Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Games People Play

I grew up as a lover of board games (I know that for many, they are thought of more as "bored" games, but not for me). Last Sunday, in Las Vegas, I participated in my first Game Day in two-and-half years—it was something I had been looking forward to very much, yet the day didn't unfold as planned...

• • •
First let me explain what a Game Day is.

I've raised two kids, my son Ceilee (27) and my daughter Jo (who'll be 21 in less than a fortnight). As soon as they were old enough to tell a club from a spade, and had developed an attention span superior to that of a may fly, I started playing board games with them. It was much better than flash cards for teaching math (they'd have to ask for the correct change at Monopoly), and most games are great for inculcating kids with a sense of simple strategic thinking and logical sequencing—things I consider basic life skills.

Over time, playing games became one of the ways we bonded as a family. While my kids were both still living at home, we'd occasionally set aside whole days for game playing marathons. We'd start in the morning and play 'til we dropped—sometimes as late as 4 am the next day. This was the genesis of Game Day, but the concept wasn't fully developed until we added an extra nuance: the Meta Game.

For this, we kept track of who won each game, awarding the most points for winning, yet partial points for finishing second or third. And because all games are not considered an equal test of strategic skill, we started given extra weight to the games we most respected. It gradually evolved to the following understanding:

Rules for Game Day
1. We always start with Monopoly.
2. You score 5 points for first place; 2 for second, 1 for third; and the fourth place finisher gets to select the next game (though it has to be a game that at least four can play).
3. We allow people not playing the Meta Game to compete in any single game, but their results are ignored when calculating points for the Meta Game.
We do not play the same game twice.
We negotiate the multiplier for each game at the beginning of each game. Monopoly, by agreement, has a multiplier of 1.0.
6. The mutliplier is always a number in the form (1.x), where "x" is a whole number from zero through nine inclusive. The points earned in the Meta Game are the raw score times the mutliplier.
7. If it is a game that does not eliminate other players (such as Monopoly or Risk), it is possible to earn a "Super Win" by finishing first with a score at least double that of all other players. In the event of a Super Win, the winner's Meta Game score for that victory is increased by 50%. [It's rare, but it does happen.]
8. The winner of Game Day is the person at the end of the day with the highest score in the Meta Game.

The nuclear core of Game Day is Ceilee, Jo, me, and long-time friend Jeffrey Harris
(ex of Dancing Rabbit) . We're all board game nuts. Altogether, we've probably played about eight Game Days in the course of the last ten years (and I have the master records for each). When we were all living in Missouri it was not that difficult to synchronize schedules, but in recent years the logistics have been considerably complicated by Jeffrey having left DR to pursue work opportunities in Berkeley CA, followed by Ceilee moving to Las Vegas NV, and then by Jo settling in Asheville NC. Now we're scattered across three times zones.

Going into last week we hadn't played a Game Day since New Year's 2006—a long dry spell. All of which is to say we were psyched for Sunday.

However, other things had changed as well as addresses in the last 30 months. In particular, both Ceilee and I got married and, amazingly enough, our partners (Tosca & Ma'ikwe, respectively) also like to play board games. Understandably, they wanted some of Sunday's action, too, as well as Ma'ikwe's 11-year-old son, Jibran. It was an embarrassment of riches. Only a few of our games are suitable for more than five players, and some can only accommodate four (such as Mah Jongg). That meant people had to sit out, which no one particularly wanted to do. Hmm.

The key challenge was putting out the welcome mat for the new folks, while at the same time preserving the integrity and uniqueness that Jo prized so much from days gone by. Game Days were an especially strong memory for Jo, and a large part of what she wanted from flying in for our rendezvous in Las Vegas was special time with her brother and father. It was awkward.

Tosca got bored waiting for a game to be selected that she already knew, and Ceilee wound up leaving early to support his wife (and help take care of their 10-week-old daughter). Jo was frustrated with her performance in the second game, dropped out part way through and spent some time sulking. Ma'ikwe hung
in there, but felt unwelcomed by Jo and was worried about Jibran's not having a good time. Trouble.

Probably the best move we made all day was calling a temporary halt to the gaming to sort out the tensions. Talk about complicated strategies—try group dynamics!

Luckily, this particular configuration was game for this unprecedented hiatus (thanks to our strong, collective community heritage). We had a number of one-on-one conversations, and then ordered pizza. While low blood sugar may have been a factor (for which the pizza was an excellent antidote), I believe the most valuable part of the day was simply listening to everyone's hurts and counteracting feelings of isolation.

The best part for me was a conversation I had with Jo on the steps outside Ceilee's apartment. She was in tears and I got a much clearer picture of how much she wanted continued close connections with Ceilee and me. In the end, I was able to convince her that we had a much wider palette of choices for addressing that than just falling back on Game Days as they used to be.

We made a date to have a further father-daughter conversation the next day—about how I could help her sort out what-she-wants-to-do-with-her-life, and how to better manage her personal finances (which went well by the way)—and that paved the way for a much more congenial ending to this Game Day, which wrapped up gracefully around 1:30 am with my delivering Jeffrey to his Super 8 accommodations just off the strip. He and I had a nice (if brief) personal check-in during our 20-minute drive, topping off the good mood he was in from having coasted to victory in the Meta Game.

While I started Sunday anticipating that winning the Meta Game would be the day's big prize, I went to bed feeling like a winner by virtue of my conversations with Jo—which showcases one of the neat things about games: sometimes you win even when you lose.

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