“One of your fellow explorers stoops, picks up a scrap of paper from the floor, then mumbles something you can’t quite hear,” a stranger sitting at the table with me said. We’d been playing an odd and confusing board game for almost an hour. He continued: “Before you can ask your friend what it is, the front doors burst open. An enormous dragon roars in, rampaging and snorting fire! Your friend frowns, then points, yelling, ‘Eat them, dragon! Eat them all!’ ”
Then, my only friend in the room became my enemy, and I was alone with four people I barely knew.
I met Jerry in high school. I was having trouble making friends, and he invited me over for a game night at his house. I hemmed and hawed about attending, but eventually found my way over there, thanks to his persistence.
When I arrived, Jerry’s brother and cousin were jamming on Guitar Hero, and Jerry was playing along on an actual guitar, which was cool and terrifying. I blended into the nearest armchair and watched from a safe distance. Eventually, we meandered over to a giant brown bookshelf stuffed with several dusty boxes. One, Betrayal at House on the Hill, had a faded orange cover and dated box art of a man becoming a monster. It’s an image I’ll never forget.
Until then, I had associated board games with tedium, with a rainy summer day’s boredom interrupted by a slightly less boring round of Sorry or Risk or Clue, which my dad loved playing because he always seemed to win. They were simply a way to pass the time.
But that night at Jerry’s house changed my perception of board games forever. A once childish and pat pastime transformed into a complex and nuanced subculture where thinking is valued and where creativity thrives.
Everything about Betrayal surprised me. The game pieces, instead of the familiar plastic cannons of Risk or cheap hollow cylinders of Sorry, were made from a thick dark cardboard with mysterious and creepy symbols. The cards in this game were long and narrow and had an almost earthy and worn texture, nothing like the flimsy cards in Clue. There were a handful of bizarre six-sided dice, each pocked with several blank sides.
And the gameplay was completely fascinating. For turn after turn, we players worked together to explore a modular haunted house. As we moved through the house we lay down unique room tiles; I realized this meant that the house would change every game. As the house grew, strange events began to happen. We met a ghostly couple walking through the garden, and a creepy doll attacked us with a spear. At one point all the lights went out and one of us had to play blind.
I soon learned that this odd first half of gameplay was just the beginning. About halfway through the game, an event called The Haunt happens. This immediately splits the party into factions: One player becomes the Betrayer and the others the Survivors. The Betrayer will have a new, evil objective (the box comes with 50 scenarios) and the Survivors need to band together to stop him. In our game, the Betrayer was Jerry—so he left the room and the rest of us had to devise a strategy to defeat the dragon he had loosed upon us.
These people, foreign to me, suddenly became my greatest allies. We pored over our items and stats to see how we could be useful. We studied every inch of the board, every Creaky Hallway, every Statuary Corridor. This was our house, and we gained a strange cooperative confidence that we could escape it alive.
Then Jerry entered the room with a grim smile. He laughed to himself while he set up the dragon; we, the Survivors, groaned as our collective planning went out the window.
Jerry’s dragon immediately started breathing fire and rampaging throughout the mansion, and our new strategy was to scramble. Some of us flanked the dragon; others went for Jerry’s character. Every roll of the dice was accompanied by cheers and groans. One of us had fallen, been eaten. We were able to get an upper hand when we found a pistol and trapped the beast in the maze of rooms. Little by little, turn by turn, we laid into the beast. Finally, with one last roll, the dragon fell, and I had never felt happier. And Jerry, the catalyst for all the mayhem, was happy for our victory. It didn’t matter that he lost: Watching us band together and come from behind was the whole point.
I left the party that night not only with a brand new group of friends, but infatuated with the awesome power of board games. I told everyone I knew about that night with the dragon.
A decade later, and I’m still gaming. My collection grows every month, and I try to play games several times a week with as many people as I can. They’ve become more than just an excuse to get together, although my relationships have only strengthened through playing. Board games, the best of them, create experiences, and some of the best nights I’ve ever spent were sitting around a table with my friends and some cardboard.
One thing I’ve learned over the years is that as great as Betrayal is, there are even more complex, more nuanced, more elegant board games out there, many of which have supplanted Betrayal in our rotation. If you like working with your friends to accomplish a goal, try Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island. It pits you against the elements in various scenarios from escaping the island after a shipwreck to cleansing the island of spirits. It’s a difficult game with a steep learning curve, but the tense despair it evokes is chilling and mesmerizing.
If you like crazy sci-fi chaos, try Cosmic Encounter, where each player gets an alien race that allows them to break the rules of the game in one specific way. It’s a game of invading your friends’ planets and negotiating whom to bring along on your interstellar crusades.
And if you like the idea of a cooperative game where, halfway through, someone stabs everyone else in the back, try Battlestar Galactica. It’s a game where everyone assumes a role on the famously doomed starship, and one of you is secretly a Cylon bent on sabotage. Gameplay is tense, as everyone tries to read everyone else’s motives, watching their every move. The game builds distrust and feeds off it. It’s a marvelous, heart-pounding experience.
We are in the midst of a golden age of board games, as both large companies and creative individuals design more beautiful, exciting innovative play experiences. Board games tell stories, but more importantly they allow you and your friends to live those stories together. When you outmaneuver a competitor in a game of Dominant Species, or a friend looks you right in the eyes and reveals that she’s a werewolf or a spy or a Cylon, you will never forget that.
Board games gave me confidence when I felt trapped by social anxiety. They helped me to think creatively, to solve problems presented by complex and complicated systems. They showed me the thrill of victory and taught me to lose with grace. And now, as an adult, I still find real happiness in unfolding a game board, setting up the pieces, and sharing something with my friend.
The author of this piece won Slate’s inaugural Pitch Slam, a contest held in late July that gave Slate Plus members an opportunity to write for the magazine. If you’d like to participate in future pitch slams, consider becoming a member. Visit Slate.com/Plus to learn more.