The Social Power of Board Games

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When I saw the headline on Gloria Liu’s recent article, I was immediately excited. Finally, someone else was admitting to disliking board games.

“Not being a game person nowadays can make one feel like an exception,” Liu writes. “Board games, which in 2021 were a $13.4 billion global market, are surging in popularity … Games are supposed to be fun. Not liking them feels like a statement that I don’t like to have fun.” But Liu (and myself, I might add) does like to have fun; it’s just the memorizing of complicated rules on the fly, and practicing them in public, that she does not enjoy. (Meanwhile, Liu and I both love “boisterous party games” that “stoke funny interactions, as in Cards Against Humanity, or the guessing game Fishbowl.”)

Liu spoke with researchers to find out what she might be missing about the benefits of games. She learned that playing them is particularly useful in getting to know new people, because the relationships form “backwards.” As one researcher put it:

You meet someone on the street—you get to know them slowly over time and see if you can trust them. But in a game, if you helped me kill this dragon, I immediately have some foundational level of trust.

But as Liu writes, other kinds of play—such as, for her, mountain biking with friends—can yield the same results. “The key, it seems, is to share experiences that simulate the variable conditions of life: joy and pain, disappointment and elation, uncertainty and achievement,” she explains.

Liu and I might be comforted to know that we can find activities that offer us these same benefits. But in today’s newsletter, we will give games their due. The stories that follow honor what we love about games, explore what we hate, and explain why they’ve become such a big part of human beings’ social identity.

On Games

Please Don’t Ask Me to Play Your Board Game

By Gloria Liu

Play can be a great shortcut to bonding. But I’d rather just have a conversation.

We Settled for Catan

By Ian Bogost

Klaus Teuber’s creation captured hearts, and wallets, because everyone could tolerate it.

Candy Land Was Invented for Polio Wards

By Alexander B. Joy

A schoolteacher created the popular board game for quarantined children.

Still Curious?

Other Diversions


In making my own case against board games, I tried to look back to my youth and recall the games I did enjoy. The one that comes to mind was the not-entirely-brilliant, but incredibly fun, Trouble. I can still hear the sound of the middle piece popping when pressed.

— Isabel