Whether you’re stuck in a tent waiting out a storm or just kicking back on a layover day, immersive board and card games are a great way to stay in the flow when you’re not on the water. Rob Lyon has these recommendations.
Imagine four antsy sea kayakers stuck for a week in a leaky cabin at the tip of Vancouver Island. A storm rages outside the cracked and missing windows and a board game is spread on a makeshift table.
“Your turn, man,” I say, for perhaps the fifth time that night.
“Oh . . .”
“Dude,” I say to Mikey. “You gotta tell him it’s his turn when you’re finished with yours.”
“Game could go on all night with each of us thinking it’s the other guy’s turn.”
Colin says, “But all night is exactly what we’ve got.”
We all laughed at this, but Colin had put truth to fact.
In the field a couple of weeks already, we were taking the scenic route to a wedding well down coast. Launching at Port Hardy in early August, we’d squeaked around Cape Scott in front of the biggest storm of the last several years and found a bolt-hole in a cove at the mouth of Hansen Lagoon.
It was easy to complain about our rat-infested shamble of a home, but it was a Godsend, really. Most of the roof was intact, some of the windows and doors were still working, and after spending the first night in the sanctity of our tents on the beach out front—and getting rousted by monsoon rains that turned our beach into a tail water—we put on our dry suits and spent the next day patching up the hut as best we could.
Outside the rain-lashed windows we watched forty-foot seas thunder past. With little relief in sight, all we could do was bide our time. We went out and fished in the relatively calmer waters of the cove until it blew out. We caught Dungeness crab in the narrow channel leading inland until an epic storm surge swept our trap to God knew where. And we gathered gooseneck barnacles from the rocks as a last resort.
I mentioned a wedding. That would be a couple of good friends of ours with a similar passion for the wild coast. Irene Skyriver had soloed the inside passage a few years earlier, and her hubby to be, Gregg Blomberg, had been making annual pilgrimages out here for well over thirty years (and led the first winter ascent of Mount Mckinley). We figured they’d be at the post-union celebrating with more of our island friends for the better part of a month, and we were hoping to synch up with them if it worked out.
Back in the cabin, we had more than our share of diversions to keep us entertained and engaged as we waited out the storm. We had a Martin Backpacker guitar and mandolin along. We had some of BC’s finest and Scotland’s finest. We had a fine traveling library, and Cedar had a set of wood carving tools along. And, being a guy who likes board games, I’d brought one along for just such an occasion.
Little understood, and oft relegated to kids on a rainy day, or just considered a good way to kill time, a quality board game played among engaging friends can be a hell of a lot more than that. It can also become a good example of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, former head of Psychology at the University of Chicago, acclaimed for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, calls flow.
Now, flow is good stuff. Finding flow is finding your groove, being completely immersed in something challenging and satisfying. Csíkszentmihályi defined flow in his 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, as “…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.”
If that doesn’t describe a gnarly whitewater run or challenging open-water paddle, or, hey—a killer game—I don’t know tits from tats. Flow is basically whatever gets your groove on, your game on, and is ultimately satisfying. It’s the common denominator between the activities and sports we love, whether on the slope, on the river or at the gaming table. Board game flow, albeit a more cerebral, less visceral variety, is 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.
Again, according to C’:
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.
Funny how as humans we need an activity to trigger that state, but hey, that’s a function of our current state of mind. Self-consciousness, that would be. Could we inhabit that simpler state, like the cows and bees, or a more evolved one, like the yogis and masters, we’d be in a constant state of flow. But until our next evolutionary step, we’re dependent upon a select few things to trigger it.
What C’ calls flow, I call immersion—I have a game going in my tent alone in a storm way out somewhere and feeling about as snug as a bug—and what I notice is that 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 sometimes I want a little more pro-active energy with the experience I’m immersed in, and a good board game provides me that.
Board games provide awesome contingency for being weathered in, an all too common vagary on the open ocean. So while your flow may be on hold due to weather, you can keep the pilot lit around a board game or card game.
