The What and the How, or Board Games at Christmas

The What and the How, or Board Games at Christmas

Christmas, as we all know, is a time for love and children’s laughter and piles of presents and, above all, for board games. After the turkey has been unwrapped and the presents carved, out comes a neglected cardboard box and then you try, peering into an ancient, badly-written rulebook, to remember how to play the damned thing while simultaneously worrying about the consequences of introducing competition to a group of people who are day-drinking and on a carb crash.

Looking back I have always worried that at some level board games were some kind of social failure, some confession that the people playing had nothing to say to each other, that conversation would, in the absence of the game, just dry up like boxing day gravy. And, being a pretty social person with a lot to say and some decent listening game, I have always taken this kind of personally. There are members of my family who I only see once a year and who I like a lot. There are whole tranches of their lives that I have missed, I am sure. Not because I didn’t want to know them, but because group conversations which give equal space to all round the table are a very hard thing to manage. 

Now there’s a Plato quote which gets trotted out whenever someone is trying to endorse the idea of Play as a Worthwhile Thing. It goes like this (and yes, it is on the wall at the Play Well exhibition I reviewed at the end of last year) “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Now there are certain writers – Wilde, Churchill, Shaw – you can attribute anything to and no one will ever check, so let’s ignore the fact that Plato never wrote it and ask why this spurious quote has survived four centuries despite having been made up by forgettable priest and pamphleteer Richard Lingard. 

In getting to know someone, or experiencing them (if that is the way you prefer to express it), one way to approach it is to exchange your experiences of the year, swap stories and ideas, fill in the ‘what’ of each other’s lives. Catch up, as if there were a minimum level of knowledge of someone’s life you needed to love them, like a personal citizenship test. This is a way to know someone, but despite it being lovely, it is also limited. There are some people with whom I share little more than the country in which we live. And who wants to discuss politics right now? Small talk is a strange name for something that sometimes has to default to the largest topics in order to function. 

Easier then, and somehow more genuine too, is getting to know or seeing again the ‘how’ of a person, which is to say how they will react to things. What things they are reacting to being less important than the tone and shape of the reaction itself. Watching them process information, seeing how they respond either to a situation they are placed in, or to you in a situation you are both placed in. All of this is another way to describe a game. 

Lots of ‘family’ games suck. They don’t just fail to create cohesion and togetherness, they destroy it just when it was needed. Monopoly crushes with competition, Cranium pretends to unite but has a runaway leader problem. Scrabble is an aggressive wargame disguised as a friendly wordsmithery, and most card games will be won by the person with the best grasp of statistics. A good game (whether a board game or an improv game, because that is what I am really talking about here) gives people the opportunity to see each other through how they react to the restrictions which create the game. That’s not a failure. That’s deep, and rich and valuable. 

Oh, and if you’re curious, here are five games I think are great for families at Christmas. You can google them if you are curious, but they can all be taught in the five minutes you have before that member of your family starts rolling their eyes. 

Hanabi – cooperate against the game to create a firework display for the gods. My copy is ragged and beer stained. 

Sheriff of Nottingham – lie to your loved ones about what contraband you are bringing into the city. The feeling of dread when some poppers open your bag to discover your lie…

Azul – collect tiles to build a ceiling for the King of Portugal. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds. Quiet, meditative, and interspersed with the occasional accusation of being a ‘hate-drafting piece of shit’.

Skull – the most beautiful game I own, but one which you could cobble together with a stack of coasters. Bluff like a poker player, but without the commitment: it’s all over in about ten minutes. 

Just one – Infinitely scalable and casual enough for people to drop in and out of (or drop off during), this is one of those make-someone-guess-a-word types, but is cooperative and totally delightful. 

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