In Sickness and Health, In Strategy and Luck

chess

This is definitely not my wife and I. We NEVER play chess.

On my first date with my wife, we went to a coffee shop. It was the usual chit-chat, just asking about interests and so forth. Since I had just started playing hobby games, I mentioned that I liked to play board games a lot. I assumed the conversation would end there, so I didn’t offer many details. But then she asked me if I’d heard of a game she enjoyed. She couldn’t recall the name, but it involved little wooden men and small tiles that you played together to create roads and cities that gave you points. She was talking about Carcassonne, a game that I had also recently discovered. It was a nice bit of common ground in that nervous world of the first date.

That makes it sound a little like board games brought us together, and I assure you this was not the case. I have plenty of good female friends who are fun to play games with, so if that was my only standard I wouldn’t have been so picky. But for a long time my wife and I did play a lot of games together. It was a standard way to spend an evening for a while. It continued after we got married, for at least a year or so. But then…we had that first kid.

When people say that children change everything, they mean it. In my experience, most of parenthood is learning how to adapt to the new normal, only to have “normal” change again. Now our evenings were occupied with a small helpless baby, and when that baby went to sleep it was hard to find time for games. Well, not hard for me. I still played whenever I could, usually with my friends. But my wife gradually grew less interested. For me, gaming was a relaxing thing, something that helped me unwind. For her, it was not a way to rest. It was an activity to do, something that was fun but that you don’t do all the time. To complicate the situation, our tastes drifted apart. I indulged my love of sci-fi and fantasy, and moved towards more complex games with wizards and whatever, while she stayed pretty firmly in the realm of light Euros and family games. Those realms intersect from time to time, but not nearly as often as they used to.

Gaming is, in some ways, a rather vulnerable activity. There’s a low-key intimacy to it, where you all agree to abide by a shared set of rules, and you trust the other people to behave properly. You learn a lot about people at the game table, and you reveal a lot about yourself. I find it difficult to game with a table of complete strangers for this very reason. I know how my friends will react to a game, but “mind if I join you” guy? Who knows what he’ll do? And on the surface, one’s spouse seems like the ideal gaming partner. After all, there’s ideally no one you know better.

But it’s rarely that simple, of course. Not every gamer gets paired up with another one. I know people whose spouses aren’t inclined to play Uno, much less any Euro game. I firmly believe that this isn’t really an issue, but some people are sure that it is. You can see the threads all over BGG, with titles that are all some variation on ‘What game should I get to play with my wife?” And everyone is eager to offer up their suggestions, like testimonies at church. “Lost Cities worked for me!”

I don’t care much for threads like this. Most of the posters tend to be men (since this is a male-dominated hobby), and the conversation usually goes the same direction it always does: Suggestions of light, non-confrontational games with cute components or themes. As sexism in nerdery goes, that’s a pretty mild form, but it’s there all the same. While there are plenty of women who enjoy games like this (my own wife, for one), I’ve known many who would rather play something more aggressive.

Another issue that I have is that it’s always a problem in a two-player situation when one person isn’t totally invested. If you’re buying games with someone else in mind, it’s a good way to end up with a lot of games that you don’t play. I’ve tried this a few times myself, and either I like the game and my wife merely tolerates it, or she likes it fine and I don’t care for it enough to ever suggest it. Either way results in a wasted purchase.

Most gamers harbor a belief that if you just found the right game, everyone is a gamer waiting to bloom. I don’t think this happens very often, but it doesn’t keep us from trying. Oh, most people like games well enough, but very few are going to be the types to get a BGG account and hang out at the game store into the wee hours. However, gaming means a lot to us, and we use it as a way to connect with others around us. It’s only natural to want to make that connection with one’s spouse.

But I’ve learned over the past couple of years that it’s less important than I thought it was. The truth is, my other friends play plenty of games with me as it is. She may not like it as much as I do, and that’s alright. She’s more than willing to play when it’s more than just the two of us anyway, so it’s not like we’re never at the same table together. And in a way, this difference between us is a relief. We don’t need to like all the same stuff. It’s more important to like the person than it is to like their hobbies. And as is always the case in marriage, you compromise. She will sometimes play things like Innovation or Dungeonquest with me, and I play Ticket to Ride and Dominion. We do it to spend time together, which is more important anyway.

And here we are again, less than a week away from the due date for our second baby. Our lives are about to shift once again, and we go back to sleepless nights and spit-up, with the added bonus of getting to take care of a two-year-old as well. Last night, it seemed appropriate to go to the game shelf and dust off our banged-up Carcassonne set. And before the world plunges into the chaos of a newborn baby, we spent an hour becoming reacquainted with each other over those stacks of tiles. There may not always be time for games, but there will always be time for each other.

I totally won too.

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6 thoughts on “In Sickness and Health, In Strategy and Luck

  1. You echoed some of my thoughts exactly. In the past, I tried persuading my wife into playing more board games with me as I thought, what could be more fun than spending the evening gaming with the one you love.

    If she’s not interested, she’s just not interested. I found a circle of friends to game with and stopped convincing her. Occasionally, she will play some games with me and I am more than happy with that.

  2. Congrats on the newborn coming so soon!!! How exciting!

    I really like your perspective on all of this Nate, including the bit about why a “may I join?” guy may not always join. (And that vulnerability topic is def. worth exploring more!)
    It helps to realize that some people are just not made for some games, and some games not for some people. And i’ve totally been doing the whole “what will this person like to play?” thing. Not with my girlfriend; she’s awesome about trying all sorts of stuff.

    We also played Carcassonne last night! And I also totally won. =)

    • “Mind If I Join You” guy was a phrase coined by Michael Barnes in an article he did in his Cracked LCD column, on how he doesn’t much care for open gaming at conventions and game stores. I like those settings fine, but “Mind If I Join You” guy is a pet peeve of mine, since it doesn’t really respect the unique chemistry that can go into making a game session worthwhile.

      • So what’s a remedy for that, Nate? How would you approach a game table to you were interested in joining?

      • I don’t know, because when a game is setting up with people I don’t know, I will almost always leave them be. That’s one thing that I found hard to adjust to at Geekway, the need to insert yourself in games played with strangers.

        I’m more likely to be the guy who is starting a new game over at another table.

  3. Ho, boy. Good luck. Having one child is like having a pet. You think your life changed after one? Having two is like having ten. I wish you well, especially in finding time to write this blog.

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