“Obsession: Being A Modest Introduction To Tabletop Games For People Who Hate Tabletop Games”

I get it. Believe me, I do – the specific and prolonged agony of finding yourself press-ganged into a games night you didn’t want to be part of.

Come on, it’ll be fun. Let’s play- and from that point on your hitherto tolerable evening dissolves into a gruelling exam governed by arcane rules and prohibitions.

Maybe, as the host explains the game, you feel the rules ricocheting off your brain like so much hail off a double-glazed window. There’s way too much to take in – a firehose of jargon, an endless incantation of codes and exceptions like some holy text you’re expected to have committed to heart. A low-grade panic begins bubbling in your chest. You feel as if you’re strapped to a hang-glider, staring down a sickeningly short runway towards the edge of a cliff, the instructor’s final words of advice reduced to a meaningless cricket chirp in your ear. Is it you? Is anyone else getting this?

Or maybe, you understand only too well but you just can’t make yourself care. Hey! Lovely to see you. Tonight we’re pretending to plant and harvest cartoon beans.

One of my earliest memories is of going to playgroup session where we were supposed to march around in a circle, pretending to be elephants. After gamely trying to waggle my outstretched arm as if it were a trunk and copy the others, my will broke and I ran to my Mum in tears. I didn’t have a word for it then, but I felt embarrassed. We weren’t elephants. We weren’t even doing a very convincing impression of elephants. We were just participating in this bizarre and frankly dull ritual when we could have been… well, doing literally anything else.

I imagine, for some people – perhaps you – a game night feels not dissimilar: weird, unnecessary and sometimes a bit humiliating, almost by design.

Everyone seems super-invested – some of them too invested – but all you can see are these bits of card covered with drawings and numbers. Why should any of this matter? You’d like to talk to your friends, actually, but now they’re all frowning trying to figure out how to pay for rum shipments or screaming with laughter trying to mime clues. You feel surplus to requirements. You’ve been drafted into this complicated, unfathomable gameshow with no prizes, and the one thing you came here to do, which was to catch up with people you like, is likely to be perceived as your being disruptive and ‘not joining in’.

If you’ve had either of these experiences, I empathise, because I’ve had them too. I love, and obsess over tabletop games. That doesn’t mean that I uncritically enjoy them, that I’m not fussy, nor that I’m immune to negative experiences.

Loving games doesn’t mean I love all games, anymore than a particular sexual identity means you want to bone/sensually frot/mouth kiss everyone of the target gender(s). It might mean, in fact, that I’m a bit more of a fusspot, a bit more of a prejudiced snob, a smidge more of a grumpo. Maybe I decide I’m not going to like a game before I sit down because the art looks crappy, or it looks too simple, or it looks superficially like something else.

Sometimes – often, if I’m honest – I get overwhelmed by rules. When someone’s doing a teach, I frequently have the thought ‘I’m not taking this in at all’. Then they’ll say ‘does that make sense?’ and I’ll lie and say ‘yes’. More often than not, I start my first playthrough of a game feeling like I don’t understand it. I hope that I’ll be able to infer what to do from what other people do, and make some educated guesses, and if I try to do something that’s against the rules someone will call me out and I can say ‘oh yes, of course’, as if I’d taken that information in during the teach rather than sitting there in a protective catatonia while the jingle from the old Game of Life advert looped in my head.

Some games have incredibly gnarly and unintuitive rules akin to a secret society initiation. Some people are better than others at teaching games. Some environments are better than others for absorbing rules. Some emotional states are more suited than others for learning.

I find concentrating hard, even at the best of times. Feeling like I don’t understand something that others seem to grasp has always been a challenging experience for me – I have a vivid memory of losing at chess club when I was 9 or 10, and having a massive meltdown in the school’s TV room, crying and thrashing my head back and forth till I was dizzy.

Feeling confused or intellectually out of my depth can quickly lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment and anxiety. I feel stupid, like I’m letting people down. I may also try to protect myself by projecting feelings of resentment onto other people. Why have they put me in the position? Why have they abandoned me like this?

What I’m saying is, that creeping dread during a teach is familiar to me – it’s a barrier I have to break through almost every time I learn a new game.

Now at this point you may be thinking, Tim, this is not the greatest sales pitch for games – suggesting that people’s worst experiences are, in fact, intrinsic to the practice and that the price of entry is resigning yourself to them. And you are right. But this is not a sales pitch.

When I first started getting into tabletop games properly – a shift that followed, not coincidentally, my decision to quit alcohol – my wife told me that she didn’t mind, but it had caught her a little off-guard, as if I’d ‘suddenly started going to church’. The truth is, I’ve loved games all my life, but the simile was apt.

I approached tabletop games with an addict’s intensity. I had a fierce need to understand and experience, and the disappearance of alcohol – which was linked to almost every aspect of my social life and much of my professional one – left a void into which games flowed, like molten lead into a cast.

I recognise here the familiar arc of a recovery story. Those of us who have saved ourselves from one vice often find ourselves pinned betwixt the twin mandibles of two more: fanaticism, and an inability to shut up.

Little is more off-putting than the glassy-eyed conviction of the True Believer. Of course you’re going to love games, you just haven’t found the right one. You just had a bad experience, darling, come with me – each reassurance a tightening grip on your wrist as you find yourself half cajoled, half frogmarched into an aircraft hangar lined with games. Here’s my collection – well, part of it – I’m sure we’ll find a match for you in here. Now, do you like medieval Florence or are you more of a Carthage type of gal?

It’s hard for me to disentangle the refuge I’ve found in the bright, tactile paraphernalia of analogue play from what games actually are and how you might experience them. This isn’t going to help my case, but I’ve struggled for an analogy and the best I can come up with is, you know that feeling when you really need to pee, and your bladder is so full it’s pressing, wanting you to go release its contents? That’s how my brain feels whenever anything conceivably within the orbit of tabletop games gets brought up in conversation. In psychiatry they call its external manifestation ‘pressured speech’ – compulsive monologuing, often taken as a sign of mania or psychosis.

There have been other topics, over the years, that I’ve felt similarly about – Super Mario lore, Pokémon, 20th Century South-East Asian history, ghosts, the Beatles – sometimes in brief, intense crushes, sometimes perpetually. They come on rather like Mr Toad’s manias, and that moment where he sits, thunderstruck, in the middle of the road, gazing after the motor car that ran his caravan into a ditch, and murmuring: ‘Poop poop.’

And I’m not sure my reasons for loving tabletop games are any more coherent, anymore transmissible than his two word summation. I’m not convinced reason has anything to do with it.

Still, part of me is desperate to woo you into the bustling, aromatic souk of tabletop gaming and say welcome my friend, come, explore the stalls, a world of wonder awaits. Games bring me such delight, it feels selfish not to share the bounty and invite others to join me.

But I’m not without self-awareness. I’m conscious that – if I’m not careful – my, let’s call it ‘unusual zeal’ might make you, or indeed anyone I interact with, feel I’m not so much having a conversation with them as holding them hostage in a service lift. Have you heard the good news about our Lord and Saviour Uwe Rosenberg?

Thus I find myself, daily, choosing to bridle this tornado of sincere enthusiasm, to not present my feelings as they really are, to disguise them, shut them away, and instead substitute a bunch of scripted questions and answers: ‘How has your week been? Yes I’m fine, thank you.’ Things that I know will register in people’s brains as ‘yes, that is something a normal adult human would say’.

And the effort of doing this, well… to continue the analogy from earlier, it feels like continually trying not to pee my pants. You know when you’re at that stage? Where you have to concentrate not to let a little bit of wee out? And maybe you’re waiting for a natural gap in the conversation so you can elegantly duck out, but it’s hard to really follow what’s being said with much success because you’re focusing on clenching the relevant muscles.

That’s how existing, in most social contexts, feels to me. Possibly you can understand why I used to drink.

Nearly two years ago, at the age of 40, I was diagnosed as autistic. The psychologist who co-wrote my report with a speech and language expert after two days of assessment and a battery of questionnaires told me I was ‘the most fantastically-autistic person I’ve ever assessed’. She said she was shocked it hadn’t been caught for so long.

I only sought assessment because I’d started work on a book about games, and I’d found myself speaking to many neurodivergent players, and I wondered why so many people with ADHD and autism and other spicy brain variants seemed drawn to games. I went to the assessment because, frankly, I thought it would be a good content for the book, I thought it would help me understand autistic people better, and I thought it was important to make a distinction between a nerd – me – and an autistic person – absolutely not me.

Egg on my face, eh readers.

