Game Night

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, 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 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.

On the Eve of Great Change

Last week, Ingleside’s young adult ministry launched The Summer Gathering, a mid-week worship service for young adults. It’s more liturgical than the church’s usual services, and even seemed more reflective. Or more contemplative. Anyway, it was for me.

Blake’s sermon focused on God visiting Jacob at the river Jabbok in Genesis 32, the wrestling match that ensued and lasted all night. The gist is that this restless, sleepless night came on the eve of great change. Jacob knew that when he went to bed. He’d see his brother the next day, his brother who might want to kill Jacob for his past trickery and theft. He knew his life was about to change, and he was so afraid, and though he began to wrestle with God wanting to win, when he finally learned that he was hopelessly outmatched, Jacob just wanted to hold on long enough to convince or compel God to bless him. In reality, God changed Jacob’s name and very nature, and Jacob because Israel, father of a nation.

As I sat in this cozy space, warmly lit with sandy carpet and translucent curtains, I remembered one of the longest, most restless nights I’ve ever experienced.

I was camping in the desert in Egypt. It was the white desert, so named for the chalk imbued with shells and shark teeth and littered by fragments of petrified wood—evidence of the long-ago sea in this area—that has been carved by the wind-driven sand into sculptures. It was the final night of a two-week trip, led by my favorite professor, to study the country’s politics and role in that area of the world. We’d had class in a Nile garden, visited the military museum, climbed inside a queen’s pyramid at Giza, attended a mosque during a service, and been followed by secret police. We’d visited a legal group, rested at a Coptic monastery, and been ordered not to photograph the facade of a Jewish synagogue. We’d also had plenty of internal strife, acting either too much or nothing at all like the siblings we pretended to be, fissuring viciously as a few of us tried to hold hands across the seams.

It was the last night. It was January. The evening had been pleasant by the fire and within an open-air room of carpets, eating roasted chicken and listening to our drivers and guides speaking Arabic across the table from us. But now we were in sleeping bags, weighed down by blankets so heavy I could barely roll over. I was in a very small tent with Kristen—my friend, ally, and fellow Christian—that was barely wide enough to hold us both and not quite long enough to also hold our suitcases. Exhausted, cold, after dinner we nestled down until the sleeping bags were over our heads and fell asleep.

It was horrible. The wind whistled and rippled the canvas. The temperature continued to drop. And nightmares plagued me, waking me too frequently to count, sometimes still paralyzed, and exhaustion always pulled me back under. Amongst other things, in the very late and very quiet, I dreamed someone had come into the tent and drugged us, then kidnapped Kristen. I woke, but the environment and sigh of the wind were exactly the same as they had been in the dream. I tried to roll over but couldn’t, the thick blanket too heavy. I tried to twist my head around enough to see her, but I couldn’t see anything beyond the mound of my own shoulder.

I was starting to panic, not sure if the dream had been a dream, so I said into the air, feeling small and alone, “Kristen?”

Immediately, she answered, “It’s okay, I’m still here.”

Relieved, I lay my head back down and returned to sleep.

In the morning, one of our leaders woke us so we could watch the sun rise, something we’d been excited about the night before. Now I wanted to cry because the night was finally over. We dragged on coats and trudged into the sand, not speaking. Our group found private places, away from each another but staying in sight. At any time, I could count us, just as I, the oldest student and pretend big sister, had been doing all trip. The only reasonable one among us worked to restart the fire. Silent, facing east, we waited. And when the entirety of the sun had crested the sands, spilling intense golden light on our faces and pinkening the sky, we climbed down from our chalk mountains and bunched together around the fire.

We had all had nightmares. Every American, which concerned our translator and guide, Ahmed. Most of us had had more than one, had woken frequently or laid awake for what we assumed was hours. We’d suffering from our dreams, all of which had involved each other. Car crashes and murders. Returning to Cairo to find the airport burning. Kristen had dreamed that something vague but terrible had happened to me, but she’d been facing me when the nightmare woke her and could see that I was okay. She didn’t remember reassuring me. She didn’t know why she said what she did. When I told her about the dream that had prompted me to say her name, she shivered at how eerily her own words had matched my fear.

As we broke camp, it rained. In the desert. None of our guides or drivers had ever seen that before. Ahmed didn’t even know the Arabic word for rainbow when we saw one arch from horizon to horizon on our way back to Cairo. Later that day, Tunisia ousted its president. The first protests in Egypt, organized by members of that legal group we’d visited, were held in Tahrir Square that day. Sitting at our gate that night, waiting to board our flight to Istanbul, we watched the Egyptians watch the news, their faces opening with wonder and possibility. That day was the beginning of the Arab Spring, which saw the fall of Egyptian President Mubarak and the police state we’d spent 2 weeks studying from within. Footage in the coming months showed clashes on the same streets we’d walked and in the same squares we’d bought shawarma. Coptic monks were gunned down outside their monastery, and I’m still not sure if it was the one we visited or the monks who’d hosted us.

Even now, when I hear of a bombing at an Egyptian church, I remember the little girl who prompted us to take off our shoes before entering the prayer chapel in the Coptic church, I pray that she and her parents and baby brother are safe. I think of the Last Supper and picture the stone table in the dining hall at the monastery, at which the bishop sits with the oldest monk on his left and the youngest on his right. I remember the reedy spot by a high wall where tradition says Moses was found as a baby. I picture the sign on the interstate pointing to the wealthy suburb where Joseph’s wife came from. When a rainbow comes into my sky, I wonder if another one has come into Ahmed’s sky in the past 6 years. All those wonderful people. All those English phrases offered on the streets, “Welcome.” “Hello.” “Come please.” “Welcome to Egypt.”

My night before great change was long, restless, thick with cold and nightmares. Jacob walked the rest of his life with a limp as a result of his long, restless night, but he discovered that his brother no longer hated him and even embraced him. And his life by no means became easy, but he was blessed, and he did move through the world differently. In a small way, so have I.

Late-night Drives

When was the last time you were out at 1 a.m.? Or 11 p.m.? Or 3 a.m.? Whatever really late is to you.

A couple weeks ago, Tyler and I were coming back from a musical at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and it was late. We got back to his apartment, I packed up my things—the bags and shoes I had littered across his apartment in the 5-minute whirlwind I’d created getting ready after work. And I sat down on the couch for, like, 2 seconds. And when I woke up it was even later.

Driving home, I was surprised by how many people were on the roads and the interstate. I wondered how many miles that truck had driven in the last 24 hours. How far the people in that car have been today and how far they will have to go before they sleep. Did they go to a concert or baseball game and live farther away than I do? Did they get a late-night call from a friend, for injury or illness, and are on their way to them?

I wondered about the car at the stop light and why that truck is coming out of my neighborhood. A parent headed to the store for their sick child? Or maybe just someone who can’t sleep and wants to drive around for a while. Maybe they are people like me, who stayed too long or fell asleep or watched a really long movie and are now going home to somewhere close by.

But the later it gets, the more dire I think those stories probably are. And I wonder especially about people on the interstate. What happened today, and in these last hours, to put them on the highway this late at night?

Everyone who has had a very late, very terrible night of driving, I hope there was someone praying for you as you went by. And I hope you found a hug when you got where you were going.