Life is Like a Boardgame


Yesterday, I was playing Runebound with my son and a friend of ours.  It was a rollercoaster of a game.  I watched the fortunes of each of us change with the wind.  I paid particular attention to the reactions of my son when things went well for him and when they went badly.

Runebound is an adventure game through and through.  Each player takes a fantasy hero and wanders around the realm killing monsters, going on quests and upgrading their equipment in preparation for a final battle.

I watched my son spend 4+ hours adventuring and improving his character only to lose in the final battle.  I studied his reaction carefully when the last blow took out his character and I thought, “Life is like a boardgame…”

Not that you work your socks off and then you die!  What I mean is, people often experience a wide range of emotions playing boardgames.  A range of emotions that are often very similar to those experienced as we navigate the wins and losses of our lives.

At times, my son was elated when he defeated a particularly difficult monster or acquired a great piece of armour.  At other times he was despondent when one of us beat him to a quest objective or a monster proved too much for him.  Sometimes he was quietly content while executing a plan to acquire enough gold by trading in order to buy a nice weapon.

He met defeat with equanimity.

When he lost, there were no tears.  He wasn’t upset or resigned or disappointed even.  He met defeat with equanimity.  I was astonished.

Now I’ve made a big effort with him over the years to emphasise the idea that we play games to have fun, not to win.  He tries to win as much as any other child his age though, and sometimes tiredness gets the better of him.  So even with all my coaching, I was still surprised.  I expected a frown at least!

One of my favourite authors is Umberto Eco.  He has a vast vocabulary though; I find I need to read his books with a dictionary in one hand!  One word that he seems fond of has always stuck with me: vicissitudes.  He talks about the ‘vicissitudes of life’, which I understand roughly to mean the ups and downs of life.

Your choices are half chance.

A few months ago, when I blogged about competitiveness, I quoted Mary Schmich, who bears repeating: “Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either.  Your choices are half chance.  So are everybody else’s.”

I’ve seen people become dejected when playing games as lady luck turns against them and their situation appears hopeless.  I’ve seen people laud their superior position over others believing themselves unassailable.  I’ve seen people plod their way to victory by keeping their head down and working hard at building their engine.

I’ve seen all these responses in real life as well.  As my son plays more and more boardgames, he is learning how to respond to the vicissitudes of life.  They are a great training ground for learning to deal with circumstances beyond our control.

Boardgames also teach us the degree to which we can control our lives.  Our choices may be half chance, but the other half is firmly under our control if we can seize the day and not allow ourselves to be entirely at the mercy of fate.  We cannot control everything, but we have a degree of control.

As Reinhold Niebuhr says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  If we can learn how to master what we can control, and not be unduly swayed by what we can’t control, I believe we can find peace and purpose in our games, and in our lives.

We cannot predict the weather, but we can change our course.

I think those who do best in games, and in life, are those who can adapt to changing circumstances.  Like the captain of a sailing ship, we cannot predict the weather, but we can change our course and make the most of the good and the bad.

Finally then, I’ve found myself playing many different ‘games’ in life (jobs, relationships, finances, etc.).  I do well at some; I do badly at others.  If the current game is going well, great!  Enjoy it!  If it’s going badly, learn what you can and move on.  There are always more games to play.

What do you learn from playing boardgames?  Do you draw any life lessons from your gaming?

Related Post


Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
Notify of