I have a friend I haven’t seen in a while who hates boardgames. He wants to turn and walk purposefully away, he says, when anyone at a party or after dinner suggests opening one up.
“I want to make things up on my own,” he says.
The statement’s a little unfair, I think, because we all like to make stuff up on our own. We hum our own songs (especially if we can’t remember the tune of that song we’re trying to hum), tell ourselves the story of our lives in our heads, add stickers to computers, pin up photos and cartoons in our cubicles (if we’re allowed to, and we grouse and stick pins in the boss doll when we can’t). I know I’ve drifted from “making stuff up” to “changing the environment,” but the impulse feels similar—particularly if you’re in an industrialized country that’s cut spending for arts education. You do what you can with what you have.
But here’s the question I want to ask when my friend isn’t around and it’s just us boardgamers: Where’s the play in playing games?
Roger Caillois offers a continuum with two poles (he offers a lot of other ideas, too, but we’ll stick with the continuum for now): paidia and ludus. Paidia is free-play. It’s finding yourself in an empty room with a bouncy ball and a couple of paddles. If you’re me and my wife, you’d start whacking the ball around just to see where you could get it to go. Ludus adds rules. A bouncy ball, two paddles, and a line in the middle of the room; now, you have to smack the ball over the line, let it bounce twice, and not let it hit the back wall, or it’s a point. First person to…oh, ten, wins. But even that example has a lot of freedom in it.
The games that hobbyists embrace tend toward the far side of the ludic end of the spectrum. Power Grid? 18xx? Even Fluxx, for that matter. I’m still trying to respond to my friend (and a lot of other people like him) by trying to identify the sort of plays that game players are looking for. Maybe it’s a foolish task, but I’m willing to be a little foolish.
I’d like some help with this, but my first thought is that the play space itself is complicated. When playing the Fragor Games Snow Tails or Friedemann Friese’s Fearsome Floors, I’m not alone at the table when I make husky noises during the former or mimic movie monster groans while playing the latter. The impulse to paidia is as strong as the move to the ludic. House rules, too, push the ludic structure open a bit. And then there’s the idea of gaming the
game, of exploiting what are usually design flaws for an almost mechanical win.
Yes, a rules lawyer will insist on playing the game as written—especially if the lawyer is finding a way to improve their own position—but most of us, in my experience, recognize the play in the game. Of course, we are a bit peculiar, spending so much time parsing rules for how fast zombies move and talking like pirates. And it’s just fine that my friend runs away from anything not improvisational. Nevertheless, he’s missing, I think, that his activities have their own rules, and not acknowledging that fact makes his play a bit less interesting.