Nate Owens loves board games. And fortunately for him, so does his son.
“Dad, I want to play a game.”
That’s a common phrase in our household. My wife and I shared a love of board games, and before we had kids we spent countless evenings playing Dominion, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride. When I get together with friends, it’s usually to sit around the table and connect over the tokens and cards of Cosmic Encounter or Nexus Ops.
But as those with children know, the first kid puts everything else on hold. We allowed each other some downtime away from the house one night per week. I still usually played games on my “night off,” but my wife frequently spent her night off doing crafty stuff, or sometimes going to bed early. It eventually became my hobby more than hers. It was a way for me to relax, which wasn’t the case for her. But my eldest son, now a chaotic three-and-a-half year-old, loves to play games. It’s the number one way he plays with daddy.
I know board game enthusiasts who set out to craft their children in their image, a little army of ever-present opponents who could be relied upon to drop everything for a game with dad. This was not my goal. When he was born, it was my hobby and mine alone, and I resolved to give him the chance to develop his own interests. He really didn’t stand a chance though. We held him while he was an infant as we rolled the dice. I punched out pieces and hashed out rules with him in the high chair. I shouldn’t be surprised that he gravitated towards the game shelf.
His absolute favorite games are the Dungeons & Dragons Adventure games, a series of three board games where players cooperate to defeat monsters and complete a scenario. The reason he loves these games is obvious: they have just about the coolest plastic pieces ever. Ranging from little dwarf warriors and skeletons to dragons that could double as a paperweight, they come in all sizes and colors. They also have the added benefit of being incredibly durable. They can smash into each other, drop onto kitchen linoleum, and be stepped on without sustaining damage (though the person who stepped on it will probably be in a lot of pain). I know this because I have seen him do all this and more to the trolls, elementals, wraiths, and all the rest of the bestiary in these games.
My son figured out what many people never will admit: board games are basically toys. Hobbyists have worked hard to get away from the idea of the game as something for children, but when the box is filled with plastic dragons and elves it’s hard to see it any other way. He plays the way I used to play with Ninja Turtles and G.I. Joe, as a narrative between the different characters. The giant dragon is the daddy, the little dragon is the baby, and they will go to visit their friend, the dragonborn wizard. Or maybe everyone just fights each other. Kobolds and beholders are natural enemies, as everyone knows.
The interesting thing is that I never did explain to him how to play, or the relationship between any of the pieces. The little fictions he creates, be they a bizarre version of “house” or a massive battle between enemies, are his own. He invites me to participate by giving me a role to play, but he sets the parameters. He doesn’t have the faintest idea of the actual rules, but he doesn’t need them. It’d be a shame to impose order on the stories he’s made.
Aside from the obvious conclusion that daddy’s games are toys, he’s also figured out that they are there for playing. Games can be a great way to increase intellect or force creative thinking, but in the end they are designed to enjoy. Obviously, this way of playing will stop being fun for him someday, and that’s appropriate. It’s certainly true that a battle of intellects or a nuanced strategy can be fun. There will be plenty of time for that later on. That’s why he has a couple of age-appropriate games like Candyland that are there to teach him about rules and the idea of taking turns. Even then, he clearly doesn’t care about that when he asks me to get him something off the shelf. As far as he’s concerned, the thinking is incidental.
I never assumed my child would be a little version of me, and he definitely is his own person. That makes it a small delight that he seeks to engage with me. It’s something he knows I enjoy, and he does it on his own terms. Of course as he gets old, he’ll get into all sorts of stupid stuff, some of them almost as silly as a grown man playing board games. He won’t want me to participate in those things, and I’m sure I’ll grieve that loss in that nostalgic way that older parents do. I have him here right now though, and he wants to play with me. I hope I have the good sense to accept.