Socializing with a purpose

A few weeks ago, Andrea and I were sitting at a brewery discussing the ‘why’ of various things — when she asked:

“Well, how often do you stop to think about why you like the things you like?” and she threw out board games as an example. Luckily for the conversational repartee, this is a topic I have spent at least a modest amount of time thinking about.

To me, board games provide a framework for socializing, in a way that we don’t often get in our modern lives. Sure, it’s easy to have friends over for dinner, discuss the meal, catch up on each other’s jobs, or any of the usual idle chatter, but at the end of the day, I think we all feel, at least subconsciously, a little bit hollow in it, as the Eleanor Roosevelt quote goes: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” And, I’m going to posit, orthogonal to this to create a space to analyze, is the idea that creativity is born of constraints. These types of gatherings don’t provide constraints, which can lead to a lack of creativity in the interactions.

Why I find board games to be a great activity, is that they provide (assuming it’s the right game, chosen for the right group) a unique set of restrictions to enable everyone to stoke their own creativity within that set of bounds. The social contract people agree to when sitting down to play game, is that they’ll be constrained by the set of rules that come with the game; and they’ll be engaging in either a competition with each other inside those bounds, or they’ll be working together toward some common goal. (Or some combination of both!)

Inside this agreed context, it’s a center for conversation — players egging each other on, collaborating, or possibly backstabbing. I call it “socializing with a purpose”. And what’s cool to me is that it can also be an opportunity for people who aren’t necessarily comfortable engaging in small talk to engage around something else, if not strictly important (it’s just a game, after all), at least more meaningful than about the weather, which can be a way to form real bonds — because even if the events of the game aren’t really real, the interactions that take place around the table are, and it becomes a shared experience for the people involved.

Needing to optimize against something can also lead to a huge opportunity for people to find something they’re great at. Whether it’s figuring out how to delegate which of your villagers will go on missions in Above and Below to successfully grow your village, or the best way to expand your holdings in Castles of Burgundy — or finally spotting the chance to punch out a massive combo in Dominion, people are smart in all sorts of ways that they don’t always get to express in their day-to-day lives, so finding the right game to let them optimize into can be really fun and lead to unexpected outcomes.

Not much of a game design thesis this week, just a bit of musing around what I see as the ‘why’ of board gaming.