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Board games form human connections in a world that increasingly seeks to sever them

Check mates.
Two people playing chess in a park
Image: AP x 90/Unsplash

“Check. Mate.” Two words, the bane of my existence at the moment. This is the third time he’s beaten me and it’s my most unceremonious thrashing yet. I don’t like chess anyway, I lie to myself, confusing salve with salt and making the wound far worse.

“Well done lad, that was a good win,” I manage. “I reckon I’m going to head up to the roof for a bit, but I’ll catch you later on for sure.”

I’m in a hostel in Mumbai and the only reason we’re playing chess is because this person, a total stranger, saw me playing with one of my friends earlier that day. As soon as they went to a market down the road, this bona fide Grandmaster walked over and straight up hustled me. “I’m not very good, but I like to play,” he said, before proceeding to make an absolute show of me.

What’s especially remarkable about this is that we didn’t speak very much - primarily because we couldn’t speak very much. English wasn’t necessarily his forte, and all I’ve got besides is conversational - admittedly an exaggeration - Spanish. So we spoke with one another through chess, with the crux of the discussion roughly translating to: “Wow, you’re bad.”

In a world where all manner of political and corporate scoundrels attempt to erect barriers on a daily basis, it’s refreshing to see that board games have the ability to transcend them.

As I pick up my book, which I had bought that morning and was particularly keen to devour, the chess wizard across from me stands up too, smiling. I explain I’m going to grab a beer and he says he’ll do the same. It looks like I won’t be reading my book just yet, but that’s fine. We go up, crack a couple bottles and attempt to have a chat, which mostly consists of laughing at the fact that we can’t really understand one another.

I don’t notice at first, but more people have been arriving, armed with beer bottles and, in some cases, unread books. It’s at this point I realise that I’m surrounded by friendly and intriguing strangers because I’m bad at chess. But it doesn’t matter that I’m bad; what matters is that I know the rules. It seems chess is a universal language.

In a world where all manner of political and corporate scoundrels attempt to erect barriers on a daily basis, it’s refreshing to see that board games, especially simple ones, have the ability to transcend them. But it’s more than that. Board games are, at their core, a way to form meaningful connections with other people. If you were to attend two events, one a session of Catan and the other a belligerent debate about the optimal chemical formula for acrylic paint, I’d like to think I could guess which group you’d be inviting to the pub next weekend. (No hate to paint lovers - I, too, enjoy subjects that people don’t necessarily appreciate me bringing up in ordinary conversation. I have determined it is impossible to have a meaningful chat about the tragedy of Percy Bysshe Shelley only having tried his hand as a playwright twice while the football is on.)

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OK Play - also known as Cinco Linko - is a board game designed to be learned without language.

This phenomenon extends far beyond a personal story about chess and beer, and there’s much more to it than Murakami and Mumbai.

Aimee Hart, a writer from Birmingham, tells me that she was invited to a Dungeons & Dragons session hosted on Discord back in 2017.

“I'm based in the UK, while they’re scattered around the US and Canada,” Hart says. “We start at 10pm my time and I go to sleep at around 2am.

“I've been doing that for a long time and I don't regret it. Playing Dungeons & Dragons with these people has led to them becoming my friends. We plan trips together now - we're even meeting this November to play Dungeons & Dragons in our very own castle.”

Playing Dungeons & Dragons with people has led to them becoming my friends.

On top of this, some board games are specifically designed to eclipse linguistic differences completely. OK Play (also called Cinco Linko), for example, is simple enough to learn in a matter of seconds, but sufficiently engaging to captivate a group for hours. It doesn’t even matter whether or not you can properly greet each other - you implicitly understand that all you have to do to win is place five tiles of the same colour in a row. It’s as simple as Connect Four, except it emphatically connects four people.

It’s sometimes difficult to parse the horrible things that occur on a moment-to-moment basis in this great, big, scary world of ours. However, sometimes, with a bit of luck and a dash of gusto, you might find yourself quietly tucked away in the midst of a board game, laughing in a microcosmic bubble protected from the outside world. And after you leave, you’ll be able to take on that world with newfound hope, knowing in your heart of hearts that there are always good people to connect with. Perhaps they live next door, or a thousand light years away - you never know, there could be a D&D virtuoso hiding out on Wagg’s exoplanet. Maybe they’re just lost in the maelstrom of it all, but they exist. And whether or not you speak the same language is relatively unimportant, because board games are a conversation that anyone can have.