If I could give you one fact about myself, it is that I love games. Video games, sports (i.e. games with running), role-playing games, but most of all, board games. I have been playing board games since I was old enough to not swallow the pieces. I just couldn’t play enough; my poor parents could only handle so much Monopoly with a five year old, so I often ended up playing games against myself, typically playing all 4 players (and so great was my adolescent skill, I always won.) As I got older, the games got more complicated and my competitors diverse. Like many modern board gamers, I’ve played ungodly amounts of Catan, Carcassonne, and Dominion. I now find myself most drawn to deeper strategy games, (e.g. Agricola, Through the Ages), with a general rule being that the length of the rulebook is directly proportional to the enjoyment I’ll get out of a game (provided I can find people willing/gullible enough with which to play).
I only began role-playing a few years ago, drawn to the tabletop by its preponderance of rule-books. A single role playing game offers hundreds (often thousands) of pages of game mechanics and interactions to learn and explore, all of which made me metaphorically salivate. However, I soon realized that there is greater disparity between understanding the mechanics and playing the game in role-playing games than there is in board games (i.e. a perfect understanding of the D&D mechanics will do nothing to bring a character to life). While I had much to learn, I realized that a lifetime of board games had prepared me for joining a role-playing group in several ways.
1. The capacity for make-believe. To fully enjoy any board game, a certain amount of imagination is needed. I’m not just pushing a tiny plastic tank and a bunch of gray chips across a board, I’m blitzkrieging into Russia in a war encompassing the entire world. I’m not just rolling some dice, I’m producing resources in support of my bid to control the continent. These aren’t just cards, they’re equipment, contacts, and programs used to hack a nefarious corporation. Without imagination, a board game becomes merely a banal collection of mechanics and rules, devoid of life and the spark that makes games inherently fun.
This need of imagination is even more necessary when role-playing. Players are given a whole slew of mechanics and are expected to use them to bring to life a rich, vivid world without even board or piece for reference. Of course, there are visual aids used in RPGs, such as miniatures, maps, or pictures, but the vast majority of role-playing is seen through the mind’s eye of each player. I was already used to playing make-believe with my many games, whether I was becoming a rich mogul, daring general, or a dastardly spy. While I was initially thrown by my lack of physical representation within the game, I was able to quickly bring the world to life in my mind thanks to an imagination well-seasoned by the board.
2. The development of good game etiquette. People often take being nice for granted, especially around a game table. Everyone knows someone with whom they refuse to play games, whether they be role-playing, video, sports, or board, due to that person’s poor behavior. Some throw a fi(s)t when they lose. Others become insufferable upon winning. Some will not stop cheating, even when caught red-handed (I’m looking at you, Steve). Regardless of which sort of negative behavior is exhibited, it saps the enjoyment of the other players.
In my years playing board games, I have played against each type of person and have even been that person myself. The best lessons are reciprocal. I learned not to be an arrogant, pompous bastard after winning when I was beaten by a pompous, arrogant bastard. I learned not to be a sore loser myself by defeating others who were. All of these experiences facilitated my development of good game etiquette. The idea is simple: don’t be a barbarian at the game table (even if you are one in the game). If you’re pissed at what happened in game, be pissed at yourself for the stupid decisions that led you there or the dice for their uncooperative behavior (and then melt them), not pissed at other players or the DM. Don’t cheat by rolling 20s when no one was watching or purposefully altering rules. These things make games less fun for everyone involved. These bad behaviors come out much faster in board than role-playing games due to their shorter nature and clear distinction between winner and loser(s), so play a few board games with your group if you want to discern players with good game etiquette from those with poor game etiquette.
3. The familiarity with rules and game mechanics. While not everyone may agree with this, the rules in a role-playing game are central to the experience; without rules, D&D would be a medieval Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book (not that I’m hating on Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, mind you. Anyone who did that would be certifiable). The rules and mechanics put the ‘game’ in role-playing game. The better each player understands the rules as they relate to their character, the more time can be spent playing the game and becoming a part of a legendary story (to see the opposite of this, watch a session of Shadowrun played by a group that’s never played before.)
With a love of board games comes an inevitable familiarity with rules. Whether, like me, you love rules and game mechanics to the point where you will read the instruction manuals for games you don’t even have or if you hate rule-books and just want to dig right into a game without having to spend time among dry pages, board game players all are experienced in playing by the rules. This does not mean merely know how many dice to roll or how much Boardwalk costs to purchase, but also being able to work with multiple game mechanics to achieve victory. Even the most complex of board games, with an incredible variety of mechanics and features, pales in comparison to the complexity of game mechanics in an average RPG. Many years spent figuring out how to best manipulate board game mechanics allowed me to move quickly past the early role-playing stages of figuring out how to play my character according the rules (e.g. how many dice do I roll to shoot my pistol) and onto more complex concepts, such as learning how to develop and portray a personality for my character (e.g. thinking like a mob hitman and learning a Russian accent).
4. The honing of tactical instincts. Every role-playing group is different. Some are lax on adherence to the rules with a greater focus on building a great story. Others place more emphasis on simulation and playing strictly by-the-book. Combat is an inherent part of both of these role-playing styles. Regardless of whether combat is played out in a tense simulation with miniatures on a grid or is told as a tale of grand strokes and spells (or, more than likely, a combination of simulation and narrative epic), good tactics will often be the difference between life and death, between heroic and sad, bloody mess .
Board games offer players the chance to hone their tactical skills across a wide variety of challenges. Admittedly, not every board game offers deep tactical challenge, i.e. you can’t lay an ambush for your opponents in Monopoly (though that might make me play the game again). However, even simple board games require decisions which affect the outcome of the game, e.g. whether or not to buy a particular property in Monopoly when your funds are low. These decisions can be boiled down to a benefit versus risk analysis by the player (often made without thinking in such terms). RPG combat requires the same type of decision-making as can be found in any board game, a risk-benefit analysis of what attacks/spells are most useful in each situation, which enemies to concentrate fire upon, when the tide of battle has turned, etc. I’m not saying that every board gamer is a born tactician or that veteran tacticians can’t be defeated by the simplest of enemies. However, a board game is a concise exercise in tactical decision making; many years spent playing board games is many years spent honing tactical instincts through practice in diverse scenarios.
While I’m sure not everyone who board gamed before they leveled up to role-playing has had the same experience as me, I hope many of you can relate. Happy gaming!
Jake is an avid board gamer, outdoorsman, and low level role-player who lives in College Station, Texas.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.