by Stuart Urback
Why read reviews of games? Most of the reviews people read will not result in a game being purchased or played. In fact, most reviews exist within a sphere of the internet where people who read the reviews identify as gamers and read them to keep up to date with the latest news and opinions about the hobby.
I find myself asking this question because my grandmother passed away in January, ending the physical bond I shared with two of the closest people I had in my childhood. And as I reflected on what she meant in my life, the weekends I spent over with her and my grandfather playing checkers and eating grilled cheese. My grandparents were conservative down to their bones, both in their politics and their lifestyles (they re-used Ziploc bags). I was a touchy-feely kid who was dominated by my emotions (and pessimism). Games gave us a way to communicate and interact joyfully.
It feels ironic that while my relationship with my grandparents was defined by games I never found a way to describe my love of games in a way they could understand. I couldn’t communicate the feeling of being swept away on a gust of wind by the possibility and anticipation of a new idea or concept. The way I feel like I can feel the texture of a mechanic of a game or the fun that I have hearing an idea rattling around my brain. These delicate impractical things were hard to describe.
I still remember college when I tried grappling with the now tired concept of whether games are art or craft. It’s the type of discussion that feels fundamental to someone who loves games but alien to anyone from the outside looking in. In the face of reflecting on a person’s life that conflict can feel rather shallow. But I’m reminded about the book Cork Dork and how building expertise changes the way we experience our lives. And my experiences with games have deepened my appreciation of those experiences with my grandparents.
The debate between art and craft, especially in American society, is about the difference between whether something is authored and worthy of intensive consideration, or whether it was designed to solve a problem and searching for meaning within it isn’t worth the effort. This is a gross simplification, but for a long time, game designers were looking for recognition as being “art” because it would mean they’d made it in being worthy of higher consideration. If you google “Games Citizen Kane” or search for Roger Ebert’s article on whether games are art, you’ll get a sense here.
This discussion might seem entirely disconnected from trying to make sense of a group of lives 2 decades ago, but it isn’t. If you believe that games should be analyzed only as art, you might come to the conclusion that the grilled cheese sandwiches that my grandmother made were disconnected from the experience of the game or that because checkers “wasn’t saying anything” that there’s not much substance there to analyze. And if you see a game as a designed element it cheapens the experience. It was a way to pass the time with my grandfather. But checkers was both and neither of those things.
Checkers is a game played on an 8×8 grid, typically with red and black discs lined up in alternating squares on either end of the board. The goal of the game is to eliminate all the disks of opposing colors by jumping them. Each turn you either may make one more diagonally, or if there is a “jump” available, you must make it. If one of your pieces makes it to the other end (the opponent’s end) of the board it is “kinged” and may now move in either direction instead of only forward. This turns it into a powerhouse piece. The game continues until stalemate or one player eliminates all the pieces of the other player.
As a game, checkers feels pretty same-y each time you play. While there are plenty of different configurations to the board, the game itself doesn’t have much dynamism. Unlike in chess there aren’t interesting clusters or combinations of strategies that present themselves for a varied experience. I realized 2 things rather quickly: getting a King was great and the side spots just above your starting position were extra valuable because they could block off a lot of territory without risking their pieces and allow yours to advance. Checkers taught me that even obvious strategies can feel rewarding when they are expertly deployed.
When we talk about games, we spend a lot of time talking about clever design tweaks that a game makes to make us feel smart. Or design tricks that challenge us and lead us. We don't spend all that much time talking about the way that we act on games and change them, and how the value of some games is how easily they can be changed. We call things "game systems" when they can be built on top of, like how a 52 card deck is a "game system". But the deeper you go in game design the more you recognize that play is this vulnerable special place where humans are free to experiment with new ways of expressing themselves and becoming vulnerable. Bernie DeKoven, one of the members of the New Games Movement, talked about this concept of the Play Community. In his reading, the games we play kind of form a contract and a space (some people call this the magic circle) that allow us to engage with other people in ways we might not otherwise.
Checkers was neither art nor design for me, it was both. Games are design because they solve a specific problem, which is how do you get two specific people at a specific time to play together. Thinking in terms of a community of play, a game is a contract that binds people within a space under terms they find agreeable. Games are art because the experience as the result of that play is beautiful and meaningful. It’s the type of stuff that sticks with you. Checkers was the contract my grandfather and I shared together, and it was guaranteed by the grilled cheese.
Checkers was, to put it tritely, “a game that could be played and appreciated by a 10-year-old and an 80-year-old”. Neither had a college degree, at least one had little patience and the other had a memory who failed him. The games fit. Finding that degree of fit between two or more people is hard. It’s an accomplishment that is worth celebrating because when that fit works it sparks pure artistic magic that is rare in my view. Moments when, regardless of your past or future paths, a brief understanding and appreciation can be passed between you.
Checkers was special because it was simple enough for a 10-year-old (honestly I can’t remember the exact age) to learn while he was getting destroyed by his 80-year-old grandfather. It was also straightforward enough for that grandfather to continue to remember even though his memory failed him consistently and at strange times that would confuse the young boy when he would have to remind his grandfather how the rules worked. I don’t know, at that time, how many other games would have fit that need. Something like Chess or even Cribbage would have likely been too complex for the young boy to learn or have too many rules for the grandfather to remember. The grilled cheese solved the problem that the boy was hungry and wouldn’t stop eating. The Italian grandmother also wouldn’t stop feeding him. The 2 grilled cheese days were extra special.
