“Hey, want to come over and play some tabletop games?”
No ten words send a chill through my heart quicker. Not even “Now that she’s back in the atmosphere with drops of,” which, of course, are the first ten words of Train’s “Drops Of Jupiter.”
It is a challenge to maintain friendships in the Professional Geek Community, and continually come up with excuses as to why I cannot do this. At some point, I will have used up all of the good ones, and I’ll have to resort to saying things like, “Oh, my god, that sounds GREAT, I’ll be over at- OH NO FIRE, FIRE IT’S ALL ON FIRE, OH GOD, EVEN THE DOG, STOP DROP AND ROLL OVER, BOY”
Many who know my feelings on the matter have boiled this down to, “Cagan hates tabletop games, and possibly also hugs and Christmas.” And that’s not true. And if people need a picture of me hugging a copy of Lords Of Vegas under the mistletoe to prove that, then so be it.
It’s not that I hate tabletop games. Much in the same way that I don’t hate cats. I love the idea of a cynical furry roommate that you don’t have to walk, and if you need to leave town for a month, you can just give them $200 and a few Eat24 discount codes and they’ll be fine. Unfortunately, as soon as I get near a cat, there is not enough Benadryl on the planet to stop me from turning into a red-eyed, wheezing, sneezing vision of horror. It’s not ME who hates cats, it’s my BODY that hates cats.
In turn, it’s not ME who hates games, it’s my BRAIN.
Occasionally, my dog will decide that walking is not his thing. Now, to be fair, it isn’t. He would prefer to be carried around on a golden pillow about the neighborhood. But times are tough, and golden pillows aren’t cheap, so indignity of indignities, he must be walked around on a leash, like some kind of dog. And when it all gets to be too much for him, he stops in his tracks, shifts all of his weight to his back, and looks at me like, “I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN NEXT, BUT AS GOD IS MY WITNESS IT DOES NOT INVOLVE MOVING.”
That’s kind of what my brain does when you read me rules to any game more complex than, “Everyone Eat Ice Cream” (which I CRUSH AT, by the way). Here’s how it usually goes down:
The person reading the rules says something like, “Okay, guys, we’re going to play Spelunkers Of Globbledunk. Now for those of you who haven’t played before, it’s really simple.”
At which point, my brain goes, “Simple? As in, ‘If you don’t grasp this right away, you’re a dumb dummy from West Dumbford, Dumbnnecticut?’ That must be what they mean. Okay. Pay EXTRA close attention. We’ve only got one shot at comprehending this.”
The rule reader continues. “Okay, to start off, everyone rolls dice to see who goes first.”
My brain is lulled into a false sense of security. “Okay. That’s good. We’ve rolled dice before, and we watched that ‘how to roll dice’ video on YouTube right beforehand to bone up on it. We got this.”
Then the rule reader begins to step on the gas. “Once you’ve decided who goes first, everyone draws two Stalagmite cards, seven Stalactite cards, four bronze hats, and the ream of graph paper you instinctively knew to bring from home.”
My brain responds in kind. “How many cards? What does a hat look like? Why aren’t I just watching CHOPPED? Where are the exits here? There’s a window. Climb out the window. But be cool. Come up with a good story. Have you tried, ‘My dog’s on fire?’”
It’s at this point that the rule reader goes in for the kill. “Once you have all of those things, the first player rolls these 14 dice, and immediately adds them all up in their head, which is of course a thing we all can do. They put one of their hats on each corner of the board, flips over the Stalagmite card, and shows it to everyone while reciting the Gettysburg Address backwards. If the card has an actionable item, like a ‘Florg Snorker,’ then you can Snork any of the other player’s Florgs. In the event that happens, all of the players have to give you two bronze hats, all of their cards and whatever’s in their pockets. But that’s only in the event of the Florg Snorker card, there are, of course, 600,000 different actionable items cards. I’ll talk you through them quickly. They’re really simple.”
