The Power of Board Games in Introspection and Iterative Improvement

Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs York (one of my all-time favorites)

Board games act as a mirror for your processes and approach to problem solving, conflict, and creative solutions. They are a tactile experience that pulls you into the moment, the chair you are sitting on, the people around the table. They move slowly enough for you to observe yourself working. Video games may offer similar benefits, but by removing you from your body and normal social interactions, they obscure many of the processes happening inside you. I’ve learned a few things from board games that have translated into acting more effectively in the world.

Competitive board games require dedicated cooperation. Rule books often exceed 20 pages, and it requires teamwork, patience and goodwill to navigate the complex interactions that arise as you and your opponent try to best each other. The ability to engage in conflict using an agreed upon set of rules makes you more honest and humble. Although board games usually take the form of a win/lose outcome, they discipline you to play by the rules, even when it means admitting defeat. If an argument arises with your partner, and you begin to see that they are in the right, you can choose to accept that your thought process was incorrect in this instance and move forward in a way that benefits you both and serves truth. Or you can break the rules of respectful conflict resolution and start digging into their past for any ammo you can use against them, or try to frame the situation to minimize how stupid you look. That’s a bad strategy in all areas of life, including board games.

An interest in board games indicates an intellectual curiosity and desire to learn systems. The ability to play board games over and over, and be graceful in victory and defeat, is a learned skill and tells me much about someone’s problem solving mindset. When you lose — assuming it’s not a game of chance — there is usually something to improve upon. I’ve noticed two types of people who lose board games: those who look at everything that went wrong and tipped the scales against them, and justify their loss in light of those misfortunes, and those who ignore the flippancy of fate and search hard for their own mistakes — things in their control that they could change in the future. It’s not fun to look at what you did wrong. It takes humility. But more important — and often forgotten — is that seeing each loss in light of what you could improve is a practice of treating yourself as if you have potential. To examine your mistakes and note them for next time is to believe that you are smarter than you acted last time.

Part of the experience I enjoy with board games is discussing how the game went with someone equally interested in the system. I brainstorm strategies that I thought of after the fact, or new strategies I’m excited to try. What has transpired in such a case is that two friends fought hard and tried to best each other in a game of wits, and then have an amiable discussion thereafter on the best approach to winning next time. It is iron sharpening iron. You need friends who can disagree and hold their own stance on core life issues. You need them to fight for their position so you know if your own rationality is worth anything, if it stands up to counterarguments. But you need them to be your friend afterwards, step out from their trench and view both sides without tangling their identity in the argument.

Learning how to be someone that people want to play board games with can be a tricky process, especially for a competitive teenager. One strategy is to cheat every chance you get. It cannot be repeated across time, however. I have a vague memory of trying to cheat at a game when I was maybe four years old, and being caught. I didn’t like how that felt.

You can also win every chance you get, but as I learned from Jordan Peterson, if Big Rat doesn’t let Little Rat win at least 3 out of every 10 matches, Little Rat won’t invite Big Rat to play. If you are dominating someone over and over, it’s time to explore subpar, creative strategies, and practice being a good loser.

Teaching a game requires even greater care, as interesting conundrums, perhaps ethical in nature, come to light. When your protégé inevitably forgets how a card works, or a rule that would give them the advantage, do you let them flounder and learn by error? But what if the overpowering feeling in that situation is one of satisfaction at winning? How do you separate good teaching from feeding your own ego in an unequal match? I don’t have a clear answer, but I think I prefer to approach teaching a board game as teaching a system. And until my trainee has learned the system, it’s my job to continue coaching them. Once they understand it fully, I can let them make their own decisions and enjoy beating them without remorse.

Board games have always held a special place for me, as my greatest friendships began with board games as a core activity. If you can fight with your friend over the rules to A Game of Thrones: The Living Card Game, and come out the other side friends, then I expect very few things life can throw at you will be able to tear you apart.