Board games have long been a source of social activity and family entertainment. But my guest today makes the case that board games can be more than just a way to while away the time, and can also offer insights about relationships, decision making, and the changing currents of culture. His name is Jonathan Kay and he’s a co-author of the book Your Move: What Board Games Teach Us About Life. We begin our conversation discussing the board game renaissance that has taken place in the past twenty years and how today’s board games are much more nuanced, complex, and arguably more fun than the classic games you probably played as a kid. Jonathan and I then discuss how the evolution of the board game Life can give us insights into our culture’s changing ideas of virtue and how board games often reflect the attitudes of a given time. We then discuss what cooperative games like Pandemic tell us about how to handle overbearing people and how the game Dead of Winter highlights the way private interests often conflict with group interests. Jonathan then shares why Monopoly is such a divisive game and whether board games can teach resilience. At the end of the show, Jonathan gives his personal recommendations for board games to check out that are way better than the chutes and ladders type games you played growing up.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- The board game renaissance of the last couple decades and how they’re different from the games of the mid-20th century
- The surprising WWII legacy and response of modern board games
- How board games explore and inculcate a culture’s values
- Games and negotiating
- What the game Pandemic can teach us right now in the midst of a real pandemic
- What games teach us about group dynamics
- The rise of cooperative games
- Why does Monopoly cause such strong opinions? What are its inherent flaws?
- The real life lessons that board games can teach even adults
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- 5 Pencil and Paper Games
- 6 Card Games Every Man Should Know
- 9 Reasons Analog Games Are Awesome
- Ticket to Ride
- The Game of Life
- Uncle Wiggily
- Podcast: Haggling and Deal-Making Advice From an FBI Negotiator
- No Thanks
- AoM series on honor
- “No Single Player Can Win This Board Game”
- Dead of Winter
- Can’t Stop
Connect With Jonathan
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Board games have long been a source of social activity and family entertainment. But my guest today makes the case that board games can be more than just a way to while away the time, they can also offer insights about relationships, decision-making, and changing currents of culture. His name is Jonathan Kay, he’s the co-author of the book “Your Move: What Board Games Can Teach Us About Life.” We begin our conversation discussing the board game renaissance that has taken place in the past 20 years, and how today’s board games are much more nuanced, complex, and arguably more fun than the classic games you probably played as a kid.
Jonathan and I then discuss how the evolution of the board game Life can teach us insights to our culture’s changing the ideas of virtue, and how board games often reflect the attitudes of a given time. We then discuss what cooperative games like Pandemic tell us about how to handle overbearing people, and how the game Dead of Winter highlights the way private interests often conflict with group interests. Jonathan then shares why Monopoly is such a divisive game and whether board games can teach resilience. At the end of the show, Jonathan gives his personal recommendations for board games to check out that are way better than the Chutes and Ladders type games you played growing up. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/boardgames.
Jonathan Kay, welcome to the show.
Jonathan Kay: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: So you co-authored a book called “Your Move: What Board Games Teach Us About Life”. What was the impetus behind this book? Have you been a long time board gamer and you decided to bust this book out?
Jonathan Kay: I played a lot of games when I was in my teenage years, and then I had kids and work and stuff like that. And as my kids got older and I had a little bit more time, I came back to it. Which is not an uncommon pattern among gamers. A lot of the most passionate gamers I know were huge gamers in college and then didn’t touch them for like 20 years. And so sometimes you’ll go and at tournaments you’ll see 50-year-olds playing with 25-year-olds who’ve just picked it up. You often see that sort of generational lag. And as with many things that you come back to later in life, you become way more analytical and passionate about it, and you’re telling everybody about it. After every game I play, I’d sort of hold forth and talk about all these social implications of the game. And I realized that these games I was playing were inspiring me to write, in my head at least, miniature essays about what these games said about the human condition, and it was just a question of putting those down on paper.
Brett McKay: Well, I think games are a really great way to explore these different human elements or human issues, because if you think about it, if you take a step back, a lot of what we do in life is like a game. There are rules you have to follow in order for that thing to happen. Take a courtroom, for example. There are rules to that game that you have to follow in order for that trial to go as it’s supposed to go. And a game, like a board game, allows you to do that with low stakes.
