While recently playing a game of Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures with a friend of mine, he said he enjoyed the game, but he preferred playing video games to tabletop games. This made me wonder: Why do I prefer board and card games to video games? Then an even more fundamental question popped into my head: Why do I play board and card games?
I considered this for a while. I've been playing board games all of my life. A professional historian, I can trace my love of history back to my first games of Axis & Allies when I was 12-years-old. Looking at the map of 1942 Europe, mostly colored Nazi gray, made me wonder how Adolf Hitler had managed to conquer so much, yet lose the war? My attempts to answer that question led me to study abroad in Berlin and obtain a master's degree in history at the University of Utah.
Originally, my fascination extended only to historical war games, though that has changed in recent years. The number and variety of board games that have been released in the last decade are truly astounding. There are cooperative and semi-cooperative games like Pandemic, Darkest Night, and Betrayal at House on the Hill; games with hidden traitors like Battlestar Galactica and Shadows Over Camelot; cards games like Race For the Galaxy, Marvel: Legendary, and the DC Comics Deck Building Game. I could go on and on. All these games are wonderfully inventive and fun.
The question remains, however. Why do I play board and card games?
I have come to the conclusion that there are four basic reasons why I like to play these kinds of games:
First of all, I like the tactile feel of tabletop games. In the age of digital thrills and thumbing buttons on a controller, I love the tension as I shake the dice in my hand then throw them on the board, holding my breath and gritting my teeth in anticipation of a perfect roll. I love shuffling a deck and the random excitement of drawing cards into a hand, and the giddy thrill throwing them down at just the right moment.
I love moving pieces, cardboard, plastic and wood around the board. I love dropping wooden cubes into the volcano in Downfall of Pompeii, knocking over a horde of plastic zombies in Zombicide placing cardboard chits around the globe in Twilight Struggle.
Second, whenever I walk away from a board or card game, I feel as though I've used my brain. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of video games and other activities that allow you to break a mental sweat, but somehow board and card games (not all, to be sure) really give your brain a unique workout as they present uncommon problems and force you to attempt logical solutions as best you can.
Third, the best tabletop games tell stories. Just like a movie or a book, you can experience a grand adventure with a great board or card game. The difference is that with a game you control the adventure. Do House Lannister and House Stark ally against the Baratheons in A Game of Thrones: The Board Game? Do the Communists hold onto eastern Europe in 1989: Dawn of Freedom? Will the Emirates of Hacan take Mecatol Rex or attack the Federation of Sol in Twilight Imperium? You decide.
Just like when you talk to your friends about your favorite scenes in movies, you relive key events in games, discussing almost successful dice rolls or the draw of an unhelpful event card at a critical time. You'll revisit the times you successfully defended Moscow from a German assault in Axis & Allies or the time you banded together to defeat Cthulhu in Arkham Horror. These unique stories are more personal, more intimate, than those from movies and books because you and friends made them yourselves.
Which brings me to the fourth and most important reason that I play tabletop games: people.
The Dice Tower, a popular board gaming website, notes that the site is about not only board games but also the people who play them. British game journalist Quintin Smith noted in a video on his website that, “We are hard-coded to sit down with our friends and just enjoy one another's company. And board games let us do that.”
I have been very blessed to strengthen friendships over the gaming table, and I have made many, many new friends while rolling the dice. There is really nothing like spending time with friends and family, and board and card games allow you to connect with the people you love in a very engaging and personal way.
Games provide a shared experience filled with tension, drama, excitement and laughter. Something truly extraordinary happens when a group of people sit around a table, completely invested in the cardboard and plastic in front of them. Almost imperceptibly, over the course of the game, they become completely invested in each other. It really is magic.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Centre Theatre and Off Broadway Theatre. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org