The Games of Life

The valuable lessons I learned from playing board games

The other day, my five-year-old cousin wanted to play Connect 4. It had been decades since I'd seen the yellow plastic rack in which opponents place black or red checkers, with its clack-clack-clack noise, trying to get four in a row horizontally, vertically or diagonally ("Pretty sneaky, sis," as the famously annoying commercial said).

As I played, I wondered how many kids today even play what we used to call "board games." With the actual gaming — handheld games, video games, computer games, phone games and myriad other screens — taking over our every waking moment, it seems like the answer would be very few.

Which is a shame, I think. Not because I'm one of those Luddites who believes everything was better back then (Hello, research in a library? No, thanks.), but there are entire arts that will be lost to the younger generation. Whiling away a rainy afternoon with a few friends playing board games for hours is just one of them.

But it was more than just fun, I realized as I played with my cousin. I learned valuable life lessons from the games! For example, in Connect 4, there are certain sequences that guarantee victory: you must start in the center square. Otherwise, you'll lose (unless you're playing against someone who doesn't know how to play). As a kid, I found that lesson satisfying: If you play by the rules, you will win.

And yet, another game which had a preordained sequence drove me crazy: The Game of Life. You started out with a car (color of your choosing) and a pink or blue peg, depending on if you were a boy or girl. Then you actually went through life: college, marriage (acquiring another peg of the opposite color) and kids — the most exciting being twins. You had a career, income, insurance and stock. It seemed so … routine. That cookie-cutter Game of Life game didn't interest me. Lesson: The cookie-cutter life doesn't interest me in real life, either.

A game with a cruel lesson for young kids, if you ask me, was Chutes & Ladders, which had you almost at the top and then pfffft — you'd land on a square with a slide and then be right at the beginning, whereas your unworthy opponent would go up a ladder and beat you to the finish even though you'd been winning the entire game. Life ain't fair — an important life lesson, but probably not at age 3+.

Monopoly wasn't exactly fair either, with the roll of the dice allowing you to acquire property and build it up with hotels and motels. I was less interested in charging opponents astronomical rents and bankrupting them (I told you I was bad at life) than I was in learning about other people's temperaments.

There was often one kid who would fold up the board or dump the bank in frustration because he knew he was going to lose; the cheater who squelched some blue $50 bills when no one was looking; or the bored one who would just feign a yawn and say she had to go because she didn't have the perseverance. Monopoly taught me how to patiently learn about people's character, which would inevitably reveal itself over time — and in the end, was probably the best predictor of success.

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By middle school, I traded in games of chance for ones of skill. And what I really loved most was the game Risk, a "strategic" board game originally released in France in 1957 as La Conquête du Monde ("The Conquest of the World"), according to Wikipedia (See what I mean about libraries?). World domination interested me much more than acquiring property. But it took me many years to understand how to capture the six continents with my armies.

Greedy, at first I spread myself everywhere, fought for every parcel of land, especially on large continents like Europe. But when I began studying the others who beat me, I saw that they concentrated their forces — ridiculously so — on smaller continents like Australia, and only when they consolidated their wins would they spread out. Risk taught me how to choose my battles, the value of excelling at something small before moving on, and against trying too many things at once. (Too bad certain American presidents didn't play the game as children, they might have learned not to fight wars on too many fronts.)

If Risk was a macro conquest of the world using "troops," Stratego was micro conquest, using marshals, generals, colonels, captains, lieutenants and sergeants, in an effort to find and capture an opponent's flag, protected by mines. (Unlike chess, which also had certain pieces that could only move in specific directions, in Stratego players don't know what their opponent's pieces are.) The deception, the bluffing, the strategies, the ruthlessness all fascinated me as a teenager: Stratego allowed me to hone those less than socially acceptable skills, which are invaluable for an adult in the real world who has to go after what he wants.

There are countless other board games I must have played as a kid, from the elementary Game of the States to the deceptively complex Othello, as well as Rummikub, Sorry, Clue, and word games like Boggle and Scrabble. Each inevitably taught me a life lesson, but probably the main one was, win or lose, no matter what, have fun with friends.

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