I daily apologise to people for being Too Much. Too loud. Too enthusiastic. For liking the wrong things. And – notwithstanding the self-vindicating rhetorical crescendo you may anticipate I’m building towards – I don’t think restraint is necessarily a damaging act of self-betrayal. Coaching myself through the unintuitive, often labour-intensive business of remembering to ask someone how they are doing, showing interest and asking follow-up questions, trying to resist the impulse to interrupt – these all contribute to my making better connections and feeling less lonely.

But. But but but. I am not cornering you at a party. I have not just occupied the seat next to yours on a long-haul flight to Minsk. This is an opt-in medium. Whatever I have to say, you can always bail.

The tragedy of masking, whether it be neurodivergent or neurotypical folks doing it, is that, in camouflaging our authentic selves and feelings, we starve ourselves of genuine connection. Every expression of approval or acceptance from others is a validation of our personal PR campaign, not us.

Worse, we may only be interacting with the PR campaigns of other people, who falsely believe they have to live up to the normative pressures we’ve been helping prop up. It’s like a massive LARP, where everyone is playing a superficially-competent, unremarkable adult.

And the effort of this, for me at least, is exhausting. So: you know what? I really, really love Suburbia.

Like it’s not a perfect game? The original art of the first edition is frankly perfunctory and who gets excited about the tricky compromises of urban zoning.

But dear God. What a stew to dunk my brain into – these little hexagonal slices of post-war Americana that represent cities bleeding out into the surrounding countryside. Suburbia presents you and your friends with this ever-replenishing conveyor belt of the American dream, parks and elementary schools, football stadiums and skyscrapers, landfills and slaughterhouses.

Each turn you’re choosing one and slotting it into an intricate ecosystem of profit and rising infrastructure costs and the regard in which prospective residents hold you. Every action, every building you construct, shifts the rudder of your economy with consequences that will play out for turns to come.

When I play Suburbia, I am not struggling to hold in my pee. Well, unless one of the airports is coming up, in which case I might postpone visiting the loo until I’ve bought it. But I don’t feel that pressure of having to pretend I’m someone I’m not. I can breathe. I get to be Tim.

When I play games, I feel safe. I feel like I fit with the universe. It’s not elation, it’s not ecstasy, but it’s the outbreath as the burglar alarm that has been shrieking for ten solid minutes finally stops.

But I hide that, even from people who want to play games with me. I can’t say come, join me in ludic communion so I may harmonise with the music of the spheres. You’d think I was mad. You’d think it was a sex thing.

It’s not a sex thing. But here I am, I’ve said it. I love these games. I constantly want to play them. I rock back and forth with excitement. Clap my hands. Make little moans and squeals. Sometimes I go into a kind of fugue state and lose minutes, hours, reading about them, or just thinking.

And, look: this is not my come to Jesus speech. I am not trying to convert you to feeling as intensely as I do. But I do hope, as I work on this new book and share some of my honest thoughts, you might accept me as your deranged little goblin wayfinder, leading you on a journey through the diverse terrain of what a game can be, and why we’ve been so drawn to them, all round the world, all throughout history. There’s magic and poetry and religious suppression, mass murder, the paintbox of the imagination, and I think, at the very bedrock of it all, hope.

Games are a technology for connecting humans – to each other, and to ourselves. I want to assemble a little mezze plate of the rich and tangy and dizzyingly diverse range of games that are out there, that we have generated out of our desire to be with each other and to do interesting things when we’re together. And you don’t have to play games, or know anything about them, to join me.

Of course, you may love games, in which case hi, welcome, bless you. But even so, play is so diverse, so varied in its flowerings that two people can love play and not have a single game they like in common. And that’s fine, that’s beautiful, that’s part of it.

I just want to celebrate and explore and unpick games, as part of this process I’m going through to work through and understand them myself, as I write this book I care deeply about. There are amazing stories amongst the games of our world – each one is an explosion of densely-threaded ideas and social technologies and a commentary on what it means to be human.

Because these games – as far as we know they’re a phenomenon unique in the universe. This behaviour, these events, this proliferation of tiny rituals we take almost entirely for granted. What’s going on? Why do we do this? And what lessons might we learn about ourselves by taking the time to stop, and finally pay attention?

If you’re interested, stick around, follow me on social media. I’m hoping to post updates on this blog, and if possible create pieces in other formats (he wrote mysteriously) before, of course, ultimately, the book comes out next year. Games are all about community, so I hope to involve as many people as possible, as I taste just a fraction of the vast scope of human, in-person play. If you want to get in touch for whatever reason, please click on the ‘Contact Me’ button on this website and drop me a line.

Tim Clare

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