Foreword: I wrote this for two main reasons. Firstly, because I want to thank Shut Up & Sit Down for what they have helped me achieve. They are directly responsible for opening the world of board games up to me and, by extension, have helped me hugely with my mental health. Secondly, this is for anyone who might read it and have a flicker of understanding for what I am getting at. You are not alone.
I have suicidal depression. It’s not a great opening line and it’s not something I enjoy talking about, but it is fairly important. It’s important here because this depression caused me, from the age of sixteen onward, to slowly curl in on myself until suddenly, without me noticing, I was at a point where the idea of leaving the house was enough to make me break down crying.
Unfortunately, more terrifying than this was the idea that something was wrong with me. So I did what people do about anything they don’t want to deal with; I ignored it. I found any excuse or reason I could to keep living a normal life. I kept going to university. I kept going to work. For years I did everything in my power to maintain an appearance of normality, even at the most absurd cost to myself.
Social events were the worst. They became a war time no-man’s land – full of chaos, noise and hidden triggers. But I was totally normal, obviously, so I kept going. Unthinkingly, I found ways to cope. I sat in the corner seat – so I could see everyone, and no one would be behind me. I always had my phone so I could fake a call and leave without warning, obligation fulfilled. For every conversation, a script. For every situation, a strategy.
This is a problem, because aside from the whole crippling depression thing I’m a highly sociable person. When I am on form I can guarantee I will be the centre of the room, spinning tales and cracking jokes and just connecting with everyone I can. Those moments are like a solar flare; the crackle of energy from one person to another, the sheer verve and life bouncing around the room, it’s always been the purest joy I know.
You can see how this might cause some conflict.
I’ve always enjoyed board games. I still have fond(ish) memories of playing Settlers of Catan with my family, or learning Mancala at school. At one time Monopoly was my favourite board game and I would crack it out at any occasion I could. I even found ways to make it a drinking game, or a truth-or-dare variant. Any way I could work it in, I would. Because although I didn’t accept it at the time, depression was already there. Social situations were still stressful for me, I just didn’t admit it. Likewise, although I didn’t know it, board games had been helping me cope with social situations for years. This kept going until, without me really noticing, I reached breaking point and most forms of social interaction were completely erased from my life.
There followed an extended period of overwhelming isolation. It took everything, everything I had to try and keep ‘being normal’ and in the process I lost so many things. But the most brutal thing that had slowly been taken from me was the ability to be happy. No, it’s more than that; I literally couldn’t think what happiness was. It became an unknown language – I knew what it was technically, I just didn’t know how to speak it. I could barely be in a room with other people. The idea of connecting with someone was laughable. I existed, and that was all.
Then one day, some time later, I heard about Twilight Imperium (3rd Edition). It was a board game. Apparently my brother had seen a video of some people playing it and thought it looked fun. Particularly entertaining, he said, was a player repeatedly insisting that their horribly beweaponed warships were simply there to spread high speed internet to the galaxy. A month later several people pooled together and bought it for my brother at Christmas. It had a ridiculously big box. It had countless tiny ships. It had an intimidatingly large deck of cards. It. Looked. Incredible. It was like some over the top toy, oozing theme and artwork and just begging you to fiddle about with its many, many components. So, inevitably, on boxing day myself, two family members and a nearby friend got together and the four of us sat down to play.
It was the worst introduction to a game you can imagine. It took all of the dullest and most confusing parts of a new game and compressed them into some eldritch cocktail which I was being forced to drink. Twilight Imperium is not a simple game even in a master’s hands, and my brother didn’t even know the basic rules. The explanation took over two hours as we paused, checked and re-checked every paragraph, backtracking time and time again in a rules-labyrinth from which we could not escape. To make matters worse my dad, the endless engineering pedant, kept asking about every permeation of every rule until, in order to not go totally berserk, I started singing Christmas carols in my head and making my ships dance. It was three hours before we even got the board set up. It was another hour and a half before we’d finished the first round. Half an hour later, it was dinner time and we had to stop playing and clear the table. I still tell this story to everyone I teach Twilight Imperium to, because those hours were like some board-game circle of hell, but magically, it was still the most fun I had had in years. Imagine how much more fun this game will be, I say.
