Playing the Game

Why aren't board games a major national pastime? They're a great way to spend high-quality time with family and friends, and they can make us and our children better investors, too.

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By Selena Maranjian (TMF Selena)
November 25, 2002

I am sorry I have not learnt to play at cards. It is very useful in life: It generates kindness, and consolidates society. -- Samuel Johnson

As we head toward Thanksgiving, I thought I'd offer up a light column today, with the hope of introducing you to something fun and new and sharing a few modest investing insights.

I've long amused myself with computer games, such as Snood, pinball, and the terrific business-oriented trio Gazillionaire, Zapitalism, and Profitania. But playing computer games can be so solitary, so impersonal, so antisocial. Fortunately, I've recently become interested in something much more social, board games, and I've noticed some connections between games and investing (as does Fool co-founder and gamer David Gardner, in Playing Like an Investor).

A few months ago, David and Tom Gardner hosted one of the world's best game designers, Reiner Knizia, and I had the opportunity to get acquainted with a whole new world of gaming. The games in question are classified as "family strategy" or "German" games, partly because so many originate in Germany (although many originate elsewhere, like America). They range from light to very complex and feature familiar and unfamiliar elements and mechanics, such as dice, cards, tile-laying, bidding, negotiation, trading, resource management, memory, dexterity, and luck. Themes range from wars to zoo building to Renaissance art to soup making to ancient Egypt. Clearly, there are all kinds of games for all kinds of people.

The process of learning
New to these board games, I began reading about them. I explored personal and commercial websites and read game reviews. (I learned along the way that a major flaw in Monopoly is that it takes too long -- I always assumed it was just me who thought so.) I studied photos of different games and compiled a list of those I'd like to own. Finally, I ordered my first few games. The problem with my approach? I didn't actually jump in and play.

There are parallels to investing, here. Ideally, before plunking down your hard-earned money on stocks, you take time to read broadly about investing and develop realistic expectations. Similarly, you should do your homework before investing lots of dollars in games, and it can be the best kind of homework -- playing games. (A little digging online will likely turn up local gaming groups or a game store that hosts weekly gaming -- for example: Houston, Maryland, Northern N.J., Grand Rapids, Seattle, Vancouver, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Eastern Massachusetts, Australia, and more locations. Or try Meetup -- a new gathering facilitator.)

Know thyself
I'm still a gaming newbie. Though I can now rattle off the names of dozens of interesting games and game designers, I've yet to learn whether I'll favor complex games or lighter fare, long-term strategy games or short-term tactical games.

It can be the same in investing. Many people jump in, only to learn much later that they don't have the temperament for their style of investing. After spending an initial period learning as much as we can, we often think we know a lot more than we do.

For many investors, stock investing begins and ends with traditional blue chips, such as Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT), Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), and AT&T (NYSE: T). That's fine, but there's more out there in the investing world. Similarly, with games, there's a lot more out there than Monopoly, Chess, Bridge, Scrabble, and Pictionary. You can do just fine with those games, but you might enjoy yourself more by broadening your horizons.

Elements of business and investing
One perhaps obvious connection between games and investing is that many games, themselves, are related to business. They may have speculation, business, or real estate as themes, or playing them may simply develop good business skills and instincts in the player.

For example, in Acquire, a classic investing-themed game designed by the late Sid Sackson, you grow companies by laying down tiles, and as they grow, their stock value increases. Other business-themed games include Palmyra, in which players trade ancient vases that change in value throughout the game; Union Pacific, in which players are stockholders in railroad companies, trying to own a majority of shares; and Merchants of Amsterdam, in which players build up trade at home and abroad in the 17th century (employing a clever Dutch auction device).

Through the Desert isn't themed around business but still instructs. Players build caravans of camels across a desert. Like money in business, winning comes down to accruing points, but there are several ways to do so. You can build long chains of camels, grab prime territory near oases, or rope off regions from other players. You're always weighing many options and limited opportunities. Similarly, businesses have choices to make as they chase dollars. They can take the high road or the low road, specialize or diversify, splurge on advertising, skimp on quality, and so on. Many modern board games require players to be good at resource management, making the most of the few actions they can take per turn.

Playing games can help us see the world in new ways and identify the tradeoffs and strategies various people and companies face and employ.

A full life
There's a strong connection between board games and Fooldom, too. After all, Foolishness is based on the premise that you don't have to devote your whole life to investing in order to succeed at it. Indeed, for most, simple index funds are probably the best investment. Not everyone has the time, talent, or temperament to carefully and successfully select individual stocks.

Assuming that all your waking hours aren't taken up by work or investing, consider filling more hours with board games. If you buy a good game for $30 (and many fine games go for under $10), you can enjoy it time and time again. With movies so pricey and often mediocre these days, why not save money and enjoy some face-to-face fun with friends and family?

Teach your children
Board games can develop a child's strategizing and decision-making abilities and make her savvy about business concepts. Children learn to be gracious winners and losers, and how the stock market works, how auctions work, how to deal with trade-offs, how to negotiate, and how to plan ahead. They'll absorb a little about history and geography, too, just from some games' themes. And, of course, there's math, spelling, and deductive reasoning. All this painlessly -- while having fun!

Children learn a lot by observing their parents, so set a good example and have fun with games. (Oh, and once your kids become interested in the business world or investing, consider pointing them to our corner of Fooldom for teenagers, or to our new book for teens.)

Share your thoughts on the Fool on the Hill or Card and Board Games discussion boards -- or just peek to see what others are saying. (A free trial of our discussion boards is available.) I've posted a bunch of additional resources on our Card and Board Games board, to help you get plugged into the board game world.

If Selena Maranjian were a Spice Girl, she'd be "Anxious Spice." She's getting no kickback from games vendors for this article, nor is the Fool. For more about Selena, view her profile. You might also be interested in books she has written or co-written: The Motley Fool Money Guide and The Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools