From Controller to Cardboard
I've always played games of one sort or another, but video games—not board games—have dominated my spare time. Many of my most vivid childhood memories involve playing video games with my brother, and my college friends and I took great delight in playing through a shared file of Ocarina of Time on my N64. My boyfriend and I have an embarrassingly large collection of Nintendo and Playstation games.
One of my main reasons for initially preferring video games is that they are easy to play alone. Although multiplayer games are increasingly popular, you can still have an intense solo experience with something like Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, or Fallout 4. Even games that focus on multiplayer mode typically offer solo campaigns. I have always preferred to play video games by myself, immersing myself in the game world and emerging several hours later, often with great reluctance. I thoroughly enjoyed my 200+ hours of pretending to be a Khajiit assassin in Skyrim, and I wouldn't take it back if I had the chance.
Over the past couple of years, I've started making an important transition: the shift from controller to cardboard. Until relatively recently, it seemed to me that board games were something you should do in groups. Throughout grad school, I would enthusiastically play Settlers or MtG or whatever else as long as I had someone to play with. But I love to spend a lot of my downtime alone, and board games didn't seem to fit with that preference. It wasn't until I discovered solo board games were a "thing" that everything changed.
When I first experienced games like the Lord of the Rings LCG and Mage Knight, I exulted in the fact that I could sink into other worlds and enjoy interactive storytelling without my Playstation. I actually prefer imagining my own story to having a fully-imagined world provided for me. LotR combines the deck construction of MtG with the adventure of saving Middle Earth. And every time I break out Mage Knight, I get to decide all over again just what kind of person (or elf, or draconum) I am going to be. Do I burn monasteries? Or do I only anger the locals when it's absolutely necessary? Even more importantly, I don't have to ignore hours upon hours of work invested into another version of my character to make that change.
This leads me to the three main benefits of cardboard over controller:
1. Board games can be long, but not that long.
Even if I end up playing a board game for three hours or so, that is nothing compared to the time I am capable of investing in a video game. I don't think I'm the only one who has slipped into a video game world only to emerge ten hours later, unable to understand how the day went by so quickly. Now that my work life is so busy, I need a hobby that is absorbing but manageable. After a long day, I can play a quick solo game like Onirim. On a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, I can enjoy a long session of Robinson Crusoe with time to spare for napping, picking up groceries, and having a leisurely coffee date with my boyfriend. Even though I enjoy board games just as much as—if not more than—video games, I also prefer them because they provide experiences that I can pack up and walk away from.
2. Sometimes Video Games Feel Like Work
I'm not talking about Farmville, which some people would say is not much of a game at all. One of my biggest pet peeves about video games is that you can get stuck for a really long time, unable to make much progress. In action games, it can be a difficult boss who stymies you. In an RPG, you may need to go and grind out a few more levels or collect some rare items before the story can continue. Although these game elements tap into the natural human desire to make progress and achieve something, I can't say they are always fun.
The sense that video games are becoming more work-like has only gotten worse with the advent of trophies and achievements. At first, I enjoyed trophy hunting and admiring the growing collection displayed on my PSN profile page. But then I realized I was going out of my way to do things in games that I would never have bothered with otherwise, and that I did not necessarily enjoy. I eventually turned off trophy notifications, which helped for a while, but it still felt weird to log onto the PSN and see that a game I had beaten and felt great about was showing up as only 32% complete. Trophies make me feel like someone else wants to dictate my gaming experience and direct what I should want out of it.
Board games, on the other hand, are more freeing for me. If I mess up a rule, so what? I'll get it right next time. And if there is something I really don't like about how a game works, I can devise my own house rules and play the way I want to. If I lose, I don't sweat it too much, because a totally fresh game is only moments away. My epic wins are not trumpeted out on the internet, but instead remain private victories for me to savor.
3. Board Games Offer Fresh Starts
Although Pandemic Legacy is much beloved these days—and I am interested in trying it myself— what I generally like about board games is that every game offers a fresh start. I'm not bound to the permanent changes I caused in the game world fifty hours ago, and I can use the wisdom I've acquired from previous experiences with the game to make better (or at least more interesting) decisions each time I play. If I've invested too much in developing a video game character, it can become difficult to let go and start again, even if I desperately want to make some changes. Starting over in video games can be terrible, because you have to repeat a lot of the same story events to get back to where you were before. With board games, restarts and renewals are natural. Life itself is full of permanent decisions, and part of the fun and fantasy of games—for me, anyway—is that you can always wipe out your past mistakes and try again.
I'm not saying that I don't love video games (I do), or that I am not eyeing my PS4 and wondering when we can get some extended time together (I am). But focusing more on board games has allowed me to keep gaming in a way that works for my life right now. The shift to tabletop gaming, both alone and with friends, has allowed me to think hard, to imagine intensely, and to do it all on my own terms.
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My name is Liz Davidson, and I play solo board games. A lot of solo board games...