Jonathan Kay: Yeah, it becomes like a testing ground for that sort of thing. And it’s also the case that the way the human brain works is, when we become goal-directed, the same kind of synapses fire off regardless of how trivial the goal is. So when people talk about making money, or taking care of their family, or really important goals, sometimes your brain is activated in the same way when you’re playing a game because you’ve convinced yourself that it’s really important to win this trivial game. And so you’re able to study yourself in these situations of stress and competition even though the stakes are either low or non-existent. It’s still this interesting psychological laboratory. And as we argue in the book, it’s also a laboratory for organizations, because some of the games we talk about are cooperative games where you’re all working together toward a goal. But that cooperation is sometimes nominal, as it is in many companies, or media organizations, or government agencies, stuff like that. So that’s the kind of thing we explore in the book.
Brett McKay: For a lot who are listening to this podcast who aren’t big gamers, when they think of board games they’d probably think of the old standbys: Clue, Monopoly, The Game of Life, Scrabble. But as you guys start off in the book, in probably the past 20 years, there’s been this quiet renaissance going on. It started in Europe, now it’s taken hold in North America, of board games coming out that are new, and they’re different, and they’re complex. So tell us about this board game renaissance. What kick-started it? How are these new games different from these old Milton Bradley standbys?
Jonathan Kay: The history of board games, to simplify it a little bit, is that until roughly the ’80s and ’90s, you had what people will remember, if they’re old enough like me, from their rec rooms, in the sub-culture it’s called Ameritrash. It’s kind of a derisive name, but it’s like games like Clue and Monopoly, Battleships, Stratego. And these are brightly colored pieces and they appeal to kids. And there weren’t even that many of them. In terms of the classics, you keep hearing the same couple of dozen names when people rhapsodize about the games they played in their youth. And then there was those, and then there was this completely other echelon of hyper-complex war games with names like PanzerBlitz and Arab-Israeli Wars and Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, which is really, very complex and highly militaristic games played out on these vast hexagonal boards. And so you had two ends of the spectrum. You had the Battleship end and then you had these hyper-complex games. And what you’re seeing now is sort of a fusion of the two. Something that’s fun, like the so-called Ameritrash, and something that’s also complex and strategic, like these old war games.
And as you alluded to, it was the Europeans largely in the ’80s and ’90s who fused the two into what is now called a Eurogame. So if anyone is familiar with Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride, those are examples of Eurogames. And I think it’s the second chapter, I argue that a lot of this is the legacy of World War II because Europeans were kind of… I’m generalizing here, but a lot of them were turned off by these hyper-militaristic, complicated games from the ’70s which were all about war. This wasn’t so long after the entire European continent was ravaged by World War II. And so they wanted that complexity. And instead, they created the genre of game that took that complexity but it’s all about building things. If you look at Settlers of Catan, which is now just called Catan, maybe listeners will know it’s about building settlements and cities. Or Ticket to Ride is about building railway lines. So this hobbyist Eurogame craze that I guess… Well, it’s not really a craze, it’s been about 20 years now or 25 years. It’s really based on building. It’s more aesthetically appealing. It’s oriented more toward adults. And it fuses some of the best features of the two extremes that we saw way back in the ’70s.
Brett McKay: And as you mentioned, it takes out a lot of the direct, aggressive competition. You’re still competing, but it’s not like risk, for example.
Jonathan Kay: Yeah. And if you look at Settlers of Catan… I keep going to that example because it’s accessible to people, a lot of people have maybe at least seen it played. And in Catan, there’s no way to destroy the other person’s settlement or city once it’s been constructed, at least not in the basic version of the game. The same thing with some of these other games I’ve mentioned. So you’re competing, but it’s an indirect form of competition. It’s basically who can grow the most, fastest. And in that way, it takes away some of the bitterness that you got from the old games. Like in Risk, you were actually destroying another person’s army and taking over their territories. And in Monopoly you were bankrupting people. And it’s actually surprising these games were so popular because, in some cases, they really did destroy friendships. People get mad when that happens. And that kind of dynamic doesn’t exist. People are still competitive in Eurogames, obviously, but you don’t have this metaphoric destruction of the enemy that you had in traditional games.
Brett McKay: I’ve heard of Catan, I’ve never played it. How long does a typical game last? Is it pretty long?
