In the “Better Person” series, we take a much closer look at some of our favorite pastimes, activities, places, and belongings. In our society, we are rarely, if ever, asked to explain why we spend our time or money on one thing over another. So we're analyzing components of our everyday lives to make sure we're filling our lives with what we truly value, instead of mindlessly floating along.
I love strategy board games. Despite mostly being a recreational hobby that is simply about having fun, I’ve developed the theory that playing strategy board games also has the nice side effect of making me better person.
Note: I will make references to several of my favorite board games throughout this post, which you will notice when suddenly I either make no sense (because you haven’t played the game) or make complete sense (because you have). I’ll follow these asides with the name of the game I am referring to.
Board games are a great way to spend time with other people. I strongly believe that people are meant to live in community. Communities that care about each other, work together, feed each other meals when major life events happen (or when people just plain get hungry), and place the robber on the only brick tile next to your settlements (Settlers of Catan). When playing board games, everyone sits around a table, chats about their lives, snacks on some snacks and drinks on some drinks, and then proceeds to forget about their everyday worries and indulges in creating a drama of little consequence. As much I support everyone being serious and thoughtful about their lives, I also think that it is important to have the opportunity to take a break and distract oneself. Strategy board games differ from some other potential entertainment options in that they encourage us to talk to each other and work on a problem together. Although TV or movie-watching can be quite fun, they doesn’t encourage nearly as much interaction and community-building as strategy board games do.
Why Am I Doing This/What Am I Even Trying To Do Here
Strategy board games train my brain to identify a goal and think through all the steps necessary to accomplish this goal. Every time I learn a new game, one of the first questions I ask is “how do I get points?” After learning how to earn points, I can then begin to think about how all the smaller rules and details of the game will affect this greater goal. If I don't think through all the details and the individual steps of my plan, I won’t be able to reach my eventual goal.
Similarly, strategy board games also teach me to reassess my plans in response to changes in my situation and my environment. If I am a carnivore and all the herbivores can suddenly climb and I can’t, I better change my plans quickly if I don’t want to starve (Evolution). In order to succeed at strategy board games, I must remain thoughtful and vigilant. I see this same adaptable goal-setting process happening in many parts of my life and I can apply my board gaming mindset to optimize other decisions in my life.
I find it’s pretty hard to get good feedback in life. When I tell a boring story to my coworkers about that time I went to Foamhenge, they (almost) never say “Alex, no one cares about Foamhenge. You probably shouldn’t tell people that story.” Likewise, I love garlic. One time I accidentally over-garlicked a recipe and smelled like garlic for three days; Kate was the only person to ever say anything (she had a lot to say about it actually). My freshman year of college (back when my metabolism was much stronger) I’d often eat a whole bag of powdered donuts in a single late-night hang-out session with friends. Unfortunately, those friends weren’t the best at reminding me that powdered donuts leave a white ring of powdered sugar around one’s mouth. As a result, I probably gave several random people the impression I had an obscure disease or drug problem.
Of course, the opportunity to find good, honest feedback is a large reason why living life in community (often through small groups) is such a great aid in the development of a Christian character. It’s great to have people in your life who have a responsibility to both tell you when you are screwing up and to celebrate your successes.
Nonetheless, even those with numerous good friends probably don’t get as much feedback as they should about whether they are making good choices or not. This is where strategy board games come in; they are not sentient and have no compunctions whatsoever about telling me that my current plan stinks. When I spend a couple turns getting wood and building fences despite there being no sheep available on the board, my wooden-hut-dwelling people are forced to beg for food (Agricola). When I get greedy too early on and spend all my money buying a couple provinces, my hands for the rest of the game are ruined when those dang provinces keep showing up (Dominion). In other words, strategy board games kindly point out my faults and lack of focus, which enable me to learn from my mistakes and become better prepared for what might come next.
Strategy board games also provide a good lesson to me about the interplay of effort and luck. I’ve noticed a strong correlation between how much focus I am giving a particular game and how often I win. That being said, sometimes I play pretty close to a perfect game and still lose. I think that is the way life works; if I try my best and make smart decisions, things will usually work out. But sometimes things are just outside of my control and I shouldn’t beat myself up if I fail. When that happens, it is best to look life in the eye and say or “well-played, life, well-played.” (Okay, that metaphor doesn’t always make sense, but in some cases it does…)
What Does This Have to Do with Christianity or Personal Finance
First, strategy board games are an inexpensive way for people of varying backgrounds and ages to spend quality time together (a single board game can be played for decades). Building community is a Christian thing to do, and it's an inexpensive and inclusive way to do so.
Second, Christians are called to be thoughtful and strategic with their choices. Strategy board games are great practice for this. We should always be thinking about our values, our goals, and how our daily choices affect those prospects. Although thankfully life is less competitive than board games (others don’t have to lose for me to be a winner in life), the idea of always looking at the bigger picture is still relevant. Strategy board games challenge me to constantly think “Why am I doing this? How will this help me reach my goals?” The most difficult part of following Jesus is putting his words into action. It is easy for me to decide to spend my life helping others; thinking through the details of how that affects my actions on a daily basis is the hard part.
In addition, receiving good feedback, practicing accountability, and spending time in self-reflection are also difficult to pull off and are rarely given enough time in our lives. Although failing to export the corn and indigo you’ve produced on your plantation island (Puerto Rico) obviously won’t lead directly to the discipline necessary to withhold the correct amount of taxes, I do believe the habits that strategy board games encourage (critical thinking and self-analysis) spill over into real life.
Finally, strategy games serve as an example of how to utilize the skills and opportunities my life has given me rather than some theoretical other life I don't have. If I’ve spent most of the game investing in farms, I better make those farms worthwhile (Carcassonne). Having wood and bricks at the same time means I should probably build a road and not try to trade it for ore to build a city (Settlers of Catan). Having degrees in economics and public administration means I should probably do something that builds off of those quantitative and analytical skills instead of trying to become a doctor. I can work to gain new skills and talents (or start collecting ore), but I should also look at the strengths and gifts I have in my hand right now and see how I can use them to optimize my life and help others.
I love strategy board games. I think they teach me to be more reflective, strategic, and focused, and provide me great opportunities to bond with my friends, family, and neighbors. Even if those friends, family, and neighbors cut me off between Atlanta and Nashville when I would have been about to complete my Los Angeles to Miami route (Ticket to Ride).
Do you have any particular hobbies that you believe make you a better person? Are there any strategy board games you want to recommend to me?
p.s. My current top 5 favorite board games are: Agricola, Carcassonne, Dominion, Between Two Cities, and Viticulture.