Although far less romantic than “Love in the time of Cholera”, playing board games during the Coronavirus outbreak has been no less harrowing for some of us. But, unlike the metaphorically rich sickness in Marquez’ literary tale, COVID19 has been the real-deal.
Without doubt, our world has been changed by the immediate impact and lasting effects of this global pandemic; surgical masks which were the exclusive uniform of the medical profession and exotic nail bars are now as essential as underwear; firm handshakes have transformed into street-cool elbow bumps, and if you’re not singing “Happy Birthday” in your head whilst washing your hands, well then, you’re officially dooming us all, my friend.
Note: this piece does not attempt to discuss or describe the horrors and devastation that people have experienced since the Spring, as I would be doing a disservice to everybody. Rather, this work focusses on some of the impacts Coronavirus has had on our hobby and me as a member of our rich and wonderful gaming community. Get comfy, kids, for I begin with a story.
Locked and Loaded?
I remember the first time I queued up at 4am to get into a supermarket back in March of this year. I was confused, terrified, but determined. Walking in single file, masked and gloved like I was about to commit armed robbery rather than buy bananas, It became very clear that the previously bloated shelves had taken on a sudden svelteness. Gone were the usual mountains of bread, pasta, toilet paper, paracetamol, and tin foil. I know, I too thought the foil thing bizarre until I heard some of my fellow trolley truckers at the checkout enthusiastically conspiring about the virus trying to read our thoughts and/or spread some form of organic electromagnetic field. After that, I scoured, sourced, and fabricated three fetching aluminium beanies; hot to sleep in but no bugs are gonna use me and my family as their personal streaming service!
Anyhoo, besides the natty NASA inspired fedora I am sporting today (just in case, you understand), I am ashamed to admit that I initially and loudly condemned panic buying by the public at large whilst simultaneously stockpiling my own bunker level store of 3 ply puppy printed loo rolls; my anxiety disorder and guilt complex make for riotous bedfellows.
I remember one particular early morning grocery guerrilla attack where I felt almost giddy with relief having secured 4 bags of flour by placing them on different parts of the conveyor belt by virtue of the terrified checkout lady wearing fogged up glasses not remembering how many she had already scanned. In comparison, the rest of my basket was a car crash of hastily grabbed consumables; tinned peaches, microwave chips, cola, and shoe polish.
In that single defining self-reflective moment in the supermarket car park, I quickly realised that I had not evolved the skills necessary to survive a disaster of any kind, let alone one requiring alpha-parent abilities to pressure-purchase foodstuffs capable of sustaining my family for weeks without access to 24/7 convenience stores.
As I made my way home, uneasily victorious, I also slowly realised that I had no idea what to do with flour, 4 bags or otherwise. My early hunter-gatherer jubilation crumbled as quickly as fast-acting yeast (another short-lived win!) when I realised how little I knew about baking. Bread was something that came bleached, soft, and thick sliced; plastic wrapped and preservatives aplenty, just as nature intended. Turning powder into a sandwich was witchcraft; a tasty but no less mysterious practice of the dark arts.
As well as my domestic shortcomings, I also failed repeatedly to trump the in-house iParent during our own personal lockdown working-from-home-schooling-hell; Mr. EyesPad as he is now known became the only reliable source of social interaction for our son as my husband (who, to add a cherry on top of his misery cake, was shielding for health reasons) and I found ourselves unable to switch our eyes and ears off from the relentless news headlines, government briefings, tweets, emails, and radio broadcasts. Sensory overload on steroids; anxiety’s lifeblood.
Boom or Bust?
Fast forward eight terrifying, devastating, and exhausting months and, for me, the digital pandemic chatter has settled into a familiar, constant, household hum. The bags of flour still languish in my cupboard untouched (thank the Lord for online shopping!), but our wonderful shared board gaming hobby has been rapidly evolving and adapting at a pace that puts Boris Johnson’s ever decreasing waist size and popularity to shame. And just as well, frankly, given that we awoke today to another set of new Tier 4 lockdown restrictions.
And so, this new layer of can we/can’t we got me thinking. In the omnipresent shadow of Coronavirus, what has changed for us as board gamers? What challenges do we now face in sustaining our hobby with no definitive pandemic effects-end date and, perhaps more surprisingly, what new opportunities, if any, has this new-normal dropped into our dice towers? Not that I nor anybody would ever wish a global disaster as the agent of transformation, but I ask the latter because, whilst it is easy to focus on change as a negative force, the chance to evolve brings with it novel and, importantly, positive opportunities for growth.
I think we can all agree that we love our gaming hobby and our overwhelmingly friendly community. But, as I have mentioned in other pieces and contexts, these cannot survive in a vacuum. Elements of what we do and how we do it and who we do it with have to develop so that we can thrive as players in this new normal. If we don’t, we risk dooming board gaming to pastime vestigiality; turning what was once great into a stubborn, unstable place; the grumbling appendix of the hobby body.