Jonathan Kay: A Catan game, a four-player game of Catan, if you’re an experienced player, and you don’t have that one person who takes forever for their turn and keeps offering really long shot deals to everybody else, I’d say you could play Catan in 90 minutes to two hours. But the trend, by the way, is towards shorter games. I’ve noticed in the last couple of years there’s more 45-minute and 60-minute games. I think producers realized that, especially for couples and maybe people who have kids and stuff like that, they might only have an hour or an hour and a half to play a game. They’re not gonna play a game that they’re not gonna be able to finish before bedtime.
Brett McKay: Alright, so these Eurogames, there’s sort of a passive competition, the whole thing is about enjoying it a little bit more. Then you also make this point too about how games can be used to explore a culture’s values that they have or they’re trying to inculcate. And you and your co-author use the example of Life, the Game of Life. Now, I’m sure everyone who’s listening to this, they’ve probably played Life at one point in their life. They got the cool board with the hills and you get the car, and you get a wife, and you get the… Well, the original game was called The Checkered Game of Life. And that game was made in the Victorian era in the 19th century, and it was actually trying to teach virtues and values. So tell us about The Checkered Game of Life, the original version, what it was trying to do, teach, and how did that change in the 20th century?
Jonathan Kay: Yeah, so it’s kind of interesting ’cause even in the construction of some of these early games, they didn’t like dice because dice was associated with gambling. But for some reason, you were allowed to create these things, I think they’re called teetotums, as like a spinner. So even though they have the same effect as dice, it’s basically a random number generator, for some reason that was considered acceptable, whereas dice were seen as sort of a gateway object to a life of sin. And I think it’s been retained in Life, they still have that spinner. The original version, it was more like a Snakes and Ladders type game and you would land on a square. It’s kind of horrifying ’cause the square would be “You suffer a disgrace, go back five squares.” Or, “You lose all your money.” It was really these moral pitfalls in life.
And the lesson was that it’s really easy to sin and to do wrong things in life and to suffer a bad end, and that you had to avoid all these things. It was about avoiding bad things, sort of a very Victorian mindset. And then in the modern era, it suddenly was all about making money. How much money can you get? What kind of job do you have? How many kids do you have? Almost like… This is decades ago, but sort of this very bright, Facebook-style image of what life is like, and very materialistic, and all the Victorian moralism was gone. So it does roughly track the evolution of the way society has thought of what the purpose of life is. It used to be… In a more religious era, it was avoiding sin. And now it’s more about materialism.
Brett McKay: You talk about those Snakes and Ladders type of games, those are basically games where you spin something, draw a card, spin dice, and then you move whatever it says.
Jonathan Kay: Roll and move.
Brett McKay: Roll and move, yeah. There’s really no skill to it whatsoever. It’s all just luck. And even that idea that life is just luck, that can subtly impart things to people who play those games.
Jonathan Kay: What’s interesting is there’s a philosophical argument about whether Snakes and Ladders is actually a game because it’s totally deterministic. There’s no free will. You don’t make decisions. You go forward or backward depending on the roll of the dice. Sometimes they call it Chutes and Ladders. So is that even a game? It’s just this random, deterministic adventure that you have no control of. And yet these games are, if you wanna call them games, are strangely popular. There’s another game called Unicorn Glitterluck, which is sort of a modern version of Snakes and Ladders but with a slightly more updated atmosphere. And I see people playing that all of the time. People like it. People don’t necessarily always want to make decisions or engage in any kind of strategy when they play a game. I think some people approach games almost like a TV show, they wanna see what happens, how it ends, even if they’re not actually making decisions about the game. So every game has its own sub-culture, and people come to different games with all sorts of different psychological expectations.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the Chutes and Ladders games, kids like them ’cause they’re easy. They drive me bonkers. We had this game that was big in our family for a bit. It’s called Uncle Wiggily. Have you heard about Uncle Wiggily?
Jonathan Kay: [chuckle] I don’t know that one.
Brett McKay: Okay, it’s hilarious. So what happened… Here’s the back story. We moved into our house, the previous owners left a whole bunch of board games, and one of them was this ’90s version of Uncle Wiggily. It’s about this rabbit who has rheumatism, and he’s trying to get to Doctor Possum to get some rheumatism ointment. And along the way, you meet these pitfalls and creatures. So we started playing it ’cause it was easy to play with our kids, so my wife and I started looking into the history of it, and apparently this thing started in the 1920s or 1910s.
