One of the many great things about tabletop games is their physicality. So many of us live large chunks of our existence at least partly lodged in a digital world. I’m not knocking it. At its best, that can be rich and wonderful and bursting with amazing things, but what it struggles to be is tactile.
This isn’t really something new. People started immersing themselves in intangible shared worlds the first time someone told a story, the first time someone pressed a stylus into soft clay and wrote out a myth. The ability to build those intangible places, to perform a kind of mental trick and let the physical world fade away as we shift ourselves into another kind of space is a particularly neat thing humans can do.
And yet, there’s something undeniably satisfying about stuff. Being able to pick something up, feel its weight and its texture, turn it round and enjoy the simple, solid three-dimensionality of it. To chuck it across the room if we want to. It’s why we make sculptures, it’s why we buy action figures, it’s why Kickstarter is full of board games packed to the gills with lovingly-crafted plastic miniatures.
Sooner or later you’re going to misinterpret something. Maybe it breaks the game. Maybe it makes no difference. Maybe it makes things better.
This special ability of things to inspire us is there from childhood. Maybe it’s innate; maybe it’s because we’re showered with toys from as soon as we can remember. When we’re small, we don’t just revel in the stuff that’s bought for us; we’re encouraged to make our own. To bridge the gap between burgeoning little imaginations and the physical world around us. If we’re lucky enough to have parents with the resources and inclinations, then our childhood free time is filled with PVA glue, cardboard doohickies and boxes of Lego bricks. Speaking personally, I don’t think a week went by when I wasn’t making something. Some of those somethings I even still have, and their faded, timeworn physicality still brings me joy.
When I got a bit older, I kind of forgot the appeal of stuff and the impulse to translate my imagination into shonky cardboard materiality. I left school and went off to uni. My course was big on books, not so hot on encouraging us to make and do. Regardless, my little student rooms were far too small to fill with plastic and cardboard creations. I entertained dreams of becoming an author, played video games and dabbled in digital art. My Lego gathered dust in the shed at home; I went years without feeling any desire to embark on a building project. I was studying archaeology; the importance of material objects was what I read about all day. You’d think I would have known better.
It took board games to reignite that spark.
I didn’t expect it, and it happened slowly at first, with the quiet satisfaction of sitting on the floor, popping out the punchboard on a new game. I didn’t have a table - and, anyway, the floor’s the best place for stuff like that. It just feels right, in the same way that I’ve never managed to adapt to building Lego from carefully-sorted pieces on a table rather than a big heap tipped out onto the carpet.
Popping out punchboard just feels good.
Rolling dice just feels good.
Moving little standees or miniatures just feels good.
You probably don’t need me to tell you this if you’re reading this.
It’s not just that they’re packed with pleasingly tactile stuff. Tabletop games are also inherently customisable. They’re not like video games, where the mechanics of the game play out according to a program, the same way every time (assuming the game’s working properly). On the tabletop, you have to learn the rules, get your head round the interactions. Sooner or later you’re going to misinterpret something. Maybe it breaks the game and you go rummaging back through the rulebook. Maybe it makes no difference. Maybe you never even notice. Maybe it makes things better. Nice one: you just invented your first house rule.
Now you can do them on purpose.
We all use house rules, don’t we? My friends and I fudge the rules with abandon in fantasy-adventure legacy board game Gloomhaven. We cheated our way merrily through Pandemic Legacy. Not too much, never too much. Just enough to keep it fun, to grease the wheels of an evening’s game. Tabletop games give you that power. You’re not at the mercy of some computer code insisting you replay the same bit of Sekiro for the hundredth time.
Then there’s the storytelling that comes from playing with friends. The emergent little details that spark into in-jokes and then just become accepted facts about the characters or worlds of the games you’re playing. Norman in horror board game Eldritch Horror is terminally shy and thinks he can speak to cats. Polly the Inox in Gloomhaven gets hangry. Pandemic Legacy’s medic McBain is such a hero he arrives in cities in a helicopter with big speakers strapped to the side, blasting out a theme tune he wrote for himself.
