For the past couple of months, Tyler and I have kept our Thursdays open for a weekly game night. Valentine’s Day this year fell on a Thursday, but game night has become so important to us that we decided to go out for dinner on Tuesday so we could stay at home on Valentine’s Day proper and have game night.
Specifically, we’ve played 7 games in an 8-part campaign expansion of the board game Scythe, one of Tyler’s favorites. Think of it as Risk meets Catan meets Civilizations. You gain resources to develop your civilization, expand, and at times combat with the person or people you’re playing against on the way to 6 developmental achievements. This Thursday, we’ll play the final game in the campaign.
When Tyler first introduced me to Scythe, I didn’t enjoy it. There were too many moving parts, too many ways to play and pieces to consider. I developed strategies, lost handedly, adjusted those strategies, and still lost handedly. I found it stressful and overwhelming. I often felt like a child again, discouraged and powerless and frustrated. I felt like I was playing against my brother again, losing badly no matter what I did. But Tyler loves the game so much. And he gets a lot of enjoyment out of not only playing games but talking about the game once it’s over, analyzing how things went and why. So I let him teach me. And I would periodically agree to play again. I did eventually win a couple times, which helped me dread playing less. Eventually, we taught Scythe to my brother, and I quietly relished that I was more likely to beat him than not. But still, sometimes I got a map I couldn’t figure out how to play effectively. Sometimes I had an off day and repeatedly made avoidable mistakes. Sometimes I played a great game but Tyler still won.
And then Tyler got this 8-game expansion. We didn’t touch it for months. I avoided even looking at the box. Initially, I had a good excuse not to want to play—we were wedding planning and only about 30% of my brain could focus on anything that wasn’t wedding-related. And 30% of my brain was not enough to play Scythe. Then the wedding was over and we started trying to settle into out life together.
When Tyler brought up the expansion in January, asking if we could try to start playing it soon, I knew it was time. I didn’t know what to expect from it, but I expected the expansion would make gameplay harder, and I anticipated that I’d be slower to adapt than Tyler. Which meant I might lose every game. I might even hate it. But I knew Tyler would enjoy it. So I told Tyler we should set aside 1 day of the week to play so we wouldn’t drop off for months in between rounds, lose track of the story, and maybe never finish. I didn’t want to prolong what might end up being a frustrating, if not disheartening, experience for me. I also didn’t want to feel pressured to play several days in a row, especially if things weren’t going well for me. Tyler agreed, and after ordering pizza that first Thursday night, he opened the instructions with such boyish excitement I felt guilty that I’d put this off as long as I had.
In general, it’s gone really well. The guilt has not lasted. Unlike the usual gameplay, this one includes an overarching story. You’re playing in response to events in the story and to help control the trajectory of future games. Some rounds have special rules or goals. Along the way, we get to open boxes with new characters and figures, introducing new factors to the game. And it hasn’t been overwhelming. It’s been fun. And from sheer repetition, I’ve gotten far more comfortable playing.
Which is not to say that my guilt at putting off playing lasted long. I’ve only won 2 out of 7 games. My greatest challenge to date came the 4th week. At the end of game 3 the week before, Tyler read aloud the story and instructions for game 4, including a unique way the game would end. While setting up the next week, Tyler read aloud the instructions for that round again, but I started tuning him out without noticing and missed that critical info about the game’s end. I played the game like normal, trying to gain 6 achievements with enough coins that I’d end up with more than Tyler. I didn’t remember that key information until my last move before Tyler won. I hadn’t been in the right mindset for the game to begin with, and I’d made mistakes all the way along, but I’d thought I had time to make up for them. I didn’t realize Tyler was barreling toward ending the game in just a handful of moves.
My mood plummeted. I’ve lost before, sure. But it’s very different to lose because you played well but the other person’s just edged you out and to lose because you followed a strategy that would never have allowed you to win.
The last time I’d felt this frustrated and discouraged had been last summer whenTyler and I played a version of Ticket to Ride that I’d never played before. It was a bad mental health day for me, anyway, and I didn’t want to play anything new, but I’d agreed because Tyler wanted to play it and I didn’t want to be a killjoy. Although Tyler explained the particularities of that version’s scoring, and I paid attention, I lost sooo badly. I didn’t understand how the special rules should be leveraged to gain more points until I saw how Tyler used them to to earn three times the number of points I’d earned. I’d lost using the entirely wrong strategy. I would have had a hard time losing like that on a normal mental health day. But that day, it was devastating. And even though I’d agreed to play to make Tyler happy, by the end of the game neither one of us was happy. Which taught me to maintain firm boundaries when I’m not feeling well. Slight disappointment for someone else now is better than everyone being miserable later.
When I realized my mistake playing Scythe on that 5th game, I tried not to complain, not to cry (though I wanted to), not to do or say anything that would lessen Tyler’s enjoyment of the game or of winning. But I went from normal to miserable in an instant. He could tell how upset I was, but he didn’t understand why. I had to explain my sudden devastation somehow, so I quietly explained what had happened, then shut my mouth. I stayed silent as I tried to figure out how, with my last move, I could get the most points possible, since there was no way I could come close to winning. I didn’t say anything when when, bewildered, Tyler reminded me that he’d read that critical part of the rules right before we started playing. And I didn’t say anything when, after I played my miserable last move, he tried to hug me. I stayed silent when he quietly started recounting and analyzing his moves in the game. And neither of us said anything when I left to clean up the kitchen so I didn’t have to watch him put the board away.
If left up to me, I would happily never have played Scythe again. At least, not for many months. I’m a sore loser in that way—the game doesn’t feel worth the frustration and dread. But I’m not playing this campaign because of me. I don’t play Scythe for my own enjoyment. I do tend to enjoy it, now, but I’d rather play Bananagrams or MarioKart. I play it for Tyler, because he enjoys it so much and because I love him. And despite that one week’s disaster (which was entirely and solely my fault), I played again the next week. I didn’t put it off for months. That’s the deal I made with myself at the beginning. Weekly game night until we finish, even when it isn’t fun. There’s no point dreading it because I’m going to play every Thursday. I’m not putting it off.
Ultimately, playing games with Tyler feels a lot like playing my brother. They are both more adept than I am at thinking four or five moves ahead and remembering the path they need to take. They notice the details I often miss that effect the best course of action. And they are both infuriatingly, earnestly confused when I make an illogical move. And their earnestness makes me feel unintelligent, which is very bad for my Hermione self.
I fully expect to ultimately lose this campaign. And it’s rough to know you’ve played 8 weeks in a row and you’ll almost certainly lose. But the time set aside to do something together has been really good for us. Yes, 8 weeks of Scythe required sacrifice and love on my part, but that time has ultimately been good for us. And that time will be good for us no matter the activity. And Tyler probably didn’t
And when this campaign is over, I get to pick the next 8 Thursday night activities. We might play Bananagrams or watch Hallmark movies. We might go to a painting lesson. Activities that I’ll probably enjoy more than Tyler will. That’s what Tyler proposed after game 1, and it’s fair. But I do hope we’ll keep enjoying spending Thursday nights intentionally together.
Next week, I plan to launch a short series about my history and relationship with games, especially video games. When that’s finished, I’ll update about how our Thursday night tradition is progressing.