Jonathan Kay: It sounds like it.
Brett McKay: So we tried to get earlier versions of it, and we got this 1950s version of it. And one of the interesting things we see in the 1950s version compared the 1980s is how it got dumbed down. The 1950… You draw these cards and there’d be these really complicated, poetic couplets. And then eventually by the ’80s, it was just, “Move five spaces.” And that’s it.
Jonathan Kay: Right. Yeah, the thing was dropped. Yeah. And actually, that was… I mean there was… As with many things, I think the ’60s, well, ’70s probably was a low point in some ways for board games, because half the games that were released then were just these terrible knock-offs on TV shows. So if you look in people’s attics there will be Happy Days: The Board Game, or Laverne and Shirley: The Board Game. These super terrible games that they just take some generic premise, like a roll and move premise, and apply some really thin pretense of TV show theme to it. And for many years that’s what making a game was. So at least in the Victorian era and in the early 20th century, they did invest some moralism into it. The moralism seems old-fashioned to us, but at least it was thematically interesting. Whereas, as you say, around the early Cold War decades, everything got dumbed down.
Brett McKay: I wonder with the Happy Days, you draw a card and the Fonz jumps a shark.
Jonathan Kay: It was everything. I remember when I was a kid we had Pink Panther: The Board Game.
Brett McKay: There’s probably a Ninja Turtles board game, there’s probably a He-Man board game.
Jonathan Kay: Yeah. No, it was like having a breakfast cereal. It was just part of the sponsorship thing. And some guy was probably given three weeks to create the game. And yeah, they were super crap, but that was all we had. We didn’t have Eurogames back then. And this was in a four-channel universe, so people played bad games ’cause there wasn’t that much to compete with it. One of the reasons games are better now is they’re competing against Netflix. And if you’re competing against Netflix, you gotta produce a better game.
Brett McKay: Alright, so there’s an example of how games can reflect a culture and how that’s changed over the years. You also devote a chapter to how games can be a way to explore negotiation. ‘Cause there’s this genre of Eurogames where that’s what do you do. You just negotiate. And the ones you talk about, I’ve never played these before but they sound really fun, one’s called Chinatown and the other one’s No Thanks! What can these games teach us about how we make decisions, particularly rational or irrational decisions?
Jonathan Kay: So that chapter, I wrote that chapter. And it’s one of the more technical chapters, because I get into something called the Ultimatum Game, which isn’t actually a recreational game. It’s something that’s used in social psychology to test whether people will cooperate with other people or whether they’ll be vindicative. It’s well-known in the social science literature. And I talk about how some of the social science implications of that are modeled in this game Chinatown. I describe Chinatown as… If you like the negotiation aspect of Monopoly, but you don’t like the dice rolling and randomness and stuff like that, Chinatown is fantastic ’cause the pace of the game is it basically just drives you straight toward negotiation. That’s what 90% of the game is.
And I related this anecdote involving my friend, where my friend gave me a deal, but then kind of went back on it and still offered me a bad version of the deal, but the bad version of the deal he was offering me was better than no deal at all. But I was mad at him because he changed the terms of it. And basically, I spited myself by saying no to the deal, even though I knew I would lose the game as a result. It was more important for me in that moment that he suffer. And he lost the game too, but it hurt both of us.
And I talk about, “What is the evolutionary psychological reason that people do that?” And what I conclude is like, ’cause it isn’t just that deal. I’m looking at how I’m seen by the community. This is very abstract of course, but it’s about evolutionary psychology. And if this guy can make me a sucker once, it might be worth the short-term pain of spiting myself on that one deal, so that the next 100 times people will realize that they shouldn’t shortchange me like that because I’m willing to spite myself to spite them. And so I talk about the evolutionary psychology behind that. And I think games like Chinatown and No Thanks! Which is another simpler game that I talk about, really do a good job of modeling that.
Brett McKay: So in the short term, it doesn’t make sense, but in the long-term, it could make sense to spite yourself.
