How Board Games Are Making Me Better at Life

published Apr 3, 2017
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(Image credit: Kate Greathead)

When we first met, my husband’s idea of what constitutes a good time mostly overlapped with my own, with one major exception: board games. Already overwhelmed by the demands of everyday life, I didn’t see navigating the logistics of a make-believe scenario as a pleasant way to spend an evening.

It took Teddy two years to convince me to give board games a shot. We began with a game called Ticket to Ride. I won’t bore you with the details, but it was a very close game, and I won. The rush of victory was great, but then it subsided, and I wanted to get it back, and so we played again. This time I lost. And so we played again…

That was last May. Over the summer I’d estimate we played 250 rounds of Ticket to Ride. We played every day, multiple times a day. We even took it on our honeymoon to Paris.

(Image credit: Kate Greathead)

In September, we switched to Stratego, which dominated the fall. In December we discovered San Juan. For the past three weeks, it’s been Seven Wonders: Duel.

You might think board games are for kids and a colossal waste of time, but they have, in fact, helped me become a higher-functioning adult. Here are five examples:

Strategic Thinking

Executive functioning, the cognitive skills that help you get things done, is not my forte. Staying on top of it all has been a lifelong struggle. (From my first-grade report card: Kate needs to put on her thinking cap when she packs her bag in the morning.) Being forgetful and disorganized is not my fault, I used to think; my brain was just wired a certain way and this is who I am. That was my attitude for many years, a justification for all the missed deadlines and bounced checks. “I can’t help it,” I wanted to say in response to the dirty looks from the passengers of the plane I’ve delayed.

But the truth is I could do better.

The mental calculations required to do what needs to be done may not come as naturally to me, but I’m capable of doing them — and thanks to board games, I’m getting better. Resource management, weighing risks versus benefits, planning ahead: Playing board games has created a positive association with this kind of thinking for me, which has spilled over into other areas of my life. In the past few months I’ve cleaned out my entire inbox, set up auto-pay for my phone bill, created a monthly budget, and scheduled my next dental cleaning — and took surprising satisfaction out of doing these things. I guess I’m not that different from a rat in a lab doing whatever it’s come to associate with a hit of dopamine.

(Image credit: Kate Greathead)

Losing gracefully

“I’m so proud of you for losing like a big girl,” my mom would say when I didn’t send the pieces of Candyland flying across the room. As an adult, I still don’t like losing, but I’m getting better at the graceful acceptance part. Playing board games with Teddy has forced me to, since he usually wins.

Accepting that which you can’t control

As I remind Teddy after he wins, there’s an element of luck in board games. It’s possible to play perfectly and lose, or to make a series of flawed moves and win. The order of the cards, whose turn it was to go first — these things influence the outcome. It helps to be reminded of the role of chance in board games, as it is the same with life.

(Image credit: Kate Greathead)

Stress management

After I quit cigarettes, a new way of coping with stress became checking the latest headlines on my iPhone. When browsing hard news sites only exacerbated my anxiety, I’d visit the lighter, tabloidy ones, where I’d invariably slip down a rabbit hole into a dizzying maze of clickbait, the secret to teeth whitening, you’ll never believe what this man discovered in his burrito, which 14 celebrities have been charged with manslaughter. Board games offer a much healthier escape. When I play a board game, the nebulous, free-floating anxiety of daily existence takes the form of completing a mission, rendered tangible with colorful pieces of plastic and illustrated cardboard. There’s a soothing, tactile comfort to the routine of setting the game up, the satisfaction of staging the pieces, the breezy crackle of shuffling the cards. Technology means we don’t use our hands as much, but my hands like having something to do. I don’t reach for my phone when I’m playing because I’m too engrossed in plotting my next move. The stakes of the board game eclipse everything else. When I’m done with a board game, I feel recharged. More focused, calm and present.

(Image credit: Kate Greathead)


If you play them enough, board games have a way of infiltrating your subconscious and making you see life as a game, too. That might sound weird, but it can be a good thing. In Stratego, the value of a given piece remains unknown to your opponent until one of you chooses to attack, which means you can get more leverage out of a weak piece by tricking your partner into thinking it’s a powerful one by maneuvering it with bold confidence and swagger. This is basically the opposite of my M.O. in life: In situations where I feel insecure or intimidated, my self-preservation instinct is to show people my cards so they don’t attack me. Stratego has helped me realize the self-defeating nature of doing this. Act like you’re a person worthy of being taken seriously, and people will treat you accordingly.

Even if you’re a 34-year-old woman who plays board games.

Kate Greathead is a writer living in New York City. Her first novel, Laura & Emma
, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2018.