This essay is part of a larger book project that explores “Learning Memories.” Those memories serve as the basis for deepening awareness and meaning in the present moment. The project includes four sections: Play and Sports, Music and Sound, Illumination and Light, Illustration and Text. The Board Game Autobiography is in the Play and Sports section. Some of the other essays in that section include Wiffle Ball, Frisbee, Marbles, Pick-Up Games, On Dice and Life, and Pinball. I hope this short essay spurs your own memories and perhaps inspires you to write your own board game autobiography!
I don’t remember the specifics of my earliest board game experience. During my 1950’s middle class childhood, I recall encounters with many different toys and games—Tinker Toys, Colorforms, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, Chemistry Sets. This was prehistory—there were no Legos around! None of those construction or science toys really interested me very much. I liked gameboards.
We didn’t have many games in our house. My parents weren’t particularly interested. But most households had a Checkers set, and during birthdays or gift-giving occasions, I would sometimes receive a board game as a gift. I don’t remember the first game I played—it was undoubtedly Candyland or Uncle Wiggily, two luck-based games where you followed winding paths. Checkers grabbed my attention. I was fascinated that a simple pattern of red and black squares could yield such an interesting game. There was magic in the mystery of how the checkers moved across the board, jumping each other, doubling up and becoming Kings, and then gaining the power to move backwards. Eventually I graduated to Chess which offered a whole new level of sophistication. I was never particularly good at either game but I enjoyed playing them. I took great pleasure in the beauty, rules, and structure of Chess and Checkers. The simple red and black checkered board stimulated excitement, curiosity and wonder.
I do have a vivid memory (circa 1955) of owning the game Park and Shop. The board was a detailed map of a generic downtown in a small city. You were dealt a hand of cards representing various destinations. The object was to find the most efficient way to visit all of the shops on your cards. Consumer madness aside, I was fascinated by the map, and I loved the challenge of figuring out how to visit all of those places. It was the geography and route-making that mattered.
Around the same time I learned about Monopoly, a much more sophisticated and ultimately popular game. Everyone played it. Monopoly was a paean to capitalism, a crude simulation of buying and selling real estate, modeled on the neighborhoods, both rich and poor of Atlantic City, New Jersey. I found Monopoly dull and pedestrian. Mostly I played it because it seemed like that’s what the cool older kids were into.
As I got older, entering middle childhood in the late 1950’s, I discovered sports games. There were many of them, including Bas-Ket, All Star Baseball, Red Barber Baseball (which had a wonderful playing field), and many others, but those are the ones that stand out.
Every Saturday morning my father would drive to Brooklyn to work in his dental office. He would drop me off at my cousin Byron’s house. In the attic there was a small playroom with Byron’s game collection. We played those games for hours on end. We played the various sports games (our favorites), but we also enjoyed Stratego, Scrabble, Risk and some of the early Avalon Hill games. What I enjoyed most about those days was that we would use the games as templates for exploration. We would invent variations of our own that we thought were better than the original rules.
One day I observed Byron’s older brother David and his friend Barry playing an unusual and amazing looking game. They had a wooden board and were placing white and black stones on it. I asked them what they were playing. They said it was GO but they were too deeply immersed in it to explain to me what they were doing. This seemed like the real deal–what the really interesting older guys were playing. I can still picture them sitting at the kitchen table, deep in thought. This was something I really wanted to learn about.
Through the late 1950’s and than 1960’s, board games became increasingly available, complex, and sophisticated. I continued to enjoy playing them, but as I entered adolescence and eventually went off to college, other priorities took over. To some of my friends, playing board games seemed childish. It wasn’t until my mid-20’s when I became a more confident person that I stopped caring about how I was perceived.
Fortunately my girl friend and eventual life partner, Cindy, expressed her interest in playing games with me. I had a neat little game (Logiquad) that we enjoyed. When we were three months into our relationship, we took a trip to Monhegan Island on the coast of Maine. We stopped in Boston on our way up the coast and visited a remarkable game store—Games People Play—that had all kinds of wonderful games most of which I had never seen. It was like opening a treasure chest. One of the games (Bin’Fa) had an extraordinary abstract rainbow colored board. Bin’Fa was infused with a taoist patina. It was right up my alley. I bought the game, we played it, and it became our go to game for many years. After we had young children, just after putting them to sleep on a Saturday evening, we’d lay the game out on our living floor, cozy by the wood stove, and play Saturday Night Bin’Fa.