Jonathan Kay: Yeah, and I guess the school yard version of that is the kid who’s willing to fight the bully even if he thinks he’ll lose, just because he doesn’t wanna be known as someone who can get rolled. That it’s worth it to get a bloody nose just so it sends a message like, “You’re not gonna get a free ride by trying to intimidate me.” You pay a short-term price as a reputation building tool, as a warning. But it only works with repeat players. If you’re just interacting with random strangers who you’ll never see again, these instincts unfortunately kick in, which is why people get into fist fights over parking spots and stuff like that. But even though it’s completely irrational in that context, it goes to the evolutionary wiring we have, which says that you can’t have a reputation of somebody who gets rolled over, you need to show people that you have some ability to fight back.
Brett McKay: Well, this is all about honor, that’s what honor is.
Jonathan Kay: Right.
Brett McKay: Having a reputation. That’s why people, whenever they got called to a duel you always said yes, ’cause you had to have that reputation that you wouldn’t get rolled.
Jonathan Kay: Yeah. Well, that’s true, I think that’s a related phenomenon. Honor codes, which people talk about honor societies and honor codes, they are often very elaborate extrapolations of the instinct I’m just describing, where honor becomes a kind of cult, and you do see that in many societies unfortunately. It can become a pathology if everybody’s just going around challenging each other to duels and stuff like that. But it has its origins in, as I argue, an evolutionary instinct that is not completely irrational, but like everything else in our brain, it can be taken to extremes.
Brett McKay: Are there honor cults in board games?
Jonathan Kay: Well, you do see people who get really upset and animated and they start fights. Those people tend to fall into two categories, they tend to be people who make their living playing board games. There are great chess players who are known to be really irascible and that’s because this is their livelihood, and so there’s a reason they take it so seriously. And then on the other extreme tends to be very new players who it’s their first time in the hobby, it’s not for them but they don’t realize it yet, and their personality isn’t right for it. So it tends to be people who are either lifelong professional gamers in some board game sub-culture or other, or people who are first-timers and don’t know the protocols of board games. It’s rarely the seasoned hobbyists, because those people usually know where the boundaries are in terms of behavior.
Brett McKay: Alright, so there’s a genre of board games, or there is a board game that deals with… It’s called Pandemic and we’re in the middle of a pandemic right now. What this game is, it’s a group dynamic game, it requires you to cooperate with other players for you to win this game. For those who aren’t familiar with it, can you describe Pandemic in sort of how it’s like other games like this? And what do you think it can teach people about group dynamics?
Jonathan Kay: Pandemic, one of the reasons it such a popular game is it was an early favorite in a genre that’s known as cooperative games. And a cooperative game, as distinct from a competitive game, is a game where you all have the same objective. You either win or you lose together. So in a typical competitive game, if I win you lose. In a cooperative game, we either win together or lose together. And the theme in Pandemic is that the world is being besieged by all these terrible plagues, and one person is a doctor and another person is a military officer and another person is some kinda global leader, and you have to cooperate in order to destroy the pandemic and save the world. And as I say, you either win together or lose together. I think one of the guys who might have been the creator of the game just wrote a piece for the New York Times about the implications of the game in the modern world because we are living in that kind of society now.
What we talk about in our chapter is how, cooperative games are fun, but there’s a common pitfall and it’s a common pitfall that applies to a lot of common projects in life, which is what is known… The term in board game is the alpha player problem. And the alpha player problem is where it’s nominally a cooperative game and it’s a team game and everyone’s contributing, but really what’s happening is that one person who’s more assertive, or more experienced, or thinks he’s more experienced and knowledgeable just tells everybody else what to do. And so he or she is the only person who has agency and everyone else is just following his or her orders. And that has become a common problem in some of these cooperative games.
Brett McKay: And you could also be a freeloader problem, you just have a guy that is not even doing anything and just lets everyone else do all the work.
Jonathan Kay: Yeah, you could have that. That typically happens when you have somebody who didn’t wanna play in the first place. I think in economics that problem is sometimes described as moral hazard. Or you also have… I guess, the inverse of it is tragedy of the commons. However, when people are playing board games, it’s unlike life in the sense that we don’t self-select into life. We’re born into this world and that’s it, it’s not our choice. Board games are a little bit different because everyone who’s playing a board game made the conscious decision to say, “I’m gonna play this game.” And typically, you don’t play a game with the intention of not doing anything. The more common problem in board-gaming is that you wanna play, but there’s some guy, and it’s usually a guy, is telling you what to do and you’re not getting a chance to play.
