Shiralkar: Board games offer escapism offline

The romance of chess draws columnist Parth Shiralkar’s attention. 

Parth Shiralkar

Every time I walk past the elderly gentleman with the chessboard and the loud boombox in the Memorial Union food court, I feel like challenging him to a game. I never do it because I’m not very good at chess and my words can only win me so much. He seems really happy though — as he should be, considering mostly everyone seems to know of him but no one seems to beat him on the eight-by-eight. In the second year of the pandemic, I’m fortunate to have found a select few friends who are passionate about board games the way I am — and not just for the pretty board designs and collectible game pieces.

The 2020 Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” helped sensationalize chess once again for the modern world. People around the globe were looking up the rules by the thousands. Years ago, “Harry Potter” did it to an extent as well, albeit the violent checkmate scene from “The Philosopher’s Stone” was a bit jarring to me as a kid. I was, of course, also busy playing with native board games such as Snakes and Ladders and hopscotch. Technically, hopscotch could be filed under real-life board games. Regardless, the games were a fun distraction — they still are.

Some of the earliest recorded instances of board games date back more than 5,000 years ago. The ancient Egyptian game called Senet was played on a three-by-10 board where two players would compete (by rolling dice) to get their pieces from one short end of the board to the other. Other games were passed down through generations, others made their way through religious spoken word into popular culture, and then the foundation of war got to most of the remaining ones. Strategy-based board games like Settlers of Catan or Scythe are inspired heavily by the planning and resources required to fight for and control land.

Fictitious games like “Jumanji” and “Zathura” (both created by the same author) made it big into Hollywood not just because of the amazing production quality of the movies, but also because the feeling of escapism from playing these intricate games does sometimes feel too realistic. In fact, I bought an edition of the Jumanji game off Facebook marketplace last month — I’m yet to even open it because I’m rather scared to do so. Given the ambiguous provenance of the item, it would be practical to get my health insurance in order first.

Games have since evolved to allow for gambling and other forms of blind faith — I have won only four games of Uno till date. Playing cards, casual drinking games, one-versus-one games like chess are at the forefront of localized recreation. Why, even Parks Library houses a huge chessboard near the main lobby area.

I personally have found that playing board games is a helpful form of decompression too. There’s nothing quite like putting all your electronics away for a few hours of measured merry. So, if you have roommates willing to play some games with you over the weekend, the local marketplace is a great place to start. You might just beat the winter blues, indoors, on your home turf. Wash your hands and wear a mask.