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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Revisiting life lessons through board games

A game of Risk shines a light on personal goals in life.

CONQUERING RISK: Gwenyfar sits down for a friendly battle of Game of Thrones Risk and world domination with her cousin, Austin. Courtesy photo.
CONQUERING RISK: Gwenyfar sits down for a friendly battle of Game of Thrones Risk and world domination with her cousin, Austin. Courtesy photo.

CONQUERING RISK: Gwenyfar sits down for a friendly battle of Game of Thrones Risk and world domination with her cousin, Austin. Courtesy photo.

“Where in the Tyrosh? Or The Orange Shore?” Austin queried.

“How about half and half? Yeah. Thank you.”

“Nicest game of Risk—ever,” Austin nodded.

I have been lusting over the Game of Thrones Risk for about eight months—ever since it showed up at the bookstore. At over 650 pieces, with two boards and fabulous art, it has been taunting me. Finally, Austin came over to spend the evening and explore the game with me. I have to say up front: I am not a “Game of Thrones” fan.

My attraction to the game was based pretty much on all the fun, lovely bits that came with it, and the artwork. I read the first book and found the only characters I liked were the dire wolves. By the end of the book, most were abused or killed. I tried to watch the TV series but gave up after episode seven. For me it looked far too much like the petty world of nonprofit boards but with better costumes.

I know a lot of people love “Game of Thrones,” and I am glad it brings them so much joy. I’m just saying my attraction to the Game of Thrones Risk did not come with an intimate knowledge of the lands and key players. For Austin, if it doesn’t involve a bicycle, he’s pretty much at a loss. So this was to be an evening of good food, fun with a new toy, and catching up on life. What I discovered about the game of Risk was surprising, actually.

Like many people, I played a lot of board games as a child, with friends and with my parents. Through Clue we practiced basic deduction skills; with Monopoly came math, budgeting and planning; with Scrabble, vocabulary and spelling. As an adult, “game night” has not figured heavily into my life. A few years ago, Jock and I played the only game of Monopoly we ever have played together. We were spending the day entertaining James, a 10-year-old friend of ours. In an effort not to resort entirely to screen time, we unearthed a Monopoly set that probably hadn’t seen daylight in 15 years.

Austin takes his turn conquering the game of Risk. Courtesy photo

Austin takes his turn conquering the game of Risk. Courtesy photo

The object of Monopoly is to develop a real-estate Monopoly, build houses, charge rents and bankrupt other players while dodging taxes, jail and occasionally be forced to do charitable works by the community chest cards. Wow! What an eye opener to see this game again as an adult, a business owner, and with some experience as both landlord and tenant. 

Our young friend had a variety of “house rules” he would conveniently remember whenever it would favor him to trot them out—and he quickly cornered the market. It was interesting to watch Jock and I each slowly go bankrupt as we spotted each other (and occasionally James), through the rough patches that crept up financially.

James won relatively quickly, and Jock abandoned us to email Cambodia about his soap project for rescued children. I began pondering the importance of what we just experienced.

We learn so much through play. How we go through the world and treat others is tested, rehearsed and reinforced through play. I think the lessons of Monopoly—do not borrow against property, own rather than rent, be weary of taxes and landlords—are pretty good ones to learn. But in a game, players have to take turns. You can’t just look at the other players and say, “I’m fine where I am.” They must act. 

I think one of the harder lessons for me to learn (one I am still struggling with) is to  say, “I don’t have to do something—I don’t have to make a decision about this right now. Let me enjoy where we have gotten to.” That isn’t an option. In Monopoly one must act, and action is usually in the form self interest and at the expense of others.

Honestly, after over a decade in business, and with some real-world experience in real estate, I thought I would have done better at Monopoly. But I am not a ruthless person. Neither is Jock. Perhaps, that is not such a bad thing to realize: Our charitable and community instincts trump blood thirst. To realize a 10-year-old had more instinct on self-preservation was a bit of an eye-opener.

But back to Game of Thrones Risk with Austin and the wonderful art: two playing boards, coins, cards, army pieces—it looked like Christmas had exploded all over the table.

“I think if I have a port of one color I can attack a port of the same color?” Austin postulated. He pointed at two different places on the board marked with rigged ships.

“Hold on,” I instructed. “Page 7, see page 4, skirmish versus … ports! Here we go! Yes, yes it looks like you can.”

“OK, I’m attacking your port.”

Just when I thought I had the game figured out, he found another attack strategy. Sigh. That should probably be the mantra of Risk.

The last time I played Risk in any form was in college; it was one of those great multiplayer, multi-day events with people cycling in and out of the game as they had to go to class or work. I admit to not really building a strategy or analyzing the game very much then. There was a lot of young testosterone in the game. But this time, once I got past the excitement of the pretty new toy, beginning to analyze weakness and defense, as well as resources and supply chains, was fascinating.

The game really is a fabulous way to teach strategic analysis. There is more to be gleaned and put into practice in an evening of Risk than I have found in business-school classes. The way I remember Risk, the object of the game, was world domination. In the “Game of Thrones” edition players have to collect victory points to win. Thank the gods Austin saw that in the directions or we would probably still be playing.

“Why aren’t you collecting victory points?” he asked me toward the end of the game.

“I just really do not understand that.” I shook my head. “World domination I understand—that’s a concrete and comprehensible goal to me. Cards?” I shook my head and reconquered my port from him.

I started wondering if that really was my problem: The world changed and I didn’t know it. For example, how much has changed with the way the world is impacted by online media and online invisible money?

But here is the thing many people miss in both games: luck, chance and the roll of the fates still can take down all careful planning. Could anyone have really understood the rolling ramifications of 2008? No, but the people who weathered them most successfully (outside of the oligarchs who always come out on top) were people who had adhered to old-fashioned ideals of money management: Identify what is cash and real, do not be dazzled by the sparkly, ethereal world of electronic money. Plan carefully, but know all your planning doesn’t mean a hill of beans in the world if you don’t have people to share it with.

We might not win the board game, but I like the way Jock and I play the game better: as a team with bigger goals in mind.

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