Brett McKay: So we probably see this in other group dynamics, where you wanna contribute but some guy or some person just sucks all the air out of the room and doesn’t let you…
Jonathan Kay: This happens all the time…
Brett McKay: All the time.
Jonathan Kay: In MBA programs and other university programs where it’s supposed to be a group project. And you show up on Monday and there’s five people, and it’s 20%, 20%, 20%, 20%, 20% contributions. And then by Tuesday, it’s more like 30%, 20%, 20%, 20%, 10%. And then by Friday, it’s like 60%, 40%, 0%, 0%, 0%. You just gradually, people start to get marginalized. In those cases, sometimes it is because they’re lazy, but often it’s just because there’s one or two people who take over the project. You see this all the time in life.
Brett McKay: So what’s the solution? What can gaming, Pandemic, teach us about overcoming that?
Jonathan Kay: Yeah. Well, this is why people have to buy the book. We describe how modern game designers get around this alpha player problem by taking away something from the alpha player. So one thing you can take away from the alpha player is time. So you have a game where’s there’s a time limit. You actually have like… You’re using your phone as a timer for each move, and everyone has to do different things, and the alpha player might only have 30 seconds to do his or her turn. They don’t have time to tell the other three players what they should be doing. Everyone is racing around trying to do their own thing. And this applies to organizations. If you have an organization where a boss is micromanaging everybody, one reason that could happen is ’cause the boss doesn’t have a lot of work to do and so micromanages everybody else. You give that boss more actual work to do and you find the micromanagement stops. Another thing you can do is take away trust, which sounds bad, which is bad in a real world setting, but in a game it makes it more fun. One game we describe is called Dead of Winter. My co-author loves that game and wrote a great chapter about it. And in Dead of Winter, it’s a zombie apocalypse game where you’re a survivor of a zombie apocalypse.
And you have this public objective, which is the cooperative objective where the group has to survive. But then each of you has this secret private objective, which often is at odds with the public objective. So there’s no alpha player because to be an alpha player you have to have all the information everybody else does. If they have their own agendas, you can’t tell them what to do. So it’s a really interesting solution to the alpha player problem, albeit a solution that’s horrifying in real life, because in real life you want everybody to have the same mission. But unfortunately, as in many organizations, there is a publicly professed universal objective, but then everybody has their own little secret agenda that they’re conniving at behind the scenes.
Brett McKay: Right. The chapter on Dead of Winter and the games where there’s cooperative plus a private personal goal, I was like, “That sounds awesome,” because I just love the… ‘Cause it sounds true to life. Like you just said, every organization has this stated public goal, but every person in that group, while they are working for that public goal, they each have their own thing going on that they’re privately trying to do. And I was like, “That’s like real life.”
Jonathan Kay: Yeah. And unfortunately, it is like real life. And one point we make in the chapter is that if you go to a bookstore, there’s lots of books about managing conflict. And that’s an important skill. But cooperative board games teach us that a lot of the dissatisfaction that people experience in organizations is not really the result of outwardly expressed conflict. Because they all have the same objective, which is make money, maintain the health of the organization, serve the customer, etcetera, etcetera. The real friction comes in these unstated, sometimes passively-aggressive disputes, where the common objective masks the fact that everyone has their own little private agendas. And sometimes the private agenda, it’s just about… It goes back to the alpha player problem, it’s that they feel isolated in their desires to try and pursue the public objective. They’re being marginalized ’cause someone is taking all their work because they don’t trust them to do a good job. So board games, especially this cooperative genre of board games, I feel gives a really nuanced view into the way a lot of us experience the somewhat unspoken stresses that occur within organizations, even when everybody has the same objective.
Brett McKay: Alright. So Dead of Winter was the name of that game.
Jonathan Kay: Dead of Winter. Yeah. Really good game.
Brett McKay: Dead of Winter. I’m gonna go buy that, that sounds awesome. We can’t have a podcast about board games and not talk about the board game that people either love or love to hate. That’s Monopoly. So, first talk about this. Why do you think this game causes such strident divisions amongst people and game players?
