How to Play: Lessons From Board Games and the Bible
For a long time, I was convinced that the world of board games began and ended at the edges of the Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley catalogues. You could choose from 5,623 versions of Monopoly (in which you can spend a couple of hours trudging around in circles while slightly luckier opponents nickel and dime you into abject poverty), 826 versions of Risk (in which you can spend six hours trying to flush out the wise guy who holed up in Indonesia with ten cannons), or, of course, Candyland (in which you can spend half an hour watching a game play itself).
You can imagine my excitement when I discovered that there other games out there—and not just other games, but better games. Fun games. Games where the prospect of playing for an hour or two is an exciting prospect, rather than one of soul-crushing despair.
Over the years, I’ve been building up a collection of these games, and it’s been wonderful. I have one game where everyone is frantically scrambling to assemble a rickety spaceship built entirely out of sewer pipes and then fly it across the galaxy, all while hoping it doesn’t get smashed to bits by meteor storms and space pirates. I have another where every player is building their own unique villages and conducting choose-your-own-adventure-style escapades in a vast and unpredictable cave system filled with underground carnivals, mysterious travelers, and a race of fish folk. I have another where two rival spymasters are competing to contact all of their field agents by playing a cryptic word game with the rest of their respective teams. I have another where—
Well, you get the point. I have a bunch of games, and I love them. And one of my favorite things to do with these games is introduce other people to them, because they’re so fun and so different from what most people think of when they talk about board games.
There’s just one problem—and it’s a universal problem. It doesn’t matter what game I bring to the table; it doesn’t matter what the theme is or how long it takes to play—there is always, always, the same ungainly hurdle to contend with before we can all start having fun:
There’s no way around them. In order for everyone to enjoy the game, we all have to be operating according to the same set of rules. If I just dumped out a jumbled collection of unfamiliar components and told everyone, “Here you go; good luck!” we’d end up with an evening of chaos and confusion. An explanation of the rules is an absolute necessity.
It is also mind-numbingly boring. I think Quinns of Shut Up & Sit Down explains it perfectly.
And if you’ve never had to explain a game’s rules, you should try it some time, because it’s certainly not as easy as you think. Let me make this abundantly clear. The rules explanation is the worst part of any board gaming night. It is you at your very stiffest, trying to set the tone for the fun evening ahead, yet finding nothing but rules and regulations tumbling out of your mouth as you introduce to your players clause after clause. You’ve got your friends together to have fun, and there you are explaining the REGULATIONS of tonight’s entertainment.
And this isn’t quick. It goes on for minutes on end, minutes that may feel like hours, and for those minutes you become a physical embodiment of the reason that non-board gamers live in fear of playing something new. You are awful. You are the worst thing. You know it, too, as your throat gradually dries, your tongue begins to flap lifelessly in your mouth and you fumble cards, tokens and playing pieces across the tabletop. This is going to be great, you try to remind everyone. We’ll have a fantastic time, you tell all the blank faces staring back at you.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, it really is that much fun. I think there is a fundamental law of the universe dictating that rules are not allowed to be exciting. They just aren’t. No one has ever read the IRS tax code and said “Wow, what a rush!”
But I think we can also agree that rules matter—and that as followers of God, we’re operating according to an extremely thick rulebook full of instructions that are important but not exactly thrilling. So what I’d like to do for the rest of this Sabbath Thought is share with you a few lessons I’ve learned while teaching board games that just might make it easier to wrap our heads around the rules of life.
1. Rules are part of a bigger picture
Carcassonne is a fun little game. Here’s a terrible way to start teaching someone how to play it: “Okay, so there are these tiles, right? And you take one and then put it in legal configuration on the table, and then you take your meeple and claim a feature—roads are only worth one point per tile, you see, and cities are worth two, but only if…”
Excited yet? You bet you are. That description has everything—confusing jargon, in-depth scoring mechanics, vague terminology, and most importantly, a complete and total lack of context. There are tiles, but what are they for? What’s the big deal about claiming features—why would I want to do that?
Here’s a better way to start: “Okay, so in this game, we’re all competing to build a medieval landscape, and whoever builds the best is the winner. Every turn, we’ll take a tile and…”
See how much difference that makes? We’re still going to have to talk about tiles and meeples and features, but now we at least have a framework to hang them on. The tiles are what you use to build the city; the features are what earn you points, and the meeples indicate which features belong to you. That little bit of context at the beginning makes the other information easier to parse, because we can look at it in terms of where it fits in the bigger picture. The nitty-gritty details aren’t helpful if we don’t know the goal of the game.
The Bible provides us with a framework, too. Here’s one way to phrase it: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:19-21).
