As we pass the anniversary of the first coronavirus lockdown in Ireland, the novelty of staying at home has surely worn off for most of us. The things we used to use to relax, like keeping up with our favourite Netflix show or chatting to friends on social media, have now become tainted with monotony as they become indicative of forcing ourselves to have a break from screen time with more screen time. These activities have become as much a part of keeping ourselves healthy as wearing a mask, and as everything feels so drawn into what I have come to call the corona-vortex, an unlikely hero has emerged: the humble board game.
Regression to a more comfortable time has become the tendency du jour. Apparently I’m not the only one who impulse-bought roller-skates, as iNews reports “a pandemic boom” in “life on wheels”. I’m also certainly not the only one to have dug out their 2007 Nintendo DS when faced with pandemic-prompted existential dread. But as we usher in yet another era of life in lockdown after what seemed like the longest year in history, the new throwback entertainment parvenu could be as close as a Smyths Toys order away.
“Perhaps the best solution to working out your lockdown-inflated angst over which flatmate is meant to be taking out the bins is best released fictionally.”
Role-playing games, abbreviated to RPG games in the board game community, such as Cluedo and Dungeons & Dragons, are particularly popular. The allure of adopting alternative personas with whoever you are living with is irresistible, especially after the intensity of months confined with these same people. Perhaps the best solution to working out your lockdown-inflated angst over which flatmate is meant to be taking out the bins is best released fictionally, as Professor Plum with a lead pipe in the billiard room. Dungeons & Dragons takes this a step further, acting as the perfect form of escapism. During a time when our lives and the world around us feel out of our control, the ability not only to take on a character but also to create one from scratch offers a sense of autonomy that appears to be lacking. The imaginative and creative quality of the game also opens up this feeling of possibility.
If a newfound TikTok addiction has reduced your attention span, you could also opt for classic games that don’t last as long and feel a little more active, like Uno or Bop It. These games offer a chance to raise your heart rate outside of your weekly—sometimes monthly—YouTube HIIT workout, and become incredibly competitive as cards are slammed down and you respond a little too enthusiastically to the robotic command to “pull it!” Although Twister can end up lasting a little longer, it is another fun way to get physical while playing games with your flatmates or family. The general consensus may be that getting even closer to the people you’re living with is not preferential for everyone. But Twister could be a nice way to have some tactile comfort outside of the now-routine tearful hug post-Covid announcement, even if it is just from reaching over someone to “right hand, yellow”. These games are great, especially as a fun way to kick off Friday night drinks in the kitchen. These games can even be adapted to involve drinking directly too, with the winner giving out a sip, for example.
But if you’re looking for a change of pace, as even a kitchen disco now has an element of the qua-routine, why not make the board game the event of the evening with something like The Game of Life or Monopoly? These board games that have a little more longevity give a sense of escapism that feels less transitory than a quick card game. As one first year student mused, “games that last longer are better [in lockdown]. There’s more time having fun with your friends.”
“Playing online games can feel like yet another aspect of life existing through a computer, and can lack the focus of in-person gameplay.”
While part of the appeal of playing board games at the moment is that they feel like one of the few things left untouched by the Covid restrictions, this isn’t true for everyone. Those living alone or away from their most enthusiastic board game-inclined friends and family may not be able to play as usual, but people have already come up with solutions for this. Already well-established online editions of the aforementioned Uno and online recreations of Dungeons & Dragons have at least partially reproduced the board game experience for people from different households, and have been invaluable as a resource for those organising activities for online college socials. Craig Maguire, the JF class representative for English Studies, organised several successful socials where the students in the course could get to know each other. One medium for this was through an online take on Pictionary: Drawasaurus. This was a low pressure, fun way to interact with classmates, and certainly goes in the handbook for good Zoom activities. It isn’t the same, though – playing online games can feel like yet another aspect of life existing through a computer, and can lack the focus of in-person gameplay. However, calling the other players on Zoom and Discord can effectively banish this feeling, and denotes the jovial chat of the in between moments that we are somewhat lacking since pre-March 2020.
Other online games, like the calming Stardew Valley that comfortingly recalls aspects of Animal Crossing, hark back to a time that, in hindsight, might feel simpler, and demonstrate the desire for escape that was evident in lockdown culture in the form of so-called “cottage-core” emergence. As reported by Anita Rao Kashi, BBC news, this aesthetic “in 2020…soared [in] popularity…the hashtag #cottagecore saw a 153% jump in use while the number of likes for cottagecore posts rose by a staggering 500%”. Stardew Valley thus serves not only the lockdown desire for escape in another, albeit virtual, world, but also serves the trends that have drawn so many of us in as we continue to collectively fantasise about a carefree and romantic escape to the countryside.
While these games, both board games and their online alternatives, often aren’t too expensive, there are cheaper and even free options of getting your competitive streak out. Homemade Never Have I Ever is always fairly successful, but why not tailor a classic board game, like Snakes and Ladders, to the people you want to play with? This combines the popular TikTok trend of hosting a PowerPoint Night where each attendee presents on a topic, usually relating to the others in attendance, and familiar board games. It’s perfect for reminiscing with old friends or getting to know new ones.
“Board games are a way to relax that feels sociable and untainted by lockdown tedium like some other pastimes that have faded into monotony.”
With this provision for both the classic board game, online versions of it, and the option of games born online, it seems that playing these games can comfortably fit around regulations and provide an escape from bleak realities as we slowly stagger out of the pandemic. Board games are a way to relax that feels sociable and untainted by lockdown tedium like some other pastimes that have faded into monotony. Perhaps they even act as a symbol of hope as we slowly see the light at the end of the tunnel—a time when we will be able to show off a proficiency in the games once social mixing rules are relaxed. So as I Scrabble for opportunities to socialise and escape from the often overwhelming current situation, I encourage you to do so too. Who knows? You might love it.