By Rob Lyon
I was stuck with my buddies for eight days in a leaky cabin on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island once. We had a stash of whisky, a bag of BC’s finest and a board game along to bide our time. And it was memorable.
One thing we dig about our sport is how it gets us in the flow. City lives, working lives, too much thinking day in and day out, and our soul begs for the juice. Finding it is finding our grove. Feeling confident on our line through a gnarly run. Being in the here and now as we glide over rolling Norpac swell. Feeling that flow is a big part of what we’re after on the water, just as that lingering glow is what we bring back to our everyday lives.
It is easy enough to find on the water. But stuck in our tents hiding out from wind, weather or whatever, flow is harder to come by. Not for me, because I always pack a killer board game in the boat. Board games and kayak tripping. What’s the connection? Flow, of course.
Enter Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Former head of Psychology at the University of Chicago, the dude wrote a book, entitled: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, wherein he puts forth: “The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”
That covers some of our favorite pastimes. From tupping to kayaking to, that’s right, board games. Flow is basically whatever gets your groove on, your game on, and is ultimately satisfying. ‘Flow’, then, would be the common denominator between the activities and sports we experience it in, and essentially the same phenomena we might find on the slope, the river or the gaming table. Board game flow being a more cerebral, less hormonal venue, is arguably the second most fun we can have sitting down (or maybe third). And particularly in a shelter in a storm at the edge of the world.
Csikszentmihalyi might not know a boat from a brassiere but he knows games: “Games are particularly likely to facilitate flow because they allow players to give themselves over to a logical system of rules and constraints, and to forget about all their other worldly concerns. Afterwards you say, ‘Wow, that was really great, I wish I could have more of this type of feeling.’”
What C calls flow, I think of as immersion—I have a game going in my tent alone in a storm way out somewhere and what I notice (or don’t, actually, until the spell is broken) is how I’m suddenly in the deep end of the pool. It’s easier, of course, to pack along a couple of paperbacks, and there’s some sweet kind of immersion with that too, but it’s like I want that bit of pro-active engagement that a game provides.
These are not your father’s board games. Trust me. They are clever, occasionally brilliant, game designs by small companies, often produced via shockingly successful crowdfunding (we’re talking millions per game). The results are often mind blowing.
Tip. Take game components out of the box and pack in protective baggies. I often designate a Pelicase as the game box. For the game referenced in the opening paragraph, I even laminated the cards.
Dungeon Dice: Light, but clicks. Hundreds of custom dice creating a quick, clever fantasy adventure. Has all the classic elements: potions and familiars, treasures and monsters, heroes, weaponry and ancient artifacts. Hundreds of cool looking dice. A sure kick in the dry pants. This one you could play underwater! Best with 3-4 Players. Potluckgames.com
Fire Team Zero: Tactical battles with occult Nazi nightmares in gritty, post-war Europe settings—what’s not to like? Exceptionally facile game play, decisions coming a mile a minute. Big immersion factor at the tactical level. FTZ is one of the smoothest and most dynamic co-ops I have ever played. Card play is dramatic and nuanced, making FTZ arguably the best of its genre. The map boards are drop-dead gorgeous. Rich story lines compel players to work through increasingly challenging scenarios. Talk about flow, this one will amp you right up! Best with 1-4 Players (excellent solo). Emergent-games.com
Hopolomachus: Origins: A hex-based, tactical board game set inside a gladiatorial arena in Ancient Rome. Players represent fabled city/civilizations—Xanadu, Eldorado or Atlantis—vying for a place in Rome’s prestigious arena games. High marks for studied, chess like play and tactile components (weighted poker style chips with a nifty heft and clack). Very high immersion index, absorbing play. The third and latest release in their gladiator line and the only game I have included that is classically PVP competitive, not cooperative. Game boards are colorful neoprene mats depicting different arenas. Chips roll up inside and travel like a chunky sausage. You could almost play this one underwater. Best with 1-2 Players. Chiptheorygames.com
Kingdom Death: Monster: Perhaps the pinnacle of board game immersion potential. If so, it is because of the originality, the deep developmental game curve, the attention to both concept and artistic detail. KD game to prominence as a miniature game company and when Adam Poots gave life to KD:M, his prodigal brainchild, it had magnum opus written all over it.
The game is exquisitely existential. You are a member of a small band of humans awakening in the lambent glow of a bed of lanterns. Danger quickly threatens and you must band together to establish a secure compound, to hunt and expand your colony. Time is marked in Lantern Years and the game is meant to be campaigned much like life is lived, over a significant period of time.
Billed as ‘17lbs of Nightmare Horror Gaming’, there is no denying the darkness here. And as the Steppenwolf cautioned, it is definitely ‘not for everybody’. But for you select madmen and women, you’re in for a treat, and arguably the gaming event of your life. The miniatures in this game alone are worth the price of admission. Good thing when the sticker reads $400.Kingdomdeath.com
Pandemic: Legacy: Long story short, you’ve never seen anything like it. Talk about flow. This should not be at the end of the list because it is the most complex, but because it is the most unique. What I would dub an existential game, one that only moves forward, like life, and designed to be one and done. The game is cooperative (again), as players work together to contain the spread of global plagues. Based on a conventional style game that was a massive success, entitled: Pandemic, players assume the role of disease fighting specialists.
The designer, Rob Daviau, tells us about the Legacy concept: “The design started with an attempt to make a game decision matter, to up the ante, to maybe make you sweat a bit before you do something . . . . There are no do overs in life. Some decisions just make you who you are . . . . Games, by nature, demand that the user create the experience. We wanted to push that boundary to have lasting effects. Now you really create the experience. This game is not art to be hung on a wall but a leather jacket to be worn around until it has its own unique story.”
And the blurb from the publisher: “During the campaign, new rules and components will be introduced. These will sometimes require you to permanently alter the components of the game; this includes writing on cards, ripping up cards, and placing permanent stickers on components.”
The game demonstrates an intriguing concept as a one off. It certainly sharpens player’s engagement with their experience and it challenges old paradigms about conserving resources, harkening back to the days of Crayolaing walls and running with scissors. It is not at all a short game, rather like KD:M, but meant to be campaigned through a number of sessions.
Any of the Pandemic titles or expansions provide thematic game play, but the Legacy version is in a league by itself. This is Davaiu’s second Legacy creation, the first being a redo of the classic board game Risk. A third Legacy title, Seafall, is currently in development. Daviau writes: “I wanted adventure. I wanted the open sea, unknown islands, maps, charts, lost tombs, and a sense that something big was just over the horizon. I wanted lost treasures and naval battles and a race back to port to win the day. I wanted a game that I could show to my 12 year-old self and know that he would fall in love with it.” Zmangames.com