Five life lessons from playing board games

You can learn a lot about life from playing board games. Here are five lessons I’ve picked up from the past few years:

The point is to have fun, not to win. If you want to play competitively, then join a tournament—don’t do that with your friends. The point is to enjoy each other’s company. You win when you have fun, which means that everybody can win. I can’t believe how many games I’ve moped around in because I was dealt a bad hand, or how many times I let my emotions take over my decision making (and my demeanor). 

In his memoir, Will Smith describes himself as a master Monopoly player, and happily bankrupted his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, putting her out of their family’s Christmas Eve game—even after she asked if that was what he really wanted to do. He writes, “It took me years to realize that Jada wasn’t actually playing Monopoly. She was bonding and connecting and enjoying family time. Apparently, I was the only person who was actually playing Monopoly. I have since upgraded my software and developed a new axiom: Never get caught playing Monopoly.

I find this lesson has been extremely applicable to real-world situations, too. You don’t need to get the last word. You don’t need to give into someone else’s competitive energy. You can play your best, let good things happen to you, and roll with the punches when bad things happen. Games are a great way to learn to approach life.

While having fun is the main goal, it’s still important to try for the win when you’re in a position to. Just remember that sometimes second place is harder to get than first.

There are some games you’re naturally better at than others. The opposite is true, too. Some people stick with the ones they’re good at, and others are happy to try them all and learn to enjoy each one. I find the latter approach more fulfilling.

When you’re in a good position, you can win all sorts of ways. This rings particularly true for me in Catan; for example, when you’ve built a position and gained a flexible set of resources and the freedom to build across the board (instead of being trapped in by other people’s roads and buildings), you can take on all sorts of strategies. Shane Parrish writes in Clear Thinking, “Time is the friend of someone who is properly positioned and the enemy of someone poorly positioned. When you are well positioned, there are many paths to victory. If you are poorly positioned, there may be only one. You can think of this a bit like playing Tetris. When you play well, you have many options for where to put the next piece. When you play poorly, you need just the right piece.” Again, the point isn’t to win necessarily

Assume there’s someone as close to winning as you are. A lot of times, the difference between first and second place is a turn or two. If you’re playing to win, keep this sense of urgency in mind. Don’t be wasteful of a turn or a set of resources. This also feels true in basketball, where a single free throw can make the difference between a win and loss.

Don’t let someone trick you into thinking you can’t win. Rich Paul writes in Lucky Me, “When I’m winning, I have to bear down. That’s the discipline I brought to it. If I beat you out of twenty-five hundred and you ain’t got but a hundred left, bearing down to get that last hundred is a must. That’s the difference between a gambler and a hustler.… It’s a mental thing. I also want the other guy to understand that he can never beat me. I want him to come back and challenge me, but when he does, I also want him to walk in the door knowing that he’s probably not going to win.” Other people may want you to think you can’t win. Don’t listen to them. If you’re ever playing to win, you must bring the energy and hang on to the possibility—no matter how slim it is—that you can prevail. 

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