CULTURE VULTURE

Bored? Play board games

Fresh takes on the old-fashioned board game are antidotes to modern living

1 You wake up one morning to find your ancient home wireless network router has finally died. Family members scurry around, in various stages of Wi-Fi withdrawal. To your left, the nine-year-old is staring morosely at a blank computer screen. To your right, the six-year-old is jabbing angrily at an unresponsive iPad. Ahead, your wild-haired spouse is on the phone with customer service, trying to troubleshoot.

You are a human parent, with 100 experience points (XP) and +2 Initiative. What do you do? If you choose to brave it and go cold Wi-Fi turkey, throw a 10-sided die and add your Wisdom score (18). If the total is more than 23, go to section 11. If it is less than 23, go to section 13.

If entertaining bored kids for hours during the December school holidays seems a daunting prospect in a Wi-Fi-less home, go to 2.

2 You open the foldable table usually reserved for potluck gatherings and plonk some board games on it. The children are drawn to it like goblins to gold. "Let's have a tournament," you say. "Star Wars Monopoly versus Game Of Thrones."

For an entire afternoon, you and the nine-year-old take turns in alternate rounds of the Star Wars- themed planet-buying game and the HBO fantasy series-themed card strategy game. The kid wins both games. The tournament is declared a success. Then, the six-year-old plays a chess-Uno tournament with his father (result: 1 loss, 1 win).

You realise there is something tremendously satisfying about switching between two different games in a single sitting - like a train constantly having to switch tracks, zig-zagging along, travelling greater distances. Multitasking has never been more fun.

There is also something about watching the physical game pieces and cards unfolding in front of you. Soon, the potluck table is covered with character and location cards. The firstborn moves his card empire to the floor. It has growing dimensions that correspond to the territory conquered in one's head. Head space, strangely enough, also expands.

Buoyed by how well board games have worked in enchanting the masses, you decide to ... introduce them to Dungeons & Dragons, the 1980s gaming phenomenon that was a sure mark of geekdom. Go to section 3.

... heave a sigh at averting disaster and resolve to call customer service again tomorrow. Go to 11.

3 A new day dawns. You marshal the family to the potluck table again. They each role-play characters with a particular set of skills and vital statistics. The nine-year-old is a wizard, the six-year-old and his dad are hardy dwarf fighters. As Dungeon Master, you set the scene and play all the monsters.

You roll a 20-sided die to determine the success of your attack and then a six-sided one to determine the damage you inflict. With each roll verdict, the players scrub out the scribbled numbers on their character sheets and pencil in new stats. You mentally marvel at having got your kids to do mental sums willingly.

As Dungeon Master, you are God, sort of. You operate within the rules stated in the handbook, but make up the rest as you go. As referee-cum-judge, your decisions are final, even as you try to be fair: let's not attack the six-year-old too much until he gets the hang of the game; hold off from decimating the fledgling adventure party after they reach their bloodied values; calmly remind the nine-year-old not to be too bossy; call for an extended rest because your players need a water or toilet break or both/to rest their eyes/to go to sleep because it's way past bedtime.

No computer making randomised decisions can possibly replicate what you do. A million snap-decisions need to be made, with human empathy in the mix. Lo-fi luck may have something to do with it, but you prefer to think of it as not much. Dedication is needed. No computer will turn itself on - while having a shower hours after a game, for example - and yell: "Hey, did you perform a saving throw just now, after the dire rat bit you and infected you with Filth Disease?"

Take a short rest and perform a healing surge on yourself to restore some hit points. After that, continue to 4, to gather information.

4 You find yourself in a tavern. A buxom bar maid places a tankard of ale in front of you. A troubadour starts singing. His ballad lulls you into a comfortable state and your mind wanders. You think about the recent resurgence of board games in the world.

Sales of such games increased by 10 per cent in the United States last year and rose by 25 to 40 per cent in Britain from 2009 to 2013, according to a Guardian report last year, although digital games continue to out-sell analogue ones. The most popular toy to buy for Christmas, at least in the West, is one called Pie Face, a simple table-top game which works by smashing people in the face with whipped cream - an effect hard to achieve digitally.

Game inventors are also seeing boom times. A former Wall Street Banker-turned-finance professor has created a dragon-themed game for his kids. Dragonwood won an award and has sold more than 20,000 copies worldwide, becoming this season's board game success story. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms have spawned several board game phenomena, such as Cards Against Humanity (touted as "a party game for horrible people") and Ghostbusters: The Board Game.

Some observers noted that the digital age has made it easier for people to make, find and order board games, hence contributing to the resurgence. Others suggest that board games these days have more elegant mechanics and sophisticated premises, making them more attractive to adults. Perhaps, the acceptability of digital gaming, as well as the Internet's facilitating of geekdom in general, have helped to result in better game designs and greater demand for them.

Perhaps, too, the trend is a backlash against the unsociability of a wired society. With the short-term distractions of apps creating a world in which the eye contact of your dining companion or a date can no longer be taken for granted, board games seize us by the intellect and emotions, engaging us fully for the hour - or three - to properly play them.

There is the anticipation of set up, of moving miniatures across beautiful artwork on cardboard, of encounters and transactions with your fellow human beings, and of folding and keeping the game components carefully - treasuring them for years of lasting play. The tactile reality of these boxed sets makes it more likely that playing will become a tradition, as your children grow up, and their children, too. You think about a gaming culture in which reading (rule books, scenarios and moves) and maths (calculating die rolls, hit points and spoils) are emphasised, giving your mind a good workout in certain basic skills.

You think about the social abilities that are honed while interacting with other players: the honesty required in not cheating when nobody is looking; the conflict resolution required when someone accuses another of making a stupid move or stabbing his character in the back; the teamwork needed on cooperative quests.

That's not to say that these elements are not present in digital, multi-player games. It's only that they are never that immediate, that in-your-face, when you are interfacing with a screen.

You think about the catharsis that occurs when one plays a game: making moves that have an imaginative implication, but no effect on your already stress- loaded adult life. Slaying a monster and being chomped to bits by a dragon are things that are infinitely rewind-able, as opposed to having to decide on how to deal with the ever-worsening leak in your bathroom.

Enough of this nattering! Let's fight! Roll a 20-sided die and add your attack modifier. If you roll less than 18, go to 11. If you roll higher than 18, go to 12.

11 The children gnash their teeth and show their claws, you ignore them and they tear you apart. Or you just go insane. Go back to 1.

12 The tournament table stays up and you now spend free time with the family playing different board games. Fibre broadband is installed, Wi-Fi is restored and you occasionally surf the Internet for other game titles to play, such as Pandemic, in which players have to race to contain an outbreak of disease. You are probably not fitter, wiser or richer, but you are content.  

13 The children gnash their teeth and show their claws. A new router is hurriedly procured from the nearest merchant and order is restored. You look around and notice, for the first time, the zombies swiping devices in your living room. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2015, with the headline 'Bored? Play board games'. Print Edition | Subscribe