Tumbling Dice

I played a lot of board games and card games when I was in high school. Haven’t done much gaming since then, but games have always fascinated me. Recently I discovered and started exploring the world of modern board and tabletop games, and this has rekindled my interest. I still haven’t found a good group of people to play games with, but I’m ready.

Classic games like chess and go are certainly not simple, but both the goal and the moves that will take you to the goal are quite clear-cut. Not so with games in the 21st century. There may be several paths to victory (or defeat), and it may not be clear which path you should take. The resources you’ll have at your disposal are likely to change during the course of the game. Other players may steal your resources! The number of players can range upward from two to five or six. Successful games may spawn variants — additional packages you can buy containing more pieces, more cards, new books with additional rules, and so on. It’s a whole new world.

It strikes me that the new games mirror the experience of modern life. People today, and especially the young people who are more likely to be playing these games, have to negotiate complex, shifting personal landscapes. The “rules” for dating and marriage, for jobs and careers, for living situations and transportation, all are more fluid and multi-faceted than they were when I was young. If you’re managing your life halfway decently, your brain is already well tooled to play a complex tabletop game — and you may find chess boring, because there’s not enough going on.

This observation leads, in turn, to a deeper insight: Everything in human life is a game. The first rule of the game of life is, of course, “This isn’t a game!” But feel free to set that rule aside. Instead, try one of the many variants. Sometimes you’ll draw good cards; sometimes they’ll be bad cards. Sometimes the dice will favor you, other times not. Sometimes you’ll have to go to jail without passing Go or collecting $200.

How are you keeping score? Some people aim to win the game by collecting the most stuff. Some people aim to win by having the most exciting or exotic adventures. Some people go for having the most enduring and fulfilling personal relationships. Some people write novels or try out for the Olympics in order to gain status. Some of us get victory points by proving to our own satisfaction that we’re right and the other guy is wrong. A few people pick peculiar personal goals that would be meaningless to anybody else; I remember reading once about a man whose life’s work was making an enormous bas-relief of the Virgin Mary out of tinfoil.

In the end, it’s all pretty much like that, I guess. We all spend our lives making bas-reliefs of one thing and another using tinfoil. In the right light, what you’re pressing into shape with your thumbs can look amazingly bright and shiny — and on the whole, or so it seems to me, that’s the best we can hope for.

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