Chapter 14: Discovering Myself By Invading Belgium

On gamers being multitudes

Every gamer brings a different set of appetites to the table which is why there so many different games. The sort of person who loves an empathy-driven social emulator such as Dixit is unlikely to go in for a hardcore war game like Advanced Swuad Leader (ASL), a beer and pretzel college dorm strategy gamer who enjoys swindling and ego-jousting with roommates is always going to prefer Chinatown over a cooperative games such as Eldritch Horror and the serious-minded, highly analytical intellectual usually will prefer the tightly controlled 8x8 arena of chess to the comic crash-and-burn mayhem of Galaxy Trucker. Tabletop gaming isn't really one hobby. As I noted in my Scrabble chapter there's a thousand hobbies each with its own rich and growing subculture

Games as stories we create with the aid of guardrails; makes it accessible not overwhelming

So what is it about ASL that appeals to me? Those first few paragraphs give you a clue. I'm not just playing a game when I play; I'm telling a story; in a perfect world I would not have to go to airless conference rooms in Copenhagen or Cleveland to produce stories through the manipulation of little cardboard counters. I'd be able to do it the way Tolstoy and first did it —scribbling away in a notebook. I've tried that and it does not work for me. I am not a fiction writer. I try to create characters and breathe life into them. They stare back at me from the page shrugging, shuffling around listlessly. They have no inner momentum or urgency to their actions. I find myself paralyzed not being able to pick from the infinity of possible actions and thoughts that I may ascribe to them…When I play a board game, especially a richly detailed one such as ASL, the motivation is clear. It's written in the “victory conditions” for each scenario. I have to take a bridge, destroy a bunker, clear a town. That fictional battle in the town of Kapelle-op-den-Bos emerged over seven hours and hundreds of dice rolls. All the little details from the fight would have been impossible for me to conjure out of thin air, yet within the context of a rules-bound game, Andreas and I created a sort of action movie screenplay by accident. We did it as a team collaboratively and spontaneously the way a jazz ensemble creates a new tune. Going in neither of us had any idea how the movie would end and only how it would begin.

Active vs passive entertainment [Kris: this was very resonant — i struggle to sit still and be entertained and need to be doing something]

When people ask me why I never watched TV your movies I tell them it is because board gaming takes up all my free time. That is not the whole truth. It is also the case that the experience of passively watching videos bores me after experiencing the thrill of midwifing a story right then and there on a tabletop. I refuse to go back to a form of entertainment that requires me to sit back and watch someone else's fully formed story pop out of a box.

Games can teach us directly…

Realistic war games such as ASL also bring history alive by putting players in the shoes of the generals and forcing them to act out the strategic choices faced by both sides. As a Jew whose ancestors were slaughtered by Nazis, I know something about the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Hitler and his minions. I'll admit that it has felt strange to take the German side in a war game but even that sense of unease has an educational side. Notwithstanding the monstrous nature of the Nazi regime, the young men who took up arms for the regime were flesh-and-blood human beings whose manner of warfare shaped the history of Europe. They and their ways deserve study for their own sake…I'm cognizant of the great privilege I experienced living in a peaceful country such as Canada where I can experience the simulation of war as an intellectual pursuit when I play ASL. I'm mindful of this no matter who wins or loses a scenario there always are plenty of dead on both sides. It shocks me to push myself back from the board and think that hundreds of men actually did die to capture or defend some meaningless piece of real estate. Playing ASL has in this way turned me into something of a pacifist…It was not just the Nazis who regarded life as cheap. I have played 1945-era ASL scenarios in which I've commanded some of the red troops who served Stalin's totalitarian USSR and brutalized the citizenry of Berlin and another scenario set in October of 1937, two years before World War II even started, I commanded elements of the Japanese expeditionary army that descended upon the Chinese 88th division holed up in Shanghai Zhabei district and massacred them down to a man.
While Nazism was a uniquely malignant force in world affairs, a closer study of the period shows that evil came into full bloom in many countries and under the banner many movements. And so the only way to immerse oneself in any kind of military reenactment is to compartmentalize the tactics from the underlying causes they served. Again this is not for everyone. But that is why there is Jenga.

