and realised what I had been missing. For those who don’t know, modern (or ‘hobby’) board games are a pretty decent-sized industry with celebrities and cons and a very active online community. People deep sunk in it will happily bore you with names of designers and mechanics and discussions of the relative merits of games. Check out Youtube viewer numbers for top tens on the Dice Tower, I dare you. Nerds love to rank and classify.
Of course, I am not the only one. Lots of improvisers love board games. I have played every game on this list with multiple improvisers. I started writing this blog as ‘Things I learnt from board games’, but that is, if I am honest, untrue. I didn’t learn these things from games. I noticed them there. Board games and improv have similarities and I have parallel reactions. The skills and experiences are transferable. This list, then, is of pleasures common to improv and board games. Little bumps of emotions response I have had and thought ‘What does this remind me of?’. Sure, some board games are purely mathematical exercises in min-maxing, but my favourites have an emotional reaction baked in to them as well.
(All these games play great with a lockdown-friendly two players and are easily available. If you are new to hobby board games, you might find numbers 2 and 6 a little heavy. I am not saying don’t do it, just approach with care.)
So here are some games I love and what they share with improv.
- Hanabi – Embrace the meta
In Hanabi, your cards don’t face you, they face the other player(s). They represent fireworks and you are working together to play them in sequence to please the crowd. In short, it’s putting numbers in order using restricted information, but it’s also trying to read the other players mind and do the impossible. You say “You have one red card” and hope that they play that next. You can learn it in five minutes, but then as the game starts, you’ll find yourself leaning in with a frown, working through the implications of the rules. It’s brilliant.
Now, I am sure you could teach a computer to play this game optimally. I am terrified and impressed by the stories a friend told me of how this game is played in the Google building. But that’s not the point for me. When I am playing, I am being logical, but I am also thinking about when the same thing happened before. This is a game Heather and I have played a lot of, and the normal thought in my head is ‘What is Heather expecting me to expect?’. It is a game all about the meta.
The meta is a game above the game, the set of expectations and strategies which aren’t contained in the rules themselves, but in the micro community of play that surrounds it. When you play a game for the first time with people you never met, there is no meta, but as you play again and again, you are building an eco system within your gaming group, local scene or just the whole damned world. No game or scene exists in isolation. Each one is creating and using the meta. Embrace the meta, my friends. It’s another word for community.
- Terraforming Mars – Play to play, not to win
In TM (as it is known), you are a corporation terraforming Mars. To get this out the way: it is an ugly game. It has inconsistent art, cubes that are prone to chipping and boards that are easy to knock, displacing all of your carefully earned resources. But you have to look past that. You start off with some money and some cards (patents), and as you increase the temperature and oxygen and create oceans, you gain power and influence. You build cities and crash meteors and sometimes sabotage your opponents. Where at the start of the game you could do very little, at the end you find yourself chaining cards and effects together like a drunken god hurling lightning.
When the game finishes (when Mars is terraformed), you add up all your victory points and someone wins, but here’s the thing: it really doesn’t matter that much. The joy of this game is the feeling of gradually increasing power. At the start, you could do nothing and all seemed hopeless, but at the end, you have money and power and so many options. Watch me roar.
- Arboretum – First you learn the game and then you learn the game
Firstly, this game is beautiful. It’s a deck of pictures of trees, and there is a huge satisfaction to just placing them on the table. Because at its heart, this game is putting cards in sequence. You pick up two cards, play one and discard one. Sounds simple, but it is not.
Now this is a game I have played a LOT of. It fits in your pocket and you can crack through in about half an hour. It is airport-, bar-, picnic-friendly and there is a lot of depth in that little deck. Each game builds on the previous one. At first, there is the pleasure of working out how it works, then how you can play more against your partner, then more and more subtle ways to manipulate the deck. This fascinating and frustrating little game came round Thailand and Cambodia with Heather and I and many is the time we were staring at the cards on the table, not into each other’s eyes or at the sunset over the ocean.