That Christmas turned out to be a mental landmark. With my curiosity piqued, I starting looking around and found that there were so many board games out there that made Monopoly look like, well, Monopoly. I went and found the video my brother had watched, and it had me simultaneously fascinated and in stitches. It had been so long since I had been able to be interested in anything, let alone interested in something I felt I could do. So, I teamed up with a friend, and we co-bought a copy of Twilight Imperium. A few months later someone bought me Tales Of The Arabian Nights. Someone brought round the Battlestar Galactica board game. With every one of these games that I played, I found that they challenged and engaged me in new ways – be that bluffing, storytelling, diplomacy or pure logical strategy – every game held a different puzzle. And every single one gave me a way to smile. I could spend hours being a murderous madman in one, or spend an entire day plotting and counter-plotting over the most convoluted of machinations in another. I was interacting with people, and I wasn’t freaking out. I was arguing and laughing and bluffing against my friends, and it wasn’t overloading me. It might be hard to hammer home quite how strange this was for me, but I had been living for years in a life increasingly monochrome. Living a life where talking to someone for twenty minutes could mean I spent the rest of the day curled up, exhausted. These board games, these beautiful boxes of bits, gave me a way to have an afternoon with the colour turned on. They let me connect with my friends again. They gave me a way to be happy.
Board games give me something that nothing else does in the same way. They give freedom within a constructed framework; players have the social frisson provided to bounce off each other like carnival bumper-cars, while providing an overall framework to work in. Everyone is jockeying to achieve something – whether it be to become king, solve the puzzle or save the world. These objectives and rules bind the players together and form some kind of joyous arena. But if it’s an arena, it’s a 90’s style Gladiator gameshow where all the players and walls are dressed in brightly coloured padding. In your game you might be doing something as brutal as trying to murder another player’s character, but the game will always be making sure everyone is having fun, and making sure everyone is safe. Every rule is a safety net, letting you walk the tightrope without fear. To someone terrified and unable to deal with social situations, this intangible web of gameplay and rules can be an unbelievable gift.
In the last few months, I have taken a further step. Not far from where I live is a board-game cafe. I haven’t lived here long, and when I found out about it I took a deep breath and went along. It was good. It was really good in fact; the staff were helpful and kind, my friend was understanding of my nervousness, and all around me were groups of people all having a really good time. But really, that discovery of an outing turned out to not be the important part for me. More important was the fact that every Tuesday, they have an open-game night. Instead of booking a time and going with people you know, some tables are set aside and you can just turn up and play. With total strangers. For me, is the Everest of social situations. People I don’t know? All of this noise and ruckus? It’s like nails on a chalkboard 100 foot tall, towering over me. I still have days where I can’t go into town because the sheer number of people in the street scares me too much. But the comfort of board games, of the happiness they have given me in the last two years, and the precedent set by my first foray to the cafe was enough to make me give it a shot.
I am so glad I did.
For a start, everyone is nice. So nice. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from. If you’re there to play games and to have a nice time, then you’ll fit right in and everyone knows it. From the frivolous to the earthy to the socially awkward it doesn’t matter. People just want to play together, and that includes with you. There will certainly be a game there for you, among the crowded shelves. Not only that, but all these different people will have their own ideas of they want to play, exposing you to new and unexpected games in a way that isn’t pushy or repressive. Quite the opposite, it usually means that you can choose the kind of game to get involved with – that group is going to play a party-style bluffing game, while this one is thinking about a bulkier strategy-type game. There is a democracy at work here, bound under the simple rule of ‘let’s have a good time’. I have met some truly lovely people there, and had some incredible evenings. The location and staff help too, but the core of it is that these people come from their different lives, to play games and have fun.
It’s not always perfect. Such is the way of things that people will, sometimes, want to play a game that turns out to be utterly pants. Most recently I played Smash Up, a game so unbearably bad that I actively tried to lose the game just to end it, and still ended up winning. But even though there are games that I would never choose to play – and if they come up again I won’t play – these times don’t feel like a total loss. Because it is still a game. It has rules, it has a timeframe. In other words, it has all of those quasi-security measures that let me spread my social wings. So while I may not be enjoying the game, I can still talk to people. I can meet people, strangers, who lead such different lives, each one endlessly fascinating. And with the glue of these board games binding us together, I am free to talk as much or as little as I like. The single worst case scenario is the game isn’t my thing, and I still get to meet interesting people in a setting that makes me feel welcome and safe, and know that in a fairly short while I can switch games, or groups, or simply walk away.
I don’t go every week. It is loud and crowded and everything I have a hard time dealing with. But within this, there are those beautiful frameworks to give me a sense of stability. Board games have given me a way to interact again. A way to socialise, to connect, without crushing me under the weight of my own crazy brain. For a few hours, I can be that all-singing all-dancing person that lurks under the surface, and at the end of a game I can shake hands, give a cheery wave and walk away. Next week I won’t be letting anyone down if I don’t show up and if I do, well then I’ll be happy to be there. No pressure.
It’s hard to write a conclusion for something like this, because I’m not going to say that everyone should join a board game group. I will say it is worth thinking about, really thinking about. I never expected board games to be so important to me. I certainly never expected them to help me. And I can’t shake the feeling that it could end up helping someone else too. If it does, I hope I meet you. Maybe we can play something together.