…and indirectly

It goes beyond that — ASL like all tabletop games provides players with a path to self-improvement as long as you were alive to the lessons of the game board. Why for instance did I ultimately lose the fight for that town? When I play the battle back in my head I realized that I'd become so elated by the prospect of victory, I carelessly forgot to assign troops to mop up defenders in the rear. This has been a recurring issue for me in ASL — I fall behind in the game then summon up all my intellectual strength to return turn the tide only to lose at the end when I become cavalier. Moments such as this make me wonder if this is something I also do in “real life”…By keeping careful track of my game results over the years I've noticed other trends — I do better in morning games and evening games in part because I forget to eat food or drink water. When I experience stress and sometimes become fatigued or even dizzy late in the day I prefer attacking over defending. I try to anticipate my opponent's moves by putting myself in their shoes but often have difficulty doing so. (Why? A failure in my epithet empathic capabilities perhaps?). Like all players, I sometimes blame losses on bad luck yet take full credit for my victories. The ASL gameboard is not just in the arena of war. It is an arena of ego, of temperament, of human strengths and foibles. Learning the important life lessons often can be painful or humiliating. With ASL, it is fun.

Games and Life

One of the defining elements of the human animal is its capacity for abstract visualization. Other creatures are better than us at smelling, biting, hunting, and running. We alone can create whole universes in our heads based on nothing more than thought. This is the basis of language, math, science, everything that defines human civilization. It's something monkeys and dolphins will never have. When evolutionary theorists seek to explain how this capacity for abstract thought rose, the story often goes like this “our ancestors beset by all sorts of deadly horrors in the African savannah needed some way to participate in risks before the moment those risks jumped out of the bushes red in tooth and claw. So began the slow process by which the neural networks in our head, under pressure from the ruthless mechanism of natural selection, created the means to model risk before the risk manifested itself. What would happen if I went to forage for berries in that field and the lion appeared? Would I be able to make it to the protection of that outcropping? How many berries would I be able to get? How hungry am I? Is it worth the risk? Out of these habits of mind grew the whole mental apparatus by which we play out life scenarios as a game within our mind, before putting life and limb on the line in a true sense. The relationship between board games and real life is in some way close.
This brings me back to when that game was over and me and Andres shaking hands, I confessed to him my shame and squandering victory in such a silly way. Andreas did not condescend to me. He agreed that my failure to guard the rear positions had cost me the game. He also noted truthfully that in a long match such as this, it is inevitable that some errors would be made. Indeed Andres made some mistakes of his own. As we went through our post-game analysis, scrutinizing the criteria that each of us had needed to achieve victory, it became clear that Andreas had not studied the scenario with sufficient care. In particular, he did not realize that the destruction of his tanks had been one of my listed objectives. Suddenly I realized why he deployed his tanks in such an aggressive, even careless manner. Had the dice come up differently in the final moments of our game, he, not I would have rued in his carelessness. When I pointed out pointed this out, Andreas slapped his forehead and swore in Swedish then he did something important — he laughed. Long and hard. And in that moment, I realized why…This is a lesson that comes back, full circle, to what my co-author has concluded from showing thousands of people how to play games at the Snakes & Lattes game cafe. In games, as in life, if you beat yourself up for any deviation from a self-imposed standard of perfection, you will be an unhappy person. The happiest people I know are not those who come closest to perfection in their personal lives or their professions. They are the ones who give an honest effort in everything they do but forgive themselves when they come up short. Failure becomes an opportunity for self-improvement, not self-recrimination. Of course, laughter is not always a socially appropriate response to failure. Sometimes, mistakes we make cause inconvenience or even real pain to the people around us.
This is why it is so gratifying to enter the world of board gaming. Where, win or lose, laughter is never inappropriate, because no one on either side gets shot or goes bankrupt, and the lion never gets his human prey. That is the world of the tabletop, a place where many of life's great lessons leave their mark-but the sting never lasts longer than the time it takes to put all those little pieces back in their box.