On my first date with my wife, we went to a coffee shop. It was the usual chit-chat, just asking about interests and so forth. Since I had just started playing hobby games, I mentioned that I liked to play board games a lot. I assumed the conversation would end there, so I didn’t offer many details. But then she asked me if I’d heard of a game she enjoyed. She couldn’t recall the name, but it involved little wooden men and small tiles that you played together to create roads and cities that gave you points. She was talking about Carcassonne, a game that I had also recently discovered. It was a nice bit of common ground in that nervous world of the first date.
That makes it sound a little like board games brought us together, and I assure you this was not the case. I have plenty of good female friends who are fun to play games with, so if that was my only standard I wouldn’t have been so picky. But for a long time my wife and I did play a lot of games together. It was a standard way to spend an evening for a while. It continued after we got married, for at least a year or so. But then…we had that first kid.
When people say that children change everything, they mean it. In my experience, most of parenthood is learning how to adapt to the new normal, only to have “normal” change again. Now our evenings were occupied with a small helpless baby, and when that baby went to sleep it was hard to find time for games. Well, not hard for me. I still played whenever I could, usually with my friends. But my wife gradually grew less interested. For me, gaming was a relaxing thing, something that helped me unwind. For her, it was not a way to rest. It was an activity to do, something that was fun but that you don’t do all the time. To complicate the situation, our tastes drifted apart. I indulged my love of sci-fi and fantasy, and moved towards more complex games with wizards and whatever, while she stayed pretty firmly in the realm of light Euros and family games. Those realms intersect from time to time, but not nearly as often as they used to.
Gaming is, in some ways, a rather vulnerable activity. There’s a low-key intimacy to it, where you all agree to abide by a shared set of rules, and you trust the other people to behave properly. You learn a lot about people at the game table, and you reveal a lot about yourself. I find it difficult to game with a table of complete strangers for this very reason. I know how my friends will react to a game, but “mind if I join you” guy? Who knows what he’ll do? And on the surface, one’s spouse seems like the ideal gaming partner. After all, there’s ideally no one you know better.
But it’s rarely that simple, of course. Not every gamer gets paired up with another one. I know people whose spouses aren’t inclined to play Uno, much less any Euro game. I firmly believe that this isn’t really an issue, but some people are sure that it is. You can see the threads all over BGG, with titles that are all some variation on ‘What game should I get to play with my wife?” And everyone is eager to offer up their suggestions, like testimonies at church. “Lost Cities worked for me!”
I don’t care much for threads like this. Most of the posters tend to be men (since this is a male-dominated hobby), and the conversation usually goes the same direction it always does: Suggestions of light, non-confrontational games with cute components or themes. As sexism in nerdery goes, that’s a pretty mild form, but it’s there all the same. While there are plenty of women who enjoy games like this (my own wife, for one), I’ve known many who would rather play something more aggressive.
Another issue that I have is that it’s always a problem in a two-player situation when one person isn’t totally invested. If you’re buying games with someone else in mind, it’s a good way to end up with a lot of games that you don’t play. I’ve tried this a few times myself, and either I like the game and my wife merely tolerates it, or she likes it fine and I don’t care for it enough to ever suggest it. Either way results in a wasted purchase.
Most gamers harbor a belief that if you just found the right game, everyone is a gamer waiting to bloom. I don’t think this happens very often, but it doesn’t keep us from trying. Oh, most people like games well enough, but very few are going to be the types to get a BGG account and hang out at the game store into the wee hours. However, gaming means a lot to us, and we use it as a way to connect with others around us. It’s only natural to want to make that connection with one’s spouse.
But I’ve learned over the past couple of years that it’s less important than I thought it was. The truth is, my other friends play plenty of games with me as it is. She may not like it as much as I do, and that’s alright. She’s more than willing to play when it’s more than just the two of us anyway, so it’s not like we’re never at the same table together. And in a way, this difference between us is a relief. We don’t need to like all the same stuff. It’s more important to like the person than it is to like their hobbies. And as is always the case in marriage, you compromise. She will sometimes play things like Innovation or Dungeonquest with me, and I play Ticket to Ride and Dominion. We do it to spend time together, which is more important anyway.
And here we are again, less than a week away from the due date for our second baby. Our lives are about to shift once again, and we go back to sleepless nights and spit-up, with the added bonus of getting to take care of a two-year-old as well. Last night, it seemed appropriate to go to the game shelf and dust off our banged-up Carcassonne set. And before the world plunges into the chaos of a newborn baby, we spent an hour becoming reacquainted with each other over those stacks of tiles. There may not always be time for games, but there will always be time for each other.
I totally won too.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.