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The game of life: What I learned about ministry and myself from board games

As I’ve grown into adulthood, I’ve continued to carry my love of games from my earliest childhood. There’s something about play that is life-giving to me. And games – especially board games – have been one of my most important avenues into play.

Growing up, our family had a closet full of games. It was the narrow hallway closet, so opening the door to pick out a game effectively prevented travel between the bedrooms and the rest of the house. It was an important event.

We played a variety of games, including standards such as Sorry, Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, Battleship and, of course, Monopoly. One of our absolute favorites was the Game of Life. We played it so often that our babysitter refused to play it with us, so we came up with a workaround: We asked her if we could play a game called “File,” and then got out Life and told her we switched the letters around. Very clever. Surprisingly, it didn’t work well.

The Game of Life is essentially a drawn-out metaphor for, well, life. In the version we played, you started by getting an education or a job. You move on to get married, establish a family, buy stock and endure the various challenges that life might throw at you, all determined by a sadistic number spinner that tells you where to go and what to do until you reach the end of the game — which is, of course, death… where you tally up all of your money and children to see who won at life.

Why didn’t I notice how morbid and cynical this was as a kid?

In any case, I’m less into those games these days and more into more complicated strategy and party games like Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Apples to Apples and Codenames. These games are new and different, but they, like the Game of Life, are metaphors. They’re fun, yes, but they’re also tools to better understand myself, my friends and my world.

The world according to Monopoly

A well-designed game is a microcosm of the human experience. Monopoly, for instance, was designed to illustrate the evils of capitalism, which is why you hate playing it even though it never seems to go out of style. Originally called the Landlord’s Game, it was designed by Elizabeth Magie in 1904 to show how an economic system where renters pay to landlords will disenfranchise the renters. Incidentally, this game itself is based on a game called Zohn Ahl played by the Kiowa Native Americans of Oklahoma.  The game spread through the Wharton School of Finance where different versions were made, including one called “Monopoly.” From the beginning, Monopoly was meant to teach a lesson about the greater world, and I believe that almost all games end up doing this, whether they intend to explicitly or not.

Take, for instance, Apples to Apples, where an adjective card is drawn and each player plays a card printed with a noun, after which a judge decides which noun is “best” and awards a point. As in other games where players submit words to a judge (like Balderdash), playing this game offers insights into the personalities of the players. In Apples to Apples, I might hold onto a card like “Canada” until it’s a particular player’s turn to be the judge, because I know that player likes all things Canadian. For some players, I might offer up an adjective that’s an absurd match for that noun, for others I might offer up an adjective that matches perfectly. So, Apples to Apples teaches us to pay attention to the preferences of others — and it gives us practice in doing just that. I always know people slightly better after playing Apples to Apples than I did before.

Apples to Apples reminds me to pay attention to each person’s uniqueness. Different people are sensitive to different things, enjoy different things and care about different things — and that ought to impact how I communicate with and treat others. Especially in ministry, I have to avoid the trap of thinking about people as simply the “next task on my list.” In order to share Christ’s love with people, I need to see them as Christ sees them, not simply as chores to get done.

Martin Buber, a 20thcentury philosopher, wrote a book called “I and Thou” in which he contrasted two main types of relationships: the “I-Thou” relationship and the “I-It” relationship. To not take into account the humanity of the person I am dealing with is to have an “I-It” relationship with that person, treating him as an object to be used, something outside myself that only impacts me inasmuch as I can make use of “it.” Buber asks us to get to know each other, to meet other people as whole beings who cannot simply be interpreted according to what you can get out of them. Learning about another person’s preferences, being curious about her values and understanding her choices are all part of truly meeting that person and, in turn, the entire world around you — because, as Buber wrote, “All real living is meeting.”

We’re all in this (hexagon) together

One of the most popular and well-known tabletop strategy games today is Settlers of Catan. It’s a board made up of hexagons surrounded by water, with each hexagon representing a different resource. Players build roads, villages and cities on the map to access the different resources, each of which are assigned a number and distributed to players with access when that number is rolled on the dice. There are other complicating factors, but besides those it’s basically a race to 10 points.

To me, Catan is all about resource management. Those who invest wisely and manage effectively will win, and those who don’t will quickly fall behind. Unless, of course, you build good relationships with your fellow players and can convince them to trade you the resources you need to win. Like the Game of Life, Monopoly and Apples to Apples, Catan is also a metaphor for life: specifically, the importance of balance, thoughtfulness and personal relationships.

It’s possible to play Catan without, for example, investing in personal relationships. It’s entirely possible to do something like spending your turn trading away all of your brick resources, only to end your turn by playing the “Monopoly” card that allows you to steal all of the brick resources back from every player, after you’ve successfully persuaded them to part with their best resources in exchange for that all important brick. You could do that — but no one would trade with you for the rest of the game, because only jerks pull that move. (I’m not going to name any names here.) You could even win the game after that move, but you’d do so without any outside help from your neighbors. Most times, it behooves you to work on your relationships with others. Give them the things they want sometimes, give others a leg up, remember that you’re all in this together, consider that at the end of the day you’re all stuck on the same hexagonal island and that you’ll all starve if you don’t build a successful economy. (Wait a second, is this game morbid, too? It must just be me.)

