There’s nothing better than the post-session buzz that follows an evening rolling d20s, checking character sheets, and solving puzzles with your friends or family. Everyone who plays board games innately understands the value of getting together for an evening of mystery, adventure, and dice-driven storytelling.
However, the psychology that underlies your favorite board games is worth exploring, too. Popular board games, like Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), Pathfinder, and Dwellings of Eldervale bring serious social and cognitive benefits to players.
Whether you’re role-playing a new character or working together to beat a group game like Pandemic, you’re almost certain to sharpen your critical thinking abilities, improve your social skills, and enhance your ability to work as part of a wider team.
If you’re an experienced board game player, you may not think of your time at the table as a “stress reliever”. Battling Shadow Dragons and spreading your influence in classic titles like Catan can be authentically stressful. You’ll spend weeks, months, or even years working through the game, and your heart will be pounding when you finally get a chance to throw down against Vecna or takedown Strahd.
But, while you’re stressing about dice rolls and character sheets, you aren’t thinking about life’s long-term challenges. You can’t think about bills or taxes when you’re halfway through a deadly encounter and you shouldn’t be worrying about work when it’s your turn to take an attack action in a game like Gloomhaven.
You don’t have to play a tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) to benefit from the stress relief of gaming with friends, either. Even jigsaw puzzles are stress-relievers, as you can easily get lost in a 1,000-piece puzzle for the entire evening. There’s something for everyone in the puzzle world too. You can tune out the world while putting together your favorite works of art, or you can get lost in a puzzle game like Nova Luna for several evenings in a row.
Playing a TTRPG with friends can help you shake off the chronic stress you are under and bond around a shared love for dragons, dwarves, and all things related to board games. However, most board games don’t allow you to sit in as a passive viewer. Instead, you have to get invested and start thinking critically if you want to “beat” the game or solve the puzzles.
The critical thinking inherent in board games makes them a great option for teachers who are looking to build engagement in their classrooms. Using games in classrooms is a great way to build intrigue and get student’s out of their comfort zone.
Students who roll dice together in games like Dungeons and Dragons have to consider the impact of their actions and can get to know the subject on a deeper level when exploring the materials through the prism of TTRPGs.
For example, an economics professor can build a campaign around the idea of building empires to explain macroeconomic factors like exchange rates, inflation, and economic output. Exploring these topics in an imaginary world makes them “real” and gives students a hands-on appreciation for the content they are learning. This improves their ability to use their knowledge to think critically while working with others.
Learning to Co-Op
For decades, the board game industry was dominated by classic, player vs player, titles like Scrabble, Chess, and Risk. While these board games are easy to understand, there’s a reason why they spend most of the year gathering dust until that one uncle who loves Monopoly comes to visit.
Co-operative board games, however, can fuel a weekly gaming group for years — if not decades. Understanding why, exactly, a gaming group keeps coming back to explore imaginary realms and battle with iconic villains is all but impossible. However, the answer may lie somewhere in the power of collaborative storytelling.
Games that facilitate cooperation allow you to practice your social skills in a low-stakes environment. There are no real-world consequences when your character rolls poorly or makes a mistake in an encounter with a “Big Bad Evil Guy” (BBEG). However, you do get a chance to play off one another and make it through the challenge together.
As a player in a TTRPG like Pathfinder, you also learn to platform other players and embolden their unique character arcs or personality traits. Game Masters (GMs) usually reward this kind of collaborative storytelling with “hero points” that give players a small boost the next time they want to push their luck or cheat death. This creates a positive feedback loop, in which you realize your goal is to have fun together, rather than “beat” each other.
Just getting up to speed with the rules and conventions of popular board games like Mice and Mystics will test your memory. Every board game comes with a learning curve, and it’s not uncommon to be reaching for the rule book every time a new scenario occurs in the game.
However, a game’s ruleset doesn’t have to be complicated in order to improve your memory and fight off cognitive decline. Even simple word games can improve your memory, as group games like Scrabble and Bananagrams have been shown to boost memory, cognitive function, and concentration.
Of course, you can cheat the system by taking the Keen Mind feat in DnD 5e. However, you’ll still have to push your memory while figuring out why, exactly, the town’s guard has gone missing while a dragon looms large in the surrounding mountains.
Many of the folks who come to board games lack confidence in the real world. Nerd culture is almost exclusively made by those of us who’d rather escape to fantastical fantasy realms rather than tackle the issues we face in the real world.
However, TTRPG board games like The Call of Cthulhu and the recently released Candela Obscura are designed to help you come out of your shell and build confidence in yourself. This may sound like a stretch, but Jane McGonigal, Ph.D. — game designer and Director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future — explains that games can build authentic confidence that will serve you well in IRL encounters, too.
McGonigal explains that games help “build confidence in your ability to get better.” In time, this improves your ability to deal “with systems that are frustrating” and adapt to the challenges presented to you.
Even classics like Clue can help you build confidence and practice social interactions in a safe space. You get to put on your detective hat, ignore the pressures of the real world, and work with your friends to find out “who done it”.
If you’re a little nervous about hosting a board game night, consider pairing it with an outdoor dinner party. An outdoor dinner party is the perfect venue for a one-shot game of Dread or Terraforming Mars, as people will at least leave with a full stomach even if they don’t enjoy the game. However, before you invite your family and friends over, prepare for an outdoor dinner party by:
- Informing Your Guests: No one wants to show up to a surprise board game night. Instead, tell your guests what you have planned and let them decide if it sounds like their idea of fun.
- Organizing Your Space: Use accessories, decor, and lighting to build the gaming atmosphere you want. For example, if you’re planning a one-shot campaign deep within the DnD Faerun, consider hanging some fairy lights to build the perfect ambiance.
- Using Disposable Dinnerware: You don’t want to spend the whole evening washing dishes and cleaning up. Instead, go for some themed, recyclable dinnerware to make the evening that much easier.
- Checking the Weather: Nothing will ruin a game of Mistfall like a sudden downpour. Minis will go missing, cards will be ruined, and your PCs will get drenched. Check the weather and install some temporary cover if you’re concerned about a storm rolling in.
A dinner party can be the perfect introduction to the world of board games. It takes some pressure off you, the GM, and helps you focus on the most important element of running a good game: ensuring that your players are having fun.
Have you ever spent an evening with a natural storyteller? The type of person that has a humorous anecdote for every occasion and seamlessly brings everyone into the fold? Well, believe it or not, storytelling is actually a social skill that can be learned with time and practice.
Running a TTRPG like Pathfinder, DnD, or Starfinder is a great way to hone your social abilities and learn the skills associated with storytelling. As a GM, you’ll quickly learn that the best way to tell a great story is to engage your players and the innate interests they have. If, for example, you have a player that wants to be a knight, then you should probably weave some form of knight-like challenge (e.g. Slay the dragon! Ride in the joust! Save the village!).
Connecting with your players through storytelling isn’t just a hallmark of good GMing — it’s powerful on a psychological level, too. Stories are collaborative and hinge on connection; when you challenge a character’s stereotypes and worldviews in the game, there’s a chance you’ll get through to the real person behind the PC, too. This can make us all better citizens and help your players rewire their brains to overcome unconscious biases and prejudices that they didn’t even know they had.
Board games can boost your social skills and help you destress after a busy day at work. Simple games, like chess, jigsaws, and Risk are perfect ways to engage your brain without having to stress about social encounters and real-world issues. You can even use TTRPG systems like DnD and Pathfinder to build your confidence, improve your critical thinking skills, and form friendships that last a lifetime.