Games People Play

Some folks go to bars for fun. Others join forces to build, save, conquer or destroy entire civilizations.

Had our medic gotten to Karachi faster, we might have survived. He could have treated the viral outbreak there while I met with our scientist in Great Britain. Then the scientist could have flown back to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and discovered the final cure.

But Karachi was the eighth outbreak in a worldwide epidemic that our team could not contain. Now it’s too late. The human race is doomed.

On the table before us, a colorful game board littered with cards and plastic pieces paints a map of global carnage. Jim, a lean and fit warrant officer who recently transferred to the D.C. area, shifts in his seat. “Damn!” he says. “We almost had that one!”

I take a sip of Diet Pepsi (though the sting of our failure makes me wish I weren’t diabetic, because a hit of the hard stuff would be great about now). “Either of you want to try again?” asks Dawn, a library science student from Indiana. Her soft features, slight build and quiet voice are a contrast to Jim’s sharp angles.

Jim and I look at each other and shrug. Then we start resetting the board for a second round of Pandemic.

I first met Jim and Dawn a few weeks ago at the Landing, an open seating area in the underground Crystal City Shops. Every Friday evening, three to four dozen members of the local Beer & Board Games Meetup Group descend upon the space like seagulls on a boardwalk. (A smaller contingent of the same group meets at the Silver Diner in Clarendon on Wednesday nights.)

It’s been a year since I moved to nearby Del Ray from my hometown of Marquette, Mich. You would think a transplant like me would begin to build a social network by meeting people at work, during happy hours or in grad school. But the majority of those I’ve connected with since I relocated here have been through board gaming.

Mind you, I’m not talking about the rainy day pastimes of our childhood—games like Sorry, Monopoly and Scrabble, which taught us strategy at a young age. Board gaming has come a long way since then. The options now are legion. And their power to bring people together is unlike just about anything I’ve witnessed that doesn’t involve a bottle of alcohol.

I rediscovered board gaming in 2007 as a soldier in the U.S. Army, while attending language school in Monterey, Calif. I was an insecure introvert and kept to myself a lot. That is, until one day when another soldier invited me into a lunchtime game of Settlers of Catan.

In Settlers, players compete to build the most successful settlement on an island made of randomized hexagonal pieces. Resources are the main currency, and the only way to reliably acquire them is to trade with other players. The key is to negotiate the best deals with your opponents without giving them everything they need to win.

As I wheeled-and-dealed with three fellow linguists-in-training, I realized that in the space of an hour I had spoken more words to them than I had to my entire unit in the year I had been stationed there. From that moment on, I entered the world of “designer” board gaming. (Like many other commercial products, the best games are often known by their designers.)

Fast-forward seven years to the Landing in Crystal City, and we’re playing Pandemic, a game in which two to four players compete against the game itself in a race to cure four deadly viruses that are spreading randomly across the planet. Each player assumes a different role with a different ability. The scientist, for example, can discover cures faster than any other player. The medic can treat disease outbreaks more effectively, and so on. It is impossible to beat the diseases without teamwork, collaboration and planning.

Not everyone at the Landing is an introvert like me, and not everyone plays Pandemic. The space attracts many types of gamers and many types of games. There are extroverts who show up for good laughs and good company. There are competitive gamers who get a rush from dominating their opponents—whether they are blowing them out of space in Star Trek: Attack Wing or building the most prosperous fantasy empire in Terra Mystica. There are consensus-builders who bristle at games that encourage aggressive behavior. There are hard-core intellectuals who love complex problem-solving and logical reasoning. There are casual gamers who gravitate toward party games that require nothing more than the ability to laugh at yourself.

The meet-ups draw men, women, singles, married couples, and even some parents playing games alongside their kids. Though I’ve seen gamers as young as 10 and as old as 65 cruising the tables, most are in their late 20s or early 30s—young professionals who no longer find the bar scene appealing but who crave a mental workout and the company of others.

Like many other hobbies, board gaming is a form of escapism. It’s a chance to leave your work and personal stresses behind and to be someone else, somewhere else, doing something else. But it’s not a solitary pursuit. It’s a fantasy that requires human interaction, whether your goal is to save the world from infectious diseases or to build a city.

For me, there’s a distinction between board gaming and online video gaming. Both can be collaborative, but the anonymity of an Internet connection and an avatar make it easy to forget that you’re sharing an experience with other people.

Board games, by comparison, put our fundamental humanness on display. You may see someone’s hand trembling as he moves a piece into a risky position. Or the mischievous glow in a player’s eyes when she has a plan. As you pack up at the end of the night, you and your teammates may find yourselves chatting like old war veterans about what went right and what went wrong.

It’s a competitive pastime, but not in the usual D.C.-area way. When you meet fellow board gamers for the first time, the question they ask will not be “So, what do you do for a living?”

It’s more likely to be something along the lines of “Hey, we’re playing Stone Age and we’ve got room for one more. Wanna join us?”

Ed Gibbs is a student in the Master of Arts in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. Since writing this essay, he has gone on to save the world several times in the weekly Pandemic games he plays during lunch while working at the Office of the Federal Register.

Categories: People