That might look like a mouthful, but in terms of summarizing a book that usually takes more than a thousand pages to print, it’s pretty succinct. The goal is the restoration of all things. Sin is getting in the way. There’s a way to blot it out. We can dig deeper into any of those subjects, but there’s the general framework for everything we might encounter in the Word of God. Some passages in the Bible explain what sin is and what it looks like. Others tackle the concept of repentance and why it’s required to blot out sin. Still others paint a picture of how that restoration will come about and what our role will be in the process—but without the right framework, all we have is a jumble of facts.
The bigger picture of the Bible is God’s plan to blot out sin and restore the world. If we start there, the rest of it is going to make a whole lot more sense.
2. The rules are for your benefit
Without rules, Go Fish is just a desk of cards. The same is true for any game, because the rules aren’t just important to the game—the rules are the game. If I dumped out all of the pieces for Galaxy Trucker in front of three people and said “I dunno, play it however you want,” there would be chaos. A game might eventually emerge, but it sure wouldn’t be Galaxy Trucker.
The problem would only get worse if each player started making their own rules. (“I think these green stones represent health.” “No way! They’re for speed! Whoever has the most moves the quickest!”) Not only would everyone be playing the wrong game; they’d be playing entirely different wrong games. With no rules to show who’s right and wrong, player interaction becomes impossible because now everything is a matter of preference. The green stones are whatever you happen to feel they might be.
But you don’t need to discard all the rules to break a game. You can usually break it by just discarding one. From Machi Koro to Monopoly, the game would fall to pieces if players could, say, just reach into the bank and take as much money as they want, whenever they want. There are very specific rules governing who gets money and when and how and from who, and if you throw those out the window, you may as well toss the game out along with them. How pointless would Go Fish be if you could search through the whole deck instead of drawing the top card?
The same bad things happen if we ignore or tamper with God’s rules. Look around you. Turn on the news. The violence, the wars, the thefts, the total disregard for human life, the broken families, the deceit, the immoral and unspeakable things that happen on a daily basis—how many of those things would disappear if people just started doing what God says to do?
Life is so much more than a simple game, but it does come with rules—and as it stands, the world has thrown the rule book out the window. We’re looking at the pieces of life and deciding what we think they mean and how we think they should work, and the end result is chaos. Like Pilate did all those years ago, the world is staring blankly into the face of God and asking, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). They don’t know—and, more often than not, they don’t care to know.
We know better. We know what Christ told the Father: “Your word is truth” (John 17:17). All of it. Not just bits and pieces. Not just the parts we like. God’s word establishes the parameters in which human life can flourish, and when we ignore those rules, we’re the ones who suffer. Like Moses told the Israelites all those years ago, these rules are “for your good” (Deuteronomy 10:13). If we want life to make sense, we can’t afford to ignore the rules that govern it.
3. The rules show you how to win
When I’m playing a round of Above and Below, there are a lot of things I can do. The rules set some boundaries for me, but within those boundaries, I have quite a bit of latitude. I can send my villagers out on adventures; I can construct specialized buildings that open up new possibilities; I can train new villagers and send them off to do an honest day’s work or harvest resources. Those are all things I’m free to do.
They’re just not always things that would be smart to do.
The winner of Above and Below is the one who ends the game with the best village, as defined in terms of Victory Points. Just because I can spend the game exclusively focused on collecting clay pots, it doesn’t mean I should. There’s nothing wrong with it—as long as I don’t mind losing by a spectacular margin.
That’s the thing about rules—they don’t just give you a framework and boundaries to operate inside; they also give you a goal to work towards. They show you what victory looks like and they show you how to get there.
In Above and Below, winning means making every move with a focus on earning more Victory Points. In real life, “winning” requires us to be aware of the choices that are going to move us closer to entering the Kingdom—and the choices that aren’t. Just like in board games, just because the rules allow us to do something doesn’t automatically mean it’s wise to do it. As Paul noted, a lawful action doesn’t automatically translate into a helpful or edifying action (1 Corinthians 10:23-24).
There are other factors to consider as well. Paul gives us a list of qualities that ought to define the things we spend our time thinking about (Philippians 4:8-9). Peter explains the traits we must add to our faith if we hope to enter the Kingdom of God (2 Peter 1:5-10). There are passages about the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), passages about the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-18), passages about all manner of important things, each designed to show us the pathway to victory.
Within the boundaries of God’s rules, I have an incredible amount of choices. I can do any number of things with my time—but if my goal is to enter the Kingdom, the question I need to be asking isn’t just “What am I allowed to do?” but “What should I be doing?”
No one gets into the Kingdom by accident.
Rules might not be exciting, but they are essential. Without rules, the bigger picture can’t exist. Without rules, life stops making sense. Without rules, there’s no way to get where you’re going.
But it’s not enough to just know the rules. Head knowledge doesn’t do anything unless we put it to use. That’s why Paul writes:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.
(1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
God’s rules exist to give us a framework for understanding the world, they exist for our good, and they exist to show us the pathway to victory.
Brethren, there is an imperishable crown set aside for every faithful servant who finishes their race.
You know the rules. Now get out there and win it.
Until next time,
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