There’s nothing wrong with a shallow game, but a really good game changes as you play it, you find corners and oddities that you weren’t expecting, things which your growing skills are enabling you to do. Where in TM this happens during a single game, in Arboretum, it happens from game to game. You bluff and feint, succeed and fail, find more decision space within the game and increase your power play by play.
- Backgammon – There’s nothing wrong with a bit of randomness
I am really good at Backgammon. Like, really good. I will kick your butt. My grandfather taught me when I was very young and I have been playing for thirty years pretty consistently.
But when I say I will kick your butt, I mean on average over a few games. Backgammon doesn’t have the agonising cerebral grind of chess, where each game just demonstrates who is the better player. You probably knew that anyway, so where’s the delight in it?. Any game with dice involved has the potential to overturn the skill differential. I remember teaching someone Backgammon and them beating me eight times in a row. At first, I was going easy, then I was playing and then really playing hard. The dice just didn’t love me that day. It may not be a great story, but it is a great memory. I still shake my head ruefully at it sometimes. Eight!
In Backgammon, you can plan, but you also have to react. To let go. It is constantly humbling. Now that’s what you want your grandfather to teach you.
- Codenames – ‘Right’ is only partially useful
This game has crossed out of the hobby now. And deservedly so. It is the non-gamers go-to modern party game, and it is a wonderful piece of design. Twenty-five cards are laid out in a grid, each with a word on it. Your team mate gives you a clue and you have to guess which words relate to it. I say ’crown’ and I am hoping you will guess ‘brain’ and ‘money’. It’s the improv classic Mind Meld in reverse. It’s flexible, and easy to teach, and survives loud environments and differing concentration levels. Sure, the down time can get in the way and some people find the pressure of creating clues too much, but with the right group of people, this is a real ‘just one more time’ game. It’s also Heather’s favourite game of all time.
And it is pure improv. When you are creating clues for your team, you can’t just look at the words, you have to look at your team. Will they know this film, this person, this reference? If I can’t expect them to understand what I mean, then using that clue is not an empowering demonstration of what I know, but smartarsery. Like a beautiful non-toxic poker, in Codenames, I play the players not the game. I have to maintain theory of mind for everyone just to get them to guess the word ‘horse’.
Oh, and there’s an online version if you want to play it over Zoom.
- Spirit Island – Good enough is good enough
This is a beast of a game. 3.99/5 on the Board game Geek complexity scale and even higher if you use the expansions. (I told you nerds love to classify.) In Spirit Island, you play spirits of an island trying to keep out the nasty european invaders with their conquistador helmets. Though its use of the indigenous population is still a little problematic (they do not have agency and are essentially a resource), it is a deft flipping of the invade-and-exploit theme of games like Catan. I won’t go into much detail, but you get powers and you kill invaders and they get scared and they build towns and cities anyway and then sometimes run away. Sometimes you get to hit them with a swarm of ants or a volcanic eruption or some Surprise Bears (genuine card name). It makes your brain hurt.
And here’s what’s really brilliant about it. At the start of the turn, you select what you are going to do (your powers), but you don’t select where exactly on the board you will play them. Then you use some of your powers, then the invaders do their actions (building and exploring), and then you play some more powers. This means Spirit Island is an exercise in trust and heuristics. I may desperately want to plan out everything that is going to happen, seal off all the possibilities, but that is both too complex and impossible to predict. Like a great improv scene, I am going to do my best with what I know right now and then like the cursed princess, let it go. It will work out or it won’t. I have to trust future-me to react in a useful way.
Spirit Island is an interesting combination of very complex but not that difficult (until you play the harder levels). The mechanics of the game will convince you that you are destined to lose every single time , but they are well-tuned enough that you won’t feel like you’re getting your lunch money stolen by a sixth former. In Spirit Island, it will normally work out in the end. I just don’t know how. I will not labour the improv parallels.
I could list twenty more games (email me and I will) that I love and think everybody should try. I miss playing them with larger groups, but am very grateful that Heather and I had them during lockdown. They were a very necessary tool against insanity. The singularity of focus, the sense that we could to a degree, choose what mattered to us right now. I am very grateful for that.