Playing Games

Back in 2012, I was asked to write an essay for the Spirit & Place Festival, an eclectic mix of programs presented each year in Indy by a variety of arts, culture, religious and social groups under one thematic umbrella. The theme that year was “Play” and I took that as an opportunity to get evangelical about my love of games.

Playing Games

Confession: In high school, I used to play a little Dungeons and Dragons—but I never really knew what I was doing. Luckily, my friends knew less. So I, as Dungeonmaster, would simply make rules up until there was only one young woman left playing and everyone else went home. (Is that so wrong?)

Another confession: When my brother and his cronies used to play poker and drink, I’d play poker and not drink. I’d inevitably win big (Okay, maybe that was wrong).

I like to think that those were the last two times I was deceptive in my game playing. Since then, I’ve been a staunch believer in playing games by the rules, letting the dice fall where they may.

And I’ve played a lot of games. From elementary school marathon Risk sessions with my pal Frank to testing out the latest board and card games for my annual post-GenCon for IBJ, I’ve been practically evangelical about my passion for board games. If I can round up some people this weekend, I’ll be playing games. I’ve organized game lunches at work before the holidays to introduce co-workers to games they’ve never heard of (which, for many, is most games that don’t sell at Target). And some of the most joyful moments with my kids have been spent around our dining room table playing Speed Scrabble (which newbies know, commercially, as Bananagrams).

To be clear, I’m talking about face-to-face games. Computers are all well and good. The Wii is great. But when I play, my first choice is to play without screens and with other real human beings in the room.

These days, my first choice game is Dominion. That’s a card game that, at first, looks like an offshoot of Magic: The Gathering, but it’s actually a strategy shopping game, where what you buy impacts your future choices. I also like Pandemic, a cooperative game in which you and your fellow players trying cure a quartet of diseases before epidemics and outbreaks overwhelm you. And then there’s Guillotine…

I could go on. But that wouldn’t leave me with room to write about the huge benefits—besides pure fun—that I believe are inherent in game play.

First, there’s the math. I truly believe that my son is as quick in math as he is because he’s counted up a lot of dice rolls, calculated odds for Texas Hold ‘em, and figured profits and losses in Monopoly. (Don’t get me started on the evil Monopoly update that does that calculating for you. That, my friend, is the work of the devil.

There’s the sense of discovery. There’s a huge kick for me to learning a new game—especially when an experienced player is at the table. I love getting a feel for the mechanics of a game, especially when the beginning, middle, and end games involved different strategic choices. So much of what we do in life is based on repetition: It’s fun to enter a new world, whether it’s the murderous mansion of Kill Dr. Lucky, the art auction house of Masterpiece, or the Pacific islands of Tongiaki.

Then there’s the social component. Game players learn how to win. They learn how to lose. And they learn how to learn from losing.

The biggest frustration for me re: my kids and games is that they evolve in and out of interest in specific ones. Parcheesi had a great vogue in my house for a while—and I was thrilled with that. But for the last five years, I haven’t been able to get anyone, let alone the optimal four players, to compete in that underrated classic with me. (To be fair, my son is equally frustrated with me because I won’t play Pokemon.)

Honestly, it’s hard for me to fully respect someone who isn’t open to the idea of playing games. One of the reasons I knew I’d like working at the Indianapolis Business Journal is because I heard that co-owner Mickey Maurer is an avid Scrabble and Boggle player. Soon after starting my tenure there, I was thrilled to learn that my favorite co-worker is a vicious poker player. Years later, I still can’t figure out her game. Few things made this papa prouder than when he heard his eldest daughter introduced her boyfriend’s family in Mississippi to our house card game, Nurtz—which they played all night. And while my wife is no fan of strategy games, she’ll dive headfirst into a round of Boggle, Word on the Street, or Apples to Apples.

Plus, you have to love a woman who will let us fill a few shelves in the living room with board games. After all, they are too much a part of my life to all be stored in the garage.

The biggest lesson, though, is honesty. While my high school D&D dalliances and poker adventures may have had their upsides, neither beats the pure pleasure of a well-played game with friends and/or family.

Just no snacking on Cheetos while you play, okay? House rule.

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