Sunday, October 23, 2016

Connor Has Game

I'm visiting Ceilee and his household clan in Los Angeles this week, and yesterday I played a game of Ticket to Ride—the Nordic Countries with my grandson, Connor. 

The game is relatively straight forward to learn. The board consists of a map (in this case, Scandinavia plus portions of the Baltic States) on which major cities are connected by would-be train routes. Routes are of various lengths and are arbitrarily associated with one of eight colors. For the most part, turns consist of players either: a) drawing cards (in one of the eight colors); or b) playing cards of the appropriate hue to claim a route. With some exceptions (where there is double track between busy cities) only one player can build a given route; others have to go around. You score points both for building routes, and for establishing track that connects cities for which you have route cards (where points are awarded in proportion to the distance between cities).

When I asked Connor if he knew how to play he assured me that he did. OK, I thought, let's see. In our first game he demonstrated that he clearly understood the mechanics of turn-taking and how to build track, but he was clueless about route cards. He did not complete a single one of his five routes, and his score was terrible. Once that was revealed I spent time with him explaining how the route cards worked. He didn't need to be able to pronounce København, Örebro, or Åndalsnes (which is a good thing because I'm not sure how much better I could do); he just needed to be able to locate them on the map. After 15 minutes of teaching him how to do that we played again. The second time around he completed four of five routes and scored four times better. While he didn't win, he was competitive. 

Connor is only five years old and I was impressed: both that he hung in there for the lesson, and that he was able to immediately apply it. It won't be that long before he's beating me, and it was a proud Papa Ward moment.

• • •
For reasons that are not all together clear, I grew up playing a lot of board games. I am well aware that many of my peers got bored playing games, but not me.

I went through a phase in my 30s when I has hooked on correspondence chess, and I dived into the arcane world of duplicate bridge around my 50th birthday (a passion which continues today), but it turns out that we are living in the golden age of board games—the last 20 years especially—and I consider myself lucky to have been around to enjoy it.

I recall occasionally playing chess, Monopoly, and Scrabble with my father, but he lost interest in a game whenever I got good enough to consistently beat him, so he was not a regular competitor. (His best game was gin rummy, which we occasionally played together throughout his life—in part because I never got as good as he.)

As a kid my favorite game was Clue, because of the variety of winning strategies you could employ and the subtleties of logic and inference (to be really good you needed to be able to learn from the fact that the person two to your right could not refute the suggested combination of suspect, weapon, and room, while the person one to your right could).

In college I was enthralled by Diplomacy, a board game played on a map of Europe where seven players took on the identities of England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Russia to conducted a battle royale. You had to master both the logic of battle (maneuvering armies and fleets to gain military superiority) and the art of negotiation (developing allies to gain political superiority). That was my first exposure to the possibility of a great game that was not based on chance (dice rolls or card drawing).

As an adult I played fewer board games—it was hard to find anyone interested—until I discovered Siedler (which translates from the German to "Settlers of Catan"). That changed everything. It was, by far, the best board game I'd ever played that involved more than two players. As it happened, Siedler came along just as my children got big enough to understand gaming strategy and it quickly became my family's favorite (the expansion version that we consider the best is Cities & Knights, with the fish and pond replacing the desert, and with the deck of cards replacing dice). Years later, that same game proved to be the household favorite for Ma'ikwe, Jibran, and me. 

Since Siedler opened the gates, a flood of excellent board games has ensued, the best of which are diceless. My favorites include Agricola, Le Havre, Ora and Labora, Puerto Rico, and Caylus. For those who have trouble with games that last more than 60 minutes, try Splendor or Carcassonne.

There are also cooperative games, where players unite in a effort to defeat a common faceless enemy: Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Arkhem Horror all work that way.

Over the last three decades board games have played an important role as a medium for quality time spent with my kids (Ceilee and Jo) and my stepson, Jibran. My daughter, Jo, and her husband, Peter, met at a gaming shop in Asheville NC and today they play with friends at least twice a week in Las Vegas—which I am welcome to join whenever I visiting. Gaming teaches logic, geography, strategic thinking, and how to win and lose with equal grace—all important life lessons. And it's a lot of fun.

It's great to be on hand this week to see the next generation picking it up.

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