In the decades since them, board games became one of my great passions. I discovered other people who shared this passion. I started subscribing to various international board game publications, I made new friends and correspondences. Discovering new games, learning how to play them, and entering an international network of other board gamers became one of the great joys of my life. Board games remain a wonderful way to share family time. Both our adult son and daughter enjoy games and whenever we get together, as separated as we are by time and distance, playing games together is a way to share that joy. We are extending some of our finest family memories into the present moment. We share our love through the playing of games.
Here’s a sample of some of the games I’ve referred to and then a few others. From left to right long the top row—Red Barber Baseball, Park and Shop, Logiquad. Middle Row—Bin”fa, Go, Hansa Teutonica. Bottom Row—Ta Yu, Concordia.
Ta Yu simulates water courses in an ancient Chinese landscape. Hansa Teutonica is about building trade networks in Renaissance Europe. Concordia also involves networks, along with resource conversion and peaceful territorial expansion.
This photo collage provides a sample overview of what board games have to offer. These boards are maps, patterns, and landscapes that offer topographies of experimentation and improvisation. Each of these games is a playing field that challenges multiple ways of knowing—constructing robust and flexible networks, moving through territories and obstacles, building forms and structures with diverse configurations, trading and converting resources, gathering and delivering goods—while engaging in a highly participatory competition. When the game is over, both winner and loser alike can take pleasure in the collaborative outcome. If the game is really good. players will gain experience and play with more awareness the next time. Granted, its a long way from Park and Shop, a children’s route-finding game, to the extraordinary sophistication of Go, but all of these games if played with full attention and good spirit, fuel the imagination in wonderful ways.
Consider an 8×8 board. There are thousands of games both traditional and modern, some using different types of counters. Many are unique designs in their own right. Expand the possibilities to different size boards and the potential proliferates. To think that from a basic square matrix, people have invented and enjoyed so many ways to move pieces on a board. To get a glimpse of the magnificent portfolio of these types of abstract games, have a look at the Ludii Portal website, an extraordinary catalog of games from around the world through different eras of human history. https://ludii.games/
Glance at the Ludii Portal world map to get a sense of the global origins of board games and you’ll see that these games represnt a cross-cultural effort through both space and time. https://ludii.games/
Equally wonderful is that Ludii Portal allows you to try any of these game against an A.I. Player. These board games, to my mind, are one of the great accomplishments of human intellect.
Games are a gateway to thinking about thinking—pattern observation, analytical clarity, improvisational excellence, imaginative exploration. These modalities are present in the very best games. I conceive of every board as a bounded playing field, a structure with a rule set that defines what’s possible. Within those rules there’s a remarkable variety of possibilities, and good players will explore an emergent range of forms, relationships, and interactions. The best games embody the concept of emergent properties—possibilities that coalesce from interesting combinations. A wonderful example of this is an environmental game called Dominant Species: Marine which simulates prey/predator relationships in shifting marine landscapes. You never know what will emerge from the semi-random processes inherent in the game’s structure. You have to observe the patterns, adapt to changing circumstances, study other players, and then creatively improvise as the dynamic situations emerge. You learn a few ecological concepts along the way.
I have a robust game collection of about four hundred titles, collected over a lifetime. I’m less interested in “collecting” per se than I am in exploring the amazing range of possibilities these games provide. Of course there are favorites. Those are the games we perennially return to. I aspire to find a balance between knowing a particular game well but also trying new ones. I still cling to a childlike aspiration that there is an undiscovered game out there that will stimulate my thinking and appreciation like no other has. Isn’t that why we should always try new things? Yes, but not at the expense of also deriving pleasure from what is familiar but not fully explored.
I take great pleasure from browsing my game library just as I enjoy browsing through my books. When I open a game or book I try to imagine that I’m looking at it for the first time–beginners eyes. What wonders await? I take similar pleasure from exploring other libraries. What path does any person take to knowledge and discovery and how much can you learn about that from their libraries? At a larger scale, the same enjoyment and learning can be found in public libraries or specialty museums, whatever your interest. What does a collection teach you about the collectors?
When I constructed the game collage above, I was recreating some of my most wonderful memories. Each of those games provided me with hours of enjoyment and exploration. They fueled my imagination. They are a developmental record of my journey through life and learning. It’s almost seventy years since I played Park and Shop, and it is not a game that I would find interesting today. But like the other games in that collage, it contributed to my learning in an important way. When I take a contemporary game off the shelf, open the box, flip through its contents, spread it on the table, and engage with it, I do so with full attention, and the same excitement I had all those years ago remains with me today. Board games extend my learning, fuel my passion, and keep wonder alive.