Jonathan Kay: Well, it’s a paradox because, as we argue, Monopoly would never be produced today. It breaks so many rules of good board game design that it’s a wonder that it’s so popular. And if it didn’t exist, and someone came to a game producer and said, “Hey, I’ve got this great idea for a game” it wouldn’t be produced because it has a lot of problems with it. The main problem with Monopoly, which you would never see with a modern Eurogame, is that people get eliminated from the game. So it might be a three-hour game, but one guy gets eliminated after an hour, and he just spends the next two hours being pissed off at his friends because…
Brett McKay: And watching someone play Monopoly.
Jonathan Kay: Yeah.
Brett McKay: Which is not fun.
Jonathan Kay: No, it’s horrible. Especially when you know you’ve been eliminated from that game. And so no matter how badly you do in Catan, you finish the game at exactly the same time as the guy who wins. And that’s true of all good, modern board game designs. So there’s a rule right there. The other problem with Monopoly is that it has the same problem as a lot of winner-take-all economies, in that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And there’s no mechanism for reversing that. So in Monopoly, in engineering we call this an unstable dynamical mechanism, but you have a situation where when you land on someone’s hotel not only do you have to give them your money, but you may have to mortgage your properties and sell off your own houses and hotels at 50% value, because that’s what the rules say. And so you’re not just making the other person richer, you’re compromising your own value to make money. And the analogy here is that if you lose out to a competitor in real life in your sector, you may have to sell your car. And when you sell your car, you can’t run your business. Or you lose your house, and then you’re homeless and your life goes down in a spiral. There’s no safety net.
And Monopoly is a game with no safety net, and there’s very few mechanism in the game that allow a person to get back into the game when they’re losing. Whereas modern games have that. In Catan, you have this thing called the robber, which sounds bad but I joke that it should be called the icon of social justice. Because the robber typically victimizes the player that’s winning ’cause the other three players will put it on that player’s most productive property. Whereas there’s very little of that in Monopoly. And the reason people stick money in free parking, which by the way is not in the rules, but it’s become the sort of folk rule that says, “Okay, we’ll have this big pot of money. It’ll be like a lottery.” The reason people do that is it allows people that are losing to get back in the game. It’s like people have created this folk solution to a problem in Monopoly, and we have collectively decided that this is how we’re gonna solve that problem. It’s still a terrible game and I don’t like it and I don’t recommend it, but it’s better maybe with the lottery in the middle than without it.
Brett McKay: Well, that’s something that you and your co-author talk about with some of these old standby games, that people have modified the rules to make them more palatable or make them more fun and engaging or just different. So Monopoly, yeah, there’s the free parking rule. I think in Life, you talk about people like they’re selling kids, which is terrible. You wouldn’t do that in real life, but it’s like, “Well, it’s something different, it adds some spice to the game, it makes it a little bit more fun.”
Jonathan Kay: Well, the reason people sell kids to each other is it’s such a great way of undermining the bright and shiny bourgeois normal-ness that the game exudes. [chuckle] It’s transgressive and people like being transgressive. By the way, Life… I don’t wanna be a gaming snob, but Life is not a game that serious gaming hobbyists play. If you’re playing Life, it’s typically because you’re out with your friends, you’re having a few drinks, or you’re playing with your kids, or something. It’s a fun game to screw around with. You would never find this customizing of rules on this casual basis done among serious chess players, for instance, or serious backgammon players or something like that, or even serious scrabble players. This is the sort of screwing around you see in very casual gaming subcultures.
Brett McKay: So with these games, what makes the game fun is that there is an element of failure to it. You can’t win all the time. And doing this for as long as you have, do you think your experience failing in board games, has it carried over to the rest of your life? Has it made… What I’m trying to say is, have board games been exercised for resiliency? Or do you think that there’s no cross over?
