Episode I – All I Really Need to Know

This is a compilation of a 5 part series that originally aired on The Dice Tower Podcast in the Summer and Fall of 2010.  In this series I examine some of the deeper life lessons that can be learned from playing board games.  The scripts for the five segments are posted below.


All I really need to know I learned from Playing Boardgames.


Part 1: Get Your Priorities Straight


Aaahh Prioritization, some of my favorite games are games that make you prioritize.  You need to look at a multitude of options and decide which is most important for you to do now and which you can afford to wait to do later and perhaps miss out on the opportunity to do that action.


These sorts of decisions can be found in almost every game but are easily apparent through the worker placement mechanic.  Think about Agricola, Caylus, Age of Empires or Stone Age.  In these games, prioritization is essentially the entire game!  Whoever makes the best decisions about which action is the most important for them each turn will win the game!  You also see this in games involving drafting such as Notre Dame or Fairy Tale.  Which card is the most important to you and which can you afford pass.  Or even the staple Ticket to Ride.  Do I have to play on that route now or can I get those blue cards I need?  Which track should I build first, which can I build later?


Those sorts of decisions are the reason why I play board games, I love trying to figure out what is my best move each turn.  And you know what is great, you almost always get immediate feedback from those decisions by how many points you score and can reflect on how well you did in the game, and can use that knowledge to better your play in future games, which is why board games are way easier than actual life.


It’s fun to imagine life as a gigantic game of Agricola; Where hundreds of times a day you have your one wooden disc and you have millions of squares from which to choose from.  Imagine your Saturday Morning;


WAKE UP – Snooze Alarm, Get Dressed or Shower

BREAKFAST – Cereal, Eggs, or Coffee Shop

FIRST ACTIVITY – Exercise, play with your kids, Watch TV, train for a competitive eating contest.

SECOND ACTIVITY – Visit your mom, call friends, or listen to an episode of the how to play podcast.


And in comparison game like Agricola is so much simpler.  In Agricola you only need to get some food tokens and score metaphorical victory points.  You think its hard baking bread in Agricola?  How many token placements you think would be required to begin a professional career in middle class modern society.


And victory points?  Oh I wish it were all so simple, wouldn’t it be great if the meaning of life was all laid out for you in the obtainment of items and goals, all of which were attached a quantifiable numerical value, and by the time you croaked if you reached a certain score, you would leave this world a winner having attained complete fulfillment and joy.  Ah that would be something wouldn’t it.


But that is the joy of it all isn’t it?  That life is hard and unpredictable and that only you can decide how to win your own actual game of life.  But one thing is for sure, life is short, you have got to get your priorities straight.



Part 2 – The Road Not Taken


At the end of the How to Play Podcasts I try to give the listeners some basic beginning strategy tips for each game and time and time again I seem to give the same piece of simple yet effective advice, 7 simple words that always seems to be an important consideration and can generally improve your standing in a multiplayer game, no matter what that game might be..


Those 7 words are…


Do what the other players aren’t doing!


From the simplest to the most complex games if you focus your efforts towards areas that the other players are ignoring, you will tend to have greater success.


Some examples of this from popular games would include games that score points in multiple categories.  For example look at the game Alhambra, there are 6 different colors of buildings which score separately, if you manage to go after colors the fewest other players are involved in, you are more likely to score more points.


Or an area majority / area control game such as El Grande, obviously you would like to get to areas that other players don’t seem to be interested.


To games that include a supply and demand element; such as Power Grid or Brass, if you take advantage of resources that no one else seems to be interested in you will save yourself lots of money and be able to score points more easily.


It is easy to think about many examples when two or three players end up in a dogfight trying to get the same thing and end up committing far too many resources, Especially in an Auction Game such as Modern Art or Age of Steam, when a player gets caught in a bidding war and gets a undeniable urge to win, squandering much of their resources.


Or think about that one time where you played a game, and tried a new strategy, that no one had ever tried before, and it seemed so crazy that it just might work, and it did.


I love how playing games can help you develop this greater sense of moving from a narrow viewpoint of; this is what I want to do and I have to do no matter what, to developing a constant state of analysis, seeing each turn as a fresh new start and reevaluating the choices you had planned, seeing the big picture and making sure that better options haven’t become available.


As significant as it may be to win that game of El Grande or Age of Steam These skills have a greater purpose.  Imagine applying that same sense of reflection and analysis to your day to day life.  Instead of getting caught up in the day to day slog and routines you have developed, every once while, take a step back and think and reflect on your current situation and think; What other options are available to me now, is there another path?


Can I do what other people aren’t doing?  Are there other opportunities for me that other people cant see, what can I do that other people won’t do or can’t do?


This whole idea of filling in niches that aren’t being satisfied is certainly something that is constantly applied in adult’s professional lives with people developing successful businesses or career paths, in realizing a demand or an opportunity that no one else has seen before, creating a product that fills a need that no one ever knew existed, or launching a career in a field that few others would dare attempt.