Be apprised, the gaming scene is not what it used to be, at least not underground, it isn’t. While our fathers’ board games (Monopoly, for example) still top the sales list every year, a nearly critical mass of extraordinary gaming material is circulating in avante garde circles. I say ‘critical mass’ because it is boggling to think that our mainstream brethren have not yet caught wind of this. Either we are awaiting that 100th monkey to take notice of the situation or the monkeys could care less. For everyone else it’s a windfall.
Designers globally have gotten on board in the last couple of decades. Europe tipped it off and lit a fire under U.S. designers. The result is a tsunami of games representing every imaginable subject, theme and play style—from the easygoing, award-winning strategy game Settlers of Catan (which we played in the cabin that week) to the dark fantasy world of Lords of Waterdeep. The fact that you won’t find them at Wal-Mart or Target (not so much, at least) should not discourage you. Hobby shops and a number of online board game retailers make them readily available. (I’ve included a list of some of my favorite board games below.)
Intuitively, game designers know what it takes to create the flow that Csíkszentmihályi coined. If it’s too clunky or thinky or non-intuitive, the mystique falls apart and flow is a no-show.
Along with the board game explosion are a myriad dice games, miniature games and perhaps most popular of all—card games. Like board games, card games deliver immersive flow, often with a lighter footprint and faster pace, making them easy choices for packing in kayaks and playing in tents. We’re not talking crazy eights and rummy here, but deck building designs like Magic:The Gathering, and Dominion (Rio Grande Games) with tons of expansions. Pick a theme or a literary or screen event, and there is a game built around it.
There are stand alone card games, collectible card games (CCG) and living card games (LCG). While the first appeals more to the casual gamer, and the collectible format creates a hobby unto its own, the living card game is a good fit for enthusiastic players who look forward to the new card packets (like an IV drip) that come available each month or so. (Again, I’ve listed a few of my favorites below.)
It’s an extraordinary time to be a gamer and frankly, the biggest problem these days is deciding which game to put in the boat.
Speaking of which, board games come in cardboard boxes. When you take one on the water, take the contents out of the box and put them in Ziplocs. I use a hard case for boards and components, but if you’re careful you can make do with soft luggage.
We left the cabin, finally, on day eight and made it down to the tip of the Brooks in a week, then got slammed by another storm. There is a tiny, hard-to-find cove near the tip which stages beautifully for paddling around the cape. We were stuck there, a stone’s throw from Solander Island; meanwhile, six miles as the raven flies across the rugged backbone of the Cape, the wedding party was in high gear.
Colin and Mike both had girlfriends waiting for them at the party, and it was as if they caught wind of their sweetie’s pheromones wafting over the ridge on the raging sou’easterlies, because on the morning of day two in the cove, Cedar and I woke up to find those two intrepid bucks geared up and ready to traverse the cape on foot!
They would have to hike back and retrieve their boats, of course, but there was no stopping them! We wished them luck.
In the sail plan we’d left with our friends, I indicated that we would try and touch in as we approached the Brooks. As it turned out, we couldn’t reach them with our VHFs with the big cape between us. My thought had been to hail a boat heading south and have them relay a message to our people on the south side, but we had no luck with that. Sail plans for coastal ocean kayak trekking are notoriously dicey, and sometimes I think it’s better to leave none at all. We had tried to impress that fact upon our buddies at the wedding. But one of them called the Canadian Coast Guard that afternoon to see if they’d heard anything, and the coasties took the ball and ran.
It was late, dark, raining like hell, and we’d been pushing hard for a week straight. Cedar and I were holed up in our tents, about to crash. But before switching off the headlamp, I decided to catch the 10:00 weather update from Environment Canada. When I turned on my radio, I heard the Pan Pan preamble announcing an urgent statement for mariners: “Four kayakers overdue on west coast. They left Port Hardy August 4th and have not been seen since. Rob Lyon, age 50, 5’ 8”, 150 lbs, grey beard . . .” and so on, listing the four of us and our bonafides. It was weird hearing that. I leaned out the door and shouted out through the rain to Cedar to check the weather forecast. I tried to reach the coast guard, but no dice from our pocket cove. Figuring Mikey and Colin would call off the calvary with an update when they reached the party, I gave up and fell asleep.
