Tabletop Gaming in the Age of Social Distancing

Welcome to the third installment of Friday with the Fellows, a series of posts by our OCH fellows intended to entertain and inspire during the age of social distancing. This week, OCH fellow Dr. David Chandler talks about how tabletop games are not only a great distraction during times of uncertainty but also meaningful experiences and engines for discussion. He then offers up some suggestions for newcomers to this popular hobby!

The tabletop is a medium for expression. Families gather there for meals. Political or business decisions are made over a round of drinks. It’s the centerpiece for holiday gatherings, religious celebrations, or important parties. Currently, mine is piled high with books and documents, unopened mail and graded papers, laptops and headphones–all the detritus of a makeshift workspace while my wife and I perform our jobs from home. Now, our table is an expression of anxiety and shifting priorities as we do what we can to get through the day.

But at least once a week, we clear it (or, if I’m being honest just kind of shove our pile of occupational obligations to the side) and make a space for a game. In the shadow of all that we have to do, we set apart a place to play, to open a beer and agree to abide by a set of rules for a set amount of time in pursuit of this transient idea called “fun.” We draw cards, roll dice, move plastic or wooden pieces across a board, work against each other or together, depending on the game we play. In that brief time, we find a way to connect and enjoy each other’s company despite the anxious pull of work, of quarantine, of the world outside the boundaries of a few rules and some bits of cardboard.

Tabletop games have been a hobby interest of mine for a few years and a professional interest for a few semesters. I’ve written about why I like to use them in my college classrooms to help my students hone their abilities in analysis and textual interpretation, but one of the curious of talking about games purely in a functional capacity is that doing so (arguably) risks their potential to entertain. And that’s what interests me for this blog post, that ineffable thing that makes games so entertaining. 

Perhaps a few years ago, I would have to go through the list of misconceptions about tabletop games–they’re all boring, there’s only like six of them (Risk, Uno, Chess, Monopoly, Sorry, maybe Clue if you’re into the obscure stuff, Dungeons and Dragons for the more intense players), modern ones are too complicated, they’re only for nerdy hobbyists. In truth modern tabletop games provide experiences ranging from small card games you can learn in minutes to sprawling experiences that fill your living room with dice and plastic, and it has never been easier to get into tabletop gaming. And there’s no better way to pass the time while social distancing than setting aside some time and space to connect with your family, your partner, or your friends (playing games via Zoom or Google hangouts can work! I’ve tried it!). 

In a 2017 talk, game critic and editor of the site Shut Up & Sit Down explained, “Games are interesting because people are interesting.” And while it seems an obvious statement, it is an honest one. You learn about the people you play with because everything you do at the table communicates information, whether that’s pushing your luck with a dice roll, trying to deceive your opponent in a game of social deduction, or setting up a long- or short-term strategy on your path to board game victory. The funny thing is, the game doesn’t have to be a grand system of processes or an expensive production of components and rules to help you engage with others in surprising and novel ways.

The tabletop is a medium, a canvas for expression, and tabletop games over a myriad of ways to illustrate what that means. Games can tell stories, simulate grand-scale conflicts, offer intricate puzzles to solve, and generally provide shared experiences and ideas among a group of people. I can scarcely think of a more worthwhile activity to occupy our time during today’s uncertainty than coming together to play.

So, over the course of a few blog posts, I’m going to, hopefully, convince you that tabletop games are more than just distractions; they’re meaningful experiences, engines for discussion, and some of the most fascinating texts to explore. In the meantime, here are a few resources at your disposal if you think you have a passing interest in the hobby.

Online and local resources

Board Game Geek – BoardGameGeek (BGG) is, by all accounts, a hideous website. However, it is the most comprehensive resource for board game information out there. Essentially, it’s a massive database of tabletop games that compiles everything from reviews, news, forums, product availability, a trade market, and anything else you could possibly want to know. If you’re playing a game and you come across a confusing rule (which will happen), you can just Google your question, and the first answer will likely be a forum on BGG.

The Dice Tower – The Dice Tower is probably the biggest game review and information site on the internet. If you’re interested in any sort of game, the smart money says they’ve covered it in some capacity.

Shut Up & Sit Down – Shut Up & Sit Down is my favorite resource for games news and all around good games writing. Their reviews extend beyond the simple buy/don’t buy commentary by offering a reading of a game and its mechanics. 

No Pun Included – No Pun Included focuses chiefly on reviews. Their YouTube channel is fun and informative. 

Shuffles Board Game Cafe (Tulsa) – While you can’t hang out there during the outbreak, Shuffles is currently offering a game checkout service for some of its stock. If you want to try a game before you buy, give them a call (and get some good food while you’re there).