The theme of this year’s International Tabletop Day is “What do Board Games Mean to You?” and how they have made a difference to your life. It might sound a little pretentious – after all, how can silly little worlds made out of bits of wood and cardboard really make a difference to anything?
I have been a gamer for as long as I can remember. I played board games with my granddad on the lounge carpet, with my dad up at the dining table, with my schoolfriends – with everybody. Like a lot of kids of the 1980’s, gradually board games gave way to video games with the arrival of arcades, home consoles and PCs. I found time to go through the same Warhammer phase as most geeky teenagers, sinking pocket money into an endless supply of miniatures, paints and rulebooks. I discovered RPGs when I was in my early teens and suddenly my bookshelves swelled and groaned under the weight of countless books of Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu and dozens of other fantasy games. Whatever money I had seemed to drain away into some kind of game or other, but board games became something of a distant memory. Looking over my collection, I bought Lord of the Rings in around 2001, then Doom in 2005-ish and Last Night on Earth in around 2008 – hardly what anybody might call a regular “hobby”. My collection of RPG books continued to grow, however, as I had a regular Thursday-night group of friends who would get together to play. Yet, over time, I found that I was enjoying our occasional board game nights which would happen when the GM couldn’t make it on one particular week. I started to look forward to these one-off games more than the regular campaign games of RPGs.
Fast forward a few years and in 2015, my wife and I separated. I was thrown out of the family home and had to move back in with my parents. Everything I had was lost – my children, my house, the life I had built up over the previous 10 years. People I had known for a decade suddenly avoided me and my world crumbled. I knew sadness on an indescribable scale that still hurts to this day when I think about those dark times. My work suffered, my friendships suffered and it felt like a neverending tunnel with only misery at every step. Over the next few months, I sunk into ever greater depression and I had no idea how I would ever overcome it. I couldn’t sleep properly, I was on edge the whole time and very bitter over everything I’d lost. Then, that Christmas, two friends said to me, “You need to get back to doing what makes you, you”. Simple advice, but it turned out to be some of the best I ever had.
I pulled myself up by my bootlaces and started going to the gym. I picked up some of my old hobbies again, such as playing the guitar or taking photographs. I picked up a book for the first time in ages. All of these were things I’d lost touch with over the course of a volatile marriage where anything that wasn’t a household chore had been fiercely scorned. Eventually, after a few months, I began going “out” again properly, reconnecting with old friends and making some new ones. I discovered that Meetup was a wonderful website and started going to various events that interested me. One day, while browsing a dating website, I was invited to come to a board gaming bar. I had heard of such things before – mainly Draughts in London – though I had never been. I took up the invite to go to a bar called “Loading” in Dalston that same evening and found my Mecca. Unlike anywhere I had been before, Loading offered a regular Meetup group of gamers every Tuesday night who met up to play board games. The bar held a huge stock of games, all playable for free, for its customers. I was overwhelmed at how friendly everybody was (particular credit goes to Tim Hibbs, the organiser of Tabletop Tuesdays, and his wife Alex) and immediately felt at home. Here were people, all much like me and with similar interests, meeting up and having fun – all over a pint and a game.
I became a regular at Loading and still am to this day. Every week I would meet new people and make new friends, all while playing new and exciting games. I had never felt like I “belonged” anywhere so much. I visited other Meetups too, such as the omnipresent London on Board, and made even more friends through that too – everywhere I went, gamers were such a friendly and accepting crowd. The UK Games Expo seemed to bring together gamers from every corner of the country and the trend continued, with all of us playing games over drinks and dinner long into the night. The depression that had clouded my past few months lifted week by week, and while I went through a very turbulent and stressful divorce, I found I could come to rely on the new friends I had made and always looked forward to my next game of something. Whether it was the social interaction, an escape from reality or the intellectual challenge, I found that board games had become a major part of my life.
Around the same time, and completely unconnected to gaming, I met my girlfriend, Tori. I had no idea what she would make of my geeky side and my love of games, so I was overjoyed when she agreed to come along to Loading one night. She told me she had always enjoyed games as a child, but like so many had believed that board games were all Monopoly or Scrabble. Her eyes were opened the same as mine and she was gradually introduced to a world she never knew existed, one where she was welcomed and accepted just the same as I had been. Games gave us the opportunity to make new friends, have fun and learn about each other. I had never shared a hobby with anyone before.
Board games have given me so much over the past year and now I cannot imagine life without them. My friends at Loading have become some of my closest and trusted ones – people I have shared so many fun experiences with, who have unknowingly helped me through the most difficult time of my life. In our little run-down bar in the far reaches of Dalston, we have our home. Loading, and the people of Tabletop Tuesday, are incredibly precious to me. Others I have met through games have become equally close; the shared love of a challenge, pitting wits against each other or overcoming odds in a cooperative game – whatever the reason, gamers seem to have much in common. Whether it’s making an 8-score in Ominoes, hunting Dracula, surviving on a desert island against the odds, fighting the Battle of Yavin, defending the country in Homeland or eradicating diseases in Pandemic – games have given me some of the greatest fun in my entire life. They helped me rebuild as a person after my life fell apart and introduced me to people who I grew to love.
Silly little bits of card, wood and plastic? Not to me, they’re not.