We’re not sure if we’re going to make it—through the card game or through this stage of our relationship. I sit at the dining table with my gaming partner, my husband of eight years, Kylie. We are not a fighting couple, but lately, we’ve been having too many tense conversations, too many miscommunications, too many misses altogether. So, we do what we always do when we feel distant: we play a board game. Tonight, we have chosen Hanabi, a game that is horrible on marriage while you play but creates better communication overall—hopefully.
Hanabi—which means “fireworks” in Japanese—is a cooperative game, meaning that Kylie and I work together. The trick is we can’t see our own hands. We each hold our cards facing out so we can only see what cards the other is holding. The goal is to play twenty-five of the cards in sequential order. A perfect 25 game will end with five different colored piles of five cards in numerical order: a collaborative fireworks display. But if we miss, if the numbers below the card one of us selects have not been played, we are forced to discard it.
We shuffle and deal.
• • •
We are sitting at a table that is also the scene for the other big game we play: the game of life. And no, I don’t mean the classic game with the green board and orange road—although if we played it, we would have filled our car with the traditional blue and pink pegs in the front seats, and we’d add two pink pegs in the back. It’s the other game of life we play, the real world life, with taxes and a mortgage and salaries and all of the work that goes into caring for the two little girls sleeping upstairs.
Our pink pegs are four and almost two years old; rather than send them to daycare, we have arranged our lives around being their primary caregivers. I teach classes in the morning at the local university, and Kylie runs a board game store that doesn’t open until 11 am. Grandpa Bob’o comes to watch them during the few hours when our jobs overlap.
We divide the household chores: he has the kitchen and the finances; I have the laundry, the cleaning, and the schedule. He cooks the meals in the morning; I attempt to feed them to the girls in the evening. Often, the oldest one chews the first bite but never swallows, and the youngest one blocks the spoon with her tongue. I end up making grilled cheese.
“Can’t you cook food they’ll eat?” I ask.
“You can’t predict what they’ll eat,” he says. But the truth is, most of the time, they will eat for him. And for my mom, my sister, their friends’ parents—even Bob’o, who comes over with candy hiding in his shirt pocket. Anyone else but me. For me, this table is a battlefield.
• • •
We have to help each other out, but the clues we can give are limited, incomplete. We start with the lowest numbers. I point to three of Kylie’s cards and give my clue: “Ones.”
He plays a One on the table, face up between us. It is Blue. He shifts the other two Ones away from his other cards (a Four and a Five), and picks up a new card, another Five.
Kylie points to two of my five cards: “Red.” I shift the cards to the left of my hand, setting them apart. Instead of playing a card, I give a clue.
I point back at his hand: “Fives.”
He groans, flipping them upside-down to remind himself. These are important. The other cards all have multiple copies, so if you discard a Four, there’s another one of that color in the pile. But there is only a single copy of each Five. If he discards one, we’ll never reach 25. Holding Fives from the beginning really gums up the game.
For his turn, he lays a Green One on the table between us.
• • •
Our marriage has been built on board games. More accurately, our conversations were the foundation, and games built the scaffolding. As graduate students, Kylie and I met at an academic summer camp: he taught existentialism, and I taught writing. After the camp, we wrote long emails about all things teaching, philosophy, Battlestar Galactica, theology, and eventually relationships. Amidst these heady exchanges, we began playing backgammon online, continuing our conversation through instant messaging.
In other words, we got to know each other geeky-grad-student style. Less than a year later, Kylie moved to Pittsburgh to be near me, and our backgammon rapport moved to a real board.
Our gaming tastes broadened, too, but it wasn’t intentional. When Kylie moved to Pittsburgh, the tenure-track job prospects in philosophy were miserable, so he opted out. Like many disillusioned grad students, he left academia behind and got a job at a coffee shop. But the place that really mattered was across the street: Games Unlimited, a board game store.
On our first visit, we went home with Battlestar Galactica—our favorite television show translated into a (surprisingly great) board game. Next came Carcassonne and Race for the Galaxy, then Tales of Arabian Nights and Forbidden Island, then Dominion. . . . We found so many games we loved that we just didn’t stop.
Kylie began going to Games Unlimited every day after work, making friends with the owner, Bob Schwartz. Bob had opened the store in 1979, and he knew seemingly everything about board games and the industry. Around 2000, before YouTube was even created, Bob started interviewing game designers and posting the videos online. He gave Kylie the VHS copies, and Kylie converted them to DVD. Kylie wanted to know everything about board games, and Bob had the answers.
We learned about gaming history. In his book It’s All a Game, Tristan Donovan writes that in the aftermath of World War II, West Germany, in particular, began emphasizing more constructive, family-oriented leisure activities—including tabletop games. Germany became a well-known gaming hub, and by the time we met Bob, the games we were coming to love belonged to a growing genre called German-style games or, more commonly, Eurogames. Unlike popular American games like Monopoly or Risk, which rely on eliminating your opponents to win, in Eurogames, such as Carcassonne or Catan, players work against one another to gain points through strategy.