Mikey and Colin made it to the wedding after a twelve hour ordeal, much worse for the wear, walking up in pitch dark to a blazing bonfire on the beach on the other side of the cape about midnight, shocking everyone. Meanwhile, Colin and I, with no fertile girlfriends, wisely bided our time.
Two days later we busted out through some honking shore break and made it down to Amos Creek, where we surfed ashore to wait out the uber-nastiness off Clerke Point. When we busted back out an hour later, I heard a squawk on the radio clipped to my chest:
“Dude,” the voice said, “right behind you!”
I turned around to look, and there was Mikey standing on a big rock with Cedar right beside him, right where we’d just launched! Not wanting to redo the surf thing again just to chat, we waved and said our final adieus over the radio. Impressively, they showed up at the party the next day.
Those pheromones again.
Here’s a taste of some popular board games circulating currently, ranging in complexity from beer & pretzel to brain burner:
Carcassonne (Z-Man Games)
Carcassonne is a tile laying game, where you draw tiles at random from a bag and place them to best advantage on a board that is gradually built up by all players. A Euro design, the artwork is appealing and the game flow steady. A kid’s version is just out that makes a nice bridging experience between parents and children.
Settlers of Catan (Mayfair)
This mega award-winning strategy game is the game we played in the cabin that week (and which I may have hit the wall with as a result). Players are developing and expanding their foothold on the island of Catan. Lots of easy going fun with strategic bite. Has several expansions, including Seafarers, which can feel especially nautical (our fave that week).
Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder)
Just as easy to get the hang of, while still providing challenging decisions, Ticket to Ride is another extremely popular game dealing with expanding your train empire across the country. Train-themed games are a genre of their own in the new era.
Ghost Stories (Asmodee)
Non-competitive games foster camaraderie, and Ghost Stories is one of the best. Stunningly elegant and extremely challenging, it would make an absorbing cabin game. Villagers gather tithes to attract traveling monks (think Bruce Lee) to fight angry ghosts. Note the figures in the photograph; they are the art work of a French couple (http://wondercatpainting.com) who have found a niche within the hobby. Their work is flat out stunning.
Viticulture (Stonemaier Games)
Moving up the gray matter scale, we have Viticulture, an experience in developing your own winery from a single crush pad set in old Tuscany. An extraordinarily engaging game, we have a friend who owns a winery on the island here and play with him, providing insight into the world of wine.
Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island (Z-man Games)
Games these day try and provide meaningful choices along with smooth game flow. Crusoe, very much in line with a stuck-on-the-beach theme, is a cooperative exercise in surviving on a desert island. We may be in the temperate rainforest up here, but many of the conditions apply: find shelter and food and stay ahead of the curves. In this particular game the attention to detail is exceptional. Besides the shelter you create tools like axes and knives, explore the island to broaden your domain, and do everything you can to survive until you’re rescued. Weather vagaries are prominent, as are wild animals, accidents and discoveries. The game is deep and thematic as heck.
Glass Road (Z-Man Games)
Another thematic journey takes us to the Glass Road (Z-Man Games), a provincial track through the heart of the Bavarian forest. Designed by master designer, Uwe Rosenberg, your job is to develop your glass works using the available forest to make the esteemed Forest Glass.
Lords of Waterdeep (Wizards of the Coast)
This American design delivers a bit of dark fantasy. As a player, you take on the role of one of the masked Lords of Waterdeep, secret rulers of the city. Through your agents, you recruit adventurers to go on quests on your behalf, earning rewards and increasing your influence. Expand the city by purchasing new buildings that open up new actions on the board, and hinder – or help – the other lords by playing Intrigue cards to enact your carefully laid plans.
Protocol 7 (Privateer Press)
Darker still, is Protocol 7, one of the very best of its ilk. Two players immerse themselves in the gritty post-apoc world where the government has sent in a top-secret, highly-trained special forces unit to shut down the facility and eliminate everything remaining in the base. The game uses miniatures, which are a popular subset of their own.
Agricola (ZMan Games)
Imagine you’re a clever free-holder on a plot of land living on the outskirts of Prague in 1582. The Black Plague is over. Times are better. You have a young wife, a family to breed and raise (and feed), vocation choices for everyone to make. You live in a two-room wooden hut that you’ll want to expand and remodel (to clay and stone). Outside the front door is a farm bristling with crops and barnyard critters.
