After Scrabble and Monopoly

The conversation begins out of small-talk. Someone in the workplace asks what I did the night before or over a weekend. That kind of thing. Ordinary chat.

It’s a version of “what do you like to do for fun?” You know the question. And, I can’t help but feel like, after a few years of knowing the answer, that I should have perfected the response.

But, no. Instead, I find myself fielding the same awkwardness every time. And my attempts to change the trajectory of the misunderstanding have been ineffective. I inject more enthusiasm in my reply (as if sheer energy can catapult me across the misconception). I pad the answer with details (details which mean absolutely nothing to the listener because were it otherwise I wouldn’t be feeling awkward to start with).

Because when I say ‘boardgames’ to someone, chances are that the words ‘Scrabble’ and ‘Monopoly’ are going to be a part of their response to me.

And somehow I have to explain that I haven’t willingly played either since I was about twelve years old without sounding disparaging. Because usually they have begun their reply by attempting to connect something they enjoy with this activity I have named.

Telling me that you love Scrabble has as much to do with the boardgame world I know and love as telling a videogamer that you love Space Invaders. Yes, two boardgames and two videogames: two different generations. If you were to offer a ten-year-old kid today a game of Pong (which I loved, like every other kid in the ‘70s) they would not see any relationship to the latest release of Fallout or Grand Theft Auto.

Opting for the word ‘tabletop’ over ‘boardgames’ seems like a place to start, but, no. If someone knows what that means, they are not likely to use the word ‘Scrabble’ in their reply anyway. That just leads to an ever greater sense of unfamiliarity and swerves toward some vague idea of wargames or RPGs. No place to connect there either.

And even though some of the games I enjoy, like Clank! and Mystic Vale, are technically card games, saying ‘card games’ can lead to talk of Euchre and Go Fish, which feels almost as far away as Scrabble and Monopoly from what I was trying to describe to begin with.

I do remember what it was like to discover how much the world of board games had changed, since my Scrabble-and-Monopoly-playing days. But trying to find a way to sum up that changing landscape when you’re having an around-the-water-cooler conversation is harder than it seems.

Thirty-One

Growing up, my family wasn’t the sort that bought the kids sets of workbooks and flashcards to study in the summer. When there was stuff to be done, the kids in the family shadowed the adults; from the youngest age, each kid had their own chores and we learned by working alongside, cooking and setting snares, sewing and building fires, chopping wood and feeding the animals. But when the work was done, we played.

A deck of cards was at the heart of our games. My grandmother loved cribbage most, and I played countless games with her, but when there were more than two people to play she opted for Hearts. My grandfather and I played Thirty-One and I have memories of our spending hours at the game. When extended family visited, we unfolded the Rummoli board and played for chips until the kids were sent to bed and the coins came out.

Of course we kids were learning plenty and developing skills while we were playing cards. The things you would expect and maybe some things you wouldn’t. Mathematics was key; if you couldn’t keep track, you couldn’t play. Social skills were necessary in any game with bidding and trumping. Deduction was crucial for strategy.

But perhaps the most important lesson I learned throughout the course of all those games was about being a loser. Nobody in my family simply allowed a kid to win. The adults who played with us were interested in teaching us how to play, in watching us improve, in participating in our quest to participate equally. They were waiting for us to gain the knowledge and skill and experience which would allow us to win.

In the meantime, I got good at losing. (For a short interval, I was also good at whining and bemoaning my plight. That left me alone with my deck of cards. And I was never much for solitaire.)

If my choice was between playing and losing or not playing, I was bent on playing (and, hence, losing). For some time, I believed it would be impossible to win against anyone in my family, all older than I. So choosing to play and lose was not in an effort to become a player who could play and win; it was simply the choice to play.

Sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand, sometimes you make an error in judgement, sometimes you have all the aces and the game ends before you can lay them down: if you don’t know how to lose, winning is not as sweet.