Board Games Bring Everyone Together

It was New Year’s Eve and not everyone wanted to play a board game. Not that the inevitable unpleasantness was the same every time we played. Things had evolved over the years, taken the shape of current relationships and power struggles within the immediate family.

In the early days I equated board with bored—how many Candy Land games must a man throw cheerfully?—and would rather have been doing something more fun with the kids, like giving all our shoes their annual polishing. Later I grew to dislike the squabbling between the kids that resulted from Battleship, Monopoly, and especially Escape from New York. (“Slag and Brain are my allies, not yours, because you don’t have any friends and everyone hates you because you’re disgusting and greasy!”)

My wife used to love board games, if only for the chance to playfully squabble in a non-real-life context, but later, when the kids got old enough to score actual digs against her, her feelings actually got hurt.

“Mom, you move your game-piece the way you chew,” one of them said the year he became a teenager and her hair went gray.

My younger kid was always the gamer, and the one who pulled us all together to play at the holidays, for which I praised him. My elder kid never enjoyed being forced not to crush his brother’s spirit but refrained from doing it 20 percent of the time, for which I praised him.

The year 2018 was the big one, the year that determined how board games would be played in our family from then on. The kids were advancing up the path toward separate adult lives, which would have their own rules, goals, and measures for winning, but we were all nostalgic for earlier forms of family interaction, sick as they were. So we agreed: we would attempt to play one and only one board game that year, and we would play it to the last, and call it good.

Of course, the game needed to count as a result. We loved each other. For days, discussions of which game it should be played out in house, yard, car, and mall, with every possible variation of indecision, tension, and friction among the players. In the end, as you know, we decided on Risk, the longest and perhaps most contentious of them all.

The encyclopedia have their own summaries, but since our family’s name is the one that gets smeared, I will briefly explain from my viewpoint.

I made a fire in the fireplace. There were snacks. I read the rules like some UN proclamation. The kids instantly made a verbal pact to destroy their mother’s armies. She was defiant for an hour then felt hurt. She won over our younger by appealing to guilt, but overstepped by trying to hug him. The cat jumped on the gameboard, making dozens of little men jump borders, and all of us screamed.

Our elder, fearing his alliance was in danger, tried to get me to his side by asking if he could get me anything on his trip to the kitchen, but knowing I would be next in line for their treachery, and having amassed troops on the Japanese mainland, I struck his outposts in Mongolia and Kamchatka. “Hit ‘em again,” I said after the first roll, when I lost a lot of good men. “Again,” I said. “Again.” We were both thin on the ground now.

“That’s why they call it Risk,” my wife said, sticking it to us.

“Poop,” my elder kid said. He made a fort of chairs and blankets next to the coffee table and called it his undisclosed location. He lifted his phone up to see the board, like an expensive, family-plan periscope.

My younger turned his back on us and conducted his campaigns through text communiques back and forth with his brother, who used electronic surveillance of the board to provide false intel to his brother, who was then forced out of Ukraine. My younger stalked to his room and pouted until all of us, including the innocents, begged him to come back. I was still okay, since I figured there were only about 12 hours of play left. But in board games things rarely go as you plan. The three other world powers carved up Africa for themselves, and I stalked back to Southern Europe to sulk.

Because I was unpleasant to be around, the kids decided the whole house would be our board; the den became Ural, eg, and our bathrooms the Indonesian archipelago. We moved one room to the next, shouting defiance. The cat carried Territory cards in little panniers on his back, which made the game briefly more interesting, because you had to coax him with sweet talk and promises of cheek rubs to find out your fate.

As the years marched on, the boys married and bought homes and rental properties nearby, so they could expand their territories. They had long found ways to monetize the game, so no one ever had to do anything but play it. They built game-board factories and the pulp mills to feed them, founded distribution and marketing companies, invented apps of some sort. I had grown old. Videos of us playing went viral and then made the news, and we got government grants and subsidies to keep the juggernaut rolling and even expand to other towns, because it was a boon to tourism.

My children had children, who became armies, and you could trade your grandkids in, with numbers of their own extended families, to get cavalry units. And their descendants, along with their friends, colleagues, church members, and coffee klatches, could be amassed and traded for artillery.

I said I had had enough at the age of 90, the year real weapons were made part of the game. But the world was at war, and one does not just quit a family game. Now someone has invented a way to kick it all over. Maybe we should have picked Life.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.