The unprecedented surge in digital gaming is definitely one way in which I see many of us less, ahem, more tactility-minded gamers seeking to preserve the communal aspect of playing in these socially-distanced times. It’s not a new thing, far from it, but it is a way of playing that was previously a more perhaps “free” choice; to play on-line or to meet in person – you decide. At the moment, however, unless your household or support bubble contains a fellow gamer, it’s the digital-way or the highway, my friend.
And many analogue gamers are realising this. Numerous shattered board game groups are now au fait with Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and other video-conferencing platforms as ways to carry on meeting, playing, and chatting. It’s not perfect; many games don’t work on this platform, internet connections can be frustratingly unreliable, and the virtual nature of the event seems to make human commitment harder to secure in the face of competing real-time events going on in players’ homes. But it is something and it is growing.
Furthermore, dedicated online gaming platforms like Boardgame Arena, Tabletopia, and Steam have seen a massive uptake in membership as the ability to play games online with other human beings, even those you cannot physically high five after a cracking combo move, is becoming more appealing, perhaps vital for some where other ways to play (or even just interact with another human being) are currently impossible.
Similarly, Discord and other virtual social spaces are doing their bit to preserve the camaraderie amongst gamers and to facilitate new connections between us globally. Plenty of gamers were of course familiar and enthusiastic users before Coronavirus, but for many who don’t play consoles or video-conference in other aspects of life, owning a headset with a mic and having a set-up to suit online gaming specifically is ground-breaking.
And I think that has to be one undeniably positive effect to come out of these challenging times; the ability to play the board games we love with people all over the world; to experience a new game or a familiar game through a different sphere of reference.
Not only that but the widening effect on accessibility cannot be ignored. For those of us who do not have the confidence to join an analogue game group, the money to buy new games regularly, or perhaps the ability to participate due to disabilities, having access to almost limitless choice on your own terms and at your own pace is really quite wondrous.
I don’t know if you are dabbling, loving, or even shunning the digital wave right now, but I have personally met some lovely people through digital gaming and it is my hope that we will continue to meet in order to play and chat even when the world is allowed to come together again vis-a-vis.
I have also done something I never thought I would; I have been watching, not playing you understand, but simply watching other people play board games online and, dum dum dummmmm… I really enjoy it! Despite the myriad tv and film streaming options on my home smart television, I find my one free eye and ear (the other in each case still keeping a watching brief over the news headlines and briefings of course!) drawn most nights to my favourite content creators playing games on Twitch. With the sound toggled off, it could be an almost meditative exercise, but the ability to jump into the live chats and socialise with a bunch of other game-crazy viewers and the hosts themselves is a fun and interactive experience which I would not achieve at home otherwise.
And this direct online, real-time link between gamers, creators, publishers, and designers is a massive leap forwards which has been pushed up the timeline by the restrictions placed upon us since the pandemic locked down the world. Doubtless it would have happened at some point anyway, particularly as there are some great personalities out there who are fantastically entertaining (Brothers Murph, MoreGamesPls, Ruel Gaviola, Dave and Ilka Luza, OurFamilyPlaysGames, to name but a few) and seem genuinely happy to game with us mere mortals. But the need to find new ways to engage directly with players, who are also consumers after all, has taken on an almost unprecedented primacy. In the online world, it appears that we expect to receive a little more attention from the game Lords.
And the industry knows it and is encouraging it. So much so that, this year, gamers, publishers, and creators are chattering daily on social media, online content is being integrated into traditional analogue games, apps are being released almost simultaneously with the physical board games, and many organisers have been hosting digital gaming conventions in lieu of their traditional, grandstand events.
On the latter, some have done this very well. Having been faced with a “Do or do not. There is no try” dilemma, many faced the challenge head on and did exactly that. But, for me, those who have chosen to seek to emulate the traditional experience for fear of losing their core audience sadly missed the mark. And this was bound to happen. Right now, there is no mechanism by which the communal buzz and heady atmosphere of a physical convention hall can be reproduced digitally. These events are dripping in a special sauce, one as unique as the fantastic range of unfamiliar foods, events, and games on offer.
Spiel Digital 2020 was one such experience which, despite the gravitas and industry experience of the hosts, didn’t capture my imagination and, from the post-event public dissection, I was not alone in my disappointment. By contrast, for me, UKGE made smart decisions in its design, content, and attendee interaction which worked well online because it didn’t try to be something it could never be. Similarly, the unassuming Awshux online 3 day convention was a delightfully fun and engaging mix of online gaming, live Twitch streaming, new release preview videos, interviews (“Quinns v Tom Vasel; Who is more wrong” being a particular highlight), and friendly banter. They were, for me, the little gaming engines that could.
Done well, I see a real opportunity for the board gaming industry to embrace digital conventions as a further way to increase accessibility for those for whom attending a convention in person would be an uncomfortable or impossible task. If 2020 has shown our gaming community anything, it is our endless enthusiasm to encourage each other and new members to interact however that may be achieved and to play games no matter what the circumstances. Indeed, I see no reason why digital conventions cannot run alongside more traditional events as a way of drawing together an even larger global audience who share the same love for our hobby, each element capitalising upon the strengths of its respective platform rather than trying to be something they aren’t.