Jonathan Kay: I think resilience, it’s an important characteristic, especially when it comes to kids. It’s something I try and teach my kids. I think it’s something everyone is now trying to teach their kids. I think it depends on your personality, what you’re gonna get out of it. In my case, one huge thing is because of the way board game sub-culture works, among hobbyists there is this… It’s not required, but it happens a lot, where you play the game and then as you’re putting the pieces back in the box, you spend 10 minutes analyzing the game. And it’s sort of like, “Oh yeah, I thought I was gonna win but then you got control of this space, and then I realized that I had to take this risk and the risk didn’t go well.” And a lot of people hate that. When I play with… There are certain people I play with who are like, “John, the game’s over. Let’s talk about something else.” But there’s other people who… The discussion literally will sometimes go on almost as long as the game itself. And I’m that kind of person. I love the post-game analysis. That habit of mind has totally influenced the way I live.
It’s influenced the way I do my job, it’s influenced the way I parent. That if something doesn’t go right, I try and ask myself, say, “Hey, look, that wasn’t Snakes and Ladders I was playing, I made decisions in the game. What were the decisions I made that were good and what were the decisions that were bad?” And because I play a lot of board games and I’m in that habit, I now just do that in every aspect of my life. And it can be super annoying to others when you think out loud like, “Why did I get ripped off at that supermarket? Let’s look at these 17 reasons.” But it can also lead you to get lessons from stuff that formerly would have just caused you resentment and anger.
Brett McKay: It sounds like the games, they give you a mental model to think about your life or different situations in your life.
Jonathan Kay: Yeah. And by the way, that model is not always reassuring. If you lose a game because of bad luck that you couldn’t control, that can make you fatalistic if you apply that to the rest of life. Most of the time though, when you lose a game, like a strategy game, the kind of game that maybe we talk about more in the book, there’s a reason and it’s a reason that you had control of. Now, you can take that too far and turn that into a cult of self recriminations and say, “I made those four mistakes. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.”
But that’s not the way you wanna approach it. You wanna say, “Hey, look, I’m glad those mistakes came in this game. Games are fun. No one got hurt. And they’re designed to be low stakes.” My co-author has this metaphor that games are… They create this sort of circle. And if you stand in that circle, you can experiment and you can have fun and you can try new things. And you know it’s just a game, and you’re in this environment where you can try to be aggressive or passive or fooling people. You’re not bound by all the same rules that govern your personality outside of that circle. And if you’re smart or if you’re adventurous, you will use that experience to field-test ideas and strategies for dealing with life that you can then apply when the stakes are higher in real life.
Brett McKay: Alright, so a lot of people are stuck at home. Are there any games for people who wanna get started in this Eurogame genre? Any ones you recommend checking out that are easy to learn and fun to play?
Jonathan Kay: I generally start people off with shorter games because it’s kind of like everything else. It’s kinda like going to the gym; you don’t start people off with a three-hour work out, you might start them off with a 45-minute work out. And there’s a game called Splendor that I really like. It came out a few years ago. It’s not the greatest game in the world, but it’s fairly short. It’s like 45 minutes, and there’s a lot of… It doesn’t take up a lot of table space. You can play with two or three players. I think it’s best with four. It’s a good game in that respect. There’s a game called Can’t Stop, which has this very simple premise. It’s a dice game and it’s so much fun. It’s an under-played game. That game is usually over in half an hour. Can’t Stop is a really good one. It has some Euro trashy elements, it’s plastic and bright primary colors. So the aesthetics are like these games from the ’70s, like Battleship, but it’s a fun game and there’s more strategy in it than people think.
There’s a game called Azul, A-Z-U-L, which is in that 45-minute genre, and has a very tactile feel. It’s almost like playing with tiles and mosaics which click together in this fun way. A lot of people like the tactile element of the game. Sagrada is another game in that category. You’re making stain glass windows, very visual.
Brett McKay: Well Jonathan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Jonathan Kay: They can just Google the book, which is “Your Move”. My name is Jonathan Kay, and my co-author’s name is Joan Moriarity. And the book’s available on Amazon and all the usual places. My Twitter handle is J-O-N-K-A-Y. I don’t tweet that much about board games, but when people tweet at me for recommendations, I always, always make a point of responding to them. My DMs are open, and I love talking about board games.
Brett McKay: Well, Johnathan Kay, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Jonathan Kay: Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Jonathan Kay. He’s the co-author of the book, “Your Move”. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can also check out our show notes at aom.is/boardgames, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another addition to the AOM podcast. Check out our website, at artofmanliness.com, where you find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you would like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out to get a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.