But it also is a valuable concept in our personal lives.  So strong can be the pull of conformity and the status quo, it is easy to get lost in such pressures and shy away from following our heart, of establishing our own personal identity, and of being frightened of doing something that has never been done before, of doing more than just being, but also creating, creating something, anything that has never been done before.


So I say just as you would in one of your favorite games; Dare to do what other people aren’t doing.


Or as my friend Bob would say, “Take the road less traveled by”


It might just make all the difference.



Part 3 – What’s it worth?


One of the most important skills that board games can teach you is the concept of relative value: The skill of being able to constantly assess the changing value of a card, a tile, a spot on the board or perhaps of a trade being offered to you by your opponent.


Many times in board games you have to guess at the possible value of things without having all of the necessary information, but you have to use the clues that you have available to you to judge the potential value of that item, and perhaps throughout the game you are given more clues as to how much things are worth.


Almost all games that include some kind of an auction element force you to really think about what something could be worth.  Even something as innocuous as a bid for starting player leads to a complicated thought process of how much is that really worth.  Or you could think of the changing values of possible actions in a worker placement as a turn progresses or as a game progresses


But looking at pure auction games, the easiest examples of games in which you must consider relative value are Reiner Knizia’s trilogy of amazing auction games, Modern Art, Ra and Medici.  In all three of these games the whole game is essentially looking at a card or a set of tiles and from using the clues you have available to you including: the tiles or cards that others have collected,  which tiles or cards have come out and which are left in the bag and how much time is left in the round, these are all factors that affect the value of the items that are being bid on.


With every pull of a tile or draw of a card the value of that card changes and we get more information.


Many interesting phenomenon reveal themselves as the values change…


Consider how the value to each player changes – As players collect different tiles or cards, the value of future items is now much different than their value to you, and if the value to another player increases to a high enough point you must consider the value of denying this to another player.


Many times in games where relative value is a factor it can be a skill to read the others at the table, where you can use a bit of small talk at the table, or just read their body language to get a player to reveal just how valuable the item is to that player.


And you must consider an items potential value.  As you see the events of the game unfold you must consider not just what their apparent value is but also what could their value be possibly by the end of a round or the end of the game.


What deeper message can these exercises teach us in changing values?


Well we are all confronted in various situations in our everyday lives when being able to discern a hidden value of a good or service can be very important.


Recently I can think of two situations from my own life that I was forced to use these skills, I got to play the very real game of negotiating the actual price I would pay for a new car I was buying and I had to negotiate a price that I would pay for a contractor to finish my basement.


Now these real-life games were especially challenging for me because of my complete and utter lack of knowledge of the costs of automobiles and of building materials and labor costs.  Anything having to do with cars or hardware is completely out of my realm of knowledge.


Though I honestly believe that some of the tactics and skills I had developed in my favorite games, by bidding low, reading body language and exploring options from my competitors helped me to obtain a fair price.


In a more abstracted view of these concepts I think about the changing of values that has occurred in my own life over the last fifteen years.  I think about how my own personal game has played out in becoming a father and the stage I am at in my career and it is interesting to reflect on how values can change in a few years or even in just a few months.   Before my first daughter Gwen was born many things that seemed so important just don’t seem to really matter that much any more.


Fatherhood has had a significant impact on how my values have changed, I now have a much different view on what is most valuable to me.



Part 4 – In Other People’s Shoes


Ever play a game and think, I wonder what that guy is going to do on his turn…


Humans are selfish creatures by nature.  It is only natural that as living things we seek to meet our own personal needs, we are constantly thinking about what we need and what we want and almost all of our actions and thoughts are geared towards meeting our own personal needs and desires.


In games it is no different.  When players play a game, all of their actions and strategies are based on their personal motives within that game.


Now in a typical board game experience, you will have four or so players sitting around the table all motivated by a single desire, to win.


Many times in a board game it can be advantageous to be able to really see the game from another player’s shoes to be able to predict their actions and think…


If I were you, how do I see this game right now and what would my next move be?


And in many cases the answer is simple, they are trying to win the game and they are going to make is the move that most benefits them.


However in many cases it is not that simple; sometimes you have to factor in that player’s understanding of the game.


If they have a very limited understanding of the game, they may make moves that make sense to them in their attempt to win the game but don’t make sense in the grand scheme of playing the game well. I think about a new ticket to ride player who plays the game one route at a time.  Or I think about a new player in Puerto Rico, who sees taking the craftsman as good because he gets lots of goods, not realizing the upcoming consequences.  So even though these actions don’t make sense to you, they make perfect sense from their shoes,


It also gets more complicated when you factor in players whose decisions are motivated by more than just the desire to win.  Their actions may be more driven by a relationship they have with someone else at the table, or a vendetta against another player, or someone who just wants to try to do “something cool”, or someone who thinks they can’t win no matter what so they are not even going to try, or someone who purposefully tries not to win the game.


All of these motivations and many more could be what is going through a player’s head as they make each decision in a game.


Sometimes it can be very much to your advantage to be able to read these motivations and be able to predict what your opponents might do.  And sometimes it can be more fun than the actual game itself to try to predict and think about why players are playing the way that they are.