My first play community was my grandparents. While my grandmother never played the games, the grilled cheese she made and the conversation she offered as a spectator became an important part of the experience. Those games of checkers, I think were what bridged the gap between an entirely emotional child and a pair of grandparents who had practiced being stern and unflinching, for whom emotional expression was something to withhold.
I know both of my grandparents were tough, demanding people, to put it gently. As a kid, you can occasionally catch the things that your parents let slip, that they still try to hide from you as you get older, to protect those perfect memories you formed. But it would be rather hard to corrupt those memories: I know many of my friends didn't have grandparents around at all, much-less ones that lived next door. But the games of checkers were gentle. The sternness might appear elsewhere, if I were being asked to complete a task. Playing checkers I might be gently chided, "Stuie you have to pay attention to the game", as I was distracted by the television sitting behind me.
And even though as a family we prided ourselves on doing things correctly, well, we didn’t play checkers with all the right rules a single time from what I can remember. We never used the rule where you had to jump an available piece. It didn’t make sense to us, so we didn’t use it. I think this is also some of the magic of games. We can reshape them to fulfill our needs without changing them conceptually. We were still playing checkers, just our own version on it.
The checkerboard told a story. It started life inside a red cardboard box. The box got opened and closed so much that it fell apart, so I started storing the pieces in a Ziploc baggy and carry over them and the board without protective casing. And then the board split because it had been opened and closed so many times, so we put striped packaging tape down the middle. And then a piece or two got lost, so they were replaced with my ever present legos. The way the pieces contain the memories of those experiences still inspires me.
Checkers was also my first real brush with mortality. Unlike other areas, like my parents ever-present concern about his health or his strokes (which given his survival rate for the first 2 decades I knew him created a very incorrect vision of what having a stroke meant), seeing him fail to remember something in checkers, or start to lose more often felt tangible and real. I could see he couldn’t do things he used to be able to previously do. The game made it tangible.
It seems weird to celebrate games for their ability to recognize our mortality, but that’s part of what art does. It can make an abstract concept like death tangible. I suspect this is part of what made me so enthralled by games as an intellectual pursuit. Checkers didn’t set out to focus on mortality, but it ended up giving me the space to consider it and to appreciate the connection I had at the moment.
I think that's why I equate two player games to a higher level of appreciation than games that play with three or more people. I equate them directly with love. Because communication that didn't come easily to me or my grandfather the movements of the pieces substituted. The games on the weekend felt intimate without being forced.
This is why games make such excellent design objects. They solve problems (connecting people) and they are craft objects designed to be manipulated and transformed to suit the needs of their environment. Matching games to people in the right way helps give our communities of play a starting point to leap off from, to change and shift, and the starting point is what defines whether that’s possible and where it might go. Checkers wasn’t special because it was old or because it was a perfect design. It was special because both of us could learn, understand, and enjoy it on terms we were comfortable with. A lot of the way I view games is defined in part by the simple act of setting down a checkerboard in front of my grandfather every weekend.
But we changed the games to be more to our liking. The subtle shifting of the rules of games is so banal that we take it for granted. Those small changes, the ones that the system of the game left open for us made it possible to connect the mental gaps between a young boy and his grandfather. Neither my grandmother nor my grandfather would have used the word, but we were a community centered around play, around the playing of games and around the watching of games (football in particular, sometimes baseball). And we shifted the games we played to meet our needs.
As his dementia took hold, the last few games with my grandfather were of Gin Rummy. Again we played the game with “incorrect” rules. By this point I would occasionally hold back or lose concentration to let him win or be competitive. It wasn’t so much for him as it was for me to tell myself a fiction that his memory wasn’t getting worse or failing. But by the time I reached high school the grilled cheese and the games discontinued. The relationship we had built was strong enough that it could survive without them.
Checkers is not a uniquely great game. Neither is Gin Rummy. And grilled cheese has little to do with an interesting narrative or mathematical mechanic. But these three things are inextricably linked to my emotions and connections to games. You see, for close to a decade of my life I spent at least a day of almost every weekend playing checkers (and then Gin Rummy) with my grandfather who lived next door while my Grandmother made me a grilled cheese sandwich.
In Play Anything, Ian Bogost talks about how what games are special at doing is inverting our expectations by pulling the background forward and pushing the foreground (the things we take for granted) to the back. The benefit here is to make special those things we don’t appreciate or too often take for granted. But with board games, the stuff being foregrounded isn’t the games, it’s the people we spend time with (and ourselves). And what makes each game special is the way it draws out certain elements of our experiences and our relationships to other people in interesting ways. The important thing here isn’t that Checkers or Grilled Cheese or Gin Rummy are special. What was special was the way that Checkers and Grilled Cheese solved a problem of connecting generations and emotions into something that became meaningful, and maybe even profound for my life.
Finding a game that connects a group of people is magic. It’s as simple and mundane as that. If movies are about capturing and storing the magic of a moment, and books are about building beautiful mental palaces, and music is about breathing an idea through a rhythm, games are a box of tinder that can spark a new moment of magic. The value in reviewing them is about helping people understand when and for whom each game might solve a problem and making it easier for more people to discover that magic.
The opinions in this post are expressly the views of the author and do not reflect the views of their employer(s) or any entities that they might otherwise be affiliated.