Apps haven’t been forgotten either; the sheer number of board games which have and are being converted into apps on Android and Apple devices is overwhelming. And these are not just afterthoughts; the good ones (some tank, admittedly), very closely recreate the game play of the analogue originals and some, dare I say it, do it better? Woah, ok, ok, I take that back; they don’t. but what they can do is make some very expansive and expensive games available to us all. Not only that, they can strip away the set up and tear down which, if you are anything like me (poor things), means you often forgo a great game simply because the play to pack-up time ratio stinks. For these reasons, on numerous occasions, I have consciously chosen to buy certain apps which are the digital counterparts to the board games I already own and love simply because they are more convenient and no-less fun to play on my tablet or phone. Other times, I have bought apps knowing I could never afford (in money or table space) the real-deal.
Now, time spent on our hobby should always feel justified rather than an indulgence to be earned. But in these busy times, as I have mused in Top 3 Games for Busy Gamers, sometimes we just need something to scratch that game itch; a lunchtime round or two to get us through the morning rush, afternoon slump or even a diversion in a long and winding queue. And for that reason, Apps, for me even as an analogue-enamoured gamer, now form a permanent part of my gaming purview.
Another unexpected effect of the pandemic on many of us as gamers has been the proliferation of solo gaming, both digital and analogue. Again, this change could be seen as a negative response to the times we are currently facing; the forced introversion of previously and otherwise social players who, for reasons all things Coronavirus, are being prevented from enjoying multiplayer sessions. And I am sure that is true for some; those who feel they falling back on their last resort but least favourite way to play. For me, however, as a new gamer, I have experienced a strange and surprising effect on my confidence. Playing apps on a me v AI basis is familiar ground; when my husband or my son (5 year olds don’t get special dispensation in my house!) are bored of me pestering them to play, my previous go-to solution would be to grab my tablet or smart phone and duel it out with an artificially (but usually far more) intelligent algorithm.
Recently, however, I have been dipping a toe (ok, I admit it, I am up to my neck!) into the warm waters of analogue gaming on a solo basis; to the point that I am now heavily swayed when purchasing by a game that is engaging for one as well as at higher player count. I didn’t think I would be like this; why get all the bits out when it is only myself at the table? But, you know what? A reason I love board gaming is the tactile nature of it; holding the components, turning them over in my hand as I think about my next move, and again, for me, that cannot be replicated in digital form (yet!). On that basis, when time permits, I will happily play a tabletop game alone; not lonely, simply with my own thoughts and at my own pace.
And once again the industry seems to be realising that solo gaming is a big deal; not just a Coronavirus created fallback but a conscious choice and one which players will continue to enjoy after the restrictions are lifted. Cynical to say that their enthusiasm to slap a 1+ sticker on their boxes probably springs in a large part from the big profits extra sales translate, but I genuinely believe the designers are at the forefront, developing solo modes which are not simply an afterthought or a beat-you-own-score add-on in the rule book. Sophisticated automas and single-player challenges are springing up in new releases across the board and the solo chatter on Boardgamegeek is growing minute by minute. They (someone, though I never have determined who) say that necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case it seems to be not only true but a force for good; once again not only sustaining but expanding the reach of our hobby to gamers through the joy of solo-play.
I touched on pace briefly above and, as an anxious, analysis paralysis prone player, I often feel an overwhelming pressure to take my turn in a game for fear of boring my opponents senseless. Sometimes this can have a surprisingly confidence building gut-instinct effect. Other times, depending on which TORCON anxiety disordered threat level settles upon that particular day, can cause me to rush and miss something I could have done better and then spend hours post-morteming and berating myself.
At the moment, however, as well as solo-gaming which is enabling me to indulge each gloriously tangible turn with as much time as other commitments are graciously bestowing, I have been playing games in an asynchronous manner; not just via Boardgame Arena or on an app, but also tabletop games with no formal digital counterpart. Many digitally based games have this feature included already but, through the wonders of photographs, videos and social media, I have been playing analogue games with friends where a notification that it is my next turn is like a small present nestling in my inbox; a bit like prison with slightly better company ha ha!
Not only that but I have played games where the host has carried out a series of rounds in their own game and then invited friends to join in on each turn in their own time. Admittedly this works better with some formats than others (roll and writes/bingo style games being good examples) but I see no reason why any group which has members who own the same game could not try this with more games where one player can take control of the shared components. Would I have done this before lockdown? Probably not but now it is yet another facet of our hobby which has thrown its doors open wide and invited me inside.
Now, I could easily go on (“No! For the love of all things meeple!” I hear you cry) but I won’t. Instead, I will pause here to allow you to make a hasty virtual retreat. I will, however, leave you with this final thought; gaming in the time of Coronavirus has shown me that, through expanding our horizons and sphere of reference as to what an enjoyable and fulfilling board game experience is, our community is not only able to counter some of the negative effects the pandemic has cast over our hobby, but is giving us the skills, confidence, and desire to go forwards into a more accessible, diverse, colourful, and flexible gaming future.