Take a game like Citadels, for me the whole fun of this game is trying to guess what people will do and see how people react from round to round.  Citadels for me is a much more social experience than it is a strategic game, as the players each turn play crazy mind games with one another.


It’s funny how your sense of perspective can cloud your judgment as well as you attempt to read the intentions of others, because at times I have convinced myself that a player would not make a move that would hurt me, simply because I was hoping that they wouldn’t.


I think most of us have let our personal perspective cloud our judgment in another circumstance as well, in choosing the right game for a given circumstance.


As the game guy, it is often my responsibility to pick out a game for a variety of situations, including a game experience for family and non-gamers, and games for my game club for kids.


So many times I have failed in this exercise as I attempt to pull out a game that is fun for me, but not for anybody else, which of course makes it not fun for me either.


I have learned that my family wants to play board games with me simply because they know it is a love of mine and they want to share that with me and spend time with me, but for the love of god Ryan don’t break out Settlers of Catan again.


In my game club, I have learned that kids are still kids, and they need games that are appropriate for them and their abilities, put Ticket to Ride back on the shelf, and get out Apples to Apples, TransAmerica and Dungeon, and remember how 8 year old Ryan thought that Dungeon was the greatest game ever made, and for 8 year old boys it just possibly could be.


I have learned how important it is to recognize how my own personal motivations are impacting the choices that I make and when I need to try to see things from a bigger picture, when I need to see things, from other people’s shoes.



Part 5 – The Balance.


I use games… A LOT in my 4th grade classroom, I use them for a number of reasons, I use them because they are an incredible way to engage students in learning content but perhaps most important of all is teaching these children the difficult balance of Respectful Competition


I will never be able to teach my students everything I would like and it’s likely they won’t remember things like what a interjection is, or who Peter Stuyvesant was, or which part of the crayfish is the cephalothorax, but I know that when it comes right down to it, that if they learn nothing else I hope they leave fourth grade with two values; Ambitious Scholarship and Citizenship.


I want them to understand the importance of ambitious hard work to be competitive and be the best that they can be AND I want them to remember that they are a part of a greater community and they need to be a contributing and positive member of that community.


Sometime these two things seem to pull at opposite ends of the spectrum.  Work your hardest to be the best, yet still do it in a way that is respectful and remaining a positive citizen within the group.


Teaching these two values and the balance between them I believe is the most important thing that I can do for these students and for the communities in which they live.


Our world is a competitive world, when these kids grow to be adults they need to have the ambition and work ethic to be able to compete and succeed, but it is also our hope that they will do so in a way that makes their town, their country and their world a better place to live.


We see all the time the results of people who lack these values.


It used to be in America that just getting a college degree or even having a high school diploma was a guarantee to a decent career and life in the middle class, this is not the case any longer, not without strong ambition, hard work and a little bit of luck.


We also see examples every day of people who act or make choices with their only consideration being themselves and forgetting that they are a part of a larger community.  From things as drastic as selling huge mortgages to people that in no way afford them, to things as simple as the gradual erosion of friendliness and polite behavior in public life.


How can I possibly teach this fragile balance between competitive ambition and cooperative citizenship?


One word;




I can use a simple game as a way to teach and instill the values I hope for them to demonstrate as they go out in the world and play the great game of life.


First of all games can teach them the importance of ambition and hard work.  Within the context of a game, students learn that if you work hard and play better than the other players you are often rewarded with victory, they learn that if you work hard and play your best sometimes you still lose and students learn that if you don’t play as well, don’t put in as much effort, or frankly just aren’t as good at a certain activity, you will lose.


It is difficult to see kids lose, but it is worse to let them win without effort, or let them think they are good at something that they are not or worse yet never give them the any experiences of real competition.  In order to prepare students for a competitive world we have to teach them how to compete including what it takes to succeed.


But also the very important lesson of the manner in which we expect them to compete.  They need to learn how they can be competitive and yet still be a respectful member if their community.  How they can compete in a way that still makes the game fun for everybody, and that there is a right way to win and a right way to lose.


The balance of Respectful Competition is something we all can continue to work on.  Have you ever caught yourself doing any of the following things at game night…


–          complaining about your bad luck incessantly, impacting the game experience of others

–          getting so involved in the game that you forget to learn and use the names of your competitors and interact with them in a positive way

–          after falling behind in a game, stop trying to place as high as possible OR play the game in a way that diminishes the experience for others

–          manipulate novice players to your advantage

–          finish a game and immediately explain to the whole table the reasons why you didn’t win

–          forget to congratulate the winner of the game or thanking the teacher of the game


These are common behaviors during game play in a classroom of fourth graders, and they are not entirely uncommon from adults at a game day.  These are some of the most important lessons I teach my students, and sometimes they are lessons that we as adults need to remind ourselves of as well.


Playing games throughout my life has taught me so much about the way I wish to act as a person and attempt to model this balance of ambitious scholarship and good citizenship and it is my greatest hope that I can convey these values to my students, to make them better people and our communities a better place to live.


I hope that this segment and this series, has gotten you to think a bit about all the things you can really learn from playing board games.


This has been Ryan Sturm from the How to Play Podcast