The game is refreshingly mundane, the high octave of mundane, so mundane it’s cool. From a pool of a thousand unique cards, you draw seven, dictating one off career options such as Layabout, Estate Manager or Clay Plasterer. A second set of seven cards reveal potential resources, such as Carp Pond, Out House or Corn Scoop (that mundane enough for you?). The remaining 900-some-odd cards stay in the box. The artwork is campy and colorful and coveys a sardonic humor that grows on you.
The challenge of finding the synchronicity between these 14 random cards is the nut of the game and what we enjoy most about it.
I have often said that Agricola is more an experience (think Jimi Hendrix) than a board game. But like the Steppenwolf pointed out, it’s not for everyone. Invite only your most intelligent and good tempered friends to sit down with you. Hopefully, that will be exactly who you have along with you on the water.
Cthulhu Wars (Pertersen Games)
H.P. Lovecraft was a master of the horror fiction genre. No less than Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oats afford him the highest praise. The Mythos this lonely little man created is, like Poe and to some extent Doyle, at once horrific and sublime. Many board games, card games and RPGs are steeped in Lovecraftian theme, and perhaps no better example of that is the recently released Cthulhu Wars.
Designed by long time game designer and Cthulhu maven, Sandy Petersen, CW is a fast paced, streamlined strategy board game with a cast of finely sculpted miniatures. Some of these bad boys, the Great Old Ones, or GOOs, are big as coke bottles. These fist-sized sculptures hold the imaginative germ we project into the game and when I summon one and set it down onto the game board, there is no doubt but that there’s a new kid on the block!
CW focuses on what’s fun and does not overstay its welcome. The game boards are big and colorful, not at all busy looking. The game builds up speed like a Ferrari, maintains a high RPM down the stretch and ends in a calculated guess as to the winner. With experienced players it clocks in at about an hour per throw. Two matches, even three, are easily thrown down in a single sitting in the comfort of your storm lashed shelter.
Four distinctly different game factions are drawn from Cthulhu Mythos: The King in Yellow, Crawling Chaos, The Black Goat and Cthulhu, himself. Extensive play testing has fine-tuned a remarkable play balance, very difficult with such extreme asymmetry. Player interaction is encouraged to keep a runaway leader in check, and frankly, is a huge part of the kick of the game.
Finally, and what draws me in like a moth to a candle is the big picture Sandy has painted. There are no less than 14 expansions currently in development for this design! If you like what you’re playing now, you’ll be set for a good long while! I’ll post a heads up on these as they appear.
We took this game out on our last coastal project and it was a blast to play. Remember the ‘immersion factor’, well, it’s one thing to take along a clever Euro game that twists your mental panties into knots, and another, altogether, to haul along something with theme as thick as shellac. Cthulhu Wars is just such a game.
One caveat, these extraordinary figures don’t come painted. Sorry. These are the work of a talented, miniature painter named Ben Waxman. He is available to commission your set of Cthulhu Wars email@example.com).
Cthulhu Wars: https://petersengames.com/
Here are some card games worthy of stowing in the boat.
A Game of Thrones LCG (Fantasy Flight Games)
An absorbing, deeply elegant 2P game of strategy and tactics with some of the finest art in the industry.
The Lord of the Rings (Fantasy Flight Games)
Another engaging co-op card game. And, with the release of the Hobbit films, FFG has released “The Hobbit: Over Hill and Under Hill,” a saga expansion for the Lord of the Rings. (I’ve been working my through the scenarios over the last few weeks and it’s been a lot of fun.)
In addition, The Cuthulu mythos of HP Lovecraft, has an LCG (FFG again), as do countless other popular cultural icons.
There is even an edgy card game called Cards Against Humanity that is very popular in select circles and billed as a game not for the easily offended. Humor is the currency, which can range from offensive to disgusting to actually funny. Make sure all players are on the same humor page or it might blow up on you. Personally, I wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot paddle.
Go to boardgamegeek.com (that’s right) for the Full Monty on the scene.