Board Game Bulk

Someday, a device that fits in your pocket will be able to store all your music and all your favorite books, and allow you listen and read with ease. As my last entry makes clear, I look forward to that day, in no small part because it will allow me, in theory, to cut down on the sheer bulk of material possessions.

But whenever I contemplate the heady freedom of being able to stick all I own on my back and ride a motorcycle off into the sunset, there’s always one question that stops me short:

What about the board games?

There’s no denying that my taste in board games runs counter to my general proclivity for the portable and the unobtrusive. I adore my suitcase-sized backgammon board. I wish I owned one for Crokinole. I like games with lots of cool bits—preferably made of wood, not plastic. And though there are ubiquitous online places to play backgammon or chess, and even cool places to play German-style games, that just wouldn’t be the same.

Why is that the case for board games and not for books? Aren’t a game’s pieces simply a medium for transmitting the ruleset to the brain, just as book does with text? Yes, but there are at least three factors that make the physicality of a game particularly important:

1. Just as the main difficulty with an electronic format is readability with books, so too an electronic form of a game must try to match the “readability”—ease of both interaction and apprehension—that a physical structure provides. And that standard for games involves more complicated factors than proper screen size and font resolution. Having the actual game elements arranged before you engages both spatial and abstract reasoning. Physically moving pieces on a board cements what’s going on at a cognitive level.

2. Similarly, both the physical design of a book and a board game have an aesthetic component, but with a game’s many possible components and countless ways for them to interact, there are many more opportunities to achieve beauty of design.

3. Unlike reading, playing a board game has a social component; I hope it’s self-evident that whether the people you’re playing with are right there or not makes a big difference.

Of course, board games get played from a distance all the time. The ability to play online revolutionized backgammon by allowing competitive players to play around the clock if they wanted, but any serious player will tell you that while that’s great for practice, it’s no substitute for the real thing. So there’s no point in trying to scale down on the space those games take up; I might as well embrace the bulk and commit to a life of limited mobility. It’s not like there was really a choice in the first place, what with all the baby gear . . .

Incidentally, we’ve had a portable, flexible game-generating mechanism for centuries; it’s called a deck of cards. A love of bits and a bias toward complexity are what make me favor board games over card games; I get bored with Hearts rather quickly, though all-night sessions of poker or Skat are always welcome.