As Eurogames became more popular worldwide, designers became even more creative with the relationships at the table and created cooperative games, in which players work together against the board. In Pandemic, for instance, a team tries to save the world by fighting infectious disease. Thanks, in part, to that game’s success and visibility, the genre continued to gain steam throughout the 2000s.
Then, in 2010, Antoine Bauza, a retired teacher, had the idea to use a deck of cards in an entirely new way. “The challenge was: can I make something original, new, with these old classic components?” As he fiddled with the idea, Bauza looked at the back of a card and wondered if he could make a game out of that—where everyone picked up their cards the wrong way. He tried different competitive ideas until his wife suggested making the game cooperative. Within an hour, the game came together, and Hanabi was born. In 2013, it was the first purely cooperative game to win the Spiel des Jahres, the most prestigious board game award.
• • •
Kylie and I have four Ones on the table, but we are still missing the Yellow One. Kylie has the Yellow Two in his hand, and I can’t tell him either the color or the number. If I say, “Yellow,” he’ll think it’s the Yellow One; if I say, “Two,” he’ll think it’s a playable Two. Either way, he will play it. There is no clue for “Keep this until later!” I have to stay silent.
There’s another element to this game: our clues are finite. Next to the cards, we have eight small clue tokens. When we give a clue, we flip a token. To get a clue back, we have to discard a card. Kylie and I play with a shorthand: any card we are considering discarding is always on the same end of our hand—we call it the chopping block. The Yellow Two is on his chopping block.
My silence has a price.
Kylie discards the Yellow Two.
He looks at it for a moment, as if considering whether to get mad at me for not telling him about it. Instead, he shrugs. “We don’t have the Yellow One out anyway. The other Two will come.”
It’s a generous statement. We have played too many games where the last Two hides at the end of the stack, appearing too late in the game to be played.
I bite my lip and sigh.
• • •
Sometimes life reminds me of a resource management game, where players make decisions about where to invest their resources to try to accumulate the most points by the end. The most popular is Settlers of Catan, which came to the States in the mid-1990s. Its popularity began the avalanche of Eurogames in the American market. In Catan, players settle an island, investing in different tiles that give them resources—wool, lumber, brick, grain, ore—so that they can then build cities and roads to get points. The first player to ten points wins.
In my family, the points we strive to build up are the end goals of caring for our children, our emotional health, career advancement, and retirement savings. And we have finite resources: time, money, personal energy. Where do we choose to put them? We make those decisions at this table.
This year, I took on too many classes, but we did not give me more time to work. At first, I didn’t understand this imbalance. I kept saying, “My schedule is so different this semester; it feels as if I don’t have as much time.” Neither of us heard the reality behind my comment—that I needed more time. It began to feel more competitive, each side tallying and comparing resources. I couldn’t sleep well, so I ended up in the basement guest bed to get away from Kylie’s snoring and toss myself to sleep. Each morning that I woke in the basement, I felt a little more behind.
• • •
A year after he moved to Pittsburgh, Kylie was still full-time at the coffee shop, with no hope of a better job in sight. We started reading a book called Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer, a Quaker accustomed to listening to the inner self and finding an authentic way of being in the world. The part that rang truest for Kylie’s philosophic mind was a section where Palmer paraphrases the writer and pastor Frederick Buechner: true vocation can be found in “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
Kylie realized that in his philosophy, he had been looking only inward for answers to what he should do with his life. But with board games and their social nature, he found the outward, and the connection that Palmer described between self and service became manifest. Kylie’s great gladness was board gaming. “Games bring people joy—laughter—and also connectedness,” I heard him say to a group recently. “People want to be connected.”
And so, in 2010, Kylie mentioned to Bob that he might want to own a game store one day. Bob was in his mid-sixties. He didn’t have any plans for his business—no kids to leave it to, no employee managers. Within a year, he and Kylie had come to an arrangement: someday, Kylie would buy the business from Bob.
• • •
We have no clues left.
In our attempt to look for the last Yellow One, we have discarded four Threes and one Blue Four, making their matching cards now just as valuable to keep as Fives. Our highest possible score now is 22. The Green Five in Kylie’s hand is useless, but we don’t have enough clues left for me to tell him.
So I discard a card to get a clue back.
It’s the last Blue Four.
I suck in my breath and sigh.
The maximum number of points we can get now is 20.
“Let’s try again,” I say. “It was a bad draw.”
That’s the beauty of games: there are no true consequences. In a video game, if your character dies, the game just restarts at a spot shortly before the failure, and you get to try again. And again. Until you beat the monster at the end of Level 3.
Life is less forgiving. Marriage sometimes even less so, with its mental scorecards of who did what, and what is fair, and who is responsible. Recently, Kylie asked if he could do a weekly game night with the regulars at the store, and I said no. He already had a weekly game night, and that would mean he’d have two nights out a week, whereas I had only one monthly social commitment. I knew I was being selfish; it was purely that I had lost so much of myself in diapered children and teaching that I couldn’t expend the energy. Until I figured myself out, he was stuck coming home to do the kids’ bedtime routine with me, serving as a buffer between me and the loneliness I felt as a young mom.
