Board Games is one of three debut books from Avidly Reads, a new series edited by the Los Angeles Review of Books and published by NYU Press. NYU Press describes Avidly Reads as “books that are part memoir, part cultural criticism, each bringing to life the author’s emotional relationship to a cultural artifact or experience.”
Eric Thurm’s writing in Board Games solidly represents the intent of intertwining memoir and cultural criticism. A game enthusiast, Thurm begins Board Games by recalling the experience of being at the hospital with his siblings while they waited to say goodbye to their dying grandfather. The Thurms exchange glances, indicating that they will pass the time in this bleak setting by breaking out the portable version of the board game Catan, one at which they are so adept that they can play it silently and on the sly so as not to appear to be having fun in the hospital waiting room.
Having sold more than 27 million units in 39 different languages since its release in 1995, Catan provides an appropriate starting point to discuss the popularity of board games. For readers whose familiarity with board games remains in childhood memories of Monopoly and Life, Thurm notes that Catan has served as an ambassador for Eurogames, where game play is designed to be cooperative rather than competitive.
Board games are a thriving industry, albeit one that is seldom taken seriously by consumers or critics. One could say that board game enthusiasts remain a rather insulated group, whether they play Catan, Dungeons & Dragons, or Risk. Yet Thurm argues throughout his narrative that those who are devoted to board games find unparalleled benefits of play, intellectual stimulation, and community.
The immersion experience that comes from deep engagement with a game is something both players and designers aspire to create. What psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described and popularized as a “flow state” is referred to by game designers as “the magic circle”. While noting the importance of maintaining the boundary between the magic circle and the rest of your ongoing life, Thurm admits that after a year of actively playing Catan, it became an activity around which he organized his life, planning trips and his social schedule with the board game as a priority.
Readers with an avid devotion to a hobby bordering on obsession could empathize, and this is one of the charms of Avidly Reads: where a nonfiction author who is enthusiastic about their subject matter strives to maintain an even tone, here, their devotion for board games shines through.
Like most intensive hobbies, board games work best with others who share one’s enthusiasm. This is clear in the stories Thurm tells about ventures into various games and the people who gather around those boards with him. In the chapter, “Playing along with complicity”, Thurm details his obsession with finding a game called Juden Raus, which came to his attention when he accidentally happened upon a Wikipedia page for “Nazi War Games”. The game play involves removing Jewish families from their homes to exile them to Palestine.
Thurm finally found a version of the game and gathered a group of friends for a Shabbat dinner followed by trying out Juden Raus. He writes, “This admittedly bizarre experience was also the culmination of a years-long desire: discovering the existence of Juden Raus was what got me interested in the ideological uses of board games in the first place.” For Thurm as games-enthusiast-cum-scholar, Juden Raus is a kind of origin story that helps to establish his perspective on board games as complex endeavors because of their ideological intent.
The discussion of ideology in board games easily slides into a study of Monopoly. Thurm argues that anyone who plays a lot of board games will quickly point out Monopoly‘s failings: it takes too long, players can be eliminated and then left out, the rules are complicated and vague. Most disconcerting for Thurm is that Monopoly puts into action an impossible model of capitalism in which each player begins with the same amount of money and an equal opportunity for wealth and success.
Despite the game’s popularity as a seemingly all-American pastime, Thurm reveals that Monopoly is actually based on another game that critiques capitalism as ultimately unjust. From here, Thurm journeys into an array of board games with names like Class Struggle and two games developed by Psychology Today, Blacks & Whites and Women & Men: The Classic Confrontation. Clearly, Thurm is not alone in thinking through the ideological content of board games.
If common perception is that games are essentially competitive, Thurm asks if cooperation can win out over competition. He relates his time spent with games that demand players work together in order to advance to a shared victory. Primary among them is Pandemic, a 2008 game in which players are Centers for Disease Control operatives trying to contain, and eventually eradicate, four highly contagious diseases. Like Monopoly, and unfortunately even Juden Raus, Pandemic brings real life conditions to the game table. Yet Thurm offers an optimistic note about the growing popularity of cooperative games among younger gamers, “who have begun to understand that the system that pits people against each other, and not your fellow players, is the true opponent.”
As critics working with film, television, and music readily point out, media shapes our sense of self and other, offering examples of how life should, or can, be. Thurm shows that board games act similarly on our social selves, providing different modes of life that may inspire gamers to think differently about the possibilities of both cooperation and competition.