Legacy games and others with spaces to fill in details of your characters jump-start the inherent creativity of board games.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s something peculiar to me that finds their mix of physical stuff and structured social interaction so inspiring to creativity. But I don’t think so. You don’t have to look far online to find a myriad of ways people customise and elaborate their games. Forums like BoardGameGeek are full of it. There’s a whole cottage industry on Etsy and elsewhere of people and companies supplying snazzier components. The miniature wargaming world has thrived on the joys of painting and customisation for as long as it’s existed.
You don’t have to look far online to find a myriad of ways people customise and elaborate their games.
I didn’t know much about any of that when I first felt the urge to start making my own custom content. I can’t even remember where the idea came from, but I decided I wanted to make a total conversion of Eldritch Horror. Same game, but with a new map, new characters and rewritten cards that would shift the setting from interwar globetrotting to the ancient world. Like I said, I’m an archaeologist, and I was playing with a group of friends who also worked on ancient things. Anyway, Lovecraftian horror fits remarkably well into the Mediterranean Bronze Age.
It took me about six months to make Ancient Horror. I pressed those digital art skills into service to design a new board in Photoshop in the same style as the original, and new character standees. Nothing fancy - they’re just printed out on ordinary paper and glued to card. I did the cards the same way, but used an online custom playing card site to get them looking good. There’s only one copy, by the way, and it’s sitting on the shelf in my living room; I’m not trying to sell it, distribute the files or infringe anyone’s copyrights. I think we’ve played it twice. We had a good time on both occasions, but it’s not much for all the time and effort I put into it. I don’t mind. The fun of making it was its own reward.
There’s perhaps no branch of tabletop gaming more in love with the joys of stuff than the world of miniatures. A few years ago I got into Star Wars miniatures game X-Wing, without quite understanding what I was signing up for. Apart from a brief lunchtime Warhammer fad at school, I’d never really had much experience of miniatures gaming - I just really like spaceships. After picking up the core set and a couple of expansions, we didn’t quite have enough TIE Fighters for my wife and me to play evenly-matched games. Rather than buy another one, I decided to build one. It was a shoddy thing, in retrospect. I didn’t really have the tools, materials or experience to do anything better. But it opened the floodgates. I followed some online tutorials and stuck lava rocks on sticks to make custom asteroids. I mangled a Millennium Falcon model kit to make myself some wreckage from a destroyed ship.
I had a whale of a time.
Little by little, I accumulated tools and paints and know-how. I made the shuttle from Rogue One and was ready for a bigger project. I decided to make myself a little capital ship. You know the red cruiser that gets blown up at the start of The Phantom Menace? That’s quite a cool ship, and there’s good reference material available online. I decided to make that. Oh my, it was so much fun!
Tabletop games bridge the gap between the worlds in our heads and the physicality of stuff.
I learned to work with styrene and cannibalised the remaining parts of that Millennium Falcon kit to kit-bash some greebly detail. I painted it up nicely. I’ve never really even played with it, but just building it was an immensely enjoyable experience, and I like having it sit on my bookshelf. My house has well and truly fallen to the accumulation of stuff.
Last summer I decided to tackle a bigger project. The Rebel EF76 Nebulon-B escort frigate from The Empire Strikes Back is one of my all-time favourite spaceship designs. It’s so weird and so visually interesting. And it’s just on the edge of what’s more or less doable in X-Wing’s scale. I built one. With LED engine lights and removable hull panels to reveal damaged sections - the works. I have a very patient wife who let me colonise the kitchen table for a couple of months putting this thing together. It was more disruptive than you think; we were having a new kitchen put in at the time and the table was in the living room.
I finished the frigate. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than I dared hope. I’m immensely proud of it. Now it sits on my shelf, too. I haven’t worked out how to actually play it in game - I need to work out some gameplay mechanics and make some cards for it - but hopefully one day I will. Even if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. Making it was probably more fun than playing it would be anyway.
So here’s to tabletop games, for their ability to bridge the gap between the worlds in our heads and the physicality of stuff, for making it okay to play with toys and for their fantastic ability to inspire arts and crafts. Over the last five years or so, they’ve rekindled my interest in making things, taught me new skills and given me hours of pleasure tinkering, even when I wasn’t playing them. That’s a hell of a thing for a box of cardboard to be able to do.