Put your game face on: the joy of playing classic board games

Classic board games at The Ark in Dublin to mark Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered,

Children playing board games in The Ark, Eustace Street, D2. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Children playing board games in The Ark, Eustace Street, D2. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

 

A few months ago my nephew Stanley challenged me to a game of Connect Four. I let him win, of course; I don’t get to see Stanley very often because he lives in London, and besides, he’s just five years old. Stanley, however, started calling himself “the Connect Four champion” and generally celebrated his victory in such a triumphant and gloating fashion that, when he challenged me to a rematch, I decided to show him no mercy.

But he won anyway. And then he won again. And again. And again. It turned out that he really was the Connect Four champion and I was a 43-year-old woman who had been beaten in a game of strategy by a five-year-old. Repeatedly.

So when I was asked to play some classic board games at The Ark in Dublin to mark their fantastic new exhibition Game Plan: Board Games Rediscovered, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, this was an opportunity to prove that I could beat a child at a board game. On the other, I was being forced to confront the fact that I now really cared about beating a child at a board game. Also, what if they won?

Game Plan was organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Museum of Childhood in London. And it’s a reminder that adults and children have been enjoying – and squabbling over – board games for a very, very long time. The exhibition includes an ancient board used for playing Senet, a game that originated in Ancient Egypt more than 5,000 years ago, and traces the evolution of board games through Chess, Snakes and Ladders and Cluedo and on to 21st century hits such as Pandemic.

Game-related workshops will take place throughout the show’s run and the route through the exhibition is set up like a game itself, making it even more fun. At the end, visitors can answer questions to determine their “game face”. Are you a “gloating winner” (I’m looking at you, Stanley), a “sore loser”, a “goody two shoes”, a “cheater”, “distracted gamer” or even a “no gamer”?

Sometimes they’re thinking games that get you to think and sometimes they’re just luck games

When I arrive at the Ark, I’m introduced to Fionnán Ó’Baoighill from Dublin. Fionnán is 10 and enjoys “Draughts, Chess, Monopoly and Snakes and Ladders”. What appeals to him about board games as opposed to modern computer games? He likes the fact that you get to play with other people. “Sometimes they’re thinking games that get you to think and sometimes they’re just luck games.” Fionnán thinks “it’s fun to do things that aren’t computer games” and points out that board games are also a good option when “you’re not allowed more screen time. I like computer games too. But people in my class only play computer games.”

We are going to play Draughts, a game I haven’t played in at least 30 years, and was never really into as a child because it seemed like a more boring version of Chess (if you’re going to play a game with a plain chequered board, surely you’re going to go for the one that includes a horse than can jump over things?) Fionnán has to explain the rules to me. In fact, at one stage he kindly points out a move that I didn’t realise possible. And then he beats me.

Maybe I’ll have better luck playing a multiperson game? I meet 10-year-old Sean Cannon and Finn O’Donnaill. Sean likes Chess and Monopoly but he also doesn’t think board games are that popular these days – his friends at school just play Fortnite.

“I play board games loads at home,” says Finn, who’s partial to Chess, Monopoly, Scrabble, a mysterious game called Dobble and, impressively, Settlers of Catan and Risk. He’s even made his own amazing version of the ancient Viking game Hnefatafl. Along with Fionnán, we’re going to play Ludo, a game whose origins lie in the Indian game Pachisi, which is at least 500 years old. After a brief but friendly argument over who gets to be which colour, the battle commences. And once I tell the boys that I’m on a mission to defeat a child, they decide to set up a partnership against me.

Anna Carey playing board games with children in The Ark, Fionnán O’Baoighill, Sean Cannon and Finn O’Donaill, and (foreground) Amia Zheng, Freya Simpson and Amalia Godley. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Anna Carey playing board games with children in The Ark, Fionnán O’Baoighill, Sean Cannon and Finn O’Donaill, and (foreground) Amia Zheng, Freya Simpson and Amalia Godley. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

The game involves a lot of laughing and arguing, as all the best board game sessions do. The partnership, however, grows increasingly shaky. Sean sends one of Finn’s figures back to the start, and then Finn’s next roll of the dice allows him to move another figure just two places. “I’m getting out of this partnership very, very slowly,” says Finn. Sean, however, thinks they need to stick together. “We need to get her! We’re still a partnership!” says Sean.

Sadly for the partnership, and also for my hopes of defeating children, we’re still in the middle of the heated action when the boys’ parents turn up to collect them. Board games take longer to play than you think. The boys claim victory because collectively they managed to get more of their figures home than I did. I’m not so sure this counts, but I’m not going to start a fight with some friendly 10-year-olds (today, at least).

My next game is equally inconclusive. While the boys and were playing Ludo, 11-year-old Freya Simpson, 10-year-old Amia Zheng and 10-year-old Amalia Godley were playing Game of Life. Amia likes Connect Four and classic games like Snakes and Ladders while Amalia really likes Cluedo, Monopoly and Chess. They also think most kids prefer video games to board games but they really like the collective aspect of board games and the fact that you have to come up with strategies. Amia shows her strategic skills when she places her cube depicting a nought in the centre square when we begin a 3-D game of noughts and crosses, but although we play two games, neither of us manages to get three of our symbols in a row.

Like some of the children I met at the Ark, he particularly likes the fact that they involve playing with other people

I still need to feel the sweet satisfaction of triumphing over someone several decades younger than me, so I challenge my nephews Arlo and Eli to a game of Cluedo. Nine-year-old Arlo loves his Nintendo Switch but he likes board games too and, like some of the children I met at the Ark, he particularly likes the fact that they involve playing with other people. He points out that computer games sometimes have frustrating bits “where you’re confused and don’t know what to do. That doesn’t happen with board games.” Six-year-old Eli agrees that “other people make it more fun” and likes the fact that you get to move stuff around with your hands and play with them.

The game begins. Arlo puts on his favourite playlist to heighten the dramatic mood, starting with Back in Black by AC/DC. He has chosen to be Miss Scarlet “because that means I go first” and when summoned into the conservatory by Eli he cries, “I’m innocent, I tell you!” We’re all in it to win. As the playlist moves on to Kashmir by Led Zeppelin, Eli starts hopping up and down. His mother asks if he needs to go to the loo, but he declares that he’s just excited “cause I want to beat Anna”.

We’ll see about that, I think, and a few goes later I finally taste victory when I figure out it was Miss Scarlet (not so innocent after all, Arlo) with the lead piping in the conservatory. “All hail the Cluedo Queen!” I bellow, obnoxiously. Stanley didn’t lick it up off the stones. And he and I are not alone. At the end of the Game Plan exhibition, visitors can get a badge denoting their “game face”. I wanted to pick up suitable badges for me and my nephews. But alas, while most of the baskets were still well stocked that day, all the “gloating winner” badges were already taken.

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