At this point, my brain has shifted all of it’s weight to the back, and is like, “ABORT, ABORT, NONE OF THAT MADE ANY SENSE AND WE HAVEN’T EVEN STARTED PLAYING THE GAME YET. EVERYONE IN THIS ROOM KNOWS YOU’RE A DUMMY, A FRAUD, AND THAT YOU’VE NEVER WATCHED FIREFLY EVEN THOUGH IT’S 13 FUCKING EPISODES AND A MOVIE, YOU CHURL. RUN PANTS-WETTING SEQUENCE, AND GOD HAVE MERCY ON OUR SOULS.”
And then for the remainder of the game, I’m the guy asking, “Wait, what does this card do? Hold on, am I all of the hats or just one hat? I just wet my pants, do I mark that down on my scorecard or can I count that as a spell I cast on your chair? Did you know my dog is on fire? He is, and I’d be remiss not to look into that post-haste.”
Earlier this year, I was in San Francisco to visit friends, and marvel at the city’s vast piles of Fart-App based money. That was my plan, but instead I found myself cooped up in my pal’s guest room, blasting through a round of last-minute rewrites that were needed IMMEDIATELY, or all of Los Angeles was going to sink into the ocean. Or something.
After a day and a half of this, my brain was mush, and needed to do something besides jab words together. As it turned out, that day was International TableTop Day, and a friend of mine was hosting an afternoon of dice and things at a local coffeehouse. Now, my brain would have never signed off on this were it firing on all cylinders. But it was logy from being used for something other than watching CHOPPED and looping the bass line from “Daytona 500” over and over again, so I was able to sneak out.
And honestly, I don’t know why I thought it would be a good idea, given my history with games. I just needed to do something for two hours that wasn’t staring at a screen. And besides, if didn’t end up having fun, I could always stare at my phone.
The first thing I did when I got there was walk up to three dudes playing MUNCHKIN, and asked if I could join in. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought to myself. I sat down at the table, and asked, “So how do you play?” One of them said, “It’s really simple.”
“WAIT A MINUTE, I JUST WOKE UP, DID SOMEONE SAY A GAME WAS REALLY SIMPLE? WHERE ARE WE? ARE WE PLAYING A...WHAT THE FUCK DUDE, I NEED TO SEE YOUR SUPERVISOR RIGHT NOW.”
As it turned out, and as no surprise to me whatsoever, the game made ZERO sense to me. But instead of running away screaming, I stuck it out, because my only other option was to go write. And like a good deal of writers, that’s a thing I try to avoid at all costs.
Now, here’s the funny thing. I didn’t get the hang of the game. Not at all. Not by a long-shot. And the guys I was playing with, bless their patient hearts, didn’t point and laugh, didn’t call me a stupid dumb head with a butt that is dumb also, and didn’t make me hand over the contents of my pockets. They might have thought all of those things as I struggled to remember if a Flork Snorker was different from a Snork Florker, but they didn’t show it.
After I lost miserably, my friend who was hosting was kind enough to play Trivial Pursuit 80s Edition with me for a while. It’s one of the few games that’s actually my speed, due to the fact that I am 10,000 years old. And as we sat there, cracking “Murder She Wrote’ and “Matlock” jokes to each other while lazily collecting pie pieces, I had a tiny epiphany.
Even though some parts of the afternoon were stressful, it was a different kind of stress from work stress, or life stress. It was stress over something inconsequential, something that wasn’t going to cause my home city to fall into the ocean. There are stakes in a game, to be sure. And yeah, you want to “win,” you want to play well, you want to look smart.
But mostly, you just want to play the game. With friends, old or new. You want to play the game with your friends, make each other laugh, drink a few refreshing beverages, and not give a crap about all of the stupid real world stuff that normally brings you all down.
I will never be a game player. I will never spend hours at a game store like my pals, rolling things and flipping cards and moving hats. But for those few hours in San Francisco, I saw the light. I got why they do it. And I salute them all. When you roll, as they say, may you roll high.
“Blah, blah, blah, lessons lessons lessons. Can we watch CHOPPED, now?”