Kylie and I try—we try so hard—not to keep those scorecards. But they are there, sitting between us on the couch while we escape into another television show. At least when we play games, we have a chance to interact, to acknowledge that those scorecards are there, sitting next to the cards of fireworks. Maybe we can even reshuffle them.
We deal out the cards for a second game, and I breathe a sigh of relief: no Fives in Kylie’s hand, and two Ones. A hopeful start.
• • •
When our first daughter was nearly a year old, Kylie bought the store from Bob. Our daughter was a regular “employee” by then, hanging out at the store while I taught. She also fit in with one of his goals for the business: to emphasize Games Unlimited as a place where families were comfortable shopping.
After he retired, we noticed that Bob stopped in only when our daughter was also “working.” His new free time and deteriorating health had him reevaluating his own board game of life. He became Grandpa Bob’o, coming to our house a few days each week to cover the time neither of us could be home, buffering our time, gracing the girls with his undivided attention, and spending his retirement playing games about ponies and fairies and princesses.
Cooperative games, where everyone can pool their resources, are often satisfying to play. They’re also more fun. Usually.
• • •
In our second game, we are looking for a Green Two, the Blue and Red Threes, and the Yellow and White Fours.
The Yellow Five is on Kylie’s chopping block. There are no clues left, so I discard a card: the Blue Three. It was playable, and I threw it away. Kylie doesn’t say anything. I flip over a clue and pick up another card. I know nothing about my hand.
Kylie uses the clue: “Red,” he says, pointing to my two cards on the left. I am not sure what he is saying with this clue. Should I keep them? Do I discard something else?
Hoping for the Red Three, I play one of the cards. It’s the Red Four.
“Why did you do that?!” Kylie asks.
“I thought you said I could play them!”
“I was saying they were Red so keep them!”
He looks at me. I look at him. The fireworks on the table lie between us—a generally amiable couple. But when fireworks misfire, often the people handling them get hurt.
• • •
Balancing the finances and orders became a resource management game for Kylie. The possibilities for each round of a fiscal year were endless. He began by advertising the new International Tabletop Day—a Saturday in the spring started by Wil Wheaton, who had released a number of how-to-play videos with celebrities. Kylie made a big day of it at the store, offering a raffle, tournaments, a storewide discount, and steeper discounts on the games from the videos. That Saturday turned out to be the highest grossing day in Games Unlimited’s history.
Fiero is a word Kylie found in the book Reality Is Broken by Jane McGonigal, an educational and gaming philosopher. McGonigal writes that fiero is an Italian word meaning “pride,” but it is more than that. It’s the elation of placing the last puzzle piece, solving the Rubik’s Cube, finishing the project, or playing a strategic move. McGonigal cites research explaining that “fiero is one of the most powerful neurochemical highs we can experience.” Fiero is what keeps people coming back to games—opting into a challenge to conquer—and Kylie got a taste of it with this first major accomplishment at the store. He also understands that by selling games, he is selling fiero. He sees fiero as part of the world’s great need: everyone needs a little fiero in their lives.
Marriage rarely has fiero. Sure, there’s pride in numbers of anniversaries, pride in signing mortgage papers on a new home, the astounding fiero of giving birth. And the high of sex. But in the daily realities—Did you take the garbage out? How much did the kids eat today? Did they poop?—fiero is hard to come by.
So perhaps Hanabi is our way of finding it, of remembering that we are a team. We began playing Hanabi when I was pregnant with our first child. We often hit 23 or 24; it took us weeks to hit a perfect 25. Now, it’s become a kind of barometer: when we are out of sync, our scores are low.
• • •
We crash in our third game of Hanabi, too. We actually finish this one, but with a sad score of 18. We are beyond sad ourselves, laughing at our own hopelessness when we discard cards we need. We’ve never played so poorly.
But it is a game. So we try again. And again. With a bottle of wine as our timekeeper, we sit and talk. We try to realign our scorecards, to adjust the rules of our larger game to be cooperative, not competitive. It’s not about my time or his time—it’s about our time. But we need more childcare. Kylie suggests that perhaps he could come home early one night a week, give me more time to do what I need to do: work or yoga or going out with a friend.
“Yes!” I say. “That’s what I’ve been asking for!”
“Why didn’t you say so?”
And there it is, in real life or Hanabi: all those little shorthands, all the patterns of communication, all our conventions, all our preparation—they can break down. We discard our pride for more clues, hopefully picking up better communication along the way.
This week was a bad draw. Mulligan.
• • •
We believe a good game is a close game. A game where both players are doing well, where both could win. We take pride in the strategy. In working together.
“Winning doesn’t matter,” says our four-year-old pink peg. “What matters is fun.”
• • •
So we keep returning to the table. We try again in our marriage. Choosing this family. Choosing cooperation.
Five months later, we hit 25 again.