In the same way, it’s hard to live in our world without investing in personal relationships. If you spend all of your time taking from your neighbors and never giving back, you’ll find that your friendships are short lived or insincere. If no one comes to your events, ask yourself: Do you ever go to the events of others? Often, my first step in launching new ministry programs or events is to ask what events are already happening and find ways to get involved. Part of being Presbyterian, for me, is being curious and open to reformation, which means that I don’t have to do everything myself. I don’t always have the right answer, and working together with others can deepen my faith even if I don’t agree with everything they believe. In the end, we’re all in this together, hurtling through space on a giant spinning rock. Life on this rock is better if we work together, helping other people from time to time, even if it’s at our own expense. It makes sense to build bridges.

It’s how you play the game

While you can still win at Catan if you burn your bridges with other players, it’s much harder to win if you don’t think about what you’re doing. For instance, the placement of starting pieces is of utmost importance. Players get to choose where on the board they start. This means they get to choose which resources to position themselves next to. Everyone knows how often each resource is likely to be distributed on the board, and which resources are necessary for success. Resources that are distributed when 6s and 8s are rolled are much more valuable than resources that are only distributed on 10s and 2s. (This is true, of course, outside of the application of Murphy’s Law, which in this instance states that 6s and 8s are the most common rolls of two dice except for cases where I place my resources there. In that case, the most common roll inexplicably becomes an 11). In general, it makes sense to place your pieces where they’re most likely to receive resources. If you don’t pay attention, you might play through the game without building so much as a single road. And if you build your roads unwisely or too slowly, you’ll find yourself cut off from the best resources as you expand your tiny island empire.

Life, like Catan, is worth thinking carefully about. Too much time spent lost in the moment and not enough time spent thinking about what’s coming next leads to missteps. Too much time thinking about the future or the past and not enough on where you are and what you’re doing leads to dissatisfaction. And if all you do is play board games and ignore the rest of the world, you might not like (or notice) where you end up. As Lewis Carroll said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Spending time improving my mindfulness has brought me closer to the places I’d prefer to be. I’ve found that during my most hectic times, what often helps the most isn’t rushing through as many tasks as possible, but taking a step back to look at the bigger picture of my life. When my email inbox is overflowing, it helps to remember that I’m a child of God trying to share God’s love with others. When I’m overwhelmed with meetings, it helps to think about why I want to fulfill my obligations to be present. I spend a good amount of time looking back at the history of the church I serve to remind myself that what happens here is bigger than me and will last much longer than my short attention span. Perhaps most importantly, being mindful gives me the opportunity to get more in touch with the divine by encouraging prayer and reflection on the things that are most important.

Shifting strategies

In all of these aspects, both the game of Catan and life itself require us to pursue balance. You can’t win Catan by only building roads, but you can’t win without them. You have to have settlements, too – and cities – but again, if you only build settlements, you’ll never make it. In the same way, life requires many things of us. But too much time or energy spent on one important thing is just as harmful as ignoring it entirely. It’s important to have meaningful work — but if you spend all your time at work and no time with your friends, family, pets, church, garden, workshop or whatever else gives you rest and recovery, you may soon find your work to be torture. At the same time, we can’t always spend our time on the fun things and ignore the difficult tasks life requires of us.

And here’s where I find another interesting intersection between life and board games. There is a time, in the beginning of the game of Catan, where the most important thing is to build up the settlements and cities that give you your resources. Every bit of energy spent on placing those pieces (and placing them well) is well spent. Later in the game, though, you might decide that settlements and cities aren’t important anymore, and you’ll win through another means. In life, too, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Perhaps it’s appropriate to spend every waking moment with your spouse when you first get married, but eventually you each need to find friendships to support and stabilize your lives. Otherwise you might find that your marriage, which you spend all of your free time on, is paradoxically falling apart. It makes sense for a student to spend the majority of his spare time during his last years of high school studying, investing relatively less in new relationships. But after leaving high school and entering another school or the workforce, it suddenly becomes more important to build new relationships to find stability in this new phase. What is appropriate for one stage of your life is not always appropriate for another.

More than a game

Someone once said, “An hour of play discovers more than a year of conversation.” This is certainly true – I get to know my friends and acquaintances much more closely through playing board games together with them. But I also get to know myself better through these games. I learn how I react in situations of stress, I see more clearly how my preferences and biases express themselves and, especially when I play games like Catan, I learn what my go-to strategies for balance and relationship building might be.

I’d like to encourage you to spend some time at play yourself. Play a game – any game, it doesn’t have to be a board game – with a friend, a neighbor or a family member. Notice the way you play, and ask what that teaches you about your life — and whether you like what it teaches you.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania.