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Are you a Scrabble sadist or a Cluedo nerd? A person's choice of boardgame can reveal much about their true nature

'Cluedo' by candlelight. Credit: ANSTAS BRKIC/AFP via Getty

'Cluedo' by candlelight. Credit: ANSTAS BRKIC/AFP via Getty

March 30, 2020   4 mins

It is only in the most extreme circumstances that people, stripped bare of the veneer of civilisation, show their true natures. A crisis like the present one brings out the best, and the worst of the humanity. We are tested in the fire. In this case, not the purifying fire of war but the ouchy burny fire of staying at home with our spouses and children for ages and having to play boardgames because we feel guilty about too much screen time. And real characters emerge, thus, according to our favoured boardgames.


Risk is great fun. You get to try to take over the world. You build armies, squash your enemies, and eventually dominion is yours. There’s a bit of strategy in it, a lot of aggression, and more than just a soupçon of chance: if a few dice rolls go against you, your magnificent army is suddenly a lot less magnificent and, oh crap, there goes Russia. It’s a game, really, for people who want to have kind of a lazy and consequence-free shot at taking over the world, have a bash and hope for the best. Steve Bannon, say, or the Prime Minister.


Another world domination game, Diplomacy is much subtler and better than Risk. With Diplomacy you can’t just hole up in South East Asia and build an impregnable defensive army in some Pacific island bottleneck. And there is no element of chance. Every territory on the board can house only one military unit – so the game’s essence is in strategic horse-trading with other players in secret conferences in, for instance, the spare bedroom. Then, of course, comes the opening of the sealed orders in which it emerges that everybody has betrayed absolutely everybody else. Henry Kissinger is very good at this game. Michael Gove thinks he’s good at it but isn’t. Gavin Williamson knows he is hopeless, but wants to play with the bigger boys anyway. 


Nobody who seriously plays Scrabble nourishes the illusion that it’s a game for people with good vocabularies and imaginative ideas for unusual words: rather, it favours vicious sadists and pedants who have memorised a complete list of the allowable two and three-letter words (most of which look like a fat-thumb error on a QWERTY keyboard) and who are determined to deploy them in the most pinched and obstructive way possible. You’re thinking: “Wouldn’t it be lovely to make ‘BANANA’ with my two blanks!” They’re thinking: “Good. If I play QG sideways that will spoil the triple-word for everyone else.” I have a hunch Priti Patel plays a mean game of Scrabble, pun intended.


It’s a game about logic, really, isn’t it? I mean, what are you doing just drifting from room to room making random guesses? You idiot! Now you’ve got the player to your left showing you Professor Plum again: a totally wasted suggestion! Look, I know it looks like a bit of fun to you but actually I think you’ll find there are any number of optimal strategy guides available in the rationalist blogosphere. Oh — you what? Colonel Mustard with the candlestick in the billiard room? Dear me. Well let’s have a look. You fluky BASTARD: I know from my notes that it was a 17-2 chance against you guessing correctly and now you’ve won — which is sad, actually. A senior government source is very good at this game but still always loses.


The attractions of this game to the egotistical, plutocratically minded and unimaginative are obvious enough just from the name. It’s all about money — and about winning by getting all of it. It is also notable for three other features of its gameplay. Once you’ve established a commanding lead, it gets easier and easier, just like real capitalism. Cheats almost always prosper, and people who win at Monopoly almost always cheat, just like real capitalism. And Mayfair is expensive and crap, just like real capitalism. This is the ideal game for the Sir Philip Green in your life.

Trivial Pursuit

This game is a particularly interesting psychological test, not because it attracts pub quiz bores (though it does), but because of the design of the game itself. Ignore the idiotic questions about the litreage of Lake Titicaca or Ginger Spice’s bra: the mechanism is irrelevant. The point is that it is a very long game. It lasts at least twice as long as it takes for everyone around the table to be bored to tears as they make a 65th attempt at getting that orange piece of pie. The team in the lead doesn’t want to stop, though, because they think they’re going to win; and the losing teams can’t give up for fear of looking ungracious. Mind-forg’d manacles, right there: chaining you to the table. It’s the game for god-tier passive-aggressive monsters. Theresa May is the sort of person, I’d suspect, who’d finish a game of Triv. 


“No man is an Ilandintire of itselfe,” wrote John Donne. He was almost certainly thinking about the game of bridge when this insight occurred to him. Here is a game in which partnership and communication are everything. It is a game in which ruthless killer instincts are couched in extreme courtesy, and if you exclaim “Three no trumps are you out of your tiny mind?” at your partner it will be distinctly frowned on by your opponents. Glory is shared in bridge, as is ignominy. Suitable only for happily married couples with an intellectual rapport such as Ant and Dec, Dr Evil and Mini-Me, or Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid.  


The game for policy nerds. You are encouraged to build a civilisation, gathering and allocating resources, building infrastructure, and basically doing all the stuff that for most of us seems to be rather ruled out by the word “game”. If you’re the sort of person who’d rather muse on the parameters of short-term outlay versus medium-term economic growth implied by HS2, go wild. You are likely to find yourself playing Catan with earnest, slightly thyroidal young men from free-market think tanks or, if you’re specially lucky, George Osborne. 


This is the game for your flamboyant uncle and your tipsy mum who misses karaoke. It’s a game for the high-spirited and giggly and creatively inclined and slightly showy-offy. Why master chess when you can measure out the rest of your life in 45 second bursts, trying to hum the Wombles theme tune or make a recognisable three-dimensional image of Ann Widdecombe out of a thumb-sized piece of orange Play-Doh? Davina McCall is undoubtedly excellent at Cranium, as — secretly — is Jeremy Corbyn. 

Snakes and Ladders

It’s entirely random, snakes and ladders. It barely qualifies as a game at all. With poker, say, you’re surfing the waves of chance with on-the-hoof calculations of probabilities, all tempered with psychological acumen. With snakes and ladders it’s more like: yeah, rolled a six. I won. Woo. Or: yeah, rolled a four. Back down the ladder for me. Like, curses. Your turn. Accordingly, it is the preferred game of existentialist philosophers. Also, toddlers.


Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator and the author of Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page

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Ray Hall
Ray Hall
4 years ago

The negative thing about this article is that you only obliquely referred to chess but on the positive side , you did not insult us by referring to our nerd-like propensities .
On a slightly more serious note , I always thought that the Cold War was ended by the poker nation’s system triumphing over the chess-playing nation’s system.