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Tabletop Gaming in a Pandemic

Published onJan 10, 2021
Tabletop Gaming in a Pandemic

While most people think of gaming in terms of virtual games, tabletop board games have increased in popularity—as well as in their range of themes, topics, and styles—over the past couple of years, and especially because of the pandemic. The allure of board games is the face-to-face interaction, the strategy and planning, and the challenge of being catapulted into a world where decisions are transformed into points and winning.

Sometimes board games are collaborative, and other times they are individualized, where gamers aren’t playing against somebody so much as trying to get the most points. Winning in many of these games comes from scoring the most points over the course of rounds rather than reaching some identified end point. The strategy involved is figuring out how to best utilize resources to get the most points, while at the same time impeding your competitors from scoring high levels of points. To be clear, these are not the games one often associates with board gaming—titles like Monopoly, Life, or Scrabble—but rather games such as Terraforming Mars, Caverna, and Wingspan. Regardless of what is being played, these games have the power to give us a break from reality, build community, and help players work toward goals.

Before the pandemic, several of my friends and relatives participated in weekly tabletop game nights at a local store. These evenings became akin to the proverbial poker night each week. The major difference was that we tried out new games each week, and new people came and went all the time. Sometimes the 3-5 games were played in one night. There was a sense of camaraderie and community throughout the evenings. There were upwards of 26 people who would show up on a regular basis, with smaller groups forming to play based on interest. Based on statistics kept by the board game group (4 members of which I interviewed for this essay), in 2019 one member played upwards of 400 games.

When asked what they felt the best part of gaming was, four gamers from the group immediately said “community” or the “social aspect” of gaming. They indicated that it really gives them a chance to interact with people and meet new gamers each week. One player mentioned that he goes through the gamut of emotions when playing based on moves he and other players make. Still another gamer indicated that for him, the puzzle and challenge of the games is what draws him in. Each game, regardless of how many times it is played, is a new game. It is hard to find one perfect strategy because of the element of randomness in how each playthrough unfolds.

These four participants enjoy playing so much that they continued to play virtually during the pandemic, which caused some issues due to restrictions on what games could feasibly be played over videoconferencing apps. Quickly it became apparent that the social aspect was lacking, but also the tactile and kinesthetic qualities of picking up and moving pieces was missing. Lastly, these gamers indicated that while they enjoy playing games with each other, the lack of diversity in the games they played, along with the lack of new people, was causing some boredom to set in. Over the last several months, these four gamers have started meeting weekly in person to play games (where they do wear masks).

Because tabletop gamers do not typically have their phones out, and because board gaming requires gamers to pay attention to each other move on the board while planning their next move, there is little opportunity to multitask. This allows the suspension of reality to take place, and for gamers to become fully absorbed in the task at hand, whether that is colonization of a planet or trekking through U.S. National Parks. Tabletop gaming becomes an escape that requires critical thinking skills to succeed. During the pandemic, even the worst gaming days were a way to break away from the trials of daily life.

NOTE: As a part of this essay, I hosted a focus group with the four gamers referenced throughout. Three identify as men, and one identifies as a woman. Their ages are 51, 49, 36, and 37. One man and woman are married and living together, one man is married (his spouse does not participate), and one man is single. All are professionals (two post-secondary educators, one private-sector employee, and one government employee).

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