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Playing board games like music has brought joy back to the hobby

Keeping score.

Friends playing a board game while one person plays a musical instrument
Image credit: Dmytro/

There are two activities in my life that I hold very dear: playing music and playing board games. At first glance, the two don’t have a whole lot in common, but I’ve realised there are similarities between how I approach them in a group setting. In both cases, I find it crucial to understand the group I am engaging with and my place in it. When playing music, it’s about finding literal harmony. When playing games, there is also an element of finding harmony within the group to facilitate a good time. Realising this has led me to think about my own understanding of what it means for me to win.

When playing games, there is an element of finding harmony within the group to facilitate a good time.

I am not particularly competitive at this point in my life, but that has not always been the case. I have a history of being a sore loser and even used to try to sour the win for others when faced with defeat. I would later come to learn that I was equating my self-worth with my intelligence and I felt a need to feel like the smartest person in the room.

To me, board games became an arena in which my intelligence was pitted against the intelligence of my friends; losing meant they were smarter than me and, by extension, better than me. I had to come up with all kinds of excuses to make myself feel better if I lost so I didn’t feel terrible about myself. My opponents just got lucky, or I was trying a new, risky strategy - or I wasn’t really trying at all. It got to the point where I stopped playing games I enjoyed because I was too afraid to lose them. I thought people would think less of me if I wasn’t the best at board games. To keep my anger in check, I tried to forcibly change my taste in games so I could play ones I didn’t feel bad about losing.

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This was obviously an unsustainable and unhealthy method of coping, and it would only take a global pandemic and losing my job to start going to therapy and sorting through these issues. As I dug up past problems and regained my self-confidence, I began to start playing the strategic Eurogames I loved again.

None of us are concerned with proving ourselves, we are simply feeling and following.

Without fully realising it right away, I found that I enjoyed board games most when I approached them in the same way that I approached playing music with other people. When I improvise music with a group of people, we all come together with the same goal - and it isn’t necessarily to make great-sounding music. Ultimately, we’re all just trying to find a groove and have a good time.

Music is a language, a conversation, and like any conversation it requires a level of tact. Everyone is bringing their own perspective and ability to that conversation. My job as a part of that experience is to listen, find my place in it and find harmony with the rest of the group. None of us are concerned with proving ourselves, we are simply feeling and following. Sometimes I’ll take a long solo, sometimes I fade into the background to elevate what someone else is doing. It’s not about me; it’s about the group, the music and what we’re creating together.

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Similarly, I no longer approach gaming solely to win. This isn’t to placate my own insecurities, either. Rather, I see board games as akin to music in that everyone is coming to the same activity and making unspoken agreements and goals. My job is not necessarily to outperform the rest of the group, it’s to find harmony with it. If I’m playing with my most cutthroat friends, my goal is to defeat them utterly because they would be livid if they won and I didn’t give it my all. If I’m playing with people who aren’t concerned about who wins, I’m not either.

Sometimes it’s more nuanced than that, but whatever is going to make everyone have the most fun is what I’m there to do. I will always do my best and try to win because that is the object of a game, but that’s not the reason why I play. My primary goal is to facilitate a good time. I take it upon myself to pick up on what everyone is bringing to the table and harmonise.

I’m glad to have reached a place where I can get crushed at a game and still have a great time, but I’m even happier that I found a way for me to enjoy my favourite hobby in a way that makes me and everyone I play with have more fun. It seems obvious, but sometimes it’s easy to forget why we play. Music helped me remember.

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